Student Union Scandals Should Come As No Surprise

liamwordpressAhead of the National Union of Students’ National Conference next week, confessions from Labor st
udent leaders that they wasted taxpayer-funded grants on holidays and booze highlight the cultural malaise that so often afflicts the most senior levels of the NUS and its affiliated unions, writes Liam Staltari.

In an extraordinary confession, senior Labor student and University of Sydney Union President Alisha Aitken-Radburn has taken to social media to admit to using a taxpayer-funded Start-Up Scholarship to finance an overseas trip – funds that were designed to assist disadvantaged students in covering the necessary costs of university study, such as the purchase of textbooks and computers. In the wake of this revelation, we’ve seen The Australian uncover other examples of students blowing these same funds on alcohol and other below-board purposes.

It’s positive to see that the Government has acted to transform the Start-Up Scholarships into loans that are focused squarely on the needs of students, thereby limiting the potential for such waste in the future. Nonetheless, this story offers just the latest insight into the corrosive culture that exists in the upper echelons of student unions throughout the nation, and especially in their so-called ‘peak body’, the NUS.

Such revelations raise further concerns when one considers that these same unions (which are predominantly controlled by elements of Young Labor and the far Left) aren’t simply limited to the use of taxpayer’s money. Each year, they administer millions of dollars in funding that is forcibly acquired from students via the levying of the Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF), while often lacking many of the strict processes that hold corporations, charities and trade unions to account.

Yet there should be no surprise in talks of wild parties and trips to Phuket – this history of waste and mismanagement comes courtesy of a right-to-rule mentality that all too often starts at the very top.

Indeed, it’s no shock to see the NUS’ Labor Left-aligned National President, Rose Steele, vigorously attacking the Government – and her own party – for their changes to the Start-Up scheme.  Where normal students might be perturbed by open admissions of waste, Miss Steele appears unmoved. Given that she has previously been criticised for taking diving tours while on student-funded work trips, it’s not difficult to see why many of these individuals have little choice but to look the other way. At the end of the day, this conduct may not be too dissimilar from their own.

When those who purport to be student leaders get their priorities so egregiously wrong, it falls to others to pick up the slack. In this regard, recent debates surrounding the SSAF couple with long-awaited moves to scrap Parallel Import Restrictions in highlighting success stories for genuine student advocacy.

With a chorus of guild apparatchiks showing so little regard for the taxpayer’s dollar, serious questions must be asked about the fate of funds acquired via the SSAF itself. The recent success of Liberal Students in lobbying the Senate crossbench to bring forward a motion calling for reform to the SSAF offers a clear contrast, demanding genuine accountability in the raising and spending of student money.

Similarly, with the termination of Parallel Import Restrictions on the horizon, projections suggest that the price of certain text books will be slashed by some 30% on university campuses throughout the country. Yet again, years of tireless Liberal Student activism have made their mark.

On both counts, we see student leaders and activists placing the interests of their student bodies first, and working to secure reforms that will leave more money in the wallets of everyday students, and less in the coffers of those who might misuse it.

Many on the Left will decry these moves as counter to students’ interests, but it’s at this point that we should look to the examples of student unions that choose a different path. The 2015 tenure of the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) Student Guild offers a case in point, recording drastic increases in its provision of educational assistance, while not taking a single cent of SSAF money.

The moral principle bound up in QUT’s example is clear – if universities laud their students as the best and brightest, then they should trust them enough to make decisions about whether the services provided by student unions are of a quality that deserves their money. Where the actions of the USyd Union President defy common sense, this simple observation certainly passes the ‘pub test’.

Urgent action is needed to stamp out the culture of waste and mismanagement that taints some of the highest levels of student leadership in this country, and that starts with those who refuse to accept scandals such as this as the norm. Next week will see the National Union of Students convene at Melbourne’s Mannix College, and it is there that Liberal Students will push for greater accountability and a genuine student say in how their money is spent.

Liam Staltari is the President of the WA Union of Liberal Students, a former UWA Ordinary Guild Councillor and a Delegate to the 2015 National Conference of the National Union of Students.

Misplaced Pride

Earlier today, the University of Western Australia replaced the WA State Flag with a ‘pride flag’ until further notice. UWA students Liam Staltari and Rebecca Lawrence respond.

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In the latest manifestation of extreme political correctness, the University of Western Australia has today lowered the State Flag of Western Australia from its flagpole and instead raised the ‘Pride’ Flag – a rainbow flag considered a symbol of gay pride and the movement for same-sex marriage. The three flagpoles usually display the Australian National Flag, the WA State Flag and the Aboriginal Flag, rightfully enjoying pride of place in front of the University’s iconic Winthrop Hall.

Opposition to the University’s knee-jerk reaction to a vocal minority of student activists does not imply opposition to their inalienable right to champion the causes that are closest to them. However, we suggest that the continued social engineering being pursued by higher education institutions, including UWA, is inappropriate and must come to an end. This is just the latest example.

Following the Aboriginal Flag’s replacement with the ‘Pride’ flag on Thursday the 19th, it did not take long for the perpetually-outraged UWA Student Guild to lead a backlash alongside the Western Australian Student Aboriginal Corporation (WASAC). In a sadly predictable response, Vice-Chancellor Paul Johnson subsequently ordered that the WA State Flag be removed and replaced with the Aboriginal Flag, with both the Pride and the National Flags to continue to fly.

In removing the state flag in favour of another, the University opens itself up to significant potential reputational damage. While it may not seem important to some, raising the flags of our nation and our state each day is a significant symbol of respect to the community that all of us call home. Irrespective of one’s race or sexual orientation, in the state and national flags we find a reminder that there is more that unites our diverse community than divides us, and while many on the Left may fail to admit it, it is this concept that truly embodies the beauty of our pluralistic society. Indeed, the Western Australian Flag speaks to the coming together of all people, not simply those who belong to a particular minority.

Moreover, the removal of the WA State Flag to accommodate a display of political correctness as part of a single-issue campaign like that concerning same-sex marriage is unwarranted and disrespectful. The Western Australian Flag is a symbol of the proud and rich history of our State, pre-dating even the Australian National Flag itself. Its lasting relevance was recently re-affirmed when the WA State Parliament passed the State Flag Act 2006. At this time, Hon Colin Barnett MLA (now Premier of Western Australia), posited that

“The flag is a symbol of our shared history, culture and identity, which has been forged through triumph and adversity.

Our flag represents the pride we have in the achievements of all Western Australians”.

In this we can see that ‘pride’ is multi-faceted, and it is certainly not zero-sum.

Yet it is the simplest point that may well be the most poignant. Before all else, these flags are flown on the grounds of the University of Western Australia. For the oldest and most distinguished place of learning in this state, which bears its name for good reason, to fail to fly the flag of that same state, is unacceptable. This is an organisation that was established under, and remains governed by, an Act of WA State Parliament.

More than that, this is an institution which invites bright minds from across the state to share in its academic life, and to embody the very best ideals of our state. To be sure, tolerance and diversity are among them, but so too is a lasting respect for our shared history and identity.

Universities have always been a haven for free expression, a hub for exploring challenging ideas, and a breeding ground for new and exciting innovation. This is not a bad thing – indeed, it is the opposite. However, we mustn’t forget that the University of Western Australia is also a public institution, with a history that now spans over a century and an academic tradition that transcends any individual campaign or partisan cleavage.

And as such, sometimes it is necessary for the University Executive to stand their ground in denying the demands of a vocal minority of students. While both the UWA Student Guild and WASAC have a legitimate role to play in advocating for the rights of different groups on campus, it is vital that this be done through the right avenues and that the Guild in particular seeks to represent all students, not just particular cohorts. Suggesting that the WA State Flag (or, as pictured below, the Australian National Flag itself) be lowered to make way for an unofficial flag to be flown on a public university campus is certainly not one of those avenues.

WASAC

It would not have been disrespectful for the Vice-Chancellor to have tempered this demand with another alternative. Yet once again, the same tired pattern of bowing to the wishes of the mobilised Left – be it contrary to free expression or to the heritage of the WA community – rises to the fore.

In closing, it should be noted that this controversy has prompted a review of the processes surrounding flag-flying at UWA. As was said at the outset, this is not a matter of petty political point-scoring, nor is it a means to attack any one group – if you feel strongly about the need to respect this key symbol of our state then we strongly encourage you to make a submission to this review.

If this is a lesson that still must be learned by some, then there is no more fitting an institution to teach it than the University of Western Australia.

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Liam Staltari is a sitting UWA Student Guild Councillor, a 2016 UWA Delegate to the National Union of Students and the President of the WA Union of Liberal Students. Rebecca Lawrence is a past UWA Student Guild Councillor, a two-time UWA Delegate to the National Union of Students and the Treasurer of the WA Union of Liberal Students. They are both currently in their third year of UWA’s Bachelor of Philosophy (Hons.) Undergraduate Degree.

Jokowi’s Beef

profilepicUniversity of Western Australia student and Australian Government New Colombo Plan Scholar Rebecca Lawrence explains the problems with the Jokowi Administration’s protectionist approach to live cattle imports.

I am an Australian student, studying Economics and Indonesian language, and spending this semester studying abroad in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Back in July, I saw the Australian media flood with stories (here, here, here and here) about how the Indonesian Government had slashed the quota of Australian beef imports to 50,000 cattle for the July – September quarter (an 80% cut from 250,000 the previous quarter).

The policy was coupled with hopeful talk by Indonesia’s Agriculture Minister, Amran Sulaiman, about movement towards self-sufficiency in the agriculture sector, however, beef prices have predictably soared since July. Since moving to Indonesia in August, I have observed the devastating side-effects of the Indonesian Government’s simple mistake. The country has not only suffered considerable increases in beef prices, but also significant lay-offs of beef workers, beef trader’s strikes, meat shortages and recent increases in chicken prices. For a country that consumes relatively little pork and lamb, that last point in particular is a very bad sign.

In recent days, the Indonesian Government has confirmed that they will be importing an extra 50,000 cattle, but are yet to announce the source of the additional imports. While this will partially alleviate the domestic supply issues, the original mistake of slashing the Australian quota will have a lasting impact. On top of affecting Indonesia’s reputation as a stable trading partner, the volatile quota setting has logistical implications for cattle importers – for instance, it is not cost effective for importers to ship cattle to Indonesia in small increments.

This mess should serve as a reminder that trade is mutually beneficial – if the quota had not been slashed, then Indonesia’s growing middle class would be enjoying more affordable beef and chicken, and Australia’s farmers would not be desperate for “another place to send the extra cattle”. Truly, the very quota system, whereby the Indonesian Government arbitrarily decides how much beef to import at three-month intervals, is clearly outdated and ineffective, particularly when the Government is prepared to change the quarterly import quota by such significant increments at such short notice. It is factors like this that inhibit Indonesia’s standing as a reliable and safe trading partner.

On the surface, the Jokowi Government appears to have made some sensible decisions in recent months, including ending fuel subsidies, dissolving 100 unnecessary Government bodies and relaxing visa requirements for foreign visitors from 30 countries (not Australia).

Under closer scrutiny, however, many of the economic policies of the new government have been wildly unwise. The implementation of the removal of fuel subsidies was a disaster (rather than allowing the price to rise to market value, the government removed the subsidy but left the price ceiling on fuel, forcing petrol companies to bear the difference in cost), the cuts to road toll fees have damaged profitability and scared off investors, price controls on cement which have all but killed the industry and, most recently, significant price controls on staple foods which will continue to distort the market for months to come. All of this has culminated with the steady decline in value of the rupiah, which recently hit its worst level since the 1998 Asian Financial Crisis.

I chose to study Indonesian, and spend 12 months living in Indonesia, because I have faith in the future of the Australia – Indonesia relationship. Both Governments provide funding to encourage students to study in their neighbouring countries, among a range of other policies designed to ensure goodwill and strong bilateral ties. Despite significant cultural differences, the tourism trade between the two countries has never been stronger.

In order to cement a meaningful, lasting relationship between the two countries, our economies must become further intertwined. My fear is that excessive government intervention in the market, in the form of import quotas and price controls, will ruin the credibility of Indonesia’s economy. Unless Indonesia can provide opportunities for realistic and reliable trade and investment, my generation of Australians will continue to see their neighbouring country as nothing more than a cheap holiday destination.

Economic policy is a complex and multi-faceted field, and answers to economic problems are not always straightforward. Jokowi is constantly forced to consider not just the economy, but also a range of political factors in all his decisions – tensions within his own party, the composition of the Parliament, domestic popularity and also overseas perceptions. The solution to the beef problem, however, is simple – reinstate a higher quota on imported Australian beef next quarter, which will improve bilateral trade relations with Australia and keep domestic meat prices low – a win-win solution.

Rebecca Lawrence is a third year Economics and Indonesian Language student from the University of Western Australia. After spending one semester studying in Indonesia in 2014, Rebecca has returned to Yogyakarta on an Australian Government New Colombo Plan Scholarship for Semester 2, 2015.