Category Archives: Politics

The case for voluntary unionism

Today the government put the controversial "Higher Education Support Amendment (Abolition of Compulsory Up-front Student Union Fees) Bill 2005" before Federal Parliament, which would ban compulsory student unionism (CSU) throughout Australia. Over recent months this proposal has been subject to countless protests by activist student groups and much bad-press. Consequently, as a staunch supporter of voluntary student unionism (VSU), I'll present the supporting case from my personal perspective.

From my point of view, there are four main supporting arguments in favour of VSU:

  • Freedom of association
    One of the fundamental tenets of Democracy is freedom of association. When a student is forced to belong to an organisation which they do not want to belong to, this is a fundamental violation of our personal freedoms. This criticism applies to any sort of forced affiliation, but particularly to student unions since they are not all-inclusive and not representative of the majority (refer to my next point).
  • Student unions are not representative
    Student unions is Australia typically pursue blatant political agendas, usually including socialism, feminism, environmentalism, drug-law reform and countless other leftist ideologies, typically in extreme form. While people are certainly more than entitled to any or all of these points of view, the fact is that they do not represent a majority perspective. I should clarify that I am not suggesting that student unions instead start pursuing right-wing political agendas. Rather, they should pursue strictly apolitical agendas and focus on providing services which are available and useful to all. So long as student unions promote any ideology over any other, they are not, and cannot be the all-inclusive, representative bodies they should. However, student unions are so universally plagued by the problem of partisanship, and the political affiliations so firmly entrenched, that most students, myself included, have no faith whatsoever they will change on their own accord.
  • Students should not have to pay for services they do not use
    At the University of Queensland, where I study, I pay approximately $300 per year in Student Union fees, and I should reasonably be able to expect something in return. Unfortunately, rather than using their massive budget to provide services of benefit to everyone, the money is funnelled into countless causes which are of no benefit to the vast majority of students. Following are a few examples of ways in which Student Union money is spent 'representing' students at UQ:

    • The Women's Collective, a small group of activist feminists, receive approximately $150,000 per year in support from the Student Union. This money is spent on activities such as sending members to surf and meditation camps on the New South Wales North Coast. Needless to say, 'services' like this are an extravagance and of no benefit to the average student.
    • The Queer Collective, a group open to gays and lesbians on campus, receives similar levels of funding and spends it in similar ways.
    • The Food and Wine Appreciation Society, a small group of people who regularly eat-out at some of Brisbane's most expensive and elite restaurants, at the expense of the University of Queensland Student Union.
    • The High Society, my personal favourite, is a group of marijuana smokers whose stated goal is to promote drug-law reform, but in fact organize for drug dealers from all across Brisbane to gather once a week on-campus to sell to UQ students. One of their trading sessions was recently stormed by the police, however they still meet regularly and still actively deal drugs to students on campus. Needless to say, this 'essential service' is subsidised by the Student Union.

    In the meantime, facilities like the refectories, which are used at some stage by the vast majority of students, are not subsidised and run at a large profit. In light of this, arguments in favour of CSU, which argue that it facilitates essential student services are not credible.

  • When membership is compulsory, student unions are run inefficiently
    In the absence of competitive forces, student unions have no incentive to run themselves efficiently. As an example, my purchases at the Union-owned refectories are approximately 20% more expensive than if I walk 10 minutes down the street to the nearest supermarket. The same applies to other Union-owned enterprises. Not only is the Union uncompetitive, but it actively seeks to stifle competition. In fact, the Union has regulations in place which forbid non-Union-owned enterprises from operating on Union premises, if they are in direct competition with a Union-owned enterprise.

In summary, the argument in favour of VSU is not one which ruthlessly opposes the existence of student services or student representation, as much of the media, and certainly the CSU supporters, have been making out. In fact, the argument for VSU is that it is in the interests of openness, transparency, competitiveness and personal liberty, to allow every individual the right to choose for themselves what is best for themselves.

5 minutes of political fun

If you've got five minutes to spare, try the World's Smallest Political Quiz, made by the well known Libertarian organization, the Advocates for Self-Government. The quiz asks 10 multiple choice questions and gives you a graphical representation of how they rate your political persuasion, on a scale of Conservative, Statist, Liberal and Libertarian. Needless to say, as with all such quizzes, especially political ones, the results should be taken with a salt mine. Nonetheless, it's a good way to get people interested in political issues and get the conversations rolling.

Here's my result:
Political quiz result

The future of the US economy

This post was inspired by, and refers to, an article I read by CNN on the US Congress' recent passing of a bill to increase the federal borrowing limit by $800 billion.

As one of his first actions since re-election this month, President Bush has increased the federal borrowing limit from $7.38 trillion to $8.18 trillion. The cap places a legal limit on much debt the government can amass, and, as a result of Bush's ongoing record deficits, which are rapidly approaching the half trillion dollar mark, the existing cap has been reached. This raises some very serious concerns for both the US economy and the world economy as a whole.

Ordinarily, running a significant deficit on a temporary basis would not raise too much concern. In fact, many economists argue that during periods of economic stagnation, which has recently been the case, this is a favourable approach, sometimes referred to as the Keynesian approach (after the famous economist John Maynard Keynes). This line of thought argues that increased government spending and tax reduction (i.e. deficits) act to stimulate the cycle of spending and consumption, thereby creating jobs and lifting productivity. In other words, large scale spending can serve to kick start a stagnant economy. However, the present situation is a very different one. The massive spending engaged in by Bush does not represent one-off spending. Instead, it comes about as a result of fundamental structural changes which imply that the magnitude of deficits will be on-going, and, in fact, probably increase further. Increased military spending complimented by on-going military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, the problem of an ageing population, record high oil prices, and the intention to make permanent, income tax cuts offered by Bush in his first term, all contribute to this expectation.

By my calculations, if deficits continue to be of the same magnitude as they are now, then in about 2 years time Congress will have to increase the borrowing limit again to avoid defaulting on its debt (which would have absolutely catastrophic consequences). Clearly we have a situation that is not sustainable. At $8.18 trillion, the federal borrowing limit represents about 70% of the GDP of the Unites States. If the government continues to adopt the band-aid solution of simply increasing borrowing limits whenever they hit the limit then eventually paying off the interest on the debt will become untenable and large scale spending cuts and/or tax increases will be necessary. The approach presently adopted is akin to a credit card user hitting his credit limit, and then rather than paying off the credit, increasing the credit limit further to go on another shopping spree. It may work fine for while, but eventually, and inevitably, the level of debt becomes unsustainable. Clearly we all hope the US economy will not reach such a stage. However, unfortunately this is a very real concern and one which would have very serious implications. From the Australian perspective, things would be very bleak indeed, since Australia's economy is both highly dependent upon foreign direct investment, which comes, to a large extent, from the US, and foreign export markets, of which the US is one of our largest.