According to the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, “Everyone has the right to freedom of association” (section 17). This freedom is reflected in the UN’s Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which says that “No one may be compelled to belong to an association.” However, in New Zealand the Bill of Rights Act has less clout than other statutes. This is because of section 4, which says (in effect) that where another statute law conflicts with the Bill of Rights, that Act, rather than the Bill of Rights, will prevail. However, as section 5, notes, “the rights and freedoms contained in this Bill of Rights may be subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”
I dislike the existence of section 4. It tells us that the government has the right to overturn first generation human rights. Section 5 is just strange, as it suggests that the abolition of such rights can be consistent with the principles of a free and democratic society. On the contrary, it cannot. All these two clauses do is permit the government to override human rights and freedoms when it sees fit, and fudge the immorality in doing so by insisting that it really is behaving democratically.
Currently the freedom of association is not upheld for all New Zealanders. The reality for most tertiary students is that student association membership is compulsory. As someone with a short history of being involved in raising public awareness on the issue, I’m excited by the fact that Roger Douglas’s Freedom of Association Bill is to be debated and perhaps passed into legislation. See the bill HERE. As explained at the link:
The purpose of this Bill is to uphold students’ right to freedom of association, by ensuring that no student is compelled to join a students association.
Section 17 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 guarantees the right to freedom of association. This right includes the freedom from compelled association. Parliament has an obligation to ensure New Zealand legislation is consistent with the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act and New Zealand’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
This Bill does not seek to damage or limit students associations, but guarantees the right of students to the freedom of association. It will result in students associations being truly representative of the students who voluntarily join them.
Under this Bill, all students would be able to choose whether or not to join a students association. The current Act requires councils to conduct a referendum to decide if all students should be forced to become members of an association, if petitioned by 10% of the students enrolled at the institution. If a majority of voters in a referendum support compulsory membership, then the right to freedom of association for the all remaining students is breached.
This Bill seeks to address the negative consequences stemming from the passing of the Education Amendment Act 2000 and the referenda provisions of the Education (Tertiary Students Association Voluntary Membership) Amendment Act 1997. The current legislation fails to guarantee individual students a satisfactory opportunity to withdraw from associations, and sets the bar too high for those who wish to make membership of a students association voluntary.
Currently, in order to make a student association voluntary (which is, according to the Bill of Rights Act, how it should be in the first place), you, an individual student, need to arrange a massive petition – a petition just to have a vote on the issue! Imagine if someone were to propose a similar hurdle for say, freedom of speech or freedom of religion.
I know from experience that student association executives are frequently very politcally vocal, supporting some parties and policies over others, all the while claiming to speak on behalf of “students,” since all students are members. I have no problem with a union expressing a political point of view, if that union is voluntary. But the requirement to join an orginasiation like this just to get a higher education is frankly a cold war relic (assuming of course, you’re on the other side of the iron curtain). This Bill is an important step in reclaiming basic rights and liberties in New Zealand, and I hope it gains the support it needs.