Compulsory student association membership is now a thing of the past in New Zealand thanks to the passing of the Education (Freedom of Association) Bill.
One of the things that I’m really passionate about is first generation human rights. These are the kinds of rights that make up the bedrock of social justice. A fair society is unimaginable without them. Among such rights are thing like the right to life, the right to freedom of speech and opinion, the right of all people to be treated as equals before law, you get the idea. In a free society for a public figure to advocate denying people of these rights is – and should be – immediate political suicide. To undermine first generation human rights is to eat away at our basic regard for the dignity of persons. Indeed it is precisely when we see a society with patches of these rights missing that our “dictatorship” sensors start to go off.
For a shockingly long time, University students in New Zealand were denied one of those rights. Article 20 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights reads as follows:
(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
(2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.
Likewise, section 17 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 is headed “Freedom of Association,” and it is to the point: “Everyone has the right to freedom of association.”
Up until today, New Zealand students, as a rule, didn’t have freedom of association. They were required – by law – to join a student association, which gathered the millions each year, spent it as it saw fit with little accountability to the student body, had executives who very often thought that speaking on behalf of students simply meant supporting left leaning policies (no matter what students themselves might actually think), with an absolute guarantee that no matter what they said or did, the money would come flowing in next year. It had to – it was the law.
Today that changed. The Education (Freedom of Association) Bill passed its third reading in Parliament and will become law in New Zealand.
Freedom of association is comparable to freedom of religion. I daresay they are as alike as any two human rights can be. Nobody should be compelled to belong to my church. If I claim that my church can better advocate for the good of its members if it has more members and funding, it remains the case that nobody should be compelled to belong to my church. If I say that my church will not be able to provide as many services if we can’t require people to join us and fund us, it remains the case that nobody should be compelled to belong to my church. This is because freedom of religion is a right, and that right is not overturned by the fact that my religion is helped if people are denied that right. If my religion offers so much, then it should be able to attract members. If my religion is true, it should be able to persuade people. If the goals and values of my religion really did reflect the goals and values of people (or if I could persuade people to share those goals and values), then I wouldn’t have to force people to join. They would join because they value the religion.
The same is true of associations. Nobody should be compelled to belong to an association. Even if my association can speak more loudly if people are compelled to join and fund the association, it remains the case that nobody should be compelled to belong to an association. If an association will not be able to provide as many services if it can’t require people to join and fund it, it remains the case that nobody should be compelled to belong to an association. This is because freedom of association is a right, and that right is not overturned by the fact that your association is helped if people are denied that right. If your association offers so much, then it should be able to attract members. If the goals and values of your association really did reflect the goals and values of students (or if you could persuade students to share those goals and values), then you wouldn’t have to force people to join. They would join because they value the association.
During my student days I spent a number of years lobbying for equal freedom for students (I was a student for way too long), so this change is especially rewarding to see. For a while I was even spokesperson for Student Choice, a lobby group in favour of freedom of association for all people, including students. Then as now I heard all kinds of nonsense from student politicians about how “students oppose” freedom of association, and students would be very concerned to see this sort of move. The people who made these claims were members of the executive of compulsory student associations. In other words, they actually didn’t speak for anyone at all. The only reason that students were a part of their association is that they had no choice. The fact is, students aren’t troubled by this at all. At a public protest today coinciding with the final reading of the Bill before it became law, the small crowd of 200 as promised did not eventuate, the turnout ending up at a grand total of 20 students who sat around quietly eating sausages. My own suspicion is that a few friends who cared told their mates “hey, come and get a free sausage,” the resulting small gathering being rather gratuitously being described as a protest. A few days ago there was a larger protest, where students occupied the registry building, one of them being arrested, but nobody was able to rouse up the faux-anger just because of the impending threat of freedom. No, there the issue was tacked onto other issues in order to gain a crowd: poor staff pay and work conditions and increased student debt through loans. Contrary to what the talking heads who financially gain from compulsory unionism tell you, there is no “student anger” over this change. There is no outrage, no protest, no growing concern. Nothing. I spent enough time watching how the student political scene to know this.
Opponents of Freedom of Association like David Do (New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations (NZUSA) co-president) argue that students can technically get around compulsory student association membership, because if they go out of their way, invest time and effort to raise awareness and get enough people together to force a petition, then they can have their local student association changed to voluntary. But with a strong respect for first generation human rights, this defence does not get off the ground. You do not (read: shouldn’t) subject basic human rights to a referendum. You do not (read: shouldn’t) need to win a vote to have free speech. You don’t (read: shouldn’t) have to organise a petition to win the right to not be executed without a fair trial. You don’t (read: shouldn’t) have to win popular support to get black people the right to vote. Likewise, you should not have to organise and win a petition to gain the basic human right to not belong to anyone’s union, church, or association.
We took one step closer to a better society today.
PS: For those of you who came to this blog entry because Ken linked to it to somehow connect to his perpetual bee in the bonnet about religion, you might find it worthwhile reading: Are Churches Charities?