Students: Free at Last

Politics Social Issues

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.

Glenn Peoples

 

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?

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{ 8 comments… add one }

  • Dave September 28, 2011, 10:25 pm

    Thanks Glenn, as the son of two union organisers you’ve given me alot to think about. You’ve raised a question for me though (mainly due to an essay I’m writing). Do you think it is ever just to force people to contribute to things that they do not entirely agree with? E.g. creationists being forced to pay taxes that contribute to the teaching of evolutionary theory in public schools etc.

  • scrubone September 28, 2011, 10:59 pm

    Well, there is anger. It’s just from the dozen or so on each campus that have the financial interest in the association being compulsory.

    Sadly it’s unlikely to last long. I predict some association execs will deliberately destroy their associations in order to “prove” that VSM is bad. Then Labour will change the law when they return to power.

  • Glenn September 28, 2011, 11:01 pm

    Hey Dave – The issue of having to pay for policies you don’t agree with isn’t a human rights issue, and yes, there are times when it is totally just to make people pay for things they don’t want, insofar as doing so is necessary for the basic provisions of justice.

    For example, people who commit crimes should be forced to pay taxes like the rest of us to pay for the enforcement of laws against those crimes. Just one example but I’m sure there are many others.

    When it comes to education, I’m a firm believer in choice for families. To be absolutely honest I am not 100% settled on a funding model, I generally approve of the principle that “the dollar should follow the child,” so something like vouchers would be an improvement over the status quo – and it’s also a system that would see children educated in a way that families have more say over. But such issues are issues over how to arrange society’s institutions once we have already accepted the ground rules, including such basics as freedom of association.

  • Glenn September 28, 2011, 11:04 pm

    “Well, there is anger. It’s just from the dozen or so on each campus that have the financial interest in the association being compulsory.”

    True scrubone – Anger along the lines of “Hey, where’d all my spending money go? Students are now outraged!”

  • Glenn September 29, 2011, 5:20 pm

    Oh, one other thing Dave: “Thanks Glenn, as the son of two union organisers you’ve given me alot to think about.”

    I want to be really clear – I have no problem at all with the concept of unions. Voluntary unions do just fine and have made significant positive differences for many workers. The issue is definitely unique to compulsory unions, not unions per se.

  • Dave September 29, 2011, 8:30 pm

    Thanks Glenn, I was being a tad facetious with that comment (the son of the union organisers part that is). Although, Mum says that in her day they didn’t need legislation to force people to unionize- that’s what bricks and windows were for ;)

    Just to clarify, the reason I ask about the taxation is, firstly, that I have a few libertarian friends who see most taxation as a form of forced association. Secondly, I am currently writing an essay defending the necessity of objective goods to the health of liberal democracies and am trying to work out how these goods can be pursued in a democratic context without a general consensus as to what these goods are. Hence the question as to whether it is just to make citizens contribute toward goods that they do not recognize. I found your response helpful in this regard.

  • Glenn September 29, 2011, 8:47 pm

    Dave, you might find my post on John Locke and voluntary dictatorship to be of some use here: http://www.beretta-online.com/wordpress/2011/john-locke-on-voluntary-dictatorship/

  • Dave September 29, 2011, 9:05 pm

    Glenn, Thanks!

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