Freedom, Ideology and a Fundamental Argument

The Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill (otherwise known as the Voluntary Student Membership (VSM) Bill) is about to be passed into law.

This is a Bill that was first introduced by the ACT party (sponsored by Roger Douglas) on 20 August 2009 - that's over two years ago. Over the course of that two year period we have had protests, submissions, debates, parliamentary filibustering, and a change of sponsor (Heather Roy took it over as the nails were hammered into her political coffin by Rodney Hide).

I don't have the time or the patience to write a property cited opinion on this, so there's going to be a fair bit of plagiarism in the rest of this post. Deal with it.

Both sides are painting this issue as one of freedom

ACT and National (the Right) are saying that compulsory student unionism is the last vestige of a bygone era of compulsory trade unionism. They say that the existing automatic membership structure and complicated opt-out mechanism contravenes individuals' freedom of association. They acknowledge that there is provision for students to change their organisation structure through a referendum (10% of members are required to initiate a referendum, and then a 50% majority of voters is required to change to voluntary membership), but they say that isn't good enough.

Conversely Labour, the Greens and the Maori Party (the Left) argue that the status quo is the best way to protect freedom and that the Bill is an attack on that freedom. They say that whereas students currently have a choice in the way that they collectively organise (via the referendum procedure), under Bill that choice will be taken away.

The Left are wrong.

Collective choice is an entirely different concept to individual freedom of association. Removing one form of freedom (the ability to collectively choose voluntary membership) and replacing it with another (the ability to choose, at an individual level, whether or not to join an association) is not an abrogation of freedom. It is a recognition of the freedom of the individual over the control of the collective. That is a recognition that our society has signed up to over many years. We as a society recognise individual freedom as central and superior to collective choice. The Left might not like it, but that's the way our society works.

Of course, notwithstanding the freedom line that both sides of the debate are pushing, this isn't about freedom at all - it's about ideology and the fundamental argument between the Left and the Right about collectivity and individual rights.

Student associations are invariably left-leaning. Everyone knows that. They are a training ground for the Labour politicians and trade unionists of the future. Everyone knows that. The Left want to protect their support base. They want to make sure that student associations survive, even if the majority of students don't really care.

The Right want to destroy student associations for exactly the same reason. They want to make it as hard as possible for associations to recruit members, raise funds and therefore increase their influence.

Obviously it's a bit hard for either side to get up and admit to their motivation in those terms (though the Hon Tau Henare pretty much came out with it just now in his third reading speech). That's why we're hearing all this rubbish about freedom and what the students want (even though nobody actually asked them).

It's unfortunate for the Left that, despite their arguments about the great loss to universities and students that will result from this Bill, their ideology simply doesn't align with that of society generally. It's very sad that student culture will take a hammering from this. If it eventuates that advocacy services are compromised then that will be a great loss to students. Student associations do a lot of good work. But just because they do a lot of good doesn't mean we should be prepared to compromise individual freedom of association just to save them.

This brings me to my final point: the derogatory use of the term ideological as a criticism of this Bill. 

Gareth Hughes of the Greens has been particularly guilty of this underhanded tactic. I can't remember the context, but I do remember noting some weeks ago that Hughes tweeted about ACT's "ideological solution in search of a problem" and then, the same day, tweeted about how proud he was to be part of a "principled" party like the Greens. The hypocrisy is telling.

Keith Locke, also of the Greens, said earlier this week during his first reading speech on the Video Camera Surveillance (Temporary Measures) Bill that the few criminal prosecutions that may be compromised if retrospective legislation was not passed could be "the price of civil liberties". I agree wholeheartedly with his assertion of ideology over practicality. The same applies here.

While the practical consequences of this Bill may be undesirable, the ideology behind it (notwithstanding the ulterior political motives of the Right) is important enough to outweigh those consequences. Weakened student associations is simply the price that we have to pay for upholding the individual freedom of association.

A post script on political affiliation:
I try my hardest not to identify with a "left" or "right" political perspective. I think it's unhelpful to tie oneself to a particular side of the political spectrum as it can force one to compromise one's particular views on individual issues. Indeed, I think that's exactly what the Greens might have been forced to do here. Despite that, I have recently joined the Green party. Whereas three or four years ago I would have identified myself squarely as a National voter, I have been generally leaning to the Left ever since. While I wouldn't want to see the Greens running the country, I have a lot of respect for their function as the conscience of Parliament under our MMP system of representation. They won't always get it right (this is a good example of them getting it wrong), but I think a strong minority Green presence adds a lot to the deliberative integrity of Parliament as a law making body and support them on that basis.


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