Fisking Jacinda

The Hansard of the first reading of the VSM bill is now online. If I have the time, I want to respond to all the MPs who spoke out in favour of compulsory membership, but for now will just respond to Jacinda Ardern’s speech, as the version of history painted is now one I or my colleagues remember.

Jacinda said:

Unlike the member who is in charge of this bill, I can speak from some experience, having attended a university that looked at voluntary student union membership. I was at Waikato University in the 1990s. I was not a student politician—I want to make that clear—I was a student. I was an observer of what happened, and I voted in the election that eventually led to that university being the first in 70 years, I believe, to go voluntary. I inform members of this House that it was the first university to go back to universal membership, because it learnt that it was a disaster to move to a voluntary system.

Now Jacinda has one thing right. WSU was voluntary, and now is compulsory. But far from VSM being a disaster that students rejected, the return to compulsory membership happened due to the machinations of the then Vice-Chancellor – former British Labour MP Bryan Gould.

You see what Jacinda doesn’t tell you is that Waikato students voted to go voluntary in 1996 by 63% to 37% in a referendum . The supporters of compulsion tried to overturn that the following year with another referendum, which VSM also won easily.

Undeterred they tried again in 1999 in a referendum (triggered by the current law) and got thrashed. VSM won 78% of the vote, in a turnout of around 30%.

So what happened? In 2000 the University, headed by former British Labour MP Bryan Gould, scheduled a further referendum upon receiving a petition late in the year. They scheduled it for a short three day period at the beginning of study week for exams. And they only gave students one days notice of the vote. Their own staff advised against this, and said there should be two weeks notice.

Turnout fell from 30% to around 10%, and compulsion won on its fourth attempt in an election that Iran or Afghanistan would be proud of. I mean at least they get more than one days notice of a vote!

Jacinda’s claim that Waikato students rejected VSM, in fact reminds us of how flawed the referendum model is. Apart from the philosophical objections to having 51% being able to force 40% to join something, you can’t get a fair vote on most campuses. Even if your Labour mate the VC doesn’t schedule the vote to favour the forces of compulsion, you generally have the students association having 100 times the resources of those supporting VSM. More on that another day.

Anyway for those who want more info on what really happened at Waikato, a colleague of mine has put together a summary which is below:

One favourite myth of opponents of voluntary membership concerns the voluntary era at the Waikato Student Union (1998-2000) and the impact of three years of voluntary membership on the association. Labour MP Jacinda Ardern referred to WSU during her speech on the first reading of the Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment bill last week. Let’s have a look at her claims.

But first some history and background.

Jacinda claims that Sir Roger’s bill follows previous voluntary membership bills from, in her order, Tony Steel, Donna Awatere-Huata, and then Michael Laws. She has the order wrong. Michael Laws introduced his members’ bill in 1994. It went to select committee in 1995 but lapsed in 1996. The Steel and Awatere-Huata bills were two separate members’ bills that were simultaneously drawn in May 1997. The Awatere-Huata bill did not receive a second reading. The Steel bill was passed in August 1998, but only after a compromise, promoted by some New Zealand First MPs, led to the introduction of referenda as the means to determine whether membership would be compulsory or voluntary.

WSU’s move to voluntary membership happened prior to the passage of the Steel bill. In September 1996, following two years of campaigning by voluntary supporters, WSU members voted 987 to 591 to make membership of WSU voluntary from 1 January 1998. In August 1997 compulsory supporters called another referendum in an attempt to overturn the 1996 decision. This was unsuccessful and students voted to confirm the introduction of voluntary membership. In 1999 there was another referendum, this one triggered by the Steel bill. This time 1984 students voted voluntary, 561 voted compulsory, from a total turnout of 3051. So much for NZUSA’s claim that students don’t want voluntary membership.

Voluntary membership at WSU ended in questionable circumstances. By 2000 WSU had a pro-compulsory president. His executive collected signatures for another referendum but waited until October and the final meeting of the academic year before presenting the petition to council. The referendum was held on 16-18 October. At the time, David Penney, a former president of APSU, the national polytechnic student association and then a university employee, pointed out the problems with the timing of the referendum saying,

the University will have less than one day to officially notify students of the vote, normal practice two weeks; maximum voter turnout may be undermined by the timing of the vote, which is recommended to take place on the first three days of study week when on-campus numbers are low; the integrity of the process may be undermined given the short lead-in time.

Jacinda also claimed that WSU’s return to compulsory membership “happened only after all of the services that (Waikato) students had benefitted from had collapsed.” According to Jacinda the collapsed “services” were foodbanks, emergency housing and a hardship fund. Trouble is WSU never provided any of these things. Waikato students paid (and still pay) separate levies for health and counseling, student buildings, and food, bars and the recreation centre. The university collected levies for these three areas and none of them were affected by voluntary membership.

WSU owned half a dozen rental properties but these weren’t emergency housing. Prior to 1996 they were, however, rented out at below market rates and often to executive members and their mates. In 1995 WSU attempted to justify the use of student money to buy houses by claiming that if they owned enough properties they could eventually force down Hamilton rental prices. I doubt if WSU members were aware they were funding a Waikato version of a Polish shipyard.

Jacinda’s in good company when it comes to making false claims about WSU. In 2000 Steve Maharey complained about the “million the voluntary purists at Waikato fiddled away”. However an examination of WSU’s balance sheets shows WSU’s equity during the three voluntary years fell by $4000; from $578,000 (1998) to $574,000 (2000). I hope Steve’s not using the same calculator at Massey.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be looking at more of these myths.

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