Friday, October 31, 2014

Time to reopen the campaign for Free Education.

With Gough Whitlam in the news following his recent passing, it's fitting to consider one popular aspect of his legacy: free education.

Fitting, because while the current Lib/Nat Coalition government is planning to tighten all the screws they can on student debt, the Labor Party is doing what opposition does and condemning it.

Just today I got an email from Bill Shorten about the unjust fee increases.

"When I was at uni, the HECS scheme was first introduced. It meant I had to pay $1800 towards my degree -- whenever I could afford it," he says.

"Under Tony Abbott’s scheme, the same would have cost $146,133 including interest and taken more than 12 years to repay."

Well I have to say, if Shorten is concerned he only has himself (and his party) to blame.

In 1993, when I was in senior high school, I campaigned against uni fee increases too. Shorten himself would have been not long out of uni; while at Uni, and a member of Young Labor, his party was building up to introducing the HECS scheme.

During the late 1980s, as Labor moved to introduce fees for tertiary education, a vibrant student protest movement challenged the legitimacy of this. But by 1993, the Labor-dominated National Union of Students had pretty much hosed down any protest, other than the occasional outburst like the one at Tas Uni that I and the local Resistance club threw ourselves behind.

It's fair enough to celebrate the legacy of Gough Whitlam's government - reforms like free education, no-fault divorce, land rights legislation, Medicare. To honestly celebrate any of those reforms we'd have to recognise two things.

Firstly, many or most of them came about after many years of hard campaigning at the grassroots, such as the epic strike and sit-in by the Gurindji people that forced the issue of land rights. Give the credit to Vincent Lingiari and his people, not Whitlam who simply found himself in the right place at the right time and did the right thing (admittedly, unusual for an Australian politician).

Secondly, we have to recognise that the reforms of the Whitlam era have been under attack ever since, by conservative and increasingly neoliberal governments of both the Liberal/National coalition, but of Whitlam's own party too.

They are the reason why we have skyrocketing uni fees. When I joined the protests in 1993, we made the point that the fees Labor was bringing in were just the "thin edge of the wedge". Predictably, they were followed by more and more increases, deregulation, full-fee-paying courses, and now the latest round of "radical" restructuring under Abbott, Hockey and co - the wedge is being hammered in, blow by blow.

Over all my adult life, I've listened to Labor activists' nostalgia for the Whitlam government. Young Labor clubs even went to the extent of calling themselves the "Whitlam Club" at times. But all the while they were supporting a party that was trashing major parts of Whitlam's reform legacy.

Whitlam was no saint. On East Timor, he was an unrepentant bastard to the end, never apologising for backing the Indonesian invasion. But his legacy of genuine reforms deserves more respect than the crocodile tears of a Bill Shorten.

It's time we re-opened the campaign for free education. And don't wait for Labor to give it to us on a platter. It will have to be fought for, again.

As one of my fellow protesters in 1993 said, "The catalyst for this march today wasn't the rally that was put on by NUS, conveniently before the budget was announced. The catalyst was the inaction by the NUS and by all the student unions around the country ... We have learned that we cannot rely on the government, we cannot rely on our unions to do it for us, we have to do it ourselves."

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