Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The compulsory apologia: no 1 – conscientious objection

Although it’s not usually the first argument to be used, one frequently heard apology is the defence of conscientious objection (CO).

Realising that compulsory membership violates the principles of freedom of association, the drafters of the section 229A of the Education Act 1989 built an escape clause into the section which says:

A students association may exempt any student from membership of the association on the grounds of conscientious objection; and, if exempted, the association must pay the student’s membership fee to a charity of its choice.

So the CO defence goes like this: compulsory membership (cm) is not a problem, and in fact NZ does not even have compulsory membership, because anyone who objects to cm can apply to be exempted from membership through a process of conscientious objection.

There are a number of serious problems with this argument.

The first concerns the principle of a right. The right to freedom of association is defined as a civil and political right – something which New Zealanders should be able to exercise, without hindrance and as of right, through our status as citizens.

The CO defence implicitly acknowledges that cm violates freedom of association, but maintains that this is acceptable because CO exists as a possible remedy.

This line of argument negates the notion of a right. It asks us to accept the violation of a right because a process exists whereby that right can be won through an appeal to a committee, rather than as something which is the natural entitlement of each citizen.

The second problem concerns the nature of conscientious objection. In the past, CO has been an option to exempt people from a role or from a form of membership deemed to be sufficiently important to the national interest to justify a level of compulsion. For example, compulsory military service or, 30 or so years ago in the context of the planned economy, compulsory trade union membership.

Membership of a private (non government) association – in the case of student associations, an incorporated society – is not of sufficient national importance to justify compulsion.

We don’t have laws allowing people to conscientiously object from the Automobile Association or the Red Cross.

The third problem concerns the mechanics of the CO process. These are represented by a number of barriers which any student wanting to CO must cross.

Barrier 1
Despite a requirement to do so in the Act, the CO option is not widely publicised. Most students don’t even know it exists.

Barrier 2
Any student who discovers the CO option soon understands it is bureaucratic, time consuming, confrontational, and ultimately futile. A plaintiff has to make his case before a committee which may partially or entirely comprise representatives from the very student association he is attempting to gain exemption from.

Barrier 3
His exemption is not automatic. He has to plead his case and demonstrate to the tribunal that his objection is genuinely one of conscience and not frivolous or an attempt to merely save money or score a cheap political point.

Some CO processes have imposed their own definition of what constitutes an objection of conscience, declining to hear objections based on opposition to forced membership, claiming these are political and ideological rather than conscientious grounds.

In other cases students appealing for a CO have been subject to cross examination and humiliation by the CO tribunal, who argue that by merely bringing a claim for exemption a student is guilty of greed by attempting to undermine the collective enterprise.

Barrier 4
In the event that a plaintiff successfully argues his case and is granted a CO, the student does not get his money back. The student’s money is paid to a charity of the association’s choosing. So if your objection is that you don’t like having your money taken away from you to purchase things you don’t want or need then CO provides no solution and your objection is void before you start.

CO presents no solution to the problem of compulsory membership. The civil right of freedom of association should be the inherent entitlement of every citizen, not something that can be granted or denied at the whim of a committee.

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Thursday, November 23, 2006

Hey man, that’s just a lie: the compulsory apologia

Deep in the night, when they’re alone with their consciences, if they’re really being honest with themselves, most intelligent supporters of compulsory membership know that compulsory membership is wrong.

The case for voluntary membership – on the grounds of freedom of association alone – is overwhelming. Yet for various reasons – political, ideological, career advancement, or pure hostility to anything perceived as ‘right wing’ – compulsion supporters just can’t bring themselves to abandon their position and admit compulsory membership is wrong.

In order to defend something which they know is morally indefensible, compulsion supporters have developed a number of myths they tell themselves. These myths are so ingrained in compulsion supporters’ rhetorical armoury that they’re able to trot them out without examining the validity of their argument. The myths have become a form of political catechism which compulsion supporters habitually chant whenever voluntary membership is raised.

All of the arguments made in defence of compulsory membership are seriously flawed. The pro-compulsory argument is often surrounded by lofty or legalistic sounding words – such as universal and democratic - and is made quickly, so the compulsory advocate can scurry off without having to stop and think about what they’re saying or have their ideas examined.

Compulsion supporters rarely stick around to defend their arguments. When challenged they inevitably change tack and resort to a second line of defence consisting of ‘time to move on’ lines such as:
- voluntary membership is a non-issue so I can’t be bothered discussing it
- students have already voted so the issue is over
- the people promoting voluntary membership are not cool
- there are more important issues such as student debt, loans, climate change etc

Over the next few posts we’ll be looking at the most common components of the compulsory apologia.


Monday, November 06, 2006

not in our name: NZUSA backs Green bill

Ever heard of the Tertiary Women's Focus Group (TWFG)? No? You're not alone then.

TWFG is a collection of women's rights officers from NZUSA member associations. Under this banner, TWFG have signed up to support a member's bill on flexible working hours put forward by Green MP Sue Kedgley.

Predictably the media have failed to draw any distinction between TWFG and NZUSA itself and are now reporting that "students" have joined a coalition to support Kedgley's bill.

Once again a significant number of students have to stand by and watch as their so-called representatives at NZUSA use their institutional clout - funded by compulsory membership - to illegitimately conscript all tertiary students into supporting a particular political initiative. Students who don't support this initiative are misrepresented by NZUSA yet again.

If Jennifer Jones and the rest of the TWFG gang want to support the Kedgley bill that's fine. Just don't do it with other people's money, and don't claim that you're representing all students. Speaking on behalf of someone without their permission is misrepresentation pure and simple.

You'd think TFWG, supposedly being concerned with imbalances of power, would understand this.

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