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