Paper wars turn Lot's Wife to pillar of salt

June 21, 1996

Some of Australia's oldest and, at times, most notorious university student newspapers are being forced to close.

Student newspapers have been challenging authority and questioning government policies for more than 50 years. From the protests against the Vietnam war - when politicians called for the jailing of student editors - up to today, the university publications have offered alternative views of politics, culture and society.

Now conservative federal and state governments are attempting to silence them. In Victoria and Western Australia, the introduction of voluntary student union legislation is preventing money raised from compulsory student fees being used for "political purposes" and university newspapers are either shutting down or are under threat.

Editors have formed a Student Newspaper Alliance to campaign for changes to the state legislation with the support of the National Union of Students. The NUS accused the conservative governments of targeting student news-papers because of their political nature, saying the aim was to cripple the autonomy of student associations.

Several of the most famous have begun to hang up their mastheads. In Victoria, Monash University's Lot's Wife published its final issue last month after 33 years - with an attack on multinationals and a call for student support of "Hemp Week". Catalyst, produced for more than 50 years by students at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, has also closed.

All 15 campus newspapers in Victoria were threatened when the conservative state government introduced its voluntary student unionism legislation in 1994. The act did not stop universities imposing a compulsory fee on behalf of student unions but it did prevent students deciding how the money was spent. Allocating funds to newspapers, women's departments, student welfare and education awareness committees was banned.

After the Victorian and Western Australian governments passed similar acts, the former federal Labor government stepped in and provided Commonwealth support for the unions, warning the states that the sums paid out would then be deducted from their federal grants.

But delays in allocating money to the Victorian student unions before the Howard government was elected in March meant most missed out this year. Only two student newspapers have guaranteed funding for the rest of this year.

With the election of a federal conservative government, Amanda Vanstone, the new education minister, made it clear she would not rescue any student newspaper. Senator Vanstone said she was opposed to using taxpayers' money to fund student unions.

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