Senate debates

Monday, 16 March 2015

Matters of Public Importance

Higher Education

4:05 pm

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

What have we seen today but yet another backflip by the Abbott government! To us on this side, it just demonstrates the internal dissent within the Abbott government and the instability of the Prime Minister. He is concerned with one thing: clinging to his job as Prime Minister. In all this internal dissent and ongoing back-flipping which is being played out between the would-be Prime Minister, Mr Turnbull, and the actual Prime Minister, Mr Abbott, the losers are ordinary Australians. With this continual back-flipping, the government are hurting the Australian public, who do not know if something is going to go ahead or not go ahead. At the moment, that indecision is being thrust at the many, many Australian university students, who are still facing, well into the 2015 semester, the threat of $100,000 degrees.

Despite Mr Pyne saying that the 20 per cent funding cut to universities is off the table at the moment, he still intends to go ahead with it. Where have we heard that before? I remember: it was the GP tax, when suddenly we saw a bit of a backflip before Christmas and then we saw another backflip. But what do we hear from the Abbott government? We hear that they still want to go ahead with the GP tax. It is still there on the table. They just have to find some sneaky, manipulative way to get it through the parliament. It is exactly the same with the 20 per cent cut. Minister Pyne is saying he still wants to pursue that 20 per cent cut. He has just got to find that sneaky, manipulative way to get it through the Senate.

Last week we had scientists being held to ransom. What a despicable thing to do—to try and threaten and blackmail 1,700 scientific jobs in this country because the Prime Minister and Minister Pyne could not get their way because of the dissent in the Abbott government about not being quite sure what it is they are doing. It was played out last week at a Senate inquiry we had into higher education, where we had those scientists from NCRIS appearing. I have got to say I felt quite sick in the stomach to hear that people had already left their jobs, that Australia has already lost some scientists because of the indecision and the internal dissent of the Abbott government. Some have already gone. We had Senator McKenzie say to Mrs Rosie Hicks, the CEO of the Australian National Fabrication Facility:

What was your reaction when the government—the current government—managed to find the $150 million to keep NCRIS going while a review of infrastructure was commenced?

Mrs Hicks replied that it was absolutely critical—something Labor has been saying. We recognised that the funding was critical, because we had funding there. But Mrs Hicks went on to say that it had not been released. I do not know which planet Senator McKenzie has been on, but she seemed a bit surprised by that. She said:

But they—

meaning the government—

have found the savings.

Mrs Hicks went on to say:

But it has not been released. There was an announcement made in the May budget, but the funds have never flowed.

Senator McKenzie said: 'That's because we had to find this $150 million. It was contingent upon the government's higher education reform package passing.' Senator Carr interjected and asked why that was so, and Mrs Hicks said that that was not her understanding at the time.

And what do we have today? We have this complete backflip from Minister Pyne, who finally admits that, yes, the two were not related. The higher education reforms and the taking-away of funding for 1,700 science jobs were not related. It was just a threat to try and put some pressure on the Senate, to say to the Labor Party and others who were opposed to this bill: 'If you keep your opposition up, then 1,700 scientists will lose their jobs.' We found again today that that is simply not true. It is another con job by the Abbott government, another con job to try and hoodwink the Australian people. Well, they are not fooled. But the damage has already been done, because we heard very clearly at that Senate inquiry on Friday, 6 March, that some scientists have already left their jobs and that some of the programs which were in place have been wound down.

I cannot believe that the Abbott government would stoop to playing politics at such a level, to try and make Australia into some kind of place where scientific endeavour is not pursued with absolute vigour. Who would do that? Only a government on its knees, only a government desperate, only a government that is full of internal dissent, would play those sorts of tricks on the scientific community in Australia. We have been funding science in this country for a very long time, and all we have had from the government is backflips and misinformation. Minister Pyne tried to claim that Labor did not have any money in the kitty for this, and that is completely untrue. Minister Pyne claimed last week that NCRIS funding was part of the reform bill. Well, either it is or it is not, and Labor was saying all along that it was never part of the reform bill. Well, guess what; today the minister in charge, in this supposedly adult government, admits, 'Yes, that is correct; it's not part of the reform bill,' and we see this backflipping.

Of course, we are really happy about that. We are very happy the truth is finally out there that this funding for NCRIS is not in any way connected to the higher ed reform bill. But that does not detract from the harm the Abbott government have done already to Australia's scientific community. I hope they are ashamed of their actions, because they should be ashamed of what they have done to science in this country. To make it a political football in the way that they have done is an absolute disgrace—and then they tried to deny that, tried to say that the higher ed reform bill and the NCRIS funding were somehow absolutely linked. And they have given people such heartache over 1,700 scientific jobs, when we have had, since 2004, over $2 billion worth of funding to NCRIS and over 35,000 Australians and international researchers using NCRIS facilities, with 27 national facility employers employing those 1,700 highly skilled scientists.

All of that the Abbott government put at risk because they want to play political games, because their government is in such disarray because there is a squabble over who wants to be Prime Minister. We are seeing this being played out over and over again—these disgraceful backflips, risking Australia's international reputation when it comes to science, risking 1,700 jobs. Very clearly we heard at the Senate inquiry on that Friday that some have already left, so we have already had a brain drain because of this disgraceful coupling—this completely untruthful coupling—of the higher ed bill with the NCRIS funding.

The Abbott government need to be held accountable for that, and certainly Labor will hold them accountable. The threat made to Australian scientists will not be forgotten—making a political football out of a community that is normally immune to this, that gets on and does its job and does valuable research for Australia, that upholds our international reputation. We heard, on that Friday, scientists telling us that they would have to go offshore. What the Abbott government now has done to this community of scientists is to put doubt in their minds. Who is to say that Minister Pyne will not turn around next week and make some other pronouncement? The Abbott government simply cannot be trusted when it comes to higher education. It cannot be trusted when it comes to health. It cannot be trusted when it comes to any part of life that makes Australia work. We have seen nothing but broken promises from this government and now we have the scientific community having to watch their backs—having to look at where their funding comes from with absolutely no commitment from the Abbott government about science. Perhaps that is why they did not have a science minister. Perhaps this is what they planned all along. It shows, again, their total disregard for our scientific community that there is no minister there—that they can just be pulled along, pushed here and pushed there, at the political will of the Abbott government and a Prime Minister so desperate to hold onto his job that he wants to threaten scientists. (Time expired)


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