Thursday, 4 February 2010
Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Re-Registration of Providers and Other Measures) Bill 2009
Bill—by leave—taken as a whole.
I move opposition amendment (1):
(1) Schedule 1, item 11, page 5 (after line 7), after subsection 9A(1), insert:
(1A) A designated authority for a State must use a risk-management approach when considering whether to recommend that an approved provider should be re-registered.
I talked about this earlier so I will not hold up the Senate much longer, except to draw the attention of the Senate to a passage in the letter from the Deputy Prime Minister to Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, which she tabled yesterday, in which the Deputy Prime Minister talked about the draft guidelines being finalised with states and territories in developing a risk management approach to re-registration as agreed by the Ministerial Council for Tertiary Education and Employment in September 2009. So I repeat the point that I made yesterday: the government, the rhetoric from the government, is telling us that they are already doing it and that they will be doing it. We think it is important enough for it to be enshrined in the legislation and we do not really understand why the government have a problem with this, given that the government have said on many occasions now that they actually agree that this is something that should happen. Combined with the second reading amendment which the Senate supported yesterday, which was moved by Senator Hanson-Young for the Greens, as well as the statement that was made by the Deputy Prime Minister in the letter to Senator Hanson-Young, I think it is an absolute no-brainer. I strongly commend this amendment to the Senate.
The government will not be supporting this. I understood that we were recommitting only Senator Xenophon’s amendments, so this is a further breach of the undertakings. This morning, Senator Cormann, you were provided with a series of documents by the minister’s office for out-of-session consideration providing guidance to the state and territories designated authorities on a nationally consistent approach implementing the re-registration measures introduced through the education services for overseas students amendment bill and related forms. Now, perhaps they have not reached your hands, but it is my information that that information was provided to you this morning.
Senator, the whole issue here is, as I indicated to you yesterday—
The opposition here does not seem to know who its spokespersons are. It does not seem to know what its officers are actually doing. You make allegations that I have abused your staff. I have never spoken to your staff. The fact remains that information has been provided to me about the contact between the minister’s office and your office, and it would appear that that communication is not reaching you, Senator. That is not the responsibility of the government. We have acted in good faith. We have provided you with the assurances you wanted. We have provided you with the documentation you wanted. You have sought, therefore, to break an arrangement with us in terms of the recommitment of this amendment. You are now adding another amendment, which will have to go back to the House of Representatives and, in due course, be dealt with in the normal way.
Mr Chairman, maybe Senator Parry did get it wrong: it was not the minister’s office that was confused; rather, we have a very confused minister here. Senator Carr sat in the chamber and listened to Senator Parry outline what he was seeking leave to achieve. Senator Parry very clearly spelt out the two amendments that the opposition would be recommitting, and Senator Carr sat in this chamber and still could not follow the program. No wonder this government cannot manage a legislative program. If Senator Carr had listened to what Senator Parry had said just 10 minutes ago, he would have known that the first thing that would happen would be the recommitment of this amendment on behalf of the opposition. In my little contribution earlier, I confirmed that the only reason I did not call for a division then was that the minister had given me an indication that Senator Xenophon would not be supporting the amendment. Also, based on the Greens’ earlier position, I was not going to press the point through a division.
I have never reached an agreement with the minister’s office in relation to anything to do with this amendment. Minister, you might be sending paperwork to my office—that is fine—but I can tell you very clearly, through you, Mr Chairman, that the opposition has always been committed to this amendment. Dr Andrew Southcott, as the shadow minister, was committed to it. I was committed to it. Senator Mason was committed to it. All of us have been committed to it. At no point in time have we ever given an indication that we would not be proceeding with this amendment. This morning we put it to a vote, but it was defeated because we did not call for a division.
Minister, given your state of confusion in this chamber, I am not surprised about the events over the last couple of days. Clearly, you do not follow what is going on. Given this state of affairs, it is very difficult to have a proper line of communication with the government on this particular piece of legislation. I have moved the amendment. I commend it to the Senate. It is a very important amendment and it will ensure that state training authorities will appropriately prioritise and risk manage the re-registration process.
With respect to Senator Cash and Senator Cormann, I do not think throwing barbs at the minister is particularly helpful to the debate. In terms of the process, there have been some genuine misunderstandings—again, without any bad faith. At the end of the committee stage debate yesterday, I spoke to Senator Cormann about this amendment, and I have had further discussions with him today. I want to put on the record that I wish to support this amendment on the basis that I believe it sets some parameters for the government in considering the issue of risk management and, therefore, I am prepared to support it. Again, I do not think it is helpful to accuse other senators of not doing their job properly. I do not think that is borne out by a series of events where I think people have acted in good faith. We have come to the stage where we are now trying to sort through this.
That the amendment (Senator Cormann’s) be agreed to.
by leave—I move amendments (1) and (2) on sheet 6041 together standing in my name and in the name of Senator Hanson-Young:
(1) Schedule 2, page 16 (after line 11), after item 5, insert:
5A Paragraph 29(1)(a)
Omit “less”, substitute “plus
(aa) the total of the prescribed amounts relating to expenses incurred by the student in connection with the course; less”.
5B Subsection 29(2)
Omit “paragraph (1)(b)”, substitute “paragraphs (1)(aa) and (b)”.
(2) Schedule 2, page 16 (after line 16), after item 6, insert:
6A Section 46
After “course money”, insert “and certain consequential costs”.
These amendments provide the minister with the power to make regulations to provide for consequential losses for students where there has been a collapse of a college. At the moment, only direct losses of fees paid can be compensated under the fund. This regulation would give the minister the power to make regulations to cover consequential losses—that is, those incidental losses with respect to a student being here when the college collapses that cannot be recovered. I want to make it absolutely clear that this does not require the minister to set the level of compensation, but it does give the minister the power to do so. I think it is important, in the context of strengthening confidence in the overseas student sector, that in certain cases the minister ought to have the power to make regulations to provide additional levels of compensation in respect of consequential losses.
We have heard time and time again that, when colleges have closed, students struggle to get their fees refunded, let alone get their visas extended because the next appropriate course may not start until six months later. These are obviously times when extra costs are incurred by those students through no fault of their own. In light of us wanting to move forward and reinvigorate our international student sector by giving it the respect and attention it deserves, it is important we also understand that students who are caught in the middle of these collapses should not be left out in the cold. I think giving the minister the discretion to draft regulations that would help cover some of those extra costs is important. Yes, that would mean that there needs to be more money put in the kitty from the insurance fund, which would mean that providers need to be more responsible with the types of levies they are charged.
The opposition will be supporting these amendments. We think they are an important improvement to this legislation. If the government were fair dinkum about providing some appropriate protections for students that are caught up in these sorts of collapses, then they would be supporting these amendments as well.
This is a measure to give ministers power to define regulations for any consequential expenses that a defaulting provider should pay back to a student in addition to any course money. We have heard from Senator Hanson-Young that the government should put some more money in. We have heard from Senator Cormann that, if the government were fair dinkum, we would pay more money as well.
What do you suggest would be the consequence of this amendment? What is the consequence of your vote for this amendment? When it comes to drawing up that big list of the things the Liberal Party will be supporting in the run-up to the next election, this will of course have to go on your list of commitments because you are now committing to spend an unlimited amount of money. It is not costed; it is uncapped, an unlimited amount of money which you are now proposing, which you are committing to. By voting for this, you are committing the Liberal Party to this position. There are no costings here. There is no detail provided here as to what consequential amendments you think are legitimate. It is reasonable to conclude that all consequential costs should be funded through this measure. Would they include, for instance, the initial cost of travel to Australia, accommodation and food costs and education agents’ costs? Perhaps travel, perhaps medical insurance, perhaps airport taxes should be included. Perhaps there are some domestic travel costs. Perhaps there are books that need to be compensated for. Perhaps there are computers that we need to fund. Perhaps there are other educational expenses. Then there is the $18,000 which each student must provide to show that they can support themselves while they are in the country. Is that part of the consequential costs of undertaking education in this country?
I would have thought, on any normal reading of any way in which an education system actually operates, that that is what you are signing up to. You are signing up to a Liberal government funding all of those things. That is what you are committing to. You are asking that taxpayers should refund any of these items. Perhaps there are others I have missed, because I bet there are enough shonky agents out there who can come up with other items which I have not included here.
Would Australian students studying overseas have access to such a refund? Would this be a result of Australian taxpayers’ money being sent back to overseas countries to fund these measures? Is that what you are proposing? It would seem a reasonable conclusion to draw that you are asking this government and presumably committing a future Liberal government to support an amendment—uncosted and such an ill-defined proposition—for which you have absolutely no idea of the full economic consequences of what you are saying. This is an example of economic irresponsibility. This shows why the Liberal Party is so risky when it comes to managing the affairs of this country.
The key element of the review which is being undertaken right now is about how consumer protection frameworks might be better reformed and how we might provide better protections to ensure the sustainability of the industry in this country. It is grossly premature to prejudge that measure by putting up this half-baked, ill-conceived measure, this uncosted, ill-defined, ill-considered proposition by which you are seeking to have the Commonwealth committed to an unlimited amount of funds. Given the circumstances, this Labor government will not be accepting it. Given the concern we have heard from senators about the delay in the passage of this legislation and despite the fact you denied passage of this legislation last year, I find it odd that you are now telling us that perhaps it is okay if this legislation comes back in the next sitting period because that is what you are voting for.
Senator, I sought to have it incorporated last year within the list of bills. You refused to have it. So some time, we presume, in the next sitting period, we are expected to bring this bill back. I trust it will be only three weeks, but we all understand how this place works. We all understand what you do to the legislative program in this chamber. You cannot guarantee it will be three weeks. You could take weeks and weeks to get around to coming up to having the will, the whim or the otherwise inclination to deal with this matter again. So the industry may well be without protection for weeks and weeks while you rethink your irresponsible position.
We have a situation where the current arrangement for the re-registration of colleges is underway. We have a series of measures being undertaken by this government to tighten up the regulations in this industry and to strengthen the quality assurance regime in this country—and what is happening? The Liberal Party are frustrating those measures. You are moving to protect the shonks once again, as you did in government. You refuse to act because you saw it was in your interests to play these silly games.
The government has moved quickly to address the problems which are emerging in the industry. We have sought a series of measures through the states to enforce a tougher regime to protect students. We will not, however, be getting out a blank cheque to fund shonky dealers whose colleges collapse, leaving us totally exposed when it comes to the question of consequential expenses. Imagine what a rorter could do with that. What an amazing proposition! Senator Xenophon, this morning you were offered a proposition in my presence by the Deputy Prime Minister about having these matters dealt with—
Well, in my presence, by the Deputy Prime Minister—that these matters would be dealt with through Baird and dealt with properly, efficiently and thoroughly so that the matter would be back here within six months. In fact, the Deputy Prime Minister said that she could have a bill ready to introduce to the parliament by June, but that is not good enough for you. That is fine. You understand that is what you have rejected. What we will have to do is have the matter dealt with in the House of Representatives and have it recommitted to the Senate at some point in the coming period. I trust you will have the interest to get around to dealing with it, since you think you can run the government from the opposition benches, since you believe your mission in life is to oppose. Your view is that you must be as unconstructive as you can be and you are proving it once again. I look forward to the public debate on this question. I look forward to you explaining how you can vote for totally uncapped, unfunded propositions of this type. Such economic irresponsibility, I am sure, will be a matter of interest not just to this industry but to the public at large.
I am very pleased that the Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research is talking about consequences. What are the consequences of having colleges collapse and overseas students lose confidence in our education system? The consequences are that there has been a significant drop in enrolments. The consequences are that one of our biggest export industries is suffering, costing the Australian economy billions of dollars. If we, through this amendment, can give greater comfort to our overseas students of knowing that consequential losses will be covered to some extent, then that is a good thing in determining that we do not have any adverse consequences in having to deal with a loss of confidence in our overseas student sector.
Senator Carr needs to understand, and he needs to acknowledge, that these amendments make it absolutely clear that the minister has the discretion to determine the extent of the regulations. So for the government to say that this is an uncapped, uncosted proposal is absolutely wrong. The minister can determine the extent of any consequential losses to the fund and the minister can determine what the extent of compensation will be in any individual case as well as the total fund. To say that it is uncapped and uncosted is completely wrong and is fundamentally unfair.
This is about strengthening confidence in this education sector, which has taken a battering. It is costing the Australian economy billions of dollars in its loss of reputation. This is about the students and their families having greater confidence in the system—they often mortgage everything and borrow to the hilt, particularly in countries such as India—so that they know there is a greater level of comfort and greater consumer protection. We all agree this is about consumer protection. I urge the government not to misrepresent this to say that it is uncapped and uncosted because the Minister for Education can determine the extent to which this fund will operate—a cap on the overall fund, a cap on individual compensation. But there is an important principle here at stake in consequential losses.
I think it is fairly clear that the Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, Senator Carr, who is representing the Minister for Education, Julia Gillard, is not across this portfolio. If he were, he would understand that these amendments do not allow for an uncapped, unruly amendment that is going to do anything with the budget that he was talking about. He clearly does not understand how the insurance fund works at the moment. He does not understand that these amendments are about expanding and enforcing and giving the minister more leeway to ensure that we are able to insure students the way they need to be in order to give them protection. He does not seem to understand that it is the levy that is paid for by the providers—perhaps even those dodgy providers, as he puts it, that, as we know, are out there.
At the end of the day it is fairly clear right around the country—you do not have to be an educational expert to see it—that the international education sector in Australia is at the crossroads. We need to do something to put confidence back into the sector. It is the third largest export Australia has—almost half a million students in Australia and thousands upon thousands of Australian workers in these colleges and institutions. They deserve the full attention of the government and the discretion of the minister to enable their protection.
The issue deserves a bit more attention than the desk-thumping, bravo behaviour of Senator Carr. I would like to know what the cost to the Labor Party and of all of the work that Minister Gillard has done will be of Senator Carr’s behaviour. It is really important that the government get out there the important things that they have done—the positive things they have done—for the sector. It only works if the Senate gets behind it. The comments made by Senator Carr, which have been misrepresentative of the amendments, of what Senator Xenophon and I are trying to do and of what the opposition have now supported, are very disingenuous in trying to score some political points in the chamber.
I do not even know whom you are talking to. It is not even broadcast day. It is not fair to Minister Gillard to be behaving like this. We have been able to work quite constructively and we need to keep working constructively across all sides of the chamber if we are to protect this international sector, which is very important to not just the Australian export industry but also the reputation of even our domestic students who want to be able to travel overseas and have people understand that our education sector is world class. How do we do that? We have to build confidence within our international student market, within the international student sector and within the community. It is not good enough to simply say: ‘Colleges have rolled over. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off—go.’ They deserve better than that. Senator Carr needs to think about his comments very, very carefully. We have probably wasted enough time in the chamber. We know that these amendments are going to pass. Let us get on with it.
A final and very short contribution: if I had to describe the statements of the Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research in this debate today, Mr Chairman, you would pull me up as being unparliamentary, so I will not go there. There is a serious question mark around the truthfulness and the accuracy of many of the statements that the minister has made today. I understand that we have to get this moving, because we have to have divisions completed by 4.30, but let me remind the chamber again that this legislation has been in the parliament since 19 August. Not once did the government bring it up in the Senate. The government controls the legislative agenda of the Senate and the government did not bring it up once.
We are dealing with this now. We would have facilitated easy passage, but we are faced with a government that is not serious about putting appropriate safeguards in place to ensure that the people who are caught up in the collapse of colleges are properly protected and that there is an appropriate level of scrutiny of those shonky providers, who none of us want to see continuing in this industry. Senator Xenophon is quite right. This is a very important export industry for us—with $15.5 billion of export income, it is Australia’s third-largest export industry—and it is important that people overseas can have confidence in the quality and integrity of our education system. Furthermore, any of the statements the minister has made about this being an open-ended, unfunded commitment are absolute garbage. The minister is completely out of his depth. The minister has been misled by the people advising him, or he genuinely does not know what he is talking about, or he is intent on misleading the Senate. This is not an open-ended, uncapped commitment; this is something that is important, and I commend it to the Senate.
That the amendment (Senator Xenophon’s) be agreed to.
Bill, as amended, agreed to.
Bill reported with amendments; report adopted.