Senate debates

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Higher Education

3:02 pm

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Assistant Minister for Education and Training (Senator Birmingham) to a question without notice asked by Senator Carr today relating to higher education reforms.

What a disgrace this government is. 'No cuts to health', the Prime Minister said, the very day before the election. 'No cuts to education,' he said. 'No new taxes,' he said. But we know now what he really meant when he made those commitments. His real plan was absolutely to cut health, cut education and introduce new taxes—a new fuel tax and now a new university tax.

What is plainly evident about the sneaky new undergraduate tax that this Abbott government is proposing is that it is under construction, in secrecy. It has been flushed out into the open, and that is the only way that we can hold this government to account—by finding out the sneaky deals they are doing behind doors. We have seen a sneaky government in action for 520 days, now in their confessed 'bad-government phase' but not much different from what they purport to be the new government phase.

They have attacked Medicare. We have seen this pattern before. Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey and their cronies cooked up their plan for the GP tax behind closed doors. They did not have a word with doctors, who were just as surprised as the rest of Australia when all of a sudden they sprang it on us in the May budget.

It was only when Labor stood up for fairness alongside the health professionals of this nation that the deep problems of absolute unfairness of their GP tax was revealed. Then they had to try to have a go at fixing that disgraceful indictment on this identity we have as Australians about fair access to health. They had to make many changes as a result of the action of this side of the chamber, of Labor pushing them constantly to come out into the open.

This is what we are seeing again today. This absurd cycle is happening in the higher-education sector. The outrageously out-of-touch government has been forced to back down, on their hundred-thousand-dollar degrees, by Labor. Then we hear of another sneaky deal, their modus operandi, that they are trying to put through now, with the crossbenchers, through the side door—through the back door for many other things but through the side door now for this one.

This is a university tax that has been worked up in workshops between the education department officials and education analysts David Phillips and Professor Bruce Chapman. They hatched again this policy in a vacuum—same method as the GPs. Let's just bring this unconsidered idea, this ill-thought-out plan on an entire sector. That is how this chaotic government thinks policy should be made and this country governed. They know their solution to any issue is going to be unpopular, so they spring it on the unsuspecting public.

But you know what? The Australian public people are awake up to these sly tactics. We are figuring out right across the country how we cannot trust a single word that comes out of the mouth of this government. This undergraduate tax that they are proposing—that is under construction right now—is by a government hell-bent on building one thing: an unfair Australia. Destroying Australia's fair and equitable higher education is as much at the front of their agenda as getting rid of access to Medicare and access to the health care that Australians need. It is against education and against health. Their policies reveal it every single day.

Labor knows how important this issue is to the future of Australians and to the future of the nation. Australians understand and Labor understands that an undergraduate tax will take away the foundations of a fair go in this country. Young people cannot bear the burden of a $100,000 degree and go out and get a job or undertake a mortgage. Bank managers across the country will think of them as a debt risk after this government has got through with them. We must do everything we can to prevent this sneaky, dodgy, dysfunctional and chaotic government from advancing these thought-bubble policies that they cook up in the darkness and then try to bring out as some positive plan for the country.

Labor believes that access to higher education should not be based on the circumstances of a person's birth or where they live. We believe that it should be based on the clear principles of merit and access. This Abbott government does not understand; it never has understood. And when the Prime Minister stood, bare-facedly staring down the camera and saying that there would be no cuts to education, no cuts to health and no new taxes we knew that he meant the exact opposite! (Time expired)

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator O'Neill, I should have pulled you up earlier in relation to using the correct titles of members in the other place. I was too slow out of the box myself, but I do remind all senators to refer to members in here and in the other place by their correct titles.

3:07 pm

Photo of Matthew CanavanMatthew Canavan (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I listened to Senator O'Neill's contribution and I just cannot believe that these guys over there are such a shadow of their former selves—such a shadow!

Right now I am reading the biography by David Day of Paul Keating. Paul Keating, regardless of the disagreements we may have had with him on this side, was a man of courage. He was somebody who was not afraid of the big ideas and the big challenges facing the nation. He was part of a government that was not afraid of making changes that sometimes were unpopular and that sometimes were not accepted. He was not even afraid of putting a consumption tax on the agenda, and that was not accepted at the time; he failed in that endeavour. But we have a Labor Party now which will never have the experience of failing in policy because they just do not have the guts to put anything up in terms of policy to deal with the issues facing this nation.

They are now resorting to attacking the guy who came up with their university policy in the late 1980s. Bruce Chapman was the man behind the idea of HECS. HECS was a system put in place by the Hawke-Keating governments. It was a good system; it was a system that has stood the test of time. It was a system in response to the unsustainable policies put in place by the Whitlam government. Those policies of free education could not continue. They could not continue in an environment where we want upwards of 40 per cent of Australians to go to tertiary education. We cannot have a free education system for 40 per cent of our young people. We cannot afford it.

The Labor Party knows that we cannot afford it too, because that is not anything they did when they were in government. Indeed, they walked away from it 25 years ago. And when they did, they had a guy called Bruce Chapman advising them on how to move away from it. They introduced the system called HECS, which gave people an income-contingent, non-means-tested loan to cover their education expenses. It made sure that there were no barriers in this country: if you were young, intelligent and wanted to get ahead you could go to university with no up-front costs. It is a good system.

At the moment, the government funds around 60 per cent of a student's course costs. It depends on different degrees and qualifications but, on average, the Commonwealth government stumps up 60 per cent of a student's costs at university. HECS—the loan aspect, which is called HELP now—covers 40 per cent of those expenses. The proposal that the government has put forward is that, rather than being forty-sixty, we move that to be to about fifty-fifty. We do that because, of course, we have a big problem with our budget right now and we need to have some savings.

We also do it because we actually want to invest in higher education. We want to make sure that people can invest in higher education and that universities are not treated like some kind of New York flat where you cannot charge more than a certain amount of rent. What happens in markets when you fix a price and do not let them charge any more is that you do not get investment in those markets. You do not get higher quality in those markets. I want to see a higher quality university sector. I want to see Australian universities become some of the best in the world, and the way we do that is to encourage investment in those universities. The government's proposals will do that. They will do that because they allow universities to set their fees commensurate with the services they provide and commensurate with the quality of those services they provide.

Then they can afford to attract the best talent to Australia to teach people in physics, chemistry and advanced engineering. They can afford to keep the best people in Australia in those disciplines, rather than see them go to universities overseas which are not as restricted as they are here in this country and which can pay them more money. I am all for keeping that talent in this country and I am all for making sure that our universities become stronger. I am also all for fighting for a fairer system that reflects the fact that the benefits of going to university accrue to those who are actually at university.

I myself went to university from a high school where not many people went to uni. I went to school in Logan, just south of Brisbane, and only around 15 per cent of my year 12 went to uni. At the time I thought it was very unfair that I was doing an arts-economic degree funded by the good people—my good friends—who had gone and got a trade or been an apprentice or who were in some other line of work, paying tax so that I could do a philosophy degree and think long and hard every day about whether this table exists.

That was very interesting. It was a very interesting exercise, but it was not particularly beneficial to the wider society and I was being subsidised for it. We need to make sure that we have the confidence to put forward the policies that improve our universities, and these do.

3:12 pm

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Aged Care) Share this | | Hansard source

I am so pleased that the former speaker spoke about Paul Keating. I can assure him that when Paul Keating was Prime Minister of this country he actually governed for fairness in this country. That is a long way away from this Prime Minister.

All this Prime Minister is interested in, as we know and as the Australian people know, is governing for his own job. He is now the Prime Minister for backflips, quite honestly! When he gets turfed out from the prime ministership by those on the other side he can apply—

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

He could join the circus!

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Aged Care) Share this | | Hansard source

Yes! He could go for a job in the circus, because he has become quite the acrobat!

We know that before the last election that Tony Abbott, as Leader of the Opposition, went to the Australian people, giving a commitment that there would be no new taxes. Of course, what happened when they got into government? We had new taxes, and here we are now with a super profit tax being proposed on university students.

We know that the fuel tax was introduced by the government, which said there would be no new taxes. This is also the government that said quite categorically to the Australian people in the election that there would be no changes to the pension. There have been changes to the pension; the indexation will mean that pensioners will get less money. The Prime Minister also said that there would be no cuts to education—quite frankly, another broken promise. And here we have the higher education of this country being based on whether or not your family has a big enough credit card to ensure that the kids can go to university. That is not the sort of fair Australia that we want.

Senator Abetz and I come from the state of Tasmania. Senator Bushby is also from Tasmania. I do not hear any of them speaking up in the interests of Tasmania. What we do know from the University of Tasmania is that they have been trying to do backdoor deals with the University of Tasmania. I support an extra $400 million going into the Tasmanian university, but be up-front about it. Tell us what it entails. Give us the details. I know, as the Tasmanian community and the broader Australian community know, these changes and these cuts to the university are not in the best interest of the students and not in the best interest of the productivity of this country or the economy.

But, no, those opposite will do whatever it takes, as they have demonstrated previously, to get the crossbench's support. I urge the crossbench to stay firm on this, because it is an important fundamental in this country that every Australian child should aspire to go on to tertiary education, whether that is at university or TAFE, and it should never come down to whether or not you can afford to go.

It also is a disadvantage for those people with disabilities to be able to go on to university. It is also a disadvantage for mature age students to go on to university. But we know that those opposite will only ever do what is in their interest. They are trying to mislead the Australian community by saying that all Australian universities across this country are in support of their proposal, and that is blatantly untrue.

We have seen the disgraceful way that they have been trying to take our university and our education system down the American track. Over and over again the country has rejected that. The Australian people have rejected that. Labor rejects that. It is not a good system, and we should not be trying to emulate the American system. And what do we have now? We have another new idea: let's just grab this idea. This is another failed policy that even the Conservatives in England rejected. Why don't you just come up with a policy, after consulting the wider community, that we are able to support? Why is it that you are so opposed to everyday Australians being able to aspire to go on to university?

If you, like my colleagues and I, visit university campuses on a regular basis and engage with them, you would know that again in my home state of Tasmania it is astounding the amount of young people currently going through university, as they have over the last 30 or 40 years, as the first of their family to go on to university. We should be encouraging our young people to aspire to achieve the best that they can, not to base their future on whether or not their parents can afford to send them on to university.

3:17 pm

Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Labor, where art though? Where are the Labor reformers of the Hawke-Keating era? Where are you? Where is the Labor Party of Chifley? Where is that light on that hill? Where is that reforming Labor Party? I do not know. Can someone please tell me? All we have from the modern Labor Party opposite—we do not have the light on the hill; we have this damp squib. We have the grey ghost of the Labor Party wandering around the corridors, looking for some policies, plans or values. All we get from the Labor Party, the Leader of the Opposition and those opposite are scare campaigns.

When you look at Labor's policy manifesto for the coming election, it is a very simple document. Open it up and it is going to have two letters in it. It is going to be 'no' in 18-point font because the Labor Party has become the party of negativity. Labor Party has become the party of saying no to anything and everything. The Labor Party does not—

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Minister for Employment) Share this | | Hansard source

Including their own savings.

Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Including their own savings. There is the Labor Party of the reforming Hawke-Keating era, and where has it gone? It has gone somewhere. Where are the people from that era? They are hiding because they are embarrassed about the modern Labor Party. The modern Labor Party does not have the courage of its convictions—

Photo of Stephen ConroyStephen Conroy (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

How's Boris?

Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Boris is doing very well, thank you very much. And let's talk about someone who does have the courage of his convictions, and that is Boris Johnson. You are not a toenail to Boris Johnson, my friend. Where is the Labor Party? All we get.

Photo of Stephen ConroyStephen Conroy (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

He had the courage to give you the boot! The closest you come to his toenails is when you got the boot!

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senators, that is enough. Senator McGrath, if you could direct your comments through the chair and, Senator Conroy, if you could cease interjecting.

Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you. I encourage Senator Conroy to do some reading in the first instance but also encourage him to read some of the books of Boris Johnson in terms of his views on higher education, because all this Labor negative party wants to do is say no. All they want to do is run scare campaigns. They want to run a scare campaign about taxes. Let's talk about their record on taxes in terms of the carbon tax. Let's talk about their record in government, but they do not want to talk about 2007-2013. To them it was some sort of Doctor Who episode that never actually happened; they went into the vortex and forgot about it!

I can understand why Labor would want to forget about 2007-2013: it was a terrible government. It made the Whitlam government look good. But at least the Whitlam government and Hawke-Keating governments had policies. They had values. As mad as Whitlam and his cabinet were, they had policies and they had values. But why is the modern Labor Party not talking about the reforms of the Hawke-Keating era? Why aren't you looking back in your history book, Senator Conroy? Open your history books up—

Photo of Stephen ConroyStephen Conroy (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I was there.

Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Were you there? Tell us about what happened. Tell us about the reforms they made to higher education.

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

It would be better if you addressed your remarks through the chair and not actually directly asked Senator Conroy to respond to you, because it does invite him to do so and it would be most inappropriate.

Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I don't think Senator Conroy needs much invitation to respond! But I encourage him, if he is going to speak shortly, to talk about what happened between 1983 and 1996 in terms of the reforms that the Hawke-Keating governments brought forward. For some reason that has become a black hole for Labor also. I do not know why it has become a black hole for them. They should be proud of that government. They should be as proud of that government as we are proud of the Howard government between 1996 and 2007—a strong, reforming government.

That is what this government is trying to do with our proposals and reforms to open up the university sector. The Labor Party know that the deregulation of fees will have no negative impact on disadvantaged students. In fact, may I quote to you from the Shadow Assistant Treasurer—

Senator Conroy interjecting

Senator Bilyk interjecting

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! Senator McGrath, resume your seat. Senator Conroy and Senator Bilyk, if you could cease interjecting that would assist the Senate.

Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I quote from the Shadow Assistant Treasurer—a fine man, I am told—Andrew Leigh. This was in a book. He is another person who has written a book. Through you, Mr Deputy President, to those on those benches: you might want to read this book sometime. I am sure he will lend you one of the copies of his book. He might sign it for you! He said there is no reason to think that it would adversely affect poorer students. That is in relation to the deregulation of fees. Through you, Mr Deputy President: if your Shadow Assistant Treasurer, Labor party, is saying that—someone who has a PhD; he is quite a learned gentleman—why are you not supporting these reforms? Why are you scared of reform? Why are you scared of opening up the university sector to make it the best university sector in the world, so we can really grow the Australian— (Time expired)

3:23 pm

Photo of Joe BullockJoe Bullock (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Australians know they can trust the Australian Labor Party to deliver in the fields of health and education. These are matters of critical importance to working families. They know that their health is their most valuable asset and that a good education is the best investment they can make in their children's future.

The Australian Labor Party shares their values. The Labor Party is the party of Medicare. For 40 years, the Labor Party has stood behind families to ensure affordable health care. Opposed to us, the coalition have never missed an opportunity to attempt to dismantle our health system or to impose additional costs on workers and their children seeking medical attention. This is an objective which they will pursue until the public pressure—the public anger—forces them into tactical retreat.

This is what we saw yesterday with their pause in the push for the GP tax. Make no mistake: this was just a pause. The plan for a new tax on health lies not in the bottom drawer but in the top drawer, ready to be reintroduced at the first opportunity. Education provides a similar story. From the Whitlam reforms to tertiary education in the 1970s to the vision and commitment of our current leader, Bill Shorten, Labor sees that only through education will Australia fully develop our economic potential, our scientific potential, our artistic potential—our people's potential.

The contrast is clear. The party which won government in 2013 on the promise of no cuts to health, no cuts to education and no new taxes has been proven over and over again to be the party of broken promises. Why is it that this government is so determined to deny young Australians the education they need to face the challenges of the future—to gain the skills that lead to better employment and a better future for themselves and their families? The government that promised no cuts to education is now hoping to woo the Senate with a higher education package which provides for $1.9 billion in cuts to universities, $100,000 degrees for undergraduates, $200 million in cuts to the indexation of the grants program, $170 million in cuts to research training, fees for PhDs and $80 million in cuts to the Australian Research Council. And, revealed in the media today, the clincher: the government proposes to tax its way to a better education system with a new tax which its architect, Professor Chapman, is reported to have described—in a PR masterstroke—as similar to the Rudd government's mining super profits tax. Minister Pyne must be so proud!

Other media reports today claim:

… experts labelled the idea a “tax” by stealth on students, which could add a further $11,000 to the cost of some degrees.

This is a figure which is the same as that arrived at by the government's own adviser, Mr Andrew Norton of the Grattan Institute, who estimated a tax of more than $11,000 on top of the fees paid by a law student. The bright idea of a new tax—a tax by stealth—is simply another attack on students struggling to gain a useful qualification and establish a foundation upon which to build a better life. It builds on the burden of fee deregulation proposed by this government, and the current burden of over $30 million on student debt, to further move the cost of education onto students' shoulders—layer upon layer of additional burden—and force the cost of a decent education beyond the reach of young people from ordinary working families.

What is more, the new tax is already an idea tested and rejected by the Conservative government of the UK, as their minister for universities said in 2010:

… as soon as universities raise their fee above the threshold level, they face a rapidly rising levy which can drive their fees up even higher.

Photo of David BushbyDavid Bushby (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

What's the threshold?

Photo of Joe BullockJoe Bullock (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The threshold is to be determined. Rapidly rising deregulated fees and the prospect of $100,000 degrees driven up even higher by the imposition of a new tax—these are not the burdens which should be borne by our students. This is not a higher education package. This is just another broken promise from a government which must have had its fingers crossed behind its back when it misled the Australian people with promises of no cuts to health, no cuts to education and no new taxes.

This is a government not to be believed and not to be trusted. It is a government which must not be returned if we value our children's education and our children's future. (Time expired)

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the motion moved by Senator O'Neill be agreed to.

Question agreed to.