Senate debates

Monday, 16 March 2015

Matters of Public Importance

Higher Education

4:04 pm

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

A letter has been received from Senator Moore:

Pursuant to standing order 75, I propose that the following matter of public importance be submitted to the Senate for discussion:

The Abbott Government's shameful attempt to hold the jobs of 1,700 scientists and the future of Australian research hostage in pursuit of university fee deregulation.

Is the proposal supported?

More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

I understand that informal arrangements have been made to allocate specific times to each of the speakers in today's debate. With the concurrence of the Senate, I shall ask the clerks to set the clock accordingly.

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)

4:15 pm

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Education and Training) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Lines wants to talk about trust and what people can be trusted with. Yet again we see, through her contribution, that the Labor Party is unable to be trusted with money, unable to be trusted with sensible budgeting decisions and unable to be trusted with the nation's finances. It seems that yet again there is a need to explain to Senator Lines and those opposite. In relation to any spending decision this government takes, when we decide to commit to new and additional spending, we work through a process of finding savings to fund that spending—which should be the prudent approach of any government. We decide where the money will come from before we decide to embark upon new spending. The case in relation to the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy research facility was that, when we decided in last year's budget that they were so important that we needed to find funding for them to continue—because the Labor Party had left a funding cliff, effective from 30 June this year—the way to fund them and find the additional spending required was through the savings contained in our higher education reform package. We identified the savings and came up with how we would fund NCRIS into the future.

Today we have decided that because of the fundamental importance of these higher education reforms, and so that there can be no distraction from their consideration, we will decouple them. We will find other means to find the savings and provide funding for NCRIS into the future. But let us firstly, in relation to NCRIS, be under absolutely no illusion: those opposite created the problem to start with. We have this remarkable situation where Senator Carr keeps putting out statements. He even says, with a straight face, 'The Labor government left 21 months of secure funding for NCRIS.' I do not dispute that. The budget did have, at the change of government, 21 months of forward funding for NCRIS until 30 June 2015. After that, zip—zero, diddly-squat, nada, nothing—was in the budget for NCRIS going forward. The Labor government left a funding cliff.

As everybody in this place appreciates, when the budget is handed down each year there is a four-year forward program in the budget. When we took office, there were 21 months of funding for this program that the Labor Party is standing on their high horse about now. There were also 27 months of nothing—27 months, in the forward four years, in which there was no funding. There were 21 months of funding and 27 months for which there was no NCRIS; there was no research infrastructure program of this nature being operated.

So we budgeted, in the last budget, for $150 million. We have also put in place arrangements for the review of research infrastructure needs, chaired by Philip Marcus Clark, which is being undertaken at present to ensure that by the time we get to the end of that extra 12-month extension—the financing that covers the gap the Labor Party left in place—we have certainty around how to fund research infrastructure sustainably into the future, without the type of funding cliffs and uncertainty the Labor Party left in place by not actually having any forward funding in this regard.

But far bigger than the future of NCRIS, important though it may be, is the future of the higher education sector in Australia. That is why we have made the changes we have today—to ensure we can focus the Senate's attention and the nation's attention on these sweeping reforms to higher education we are proposing. They build on the positive legacy of previous Labor governments. They build on the Hawke government's decision to introduce HECS. They build on the Gillard government's decision to open up access to universities. It is a fundamental change we are applying now, to build on that opening up of access to universities by saying we will allow universities to be masters of their own destiny. If any institutions in this country are smart and clever enough to be able to set their own fees, run their own budgets, innovate, specialise, compete with the rest of the world, strive to be among the best in the rest of the world and operate under their own terms, surely it is the nation's 41 universities. Surely they do not need anybody in government setting all the regulations and details of how they will be financed and how they will operate.

Certainly, the approach we are taking is welcomed by the nation's universities. Those opposite and those on the crossbench would all do well to heed some of the comments from the university sector in relation to the announcement made today. Universities Australia, the peak body representing all 41 universities, have made it clear that all the qualifications they had in relation to the original proposal before the Senate have now been removed. They unequivocally want to see the legislation before the Senate pass the Senate. That is critically important. Vicki Thomson, the chief executive of the Group of Eight, has said:

This legislation is critical to the future of quality teaching for students, and quality research for our nation’s economy. For it to fail is unthinkable. These concessions by the Government should now pave the way for the Bill to pass unimpeded …

The Innovative Research Universities, or IRU, representing a particular group of the nation's universities—Charles Darwin University, Flinders University, Griffith University, James Cook University, La Trobe University and Murdoch University, have said they:

…call on the Senate to pass the Higher Education and Research Reform Bill 2014 following the Government's decision to focus on the important reforms to university funding and student charges it has proposed …

We need the new approach the Bill offers.

There is near universal support from across the university sector. We had, coming into today, 40 of the 41 vice-chancellors all supporting change. TAFE Directors Australia support the passage of this bill because they recognise the extension it provides in Commonwealth support to some of the non-university sector. The elimination of some of the fees that apply to loans beyond the traditional HECS loan is important. They all recognise the extension of access this legislation provides to those on pathway courses, to those undertaking diplomas. It will further strengthen the opportunity we have for the nation's students, be they from disadvantaged backgrounds or poorer income backgrounds, who do not necessarily get the highest ATAR, to be able to access a pathway course or a diploma course to provide the bridging opportunity to study then at bachelor degree level at university.

The new Commonwealth scholarship scheme this legislation will set up will provide further opportunity for students, especially for Australians from disadvantaged backgrounds, to maximise their involvement in the higher education system and access opportunities particularly for coverage of other expenses in their pursuit of higher education. We have already adopted other amendments to the package developed in consultation with some of the crossbench to maintain CPI on HECS and to provide an interest rate pause for new parents as proposed by Senator Madigan.

If you look at the reforms this government is proposing, they provide a world of new opportunity for more people to be able to access higher education in Australia. The reforms provide more pathways with more Commonwealth support to access higher education compared with those opposite and Senator Carr's desire to reintroduce his so-called compacts, which is code for capping and which is also code for Senator Carr—were he to be the higher education minister—to sit down with each of the nation's 41 universities and say, 'I, Senator Carr, know best. I can set up a deal with you where I dictate how many students you will take into each course, the fees that will be provided.'

There is a whole world of new regulations that the Labor Party wants to apply to the nation's universities rather than our policy package, which is a whole world of new opportunity for more people to access higher education, still with the protection of deferred income contingent loans that mean not one student going into a bachelor place in an Australian university need pay one cent up-front to access that place.

Those on board should heed the message from the university sector today and come on board with these reforms. (Time expired)

4:25 pm

Photo of Lee RhiannonLee Rhiannon (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

The Greens support today's matter of public importance on the Abbott government's shameful attempt to link the job security and research of 1,700 scientific workers with the government's attempt to push through very dangerous university deregulation. We now know that Minister Pyne has been lying to the Australian people—

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Rhiannon, I would ask that you choose your words carefully and I would ask you to withdraw.

Photo of Lee RhiannonLee Rhiannon (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Acting Deputy President Sterle, I withdraw that statement. Clearly there have been attempts by the minister to embarrass, to intimidate, to blackmail the members of this place, particularly the crossbenches—

Photo of Barry O'SullivanBarry O'Sullivan (Queensland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. I do not think you could make a more serious assertion on the character than blackmail. I would ask that you ask the senator to withdraw that and to be careful with her language.

Photo of Claire MooreClaire Moore (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Women) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. There has been a long history in this place of fairly dynamic debate and the word 'blackmail' has been used in numerous debates in this place. In fact, if we had a chance to call upon the Hansard, there would probably be so many times that term has been used that we could not even begin to count them. I do not accept that there is a real point of order in this case.

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As we are entering this new world of sharing all this love, Senator Rhiannon, I would ask that you do withdraw the word 'blackmail' because it was pretty direct. I would ask that you withdraw, Senator Rhiannon.

Photo of Lee RhiannonLee Rhiannon (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I understand that I do not have to withdraw the word because I have sat in this chamber many times hearing that word. I withdrew the word 'lying' but not the word 'blackmail'. I have used that myself and I have heard it in debate many times.

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Education and Training) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. Senator Rhiannon was making a direct reflection on a member of the other place. That direct reflection should be withdrawn.

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Birmingham, it is not very often you and I are on the same page but on this we are. Senator Rhiannon, I have ruled and I would ask that you withdraw.

Photo of Lee RhiannonLee Rhiannon (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Acting Deputy President, could you explain the consequences if I do not withdraw because it seems there is an inconsistency with your ruling compared with the rulings that I have heard in this place at other times.

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Rhiannon, quite simply, you will be defying my ruling as the chair.

Photo of Lee RhiannonLee Rhiannon (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

What are the consequences of that, please?

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Rhiannon, the consequences are that I have ruled. It was a direct aspersion upon a minister. Somebody could move the motion that you could be removed from the chamber.

Photo of Lee RhiannonLee Rhiannon (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you for your advice, Mr Acting Deputy President. I withdraw that remark. Minister Pyne has shown some very concerning behaviour. Many of his actions could be seen to be similar to attempts to blackmail crossbenchers in this place. Why we know this—

Photo of Barry O'SullivanBarry O'Sullivan (Queensland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. The senator's continued reference has the same strength as—

Senator Moore interjecting

Well, I have a point of order. You will be able to—

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator O'Sullivan, ignore the interjection.

Photo of Barry O'SullivanBarry O'Sullivan (Queensland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It has the same strength, it is an insidious assertion and she should withdraw it as she did with the direct assertion.

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator O'Sullivan, as I was talking to the Leader of Opposition Business in the Senate I did not hear it. I will check the record. There is no point of order at this stage.

Photo of Lee RhiannonLee Rhiannon (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

We know this is consistent with the minister's behaviour because of what has happened today. Now we have learnt that there is no link with the $150 million allocated for the NCRIS—the national collaborative research infrastructure. Now that money is secure—only secure for one year. We have heard Senator Birmingham use the word 'decouple'—that is their word today—to make out that there is a separation here and trying to make out that there is a change to the higher education bill. There is no change. It is the same legislation, just split into two parts. University deregulation, with all the dangers and all the problems, is still alive before this chamber—as are the other measures with regard to the cuts to the community grants scheme.

So, we should not be conned by what this minister is doing. Minister Pyne has clearly taken up his place within the Abbott government bunker, really trying to ensure that they protect this government. Why has the minister done this today? Because this bill was at the point of being defeated for a second time. And it could have been an even more decisive defeat, with more crossbenchers voting with the Greens and Labor against this legislation that would have such a far-reaching and damaging impact on our higher education system. So the minister has come into play today, making out that something has changed and, again, misleading the public and people in this place when in fact he is still on the same tack, trying to avoid a decisive vote. He actually promised that as recently as Sunday, saying that the vote would occur on Wednesday when we could deal with this bill. But, again, clearly that would be embarrassing for this government and they have tried to change that.

So let us remind ourselves of why we need to have this debate today. The research that is undertaken by these scientists at the 27 research centres across this country is absolutely critical. It should never have been used by the minister in this way. This is not just something that can be funded on a yearly basis. What we should have seen from the minister when he made his statement today about this so-called—to use his word—'decoupling', where he said, 'Yes, that funding is assured,' was that the funding was for the long term. It should have been consistent with what is needed to ensure that this research can go ahead, with the confidence that it will be there for the long term.

Again, I am pleased to be able to participate in this debate that really does detail the damaging policies of this government to the higher education sector. (Time expired)

4:33 pm

Photo of Lisa SinghLisa Singh (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary to the Shadow Attorney General) Share this | | Hansard source

Anyone would think, listening to Senator Birmingham's contribution to this debate, that his head has been in the sand today and that he has had absolutely no understanding or idea of what has gone on with his Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne. He clearly backed down, not only after the pressure from an open letter to the Prime Minister earlier this month but after pressure by a range of research organisations, known as the National Research Alliance, against this government's deregulation of universities and its effect on research—scientific research at that.

On top of that, Labor's notice of motion that was tabled today called on the government to immediately release the research infrastructure funding that it was holding hostage. That motion, of course, was a motion that Labor had support for from the crossbench. It had support from senators Lambie, Lazarus, Muir, Madigan, Rhiannon, Wang and Xenophon. After all of that pressure, finally Christopher Pyne came to his senses and decided that the intimidation that he had placed on the Senate—particularly on the crossbench—over his very unfair and unnecessary policy for $100,000 university degrees and holding the research infrastructure funding to ransom in doing so—limiting 1,700 scientific research jobs through that process—was a bad idea.

Senator Birmingham seems to be completely unaware that this has gone on today—that this backdown has occurred today. I think that I could not put it any better than journalist Laura Tingle put it today, when she said:

Education Minister Christopher Pyne's attempt to blackmail the Senate by threatening scientific research funding if the higher education changes are not passed this week has backfired spectacularly, …

That is exactly what has happened. It has backfired spectacularly, with the crossbench joining Labor to insist, through that notice of motion, that the funding be assured before the Senate considers the package.

It is pleasing to see that Christopher Pyne has come to his senses, but we know that he has not come completely to his senses when it comes to his backdown. What Minister Pyne should learn from today is a lesson, not just of backing down on the research funding that he has now freed from his education reform package but he should go all the way and back down on his proposal for deregulation. Why? Because it is not just Labor that opposes these proposals, and it is not just the crossbench that rejects this proposal, it is the Australian people—particularly students and those who work in the university sector.

Australians oppose these measures. They oppose cutting public funding to undergraduate courses by up to 37 per cent. They oppose the extraordinarily expensive university degrees that will come as a result of fee deregulation. They oppose the Americanisation of our world-class university system. They oppose these things because they understand the value of our universities and the value of higher education—and the contribution that those with degrees then contribute to our Australian society, the skills that they learn there.

Despite Minister Pyne's backdown today—releasing the 1,700 jobs he was holding to ransom, trying to intimidate the crossbench to support his education package—we know that the Abbott government did try very hard, up until around lunchtime, to shamelessly threaten to destroy the future of scientific research in Australia unless it got its plans for its $100,000 university degrees through this Senate. That is no way to govern. That is certainly no way to negotiate with the crossbench.

How absolutely absurd—for a minister of the crown to approach his portfolio with intimidation, with blackmail! It is absolutely ridiculous. That is why Labor will vote against these cuts to university funding and student support. Labor will not support a system of higher fees, bigger student debt, reduced access and greater inequality; because that is exactly what Minister Pyne's package is all about. We will never tell Australia that the quality of their education depends on their capacity to pay. That is not the Australia we live in. That is not the ethos of a fair go that we know Australia to stand for. And that is why Labor will not support this package.

When Christopher Pyne threatens to cut research if he does not get his way—when he has a tantrum, as he does—Australians do not think: 'Gee, that's a good idea! What a good idea! Let's cut scientific research by 1,700 jobs!' No. They become even angrier; their representatives are standing up against the broken promises; they are being subjected to threats and blackmail. This is not something that the Abbott government took to the people. This is something again that has been thrown on the people of Australia, thrown on the crossbench, with intimidation and threat. As I said, that is no way to govern for this country.

Labor's position remains very clear. Since the budget we have seen that it is not only Labor that opposes the government's unfair, short-sighted higher education package; it is the broader Australian public. I think the biggest summation of this kind of charade that has gone on with Christopher Pyne over this last month really comes back to that open letter from the National Research Alliance to the Prime Minister about 'Australia's national public research infrastructure preparing for shutdown', as it is titled. A number of those national researchers, a number of those scientific researchers, come from my home state in Tasmania. IMOS, for example, is a recipient of the NCRIS and would be deeply affected by the cuts that Christopher Pyne threatened the crossbench with.

I stand with Labor and oppose this bill. (Time expired)

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Before I call on Senator Ryan, I remind all senators that when referring to those in the other place, they should use their official titles, s'il vous plait.

4:41 pm

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (Victoria, Liberal Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education and Training) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Acting Deputy President, your French is marginally better than mine.

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (Victoria, Liberal Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education and Training) Share this | | Hansard source

Developments today where the minister ensured that this important national infrastructure—NCRIS, as it is known—is going to continue for another year, after Labor left it unfunded, actually make a number of the pre-prepared speeches of those opposite rather irrelevant.

Underlying this, is a much more important issue. Underlying this, there is a truth that every dollar of public expenditure actually has to come from somewhere. It has to come from taxes or it has to come from borrowings. There is no magic money tree growing in the middle of Parliament House, despite what some may think, that ensures we can fund any and all projects that we desire. Indeed, there are many more worthy projects than any government ever has the resources to directly fund.

Every dollar has to come from either taxes or borrowings. Every dollar will eventually have to be covered by taxpayers. It either gets covered by taxpayers now, through paying tax on a weekly, monthly, quarterly or annual basis, or it gets paid by taxpayers in the future, with the additional burden of interest, which seems to have been the budgeting approach of the Greens. We know for a fact it was the budgeting approach of the previous government.

This is actually at the very core of this debate. Bert Kelly called it a trade-off. In modern budget parlance, it is referred to as an offset. In an era where we have a record deficit inherited from those opposite, in an era where the amount of money that is being borrowed not only to fund the operations of government but to actually pay the interest on previous handouts and waste and operations of government, we cannot simply keep adding to the public burden. We cannot continually say we will borrow more or, mythically, we will keep taxing more and more.

In a small business, if you want to invest in one part of your business, you are not going to have the money to invest in another part, or in some cases maybe you are not going to have the money to even take the family holiday. Every household knows that buying the new car might mean putting off the holiday. In more basic sacrifices, paying the school fees might mean you do not have as much discretionary income somewhere else. This basic concept is something that is utterly lost on those opposite. They offend the Australian people when they pretend that no sacrifice is necessary and that the money can come from anywhere they wish.

The ALP and the Greens like to pretend that no sacrifice is necessary to actually designate someone receiving public funds. In this sense, both of them are in a competition for the arrogant status vote, the idea of everything worthy must be undertaken by the public sector. There is some fantastic support for research and higher education in this country that comes from the non-government sector. Government plays a critical role, and I will speak about this government and the coalition's record about that later on. This idea that everything that is worthy must be funded by the taxpayer, particularly when we are in an unsustainable deficit situation, does no service to the importance of the projects that they talk about.

The ALP and the Greens are competing in the championship of the politics of grievance or for the trophy for magic pudding economics! Both of them refuse to outline where the resources for important projects come from. The refusal of the ALP to provide ongoing funding for NCRIS illustrates the hollowness of their commitment and the hollowness of their words as they read out their speeches in this chamber. The truth is that expressions of commitment and support, without outlining the source of the revenue—where this will come from and how it will be paid for in the longer term—are meaningless. Labor's commitment to this program, or lack of it, was shown when we came to office: there were less than two years of funding for NCRIS left in the budget. There were more than two years of NCRIS unfunded by those opposite. There were crocodile tears and magic-pudding economics. They could print a bumper sticker saying: 'I care about researchers in Australia, I think research in Australia is critical, I think all of these institutions are critical; but when I was in office I did nothing to ensure they had ongoing funding.' They did nothing whatsoever.

Senator Wright interjecting

Senator Polley interjecting

Senator McKenzie interjecting

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Ryan, I ask you to resume your seat. Ladies, please.

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

We are senators.

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (Victoria, Liberal Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education and Training) Share this | | Hansard source

True commitment to important programs like NCRIS and proof that these are not crocodile tears would have been illustrated by different behaviour when they were in government, and everyone in the sector knows it.

There is a review going on of our national research infrastructure at the moment, which is one of the reasons this funding has been extended for one year. That review is universally supported by the research sector—universally supported. The problem we have, again, is dealing with difficult budget situations because no-one on the other side of the chamber is willing to outline how all these worthy national projects can be funded. We will hear about the mythical magic pudding of multinational tax avoidance. It is important to tackle, but it will not address the unsustainable budget deficit we inherited from those opposite. At its core it is about playing the politics of grievance and avoiding the difficult decisions necessary. Whether in a household, a small business, in a big business or in the public sector, 'A dollar I spend here is not a dollar I can spend elsewhere.' There is an opportunity cost to everything. There is a trade-off to everything.

The challenge we on this side of the chamber have is that we must clean up the mess left by those opposite. Today, part of the mess in our research infrastructure was addressed by the minister when he made the announcement to guarantee an extra year's funding—a year of funding that, despite all the bleating from those opposite, was never provided for by them when they were in government.

I have visited some of the NCRIS facilities. They are fantastic. Every Australian knows about the high quality of the Australian research sector. While not trained in it, I did do a bit of work with people in health and medical research, and they are genuinely world leading. But they know that those opposite had a chance to fund this infrastructure on an ongoing basis. They know that the program was started by the Howard government. They know that those opposite did not do anything to make it a permanent program, nothing whatsoever. I am half-tempted to get all the great minds of NCRIS—the mathematicians, the biologists, those who use the fancy electron microscopes that I have seen but would never know how to use—to try and figure out if they can find the goose that lays the golden egg that those opposite seem to think we have locked somewhere in this building that can continually keep producing the resources we need to pay off our debt, to pay the interest bill and to fund worthy national programs!

You do not care about worthy national programs if you do not make the budget sustainable. You do not care about research and you do not care about our scientific infrastructure if you put the budget in a position where research is unfunded and the budget is unsustainable. Today the government addressed yet another mess left by Labor. Labor's words, as well as those of the Greens, are nothing but crocodile tears, given their performance in government, when they hatched all their secret deals.

4:49 pm

Photo of Nick XenophonNick Xenophon (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

My time on this is short; I will stick to the motion. I think it is fair to say that what the minister said yesterday on Insiders really was most unfortunate. Linking the 1,700 jobs of scientists, linking the NCRIS to the higher education changes proposed by the government which are currently evolving further, was not a good thing to do. They are distinct issues. It was wrong to do so. I was very grateful that Senator Cory Bernardi was critical of linking the two together. I dare say that his intervention as a member of the coalition probably had some real sway in the government seeing sense enough to say, 'No, we need to keep funding NCRIS and not link it to the higher education changes,' because it is a stand-alone matter.

Senator Ryan made the point about NCRIS that its importance cannot be understated. It has led to collaboration with industry and it has led to innovation. It has created jobs and high-tech industries. Catherine Livingstone, a senior business leader in this nation, was very keen to ensure that NCRIS funding continued. It will do so for another 12 months from 1 July. That, of course, is welcomed. I see that as a bridge, pending the outcome of the review by Philip Clark into NCRIS. I understand that a final report by Mr Clark is due to be tabled sometime in September. That gives us time. It allows the report to be a bridge for long-term funding of NCRIS because this fund provides the backbone of research infrastructure in this nation. When you consider the cost is something like two per cent of the $9 billion of government investment in science research and innovation each year, it is a very small amount; but it carries an enormous punch in terms of scientific research and innovation, collaboration with industry and, of course, our university sectors.

Our international reputation would have been seriously damaged if funding had ceased. NCRIS facilities are part of an international network, and users come from over 28 countries. If you shut down a facility, it is very hard to start it up again without enormous cost. The potential for this causing great damage to our scientific community and to our research facilities would have been enormous. So I am looking forward to the Philip Clark review. I understand that Mr Clark has undertaken a very comprehensive review, and congratulations to the government for appointing Mr Clark to do that. But, if we want to be the clever country, we need to make sure that we have this funding on a long-term basis, not year by year, not piecemeal. It needs to be on a long-term basis so that we can truly be the clever country for the 21st century.

4:52 pm

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

I would like to speak on this matter of public importance. I think it is so interesting to hear those on the opposite side trying to deflect the debate away from the real issue, and that is the attack on education, and higher education particularly, in this country by this government. We have seen this government's relentless and constant moves to deregulate Australian universities, to increase student fees and in turn to create an endless cycle of debt and inequity for the children of this country. The Prime Minister's election commitment was that there would be no cuts to education, but we now know that this statement could not be further from the truth. This government has been built on lies and untruths.

The Minister for Education, Mr Pyne, has announced that the higher education bill will be split, but this, to me and to my colleagues, is nothing more than an act of desperation. The government continue to push forward with their policy of fee deregulation and reform, representing a fundamental attack on the future of education in our great country. Degrees will still cost $100,000, and 20 per cent will be cut from the funding. This will still have a devastating impact on the higher education sector.

But I can assure those opposite and those that are listening to the debate that Labor will stand firm against any cuts to university funding and student support. Labor will fight for the survival of Australia's education system. This government wants education to become exclusive. We will find ourselves in a situation similar to the United States, where only the rich can afford a university education and people on a lower or middle income are unable to improve their circumstances. That is what those on the other side are proposing. That is their proposition. This will be devastating to many communities around the country, but none more so than my home state of Tasmania, where people cannot afford the $100,000 degrees. They cannot afford the cost that this government will bring down on them. This government will destroy a proud tradition that this country has: an internationally recognised education system. Under this government, that is indeed under threat.

The cuts that this government wishes to implement vary across the disciplines, coming into effect in 2016. They are arbitrary. Vital areas of study will feel the wrath of the Liberal government's cuts. These are vital areas to the community and to our economy, such as engineering and science, nursing, education, agriculture and environmental studies. These are the people that treat our sick. These are the people that are building our roads. These are the people that are teaching our children. These are the people that are feeding our families. These are the people that are saving our environment. These are the people that are being punished by this government for wanting to make a valuable contribution to our society, unlike the Liberal government.

Those opposite come in here, and they want to rewrite history. Of course they have to blame the opposition, because who else are they going to blame? We know that those on the other side at the moment are in absolute chaos. We know that they are doing somersaults and backflips. Anyone would think the circus was in town, instead of in Launceston, for the children's entertainment.

We know that those opposite want to have a two-tiered system that goes beyond our economy. They want it to go across education, and they want to deny access to those who cannot afford to pay $100,000 for their degrees. They want an education based on the American system, where those who have a big enough credit card can go on to university.

Not only that, but it was this government and this minister who today did a backflip. He was trying to hold 1,700 research jobs to try and persuade the crossbench and those in this place to support this outrageous attack on higher education. This is a government that cannot be trusted. The Prime Minister, prior to the federal election, said there would be no cuts to education; there would be no cuts to health; and there would be no changes to pensions, and what have we seen? Backflips and lies. This government has been built on lies, untruths and broken commitments. You cannot even call them broken promises. Even Mr Abbott himself said that unless it is written down you cannot believe it. But, as we know, even the brochures the now government took to the last election, which said there would be no cuts to education, cannot be trusted. This is a man who is at the head of this country, the Prime Minister of this country, who is only governing to save his own position.

This government is firmly committed to attacking the education system of this country. But Labor will not support a system of higher fees, bigger student debts, reduced access and greater inequality. Labor will never tell Australians that the quality of their children's education depends on their capacity to pay. This is Labor's clear position. This is one of the very reasons I joined the Labor Party and aspired to be a spokesperson for the values that we believe in on this side. We will stand firm with the community against any further cuts. We do not want an American-style education system. We cannot afford to go down that path. We believe—unlike those opposite—that all Australians are equal and that your credit cards should not dictate whether you can access good-quality education and good-quality health. That is the difference between those on that side of the chamber and us.

The people of Australia recognise this. They recognise the motivations of this government. They too have said no. They will not support this, and they do not want those on the crossbenches or on this side of the chamber to fall in line and follow the push by this government to tear down the higher education system of this country. Those on that side can backflip; they can juggle; they can tell lies; they can do their backflips, but there is one thing that they cannot do, and that is that they will not fool the Australian people, because they know that Tony Abbott is only interested in saving his own job. It does not matter whether it is Tony Abbott, it is Julie Bishop or it is Malcolm Turnbull; you cannot change the DNA of the Liberals, and that is that they are against universal education in this country. (Time expired)

4:59 pm

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It does not matter whether it is Senator Polley, Senator Carr or Senator Urquhart; the Labor Party's approach to funding real higher education reform in this country is the same. Since Julia Gillard left the prime min—oh, sorry; she did not leave. She was thrown out, stabbed in the back by her own party. I apologise, Mr Acting Deputy President. Unlike the opposition, I will get my facts straight. Former Prime Minister Gillard reformed our higher education system to the point that people who previously had been locked out now, under a demand-driven system, were able to access higher education. Unfortunately, the Labor Party forgot to budget for it. Increased demand in a demand-driven system saw escalating costs. Our side of politics wants to see that enfranchisement of rural and regional students and low-socioeconomic students absolutely maintained, and that is why this minister and our reforms, at their very heart, have been about ensuring that those who have been locked out are able to be maintained within the higher education system, because we will actually ensure it is financially sustainable.

Senator Polley made a really interesting remark about credit cards. I think that, if you look at the way the Labor Party approaches budgeting, it is a little like the credit card. Senator Polley or the former education ministers will go out and put the new dress on the credit card. Senator Carr might go out and have a very nice meal and some wine and put it on the credit card. But at some point, Senator Carr, that credit card statement is going to come in, and what are you going to do? Not pay the mortgage that week? Not pay the kids' school fees? What are you going to do? You have to live within your means, Senator Carr. You have to have a higher education system that is actually financially sustainable.

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator McKenzie, please direct your comments through the chair.

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Through you, Mr Acting Deputy President.

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you.

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I just want to make some brief comments in the sight of Labor's appalling scare campaign, which just continues. The vacuum that exists around this policy area from those opposite is astounding when the former Prime Minister took such a passion to this area and continued Labor's great tradition of reform, which includes bringing in the HECS system. I took to the streets then too, Senator Carr. I was the first cab off the rank that year when HECS was brought in. We took to the streets, but do you know what? What I thought was bad policy at 18 or 19 I now realise meant that a lot of my friends who could not afford to go to university or who did not go to grammar school could actually access higher education through the Chapman designed HECS system. It is that system and that enfranchisement that we are seeking to continue.

In terms of this side's commitment to research and to scientific endeavour and how it underpins not only our economic development and future, Senator Carr, but our social and environmental future, it was the National Party that actually set up the CSIRO—I bet you did not know that, Senator Carr—and it was the Howard government that funded the NCRIS system and set it up with $542 million over seven years, Senator Carr, in our Backing Australia's Ability package.

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator McKenzie, I just remind you to direct your comments through the chair.

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I do apologise, Mr Acting Deputy President.

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you.

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

But it was the Howard government—$542 million over seven years. If only—through you, Chair—the former government had had such a forward-looking commitment to research in this country, we would not be here, because Senator Carr and all the other ministers that had charge of this particular area would have ensured over the forward estimates that it was funded. I tell you what: $542 million in today's money would not have been a bad start. But you did not do it, just as you did not actually provide enough funding in your forward estimates for the demand-driven funding system.

So here we are. We have been elected to fix the mess. The Commission of Audit backs our research commitment. I notice that in the gallery today we have the mountain cattlemen from Victoria, who will be speaking at another engagement this evening. They too back using scientific method to ensure that their impact is accurately assessed. Those of us who understand science know that the answer you get is all about the hypothesis that you propose. I would argue that maybe we have not, as a scientific community, investigated the positive impact that grazing cattle has on our environment, nor have we appropriately assessed the economic and social benefits. But we will leave that to another day.

I am absolutely sick and tired of the scare campaign, Senator Carr. Here we are. We are saying that we did not know that funding the NCRIS program was linked to our higher education reforms. Senator Carr, I do not know how many times you can ask a question in this place—

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator McKenzie.

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

through you, Chair—and be told an answer. You are given an answer every time. In fact, Senator Payne gives you very good answers when you ask questions on this issue, Senator Carr, time and time again. On 11 June 2014, questions were asked and she outlined that you did not set the money aside. We have addressed these funding cliffs in the budget. You did not like the answer, but you got it anyway. You have to listen, Senator Carr, when ministers stand up—through you, Chair—and actually seek to address your issues. For you to disrespect those ministers by not actually listening to them, I think, is the height of derelict shadow ministerialism.

But here we are, thanks to our commitment to research, as I have outlined, over a long period of time. We are not going to let your scare campaign get in the way of a policy that is going to mean more low-socioeconomic students and more rural and regional students get to uni. We are prepared to back ourselves.

5:07 pm

Photo of Glenn LazarusGlenn Lazarus (Queensland, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to talk about this very important matter of public importance and to say that I am opposed to the Abbott government's higher education measures. I should note the latest backflip on cuts to R&D jobs and movement of the 20 per cent cut in funding to a future bill typifies the dysfunctional way in which the Abbott government is operating.

I have consulted widely with stakeholders across the higher education sector. The feedback has been unanimous: universities want funding increased, not cut. If the higher education measures bill is introduced into the Senate this sitting, Australia can be assured I will be voting it down. The Abbott government's higher education measures are not about anything other than budget cuts. Deregulation will give the Abbott government the green light to cut funding to the sector. Universities will be forced to increase the price of degrees in order to meet operating costs. The latest backflip is simply an attempt to delay the cuts slightly, but rest assured: if the deregulation gets through, the cuts to the higher education sector will come.

In addition, the recent proposal put forward to tax universities if they increase fees too much—which essentially involves regulation of deregulation of regulation—is just plain silly and demonstrates how desperate the Abbott government is.

I have made my position clear. I do not support the Abbott government's higher education measures. Deregulation will significantly change the higher education funding system in Australia and push degrees beyond the reach of most Australians. Such a significant structural change to the higher education system will have far-reaching and negative consequences for our country. Once the deregulation switch is turned on, it will be impossible to turn it back. Australia will be well on its way to an Americanised system where only the wealthy get ahead and the poor are laden with debt or simply left behind. I do not support the measures. I will continue to vote against the measures whether they are in one bill or in many.

The future of our country depends on our ability to innovate, create and lead in the areas of scientific and medical breakthroughs. The world will pay for these advancements and initiatives. We cannot compete against countries in Asia with lower production costs, so we need to lead in other areas. This requires a commitment to higher education and the development and advancement of our people.

All successful societies prosper through investment in education. Clever countries succeed. The Abbott government's higher education measures will only send Australia backwards. We will become the dumb country. I represent the people of Queensland, and the people of Queensland do not want these cuts to higher education. I am not prepared to horse trade. I cannot and will not support any measures which discourages Australians from wanting to better themselves through higher education.

Debate interrupted.