Senate debates

Tuesday, 9 May 2023


Consideration of Legislation

12:13 pm

Photo of Mehreen FaruqiMehreen Faruqi (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I seek leave to move a motion to provide for the consideration of the Education and Other Legislation Amendment (Abolishing Indexation and Raising the Minimum Repayment Income for Education and Training Loans) Bill 2022.

Leave not granted.

Pursuant to contingent notice standing in the name of the Leader of the Australian Greens in the Senate, I move:

That so much of the standing orders be suspended as would prevent me moving a motion relating to the conduct of business, namely a motion to provide for the consideration of the Education and Other Legislation Amendment (Abolishing Indexation and Raising the Minimum Repayment Income for Education and Training Loans) Bill 2022.

More than three million Australians will see their student debts swell by a staggering 7.1 per cent on 1 June, and 1 June is approaching fast. The clock is ticking. This parliament needs to act, and it needs to act now.

This matter is urgent because in a few short weeks people with an average debt of $24,000 will be hit with a $1,700 increase to their debt. For more than half a million people with debts of around $40,000 their debts will go up by $2,840, and it will be much higher for others. What's about to hit is nothing short of a student debt avalanche, and this is on top of the 3.9 per cent increase last June. The government know the avalanche is coming and know it will hit young people, women and those on lower incomes the hardest, yet they are doing absolutely nothing about it in the budget tonight, and the Greens won't let them get away with doing nothing. People deserve better than to be caught up in a student debt spiral that is out of control. That's why I'm seeking to have the Greens bill, which would abolish indexation and raise minimum repayment income to the median wage, brought on for consideration right now.

We can't wait any longer. The clock is ticking. People right now are struggling with the cost of living as it rages on. People right now are living in poverty. They are having to choose between heating and eating, between buying medicine or buying a train ticket, between paying rent or paying back their ballooning study debt. Their study debts are rising faster than they can pay them off. Something needs to be done, and it needs to be done right now. Students were out there in force today in a rally outside parliament demanding action. Some of them are in here right now. I applaud your activism and your courage to fight for the right thing.

We have the opportunity to act on student debt before indexation hits on 1 June, and this bill is a clear and immediate step to start tackling the student debt crisis while providing cost-of-living relief as we work towards wiping all student debt and making lifelong education fee-free for all. This bill immediately halts indexation of all study loans, effectively freezing debt levels and saving 3.2 million Australians from being hit by a deeply unfair 7.1 per cent rise in student debt. The bill lifts the current minimum repayment threshold of $48,361 to the median wage, which is $65,000. No-one with a study debt will have to repay a cent of that debt until they're earning above the median wage.

The system that asks people to start paying off student debt, which is unfair from the start, when they earn barely above minimum wage is a cruel, unfair and deeply cooked system. These measures are desperately and urgently needed to bring some fairness to this broken student loan system and to provide relief to millions of Australians struggling under the weight of ballooning student debt. Soaring student debt is already locking people out of the housing market and making it harder for them to get personal loans. It's crushing their dreams of further study and causing people to rethink starting a family. It is causing young people enormous financial and mental stress.

The growing burden of student debt is having an enormous impact every day on people's lives. It is actually making news every day. At a Senate committee inquiry, overwhelming evidence was heard of why student debt should be frozen, indexation scrapped and the minimum repayment income raised, and young people, students, graduates, women and unions all said that these measures should be taken, yet Labor refused to accept that evidence. Today we can choose to make life easier for millions of people, and senators today can actually show people that they care about changing a deeply unfair system, not just talk about it. Talk is cheap; action is what we need. Or, otherwise, they can be held accountable for their actions.

If the Labor government can afford to splurge hundreds of billions of dollars on war machines and stage 3 tax cuts for the billionaires, then these modest measures can surely be affordable. We need action on student debt, and we need that action urgently. So I urge the Senate to listen to the loud and desperate calls of the community, of students and of young people and support the motion so we can make a decision in the interests of the people we serve, not corporations and billionaires.

12:19 pm

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Foreign Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to respond to this because I want to put some facts on the table about what is actually driving this. The Greens are moving this motion, a procedural motion to up-end the Senate's procedures, so that they can continue with blocking billions of dollars being invested into Australian housing. That is why they are doing this. They've had this private senators' bill in this parliament since November. They have chosen not to bring it on for debate at the appropriate time. They've chosen this. They had times when they could have debated this bill if they cared about it so much, but no—they want to use it as cover for not debating a $10 billion investment in Australian housing. They are trying to continue to block more investment in affordable housing in this country, and this is cover for it.

The government wants to debate the housing bill. We want to debate the housing bill because (a) it was an election commitment and (b) we actually want more affordable housing in this country. But we have the Greens and the Liberals teaming up to oppose more investment in housing. Who would have thought the Greens party would be lining up with the Liberals to oppose more investment in housing? We on this side of the chamber know too many Australians hit by growing rents, too many Australians struggling to buy a home and too many Australians experiencing homelessness.

Their solution is to block investment in supply. That's their solution: 'Let's not add to supply.' That's because they want a political stunt. It is so cynical. It is so cynical to pretend you care about people who are struggling with rent and struggling with homelessness and then turn up and vote with the Tories against more investment in housing.

Photo of Paul ScarrPaul Scarr (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

We're not in London!

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Foreign Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

Sorry, we are not in London. They vote with the coalition—with the Liberals and the Nationals—against public investment in housing.

Let me say this. This government understands what is happening in housing in this country and the way in which it is turning, frankly, into an intergenerational disadvantage. It is turning into an intergenerational injustice. It is. That is why, after 10 years of inaction by those on that side, we have $575 million from the National Housing Infrastructure Facility, with houses already under construction and a housing accord with the states.

They don't like it, do they? You can keep pointing and yelling, but everybody knows you are fighting against money for housing. That's what you're doing, Senator Shoebridge, and no amount of yelling is going to distract from the fact you are voting with the Liberals against more investment in affordable housing.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Wong, please resume your seat. Senator Hanson-Young, on a point of order?

Photo of Sarah Hanson-YoungSarah Hanson-Young (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I would just like to remind the minister to speak through the chair and not to individual senators.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Senator Hanson-Young. I will also—

Honourable senators interjecting

Order! I will also remind all senators in this chamber that, when Senator Faruqi was on her feet, every single senator in this chamber listened in respectful silence. I expect the same for every other speaker that follows after.

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Foreign Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

One of the ways in which the federal government, particularly after 10 years of inaction by those opposite, can improve access to housing is to work to improve supply, and that is what we are seeking to do with $575 million from the National Housing Infrastructure Facility, a housing accord which includes federal funding to deliver 10,000 affordable homes; the Regional First Home Buyer Guarantee, which is helping thousands of Australians into homeownership; a budget which will deliver billions of dollars; $2 million for financing more social and affordable rental housing through the National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation, and significant expansion of eligibility criteria for the Home Guarantee Scheme, as well as a boost to homelessness funding to states and territories. So the Housing Australia Future Fund is not all we are doing. It is one aspect of a multipronged plan and substantial investment to try to deal with this. We actually understand that the Commonwealth can do more to put more supply on the table, and that will have an effect on affordability.

I have watched over the years the Greens and the Liberals team up on some things. We watched them previously team up against the carbon price. But this stunt today is to try to give themselves cover for not debating a bill. I mean, really—at least have the courage of your convictions. We keep hearing, 'Oh, they just want to make sure they don't have to vote for it.' If you really believe that this is so bad, if you really think $10 billion of taxpayer funds to provide more housing supply in this country is not worthy, then stand up and have the guts to argue it. But no, what you're trying to do—and I heard Senator McKim today on the radio—is you're trying to find a way to not actually have the argument.

We're for more investment in public, social and affordable housing. You're with the Libs, against it. End of story.

12:25 pm

Photo of Anne RustonAnne Ruston (SA, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Health and Aged Care) Share this | | Hansard source

The coalition will not be supporting this suspension of standing orders because, intrinsically, we believe it is the right of the government of the day to set the legislative agenda for the week, and therefore we will be voting against this. But in doing so I also put on the record that using the procedures and mechanisms of this chamber to try to divert, to delay, just because the government has not been able to reach an agreement with the other party of government that they need in order to get their bill through, is I think also quite an egregious breach of the use of the procedures of this chamber.

This is a government that often works with the Greens and the crossbench to breach conventions that have held this place in such good esteem for many, many decades. It is with pride that we have always come into this chamber and said that it's the processes, the procedures and the conventions that we have all upheld that have made this chamber work the way it has. But in recent times we continue to see that being eroded and eroded and eroded for the convenience of those trying to get through whatever it is that they're trying to shove through without going through those appropriate processes.

There are many examples I could use of how this has happened, whether it be committee referrals that go to the wrong committees, committee referrals that are denied, OPDs that are not answered, or responses that come back into this chamber that show complete and utter contempt for the procedures of this place. We'll probably see over the coming days a number of those OPDs and FOIs that we've received back, but particularly OPDs, where the ministers have just point blank refused to answer a legitimate question that this chamber has asked and has voted on and required the government to return. They're just refusing to do so. We also continue to see legislation that has not even been consulted on, yet they use their numbers in this place to shove it through. We constantly see legislation brought in here that has absolutely no substance to it at all, and apparently we've just got to trust the government, trust the Greens and trust everyone that it's all going to be fine, that everything's going to be contained in subordinate legislation, so we just have to go through on trust.

I think it's time that this place took a very serious look at itself and thought about what its intention really is in terms of doing the most important job that we have here, which is to constantly review everything that comes through this place, instead of doing dirty deals on the side and using the conventions and the mechanisms of this chamber to play games. I fear that, once again, this motion from Senator Faruqi that is before us today is absolutely doing that.

In relation to the argument that's going on between the Greens and the Labor Party around the substance of the bill that they're trying not to debate and the bill that they are now seeking to debate, these are both very important issues that this chamber should be able to have the opportunity to prosecute appropriately. But to come in here and ask us to allow you to bring on for debate a bill whose intention we didn't know anything about, to be debated now, giving us five minutes notice—to expect those in this chamber to make sensible contributions about something as important as making sure that the education and the financial commitments that sit around the education of Australians—is I think the most disrespectful thing that you can do to this chamber.

In summing up, what we're seeing today is disrespect around the way the conventions of the chamber are being used and the reason they're being used around really important, substantive issues that matter so much, particularly to young Australians. But, at the same time, we sit here looking at a government that doesn't seem to mind trashing the conventions that have stood this parliament and this Senate in such good stead since this parliament was first conceived many years ago. It is really quite a travesty that we are now standing here wasting the time of the Senate on cheap stunts.

So I would say to those opposite—all of those opposite, right the way down to the other end of the chamber—why don't we all move back to where we were, where we actually respected the conventions of this place, we respected each other and we respected the right to have a proper process to enable everybody in this place to be able to debate important matters in a respectful and timely way. Can we just stop the stunts and get on with supporting this parliament to deliver the best possible government and alternative government that is possible.

12:30 pm

Photo of Janet RiceJanet Rice (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

There should be no greater priority for legislation being brought to this Senate than legislation which is going to help lift people out of poverty, which is what Senator Faruqi's bill, the Education and Other Legislation Amendment (Abolishing Indexation and Raising the Minimum Repayment Income for Education and Training Loans) Bill 2022, would do. That's why it is urgent. That's why we should be debating it now, on budget day, particularly given that, on budget day, we have heard all the rumours that there are going to be so many people left behind—students, young people, people with disabilities, people who deserve to be not living in poverty. They are going to be left behind by the budget that the Labor government will bring down tonight. This government is not going to take the action that is needed to allow people to live a dignified life with the income that they need in order to not live in poverty.

I am absolutely proud to be here as part of a Greens team that wants to prioritise debating a bill that is going to freeze and abolish indexation on student debt rather than a piece of housing legislation that is totally inadequate to tackle the scale of the crisis. It is totally inappropriate that we should be debating the government's pathetic housing bill today, because it is just not up to the job. We have a housing crisis in Australia. We have a rent crisis. We have skyrocketing rents. The very same young people whose financial circumstances Senator Faruqi is trying address with her bill are looking at a future of never being able to afford to buy a home, of actually not even being able to afford to rent a home. We have young people who are living on the streets, young people who are couch surfing, young people who are living in cars, young people who are having to abandon their studies so that they can work in low-income jobs to be able to pay the rent, having decided that they cannot afford to keep studying. We are absolutely destroying the lives of the young people whose circumstances Senator Faruqi, with her bill, is trying to do something to improve.

The housing legislation that the government is trying to bring on for debate today is absolutely inadequate. It's not going to guarantee that any money gets spent. It's basically gambling that $10 billion of money on the stock market, if we had had the same conditions last year going forward. The only guarantee that the government has given is that there are going to be at least 1,200 homes that will be built. That means that 240 houses will be built in Victoria—1,200 homes over the forwards and 240 houses a year. In New South Wales all that we would be guaranteed is 240 houses a year. Think of the tens of thousands of people. Look at the public housing waiting lists that are decades long. Yet this is what the government thinks is adequate.

The Greens want the government to come back to the negotiating table and get serious, to propose legislation that actually tackles the scale of the crisis. Meanwhile, if they are not willing to do that, we will continue to ramp up the pressure to get them to come back to the negotiating table so that they can deliver some legislation that is actually going to tackle the scale of the housing crisis.

Meanwhile, we think that Senator Faruqi's bill is a much more appropriate bill to be debating today because Senator Faruqi has introduced a bill that would make a meaningful difference to students' lives. We are very disappointed that the Labor Party don't see that they can support the bill. It would help alleviate the financial stress and the hardship that is being faced by those people living below the poverty line. The students who are in the gallery today know what I'm talking about. They would have listened to Senator Wong's contribution and asked: Why does Senator Wong, why does the Labor Party, hate young people, hate students? It is time for the government to take some responsibility for the student debt crisis and support students in their education for a brighter future.

As Greens, we are committed to supporting young people for a fairer, better future. Student debt is a significant problem in Australia that affects the lives of millions of people, particularly those living on income support. Those living in poverty, way below the poverty line, are always trying to cope with the threat of being evicted from their houses. They are the people who absolutely need to have measures taken to improve their lives. That is what the Greens are trying to do, and we will defend our right to try to bring on legislation to do that.

12:35 pm

Photo of Anthony ChisholmAnthony Chisholm (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Education) Share this | | Hansard source

The Greens really, really want to avoid debate on the housing bill, don't they? It is pretty clear this morning that stunt after stunt, delay after delay, they want to avoid debate on the housing bill and they will come in here and play any trick in the book. We saw it over the last month in the type of language that they're using. We heard the language from Senator Rice just then as well. They are outrageous claims that Senator Rice is making about what the Greens are actually signing up to.

The Greens had months to introduce the bill and debate the bill that they are trying to bring on today. They introduced it in November. It has been sitting on the Notice Paper since November. They have had it there waiting for a stunt. It wasn't something they were committed to. They could have used private members' bills when they had the opportunity yet they haven't. They are trying to use the difficult circumstances that many students face as a pawn in this debate. It is an important issue that needs to be addressed, but so is housing. This is what the government promised in the election campaign, and we actually intend on delivering it in government in order to earn the respect and support of the Australian people by being a government that says it will do something, introduces legislation and then gets on with doing it.

But in the last month we have learned a fair bit about the Greens. Their stunt today is evidence of a lack of confidence in their housing spokesperson, because he says a lot, he talks a lot and, the more he talks, the more mistakes he makes. It is a real fact that they don't want to have the debate because they have a lack of confidence in their position on this policy. So what have we learned over the last couple of months? The Greens are obviously very nervous about the strategy they have taken. They are having second thoughts, hopefully, about opposing this bill, because it will make such a significant difference. They are not listening to the peak bodies that are supporting our policy, because they will know it will make a difference. They are not supportive; they are not listening to those peak bodies.

In the last month, we have seen the Greens' housing spokesperson opposing new developments in his own electorate. There he is, proudly standing with the sign saying: 'No, I oppose this development.' The Greens say we need more housing, yet in their own electorates they are opposing new housing developments. It is classic Greens' hypocrisy, and we're seeing it play out in the national parliament now they have some of these former student politicians elected who haven't graduated beyond student politics. That is still the way they are carrying out. This is a much too important issue to let student politicians loose who haven't graduated.

Housing is a serious challenge in this country. In the capital cities and in regional Australia, it is something that needs urgent government attention. That is why Labor took the $10 billion fund, talked about it before the election campaign, took it to the election and won a majority; it was on the back of policies like that. That is why we are going around trying to implement it, because we know it will make a difference for those people who need it the most. Yet it is so unfortunate that the Greens have been led down this path and cannot see the opportunity that it presents us.

For the first time in a decade, we have a national government that is providing national leadership on housing. Housing ministers around the country are meeting for the first time. We are working with local governments. Senator Wong spoke about some of the other policies that we are putting in place around housing as well, because we know that this is important. We know that so many people around the country need government support and need that national leadership that we are providing.

By opposing this, this is what the Greens are standing in the way of: the $10 billion Housing Australia Future Fund that will deliver 30,000 new social and affordable homes. They are delaying homes for people in need, homes for women and children fleeing domestic violence, homes for older women and veterans who are at risk of homelessness. They are the real people that are relying on the Housing Australia Future Fund. Once again the Greens are showing that they're happy to put politics first. They're happy to play silly games and play people against each other when there is a real need for us to pass this housing bill now so that we can be a federal government that gets on with the job of delivering affordable housing for those that need it. That's what this government wants to achieve. That's what we are determined to deliver on in government.

12:40 pm

Photo of Malcolm RobertsMalcolm Roberts (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The Greens want to talk about cancelling HECS debt. Well, let's talk about the HECS debt of students who started their degrees and then were forced to abandon them because of COVID-19 vaccine mandates. Any student who started studying their degree at university before COVID-19 arrived and subsequently was forced to abandon their studies because of an inhumane COVID-19 injection mandate, whether the mandate was at the university or at a placement that they were required to undertake as part of their degree, should have that HECS debt immediately cancelled. When they signed up to their multi-year degrees, there was no requirement for them to take an untested, experimental, gene therapy based injection.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Roberts, if you could resume your seat for a moment. The substance of your response needs to focus on the motion put forward by Senator Faruqi, which is to suspend business to debate the bill the Greens want to put forward, so you do need to respond to why you agree or disagree or make other comments around the urgency of that suspension motion.

Photo of Malcolm RobertsMalcolm Roberts (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you. I'm getting to that point right now. Halfway through their degrees, that rule was changed on them, and they had no say over it. Their debt should be cancelled immediately. That's why One Nation will be opposing this motion to suspend standing orders: we want a proper debate. We want a royal commission. We want it dealt with properly so that students who have been kicked out of university, stopped their studies or stopped their placement get a fair say and have their HECS debt cancelled.

12:42 pm

Photo of Tim AyresTim Ayres (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Trade) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Rice said 'for all the students in the gallery.' The students in the gallery left a minute after you lot were on your feet, because they could see what a miserable, pathetic stunt this all really was. The Greens party we get to see here, with stunt after stunt—

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Ayres, please resume your seat. Senator Shoebridge.

Photo of David ShoebridgeDavid Shoebridge (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

My point of order is that the member should direct the contribution through the chair and not point and gesticulate at the Greens in the manner in which he is behaving.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Senator Shoebridge. Senator Ayres did not refer in particular to any senator, but I will remind him that pointing at senators is inappropriate.

Photo of Tim AyresTim Ayres (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Trade) Share this | | Hansard source

What a useful contribution that was! I don't want to point to them, but I do want to point out that this is where the students of Australia get to see the real colours of the Greens party. What is this really about? Is it about some of the affordability and other challenges that people face in the higher education sector? Not for a minute is it about any of those things. The government's got a process examining the real issues that sit there in higher education with affordability for students, but what is this really about—apart from some glib, US-style sloganeering about cancelling debt and all the other derivative nonsense that this group of characters carries on about?

They are asking the Senate to choose between two things this week. Are we dealing with the HELP related issues or are we dealing with homelessness? Are we going to deal with a scheme that they think should be abolished, in their world, that means that students make a contribution when they earn enough or are we going to deal with people who are sleeping under bridges? This lot over here want to carry on with some student Trotskyite approach. They are trying to play chicken with the legislative process in this place, but what they don't want—

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Senator Ayres. The time for this debate has expired.

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

The question is that the motion moved by Senator Faruqi be agreed to.