Senate debates

Wednesday, 14 June 2023

Matters of Urgency

Cost of Living: Students

4:55 pm

Photo of Matt O'SullivanMatt O'Sullivan (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I inform the Senate that the President has received the following letter from Senator McKim:

Pursuant to standing order 75, I give notice that today the Australian Greens propose to move "That, in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of urgency:

Labor is refusing to support students who are bearing the brunt of this cost-of-living crisis, including from soaring rents, ballooning student debt, woefully low income support payments and unpaid placements, whilst splurging hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts for the wealthy and dangerous nuclear submarines."

Is the proposal supported?

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

With the concurrence of the Senate, the clerks will set the clock in line with the informal arrangements made by the whips.

4:56 pm

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

I move:

That, in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of urgency:

Labor is refusing to support students who are bearing the brunt of this cost-of-living crisis, including from soaring rents, ballooning student debt, woefully low income support payments and unpaid placements, whilst splurging hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts for the wealthy and dangerous nuclear submarines.

It must be depressing and overwhelming to be a student right now. Students are struggling to afford groceries, to pay for medicine or period products, to afford train or bus tickets even, and to pay weekly bills. They are surviving on instant noodles and lining up in queues for free food. Students are struggling to pay rents to keep a roof over their heads. They're facing rent hikes from greedy landlords. International students are pitching tents in lounge rooms and sleeping in bathrooms.

Students are caught in a debt spiral. Labor allowed student debts to rise by an astronomical 7.1 per cent on 1 June, handing down even longer and larger debt sentences to millions of students. This is on top of the 3.9 per cent increase last June and a predicted further 3.9 per cent next year. Student debts will have ballooned by 15 per cent in just two years under the Labor government. The situation gets even worse for students who are required to work for free as part of the degrees they will be paying off for decades. It should be the other way around. Degrees should be free, and students should be paid for the work that they do.

Last week I joined Students Against Placement Poverty to launch their campaign against yet another unfair and unjust aspect of our education system: unpaid placements. Hundreds of thousands of students are working countless hours without pay or compensation. Work placements are especially common in feminised fields of study, and this further entrenches gender inequality. One student spoke, through tears, about completing a placement in a hospital and needing to work seven days a week just to afford to live each day, saying, 'You can't process anything when you have to work seven days a week. How do you learn and how do you get better?' Students are being pushed to the limit, going months without a day off. They finish their placements at 5 pm and go straight to paid shifts at the pub or the grocery store. Students are choosing between putting petrol in the car to get to a placement and putting food in their stomachs. Inflation is increasing because of corporate profiteering, and it's students who are suffering. Students are working multiple jobs and cutting back on necessities but still barely scraping by.

It's an absolute travesty that a Labor government is allowing this to go on. How is it that senior executives and CEOs of some of Australia's largest listed companies are pocketing 14 and 15 per cent average pay rises when so many students can barely stay afloat? It is absolutely atrocious and outrageous. Young people's futures are being stolen from them. Yet whenever someone points out to the government how bad things are for students, Labor's response is to either defend the current system, which is clearly cooked, or deflect to the universities a court process—a process that could take years to implement.

This is not good enough. Something needs to be done right now, and the government has the power to do it. An education system that pushes students further into inequality is a completely broken one, and a welfare system that doesn't lift people above the poverty line is an utterly cruel one. Labor knows students are struggling now. To say anything different shows how out of touch with reality they are. Labor could lower the age of independence for youth allowance from 22 to 18 and raise all student social security payments to above the poverty line, to at least $88 per day. Labor could take meaningful action for renters by freezing rent hikes. They could wipe student debt, pay students a living wage for placements, and make university and TAFE free.

There is absolutely no doubt that we can afford these measures. It's just a matter of priorities. Labor has made the terrible choice to give $313 billion in tax cuts to the wealthiest and $368 billion for dangerous war machines, while supporting struggling students and those doing it toughest is apparently too costly. Despite the hardship that students are facing, their courage to speak up, to organise and to mobilise to turn things around has not diminished. They are rallying in the streets. They are bravely telling their powerful stories. They are building a powerful movement for change.

So, thank you to all the students for being such staunch activists and showing grit in the face of the such difficult circumstances that they face. The fight goes on.

5:01 pm

Photo of Sarah HendersonSarah Henderson (Victoria, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Education) Share this | | Hansard source

There is no doubt that students across this country are hurting, and they are hurting because of the cost-of-living crisis caused by the Albanese government. As the opposition leader has told the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, the one issue that Australians are raising with us again and again is the cost of living. Inflation has lifted from 6.3 per cent to 6.8 per cent. We know that interest rate rise after interest rate rise is impacting on the cost of mortgages, rents and groceries, and of course there is the hideous broken promise: $275 a year, Labor promised 97 times before the election. That's how much Labor said Australians' electricity bills would be reduced by, and what a laughing stock this government is.

We have never seen a more crippling rise in the cost of living, including in electricity and gas bills, than under this government. And as Senator Faruqi has correctly said, students are suffering, and this is caused absolutely front and centre by Labor's crippling inflation rate, which has driven up HECS debts by a crippling 7.1 per cent. So, on 1 June, just over three million Australians were hit with a crippling 7.1 per cent increase in their student loans, fuelled by Labor's high inflation. This is the highest HECS indexation rate in more than 30 years. The indexation hike linked to the CPI will drive up the average HECS loan of $23,685 by $1,700. And, as we know, this additional liability, this massive increase in student debt—affecting literally millions of Australians—is even affecting the ability of Australians to borrow, because HECS debt is taken into account when you apply to borrow money from the bank to buy a home.

After so many bad decisions and broken promises from this government, it is clear that the Albanese government is tone deaf to the cost-of-living crisis that so many students are facing. It is astonishing that the education minister, Mr Clare, rather than be empathetic to the situation that so many students are in, made a blanket statement that he saw no case to change the HECS payment system—until he realised that people were paying down their HECS debt and those payments were not being recognised in real time. People are being indexed on the higher rate which applies at the beginning of the financial year. I have called for the HECS payment system, which is antiquated, to be reformed. I am now pleased the education minister is looking at this. But, frankly, he was asleep at the wheel.

This comes at a time when the government is proposing the Startup Year loan scheme, which is nonsense. The Startup Year loan scheme will give full fee paying students funding, imposing this hideous cost of up to $23,600, to do accelerator courses. It's for student entrepreneurs but under circumstances where students can currently do these courses for free. What a complete nonsense! As I have announced, on behalf of the opposition, we are opposing the Startup Year loan scheme. It is a defective bill, it is unfit for purpose, and it potentially puts several thousand students a year at risk of having this horrendous debt imposed on them with very, very little benefit. This bill is so bad that it doesn't even protect student's intellectual property and doesn't do things like giving them the rights for a refund if these courses don't stack up. So this is nonsense and, frankly, a demonstration that the government, as I say, is tone deaf to the cost-of-living crisis that Australians are encountering—particularly students, many of whom are struggling to put food on the table and to pay the rent. For the government to put forward this loan scheme is reckless, irresponsible and will place students in a further debt trap.

5:06 pm

Photo of Louise PrattLouise Pratt (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The Labor government is committed, as it has always been committed, to supporting all Australians, especially our students on their journey to gain an education, to build their life and to contribute to our community and economy. It is, of course, very clear to all of us in this place that the rising cost of living is hitting Australians very hard, including students. That's why we filled the budget with measures targeted at supporting concern for cost-of-living pressures, including for students. We had at the centrepiece of our budget a $14.6 billion cost-of-living package. I would note that, with inflation still much higher than what we would like and more persistent than would be ideal, these measures do make a meaningful difference to the cost of living, including for students. And they're targeted at where the cost of living actually rests—for example, in energy consumption, in seeing your doctor and in the price of medicines.

Under the last government, in inquiry after inquiry, we saw students and other young people on Austudy, in representations to Senate committees, arguing, for example, that they couldn't afford to see a doctor and that they had to choose which medicine they would take or whether they would turn on their heater in the wintertime. They felt they had no choice, frankly, other than to be cold. So there's a real reason we targeted our measures at the pointy end of the cost of living, not a catch-all for all students. Yes, many students are doing it tough, but I did notice in recent Commonwealth Bank data on inflation and trends and who is hurting most in the economy currently that they found, if you are a renter and a young person who's moved out of home and into share housing—that is, indeed, quite stressful, and that is why it's really important that Commonwealth rent assistance has been improved. But they did, in fact, see in this data that discretionary spending for students who live at home with their parents was still being sustained and that where you see the real pointy end of cost-of-living pressures is frankly on renters and on people with significant mortgages. So there is a real reason that we have targeted our measures in this way.

Under those opposite, we saw a wasted decade and the wrong priorities, with falling real wages, cost-of-living pressures and $1 trillion of debt without an economic dividend to show for it. We understand that this takes time to rectify. Part of rectifying this is ensuring that Australians can make it through with the qualifications that they need to build our economy and build their own futures.

We are targeting our policies to ease cost-of-living pressures and directly reduce inflation by three-quarters of a percentage point over the next financial year. We are here to ensure that students can cover basic costs while focusing on their studies and career aspirations. This includes more fee-free TAFE. It includes an increase to the base rate for eligible recipients of JobSeeker, Austudy, youth allowance and other working-age payments. Rates of student payments, youth allowance, Austudy and ABSTUDY will increase by $40 a fortnight from 20 September. There are some 318,000 young people under 25 who will benefit from this. And, very significantly, we are increasing the maximum rates of Commonwealth— (Time expired)

5:12 pm

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

One Nation does not believe we should forgive HECS or HELP debt. People have a duty to pay off their loans. However, there are some issues with how indexation is applied to the HECS-HELP debt. Credit where credit is due, these issues were outlined well in a recent ABC article which explained:

More than 3 million Australians saw their student debt rise with inflation on Thursday as an indexation of 7.1 per cent was applied to the debts.

It is the highest indexation in more than three decades, with average $25,000 HECS-HELP debts rising by $1,775.

The problem, as the article says, is that:

Under the current rules, indexation is applied to the original debt and not the current balance.

For example, if you have a debt of $30,000 and over the course of the next 11 months you pay off $3,000 the ATO's indexation will be applied to the original $30,000, not the $27,000 balance. This isn't right, and it doesn't encourage people.

But, as I said, we do believe that people should pay off their debts. We see too many people who are abusing the system of HECS and HELP debts. There is about $70 billion owed to the taxpayers that they fund students. If you've paid for something, you are going to work harder for it. If you have to pay for it out of your own pocket, you will work harder to achieve your goals. Nothing's free, at all, in this country. Taxpayers work hard. They put their taxes towards providing these universities for these students. That's why students should be able to pay their way. A system where they don't start paying it back until they start working is fair. It won't be abused, then, if they have to pay their way.

But on this other issue of indexation, by all means, it should be addressed. I'm pleased to see that the Labor minister has had it brought it to their attention and is interested in addressing this issue. (Time expired)

5:14 pm

Photo of Fatima PaymanFatima Payman (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I really appreciate the opportunity to speak to this urgency motion from the Greens. You can tell just from the tone of the motion how badly they want young people to be struggling so they can capitalise on it. We have seen this same cynical tactic again and again from them, turning up to rent inspections to hand out political flyers and using the housing crisis to fundraise. Here in this place they bring motions like this so they can talk a lot, clip it for social media and try to garner more support. But it's just lip-service, isn't it, because when it comes to real action, the Greens are absent. The Housing Australia Future Fund is just one example of this. This behaviour from the Greens is really disappointing. They haven't had every demand met and so they're spitting the dummy. While the Greens are standing in the way, this Labor government is taking action, and I'm so proud of what we're delivering for young people.

Earlier on, Senator Henderson called our government tone-deaf. With all due respect, we're not going to take lessons from the other side, because the former coalition—or noalition—have the track record of a decade of delay and denial, and neglecting the most vulnerable in our society.

So, 'What is the Albanese Labor government doing?' I hear you ask. We're delivering fee-free TAFE courses, with almost 150,000 Australians having enrolled. Young people are taking advantage of this great opportunity to upskill themselves, helping to address areas of skill shortages. For young people it's important to have options for their future, and we know that TAFE provides real skills for amazing careers. This is important not just for young people but for our whole nation, because we rely on these skills for our most essential things: to keep the lights on, to keep the water running, to care for our elderly and young, and the list goes on. The previous government cut recklessly from TAFE over their time in power, but we understand its importance and are committed to investing in TAFE.

We're taking real action on issues that are affecting young people, such as climate change. We are strongly committed to climate action because, as Minister Bowen has said, the stakes are high and the cost of inaction is huge. Importantly, we are serious about hearing from young people and enabling their contributions to policy. The Office for Youth has been established and it's dedicated to enabling direct engagement with government. The office listens to young people and their advocates, improves and harmonises policies across government that impact young people and is developing a strategy to meaningfully engage with young people.

When it comes to cost of living, which we heard about in other senators' contributions, it's important and it's definitely something that we take seriously, but we want to address this challenge in a responsible way. We know Australians are being hit hard and this is something that young people are also very vulnerable to. As we've seen in the budget, we're investing a record $3.5 billion to triple the bulk billing incentive for GP consultations for children under 16 and Commonwealth concession cardholders. We're reducing the cost of medicines, this time by changing the maximum dispensing quantities, with some patients being able to save 50 per cent of their medicine costs. And our Energy Price Relief Plan will take pressure off households and small businesses. People in my home state of WA, in particular, will receive $400 from the state government. In addition, vulnerable people will receive up to $350 from the federal government straight off their energy bills.

The budget increased payments for young people through increasing rent assistance by 15 per cent, which is the largest increase in 30 years. Youth allowance, Austudy and Abstudy will rise by $40 a fortnight, benefiting around 318,000 people under 25. And while I know people are calling for more, the right balance has been struck with the budget by not adding to inflation, which would only hurt young Australians more. The budget measures were designed to allow us to do what we can to help while also being responsible, and we're working every day to relieve the pressure on Australians. As a young person, I understand the challenges young people face and I understand that it's real—juggling study, work and the challenges that life throws at us. I am committed to hearing from young people every step of the way and I'll always stand up for them.

5:19 pm

Photo of Penny Allman-PaynePenny Allman-Payne (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

If the government was listening to students they would hear that what they're doing is not enough. They've given paltry rises in rent assistance when rents are going through the roof. They are failing to address student poverty by not raising income support to levels above the poverty line. They are talking about balance when billionaires, the wealthy and politicians are going to get $9,000 in tax cuts whilst income support for students is still below the poverty line. I'm sorry, but it's not okay to say that it is a campaign to stand up for young people who are living in poverty and drowning in student debt, which has been indexed to the point where one young person said to me, 'That indexation wiped out my last three years worth of payments.' To be accused of standing up for those young people just to campaign is an insult to the young people who have been telling you repeatedly that they need more support. How dare you? We are loading students up with thousands of dollars in student debt at the same time that they're dealing with exorbitant rent increases that far outstrip the paltry rise in rent assistance.

They're also dealing with prohibitive dental and mental health costs, which the government is doing nothing about. While the government is splurging on tax cuts and nuclear submarines, the message that you are sending to students is that you don't care. If it's not the message you think you're sending, it's the one they are receiving. You are telling them that you don't care about their welfare, you are telling them that you don't care about their dental and mental health, and you are definitely telling them that you don't care about their education.

Students populate some of our lowest-paid workforces. They are subject to endless waves of wage theft in hospitality and retail. The government is standing by while they are endlessly exploited. They also work in many of our sectors that have the most extensive workforce shortages right now, like nursing, social work and teaching, yet they're required to engage in weeks upon weeks, sometimes months, of unpaid work while they barely subsist on a poverty stipend. Unpaid internships are rife. These lengthy unpaid internships suppress and limit the potential of students and force some students to drop out under the weight of poverty or punitive jobseeking requirements. We are making those students choose between fuel and food for the week and even staying in university. We see this extend to how we undermine the education sector writ large. Increased fast-tracking of interns into classrooms on Permission to Teach only serves to entrench education inequality and push out a workforce that is underprepared. A decades-long bipartisan commitment to the privatisation of education has driven thousands of passionate, experienced teachers out of the public school system. Rather than properly and fully funding the needs of the workforce and actually acknowledging the complexity of work undertaken by teachers, the burden falls onto students, who are shunted out too early without the full support and benefit of their degrees.

Labor is refusing to support students, who are bearing the brunt of this cost-of-living crisis, while splurging hundreds of billions of dollars on tax cuts and nuclear submarines. If we want a future for this country that is prosperous and safe, instead of abandoning students, we need to go back to genuinely caring about and investing in them.

5:24 pm

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak briefly on this matter of public urgency about the debt crisis that we are condemning students to. I move to do so because I heard a contribution from the leader of Pauline Hanson's One Nation party that made assertions that education isn't valued unless you pay for it, amidst some other word salad that I won't try to summarise. I was then shocked to hear Senator Payman assert that the Greens were making up this crisis because it suited a political agenda. I was genuinely floored by that assertion, because I would have thought anybody under the age of 30 knows that we are in a genuine cost-of-living crisis and students are at the very front of that. They've just had the indexation increased by seven per cent on debts that were already crippling. They can't afford housing. The rent's gone up by over 20 per cent nationally and 22 per cent in my home state of Queensland's capital city of Brisbane. They are already juggling multiple jobs, generally being ripped off by their wages being stolen by their employers. The minimum wage is already paltry, and we're having a debate now about how a slight increase in that might somehow be problematic on a day when we learn that CEO pay has increased by 15 per cent. This is just farcical. What is it going to take for the people in this place to actually get out there into the community and understand what's going on with students and with the cost of living more broadly. I am flabbergasted that rather than saying, 'Yes, we acknowledge there's a problem, but, oh, we're too poor to fix it,' like they normally say, they're not even acknowledging the problem. This is a new low.

We are standing here today, asserting that students have a right to an education. It should be free. Student debt should be wiped. It certainly shouldn't be increasing year upon year at rates that are astronomical. We've heard so many stories of people saying the amount I was able to pay back on my debt has just been eclipsed by the amount that it was just indexed. People are paying, and they are going backwards. Their debt is increasing. And this is for a public good, something that actually benefits the country. Education should be free at all levels, right from the very start, right to the very end.

The audacity of people in this chamber contributing to this debate, saying that this is not actually a real problem out there, really says more about the lack of engagement by the other political parties with actual human beings who genuinely would like for their cost-of living emergency to be tackled. But, instead, we get tax cuts for the rich, we get nuclear submarines, we get fossil fuel subsidies and we get negative gearing and capital gains tax perks. What a joke!

Photo of Matt O'SullivanMatt O'Sullivan (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the motion moved by Senator Faruqi at the request of Senator McKim be agreed to.