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Wednesday, 8 February 2012
Page: 307

Senator MASON (Queensland) (10:11): Acting Deputy President Cameron, it might have been one of your friends, Senator Lionel Murphy, who back in the 1970s introduced the notion of Senate estimates committees, and he did so, of course, Sir, as an accountability measure. It is perhaps the most important modern justification for the Senate. What it does is put the executive and senior public servants on the spot. And constitutionally it provides the following link. The parliament votes money to the executive for expenditure on government programs. That is what we do, and that is what the Constitution says. The parliament then wants to see how the executive has spent the money that it voted to them. It as simple as that, and that is what Lionel Murphy said. So there are constitutional reasons for the estimates process, and they are critical to the way our system performs.

My eloquent colleagues, Senator Brandis and Senator Fifield, said that estimates committees are good for the opposition—and that is true. Senator Faulkner and Senator Ray—when I used to try to chair them in the finance and public administration committee many years ago; and I did it very unsuccessfully I might add—said that it was the opposition's show. But I do not think they were quite right. There is much more to it than that. I actually think it is a tool for government, because governments often find out in estimates committees what is not going so well and where the holes are in their programs. And I mean that. That might seem self-serving but I honestly believe that—that ministers and senior public servants think, 'Gee, I didn't know about that,' or 'That isn't going so well.' So, sure, it is a forum for the opposition—I accept that; of course it is—but it is also a place where governments can learn about failures in the delivery of their own programs.

If I can throw in a quick partisan note: one of the great criticisms that the opposition has of this government is the implementation of their programs. If you had to summarise our criticisms of the government it is the implementation of government programs. It is not the aspirations. In my field of education, I would agree, as you know, Mr Acting Deputy Speaker, with many of the aspirations of the government. But I do criticise consistently the way programs have been implemented—whether it is the Building the Education Revolution, compu­ters in schools, digital education revolution and so forth. We can have that debate later on, but certainly the argument from our side has always been that the implementation of government programs is where the government is weak. Finally, I honestly believe it is good for the country. I think it is good for the country that the government of whatever persuasion is put on the spot. I was only very briefly a parliamentary secretary before we lost government, but even in that very brief six months I found the experience of sitting in Senate estimates committees unnerving and uncomfortable. It is probably a very good thing. One day—and I do not know when it will be—we will probably be back in government and then we will be uncomfortable again. But that is probably not a bad thing either. I think the whole process of Senate estimates is good for the opposition. I do not quibble with that, and I am not trying to pretend it is not—it is our forum—but I do think it is good for government in the sense that it lets them know where the holes are, where they are making mistakes and where they are not delivering services well. Finally, it is good for the country because the country—if it cannot rest assured—can be more assured that the taxpayers' money is being well spent. So our general principle from this side is that these are really important processes.

Senate estimates are vital to accountability and integrity and we think that the Senate should do all it can to facilitate that process. I know my friends in the Greens would agree with us because they have always been very keen to push integrity and accountability in the Senate, so I am hoping they will support us when this motion is finally put to the vote. Senator Brown always tells the Senate—and he is right—that Senate estimates are vital to keep governments of whatever persuasion and the executive in check. Let us face it: when we had a Senate majority briefly in the Howard era the only check in that period, because the Senate itself was not a check, was Senate estimates. You will recall that, Mr Acting Deputy President.

To in any way compromise the capacity of Senate estimates to do their job is a very bad thing. I know my words are now going on the record for all time and I will be held to account for them, but I believe they are right. My colleagues have known me for long enough to know that I can be as partisan as they come. I know that, and I am not trying to hide that, but there is an issue that is even higher than partisanship and that is good government. Estimates provide for better government for all of us.

Senator Fifield and Senator Brandis put this very well before. My area is tertiary education and Senator Nash looks after vocational education and training and skills. Let me explain what it meant under the original budget estimates for this year that came out before the government had the reshuffle and changed the administrative arrangements from the first draft for DEEWR, the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, which moved tertiary education into the Economics Legislation Committee. Under the original draft, which I have before me, we had higher education and vocational education and training commencing at 9 am and finishing at 2.15 pm. If you take the lunch hour out—that is fair enough—you are left with four hours and 15 minutes. That is a pretty typical draft of how the education committee operates in estimates for voca­tional education and training and also tertiary education. That makes allowance for the lunch break. Under the draft program for the Senate Economics Legislation Committee, tertiary education and vocational education and training are reduced to 1¾ hours, from 3.45 pm to 6.00 pm. So we have a reduction from four hours and 15 minutes down to 1¾ hours. That is much less than half—about 40 per cent of the original time.

Some people probably think that it does not matter. Who cares about tertiary educa­tion and vocational education and training? I know that Senator Evans does and I know that Senator Carr does. Indeed, I know that the Prime Minister does. I criticise the Prime Minister frequently, but I have never, ever criticised her enthusiasm and her support for education and education reform publicly or privately. I think she has done a great service to the nation in promoting education and educational outcomes as a really important industry. You are right that I have criticised her consistently for the delivery of educati­onal programs but never, ever her intentions or aspirations. I think she is well motivated.

As Senator Brandis said, I sound like a broken record, and I know this, but higher education is our largest export services industry and worth about $18 billion to this country. It is enormous, just behind minerals, iron ore, coal and now gold. It is a huge export industry. It is the largest export industry for the city of Melbourne. Senator Fifield knows that. You go to Melbourne and there are international students all over the place. We are talking about an industry that is absolutely vital to our nation's future.

Let us face it: when the mining boom finishes or softens—and one day it will—if we want a resilient economy that really works, an economy where people are trained and are productive and an economy where things like the GFC, a strong Australian dollar and competition from other education providers do not buckle it, it will largely come down to how well Australians are trained and how well they are educated. If you want to bolster Australia's productivity and supercharge outcomes, you do it with training and education. I see Senator Cormann sitting there. I know he is from Western Australia and a great advocate of the mining industry but, even with the greatest respect to him, one day demand for our resources may diminish or may soften. In building a resilient economy that can ride those waves, education will be absolutely critical, so we are talking about a really vital issue. It is pretty simple.

I always say, Mr Acting Deputy President, and I think perhaps my friends Senator Carr and Senator Evans would actually agree with me: we, Australia, are a superpower in just a few things. We are a superpower in sport and we are superpower in mining; that is true. We are a superpower in agriculture and we are a superpower in higher education. We educate per head of population more kids from overseas than any other nation on earth. In English-speaking countries we are the third largest provider. It is an extraordinary achievement. It is not a partisan achieve­ment; it is an extraordinary achievement for this country. So we are talking about an industry here that makes us a world superpower. We are not a superpower in many things, but we are in the delivery of higher education, right throughout the world.

Let us face it, Mr Acting Deputy President, you know, I know and the govern­ment knows that Australia is perfectly positioned to take advantage of a booming middle class in Asia. I have no doubt that the white paper that the government is producing at the moment on our engagement with Asia will look at tertiary education. We can provide tertiary education at the highest level for potentially hundreds of thousands more young kids from Asia. It is not just great for our economy—of course it is good for our economy; it even has the effect of cross-subsidising research and learning in this country. I know and accept that, but it also has other profound effects—for example, diplomacy. It increases Australia's soft power.

I was in Malaysia not so long ago and I swear that half the Malaysian cabinet was educated in Australia. That gives us enormous political purchase, emotional purchase and soft power in countries like Malaysia. So over the next few years—and to give them credit, I know the government are looking at this—Australia will be perfectly positioned. We used to say we were going to become the 'salad bowl' for Asia. We really can be the education provider for Asia, and we are perfectly positioned, better than anyone else in the world, to provide those services. That is why it is so critical.

These estimates are at a time—and Senator Evans says this all the time, and he is right—of significant reform in higher education. You would be aware, Mr Acting Deputy President Cameron, of the Bradley reforms. Professor Bradley's review came out a few years ago now and the first year of the demand driven system is this year. It is 2012—it has just commenced. The caps have come off for all qualified young Australians. They can attend university and the Common­wealth will support a place for them. This is a significant reform in tertiary history. The government's belief is that this is a way to provide access for kids who otherwise would not have had a chance—kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, Indigenous young Australians and young Australians from regional areas.

This is a significant reform. It is an expensive reform. You would have heard that I have some reservations about imple­mentation, standards and quality. I accept that. As a general proposition, subject to certain riders, the opposition supports it. I was going to ask a lot of questions about that. Of course I would because it is an expensive operation and it is vital for Australia's future, but I am not going to have the time now that tertiary education is being moved to the economics committee. I know it is a great committee and that Senator Bushby and the chair do a great job, but the fact is that there will not be sufficient time. The time has been cut by more than 60 per cent. For the first year of very significant reforms in the area, there will not be sufficient scrutiny.

You would also be aware, Mr Acting Deputy President, of TEQSA—the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency—that has just started. This is the way the government hopes to ensure that standards are kept in this country. Because more young Australians are coming into university the way the government wants to ensure that standards do not drop is through TEQSA. Again, it is vital that questions be asked of TEQSA. They took up their statutory obligations on 1 February and I have many questions to ask of the chairman of TEQSA. They are vital questions about how they are going to monitor standards and quality in tertiary education in this country. These are very important questions because the one thing that will compromise Australia's higher education system is the perception anywhere in the world—particularly in Asia—that our standards are dropping. If there is any hint that Australian standards are dropping in our universities in this country, then the export industry—the fourth largest in this country and the greatest services export industry—will either be compromised or all over. So TEQSA is a vital agency to ensure that standards do not drop. That is why it is important for the opposition to ask questions. To be fair, I know that the Greens have questions. I think my good friend Senator Rhiannon, who is looking after this area, has questions about TEQSA. It is a vital agency for the regulation of standards in higher education. It is absolutely critical.

Late last year, Dr Jane Lomax-Smith brought out the base funding review which talked about how much the course fees should be for young Australians at university and how much the government should provide. Is that a critical issue? Absolutely, because it impacts on all the young Australians who want to go to university. How much will they be paying? Dr Lomax-Smith had some ideas. Without getting into the debate about who is right and who is wrong—I accept that is for another time and another place—it is an issue that has to be ventilated, and estimates is the best place for it. As you know, Mr Acting Deputy President, I like nothing better than coming into the Senate and having a quiet chat to the chamber but I think the government is better served by opposition senators in estimates than it is by any rhetorical display by me or any of my colleagues. I mean that but we are going to be denied that. So the base funding review that Dr Lomax-Smith chaired, which raised really interesting and important issues about the future of higher education and funding, again will not be addressed. I should not forget vocational education and training, Mr Acting Deputy President, which I know you are very interested in. I know that Senator Carr, Senator Evans and indeed the Prime Minister have all spoken about training and skills often. When we talk about productivity the government talks about training and skills, as it should; but there is no time in the schedule to examine those issues. I know the shadow minister, Mrs Ley in the other place, and Senator Nash, the opposition spokesperson here in the Senate, have many questions they want to ask about that because vocational education and training has a new national regulator to regulate standards in the VET sector. Is that important? It is critically important for the VET sector. However the opposition wants to characterise it, the government has not stood still in higher education. I have never said it has stood still. I disagree with how it has implemented policy, but it has not stood still and there is plenty of fertile territory for estimates. Again, the way things are going we are not going to get there. In fact we are not going to get anywhere near talking about the new regulator for vocational education and training.

I know my friend Senator Cormann wants to spend time in the economics committee examining the carbon tax and the mining tax, as he should. I know it is politically combustible and I accept all that. It comes to this: in the end this is a matter of a govern­ment setting a precedent. I honestly do not think it is a good precedent. I do not know if it is advertent or inadvertent. Senator Brandis used the word 'maligned'. I do not know whether it is maligned or simply uninten­tional, but it sets a very bad precedent when the opposition is unable to address really critical issues, whether they are about the mining sector or about the carbon tax or in my area where there has been significant reform in universities and vocational education and training.