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Tuesday, 12 September 2017
Page: 55

Mr STEPHEN JONES (Whitlam) (16:50): There was a time when every galah in the coalition pet shop was talking about the importance of being innovative and nimble. They were talking about the importance of Australia being a clever country and about us projecting ourselves into the economy of the 21st century. Those very same coalition MPs are shortly going to file into this chamber and vote in favour of this bill which does the exact opposite of everything they have been talking about for the last two years. I am, of course, talking about the Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (A More Sustainable, Responsive and Transparent Higher Education System) Bill 2017, which slashes funding for universities throughout this country to the tune of $3.8 billion. The minister at the table opposite has attempted to tell members of parliament that this is some radical reversal of the Abbott government's fateful 2014 budget, where they attempted to do a complete backflip on the promises they took to the 2013 election. Far from it being a radical reversal of the Abbott policies, this is the Abbott policies in a new guise.

Let's have a look at the cuts that this bill introduces on a state-by-state basis. Here in Canberra, it is $52.5 million. In my home state of New South Wales, it is $617 million. In the Northern Territory, a place that needs us to be supporting their TAFE and their higher education, they are suffering a cut of $15 million. In Queensland, it is over $400 million. In South Australia, it is $150 million. The list goes on and on and on. There are cuts to funding and to universities in each and every state. In my own university, the University of Wollongong—a fine institution which I will talk a bit more about shortly—there are $45.7 million in cuts as a result of this legislation. I'm imploring those members opposite: don't do what your leader is attempting to convince you to do. Vote in favour of the university students you represent in your electorates, and vote in favour of regional universities because they need your support today more than ever.

It's time we had a conversation with the Prime Minister about inequality. Every time we raise this he calls us communists. He thinks there's some sort of socialist plot going on. But we need to have a conversation about it. Where we stand today, the richest 10 per cent of Australians own 45 per cent of all wealth. That is 70 times the wealth of the lowest-income brackets. If you compare the amount of money they make year on year, it is a massive seven times the income they earn each year. We have to have a conversation about inequality. If you're in that top 20 per cent of income earners, the chances are that you live in one of our capital cities. If you're in the bottom 20 per cent, the chances are that you're living in regional or remote Australia. Against this background, why is the government and, certainly, any National Party or regional Liberal member, coming in here and proposing to support this bill?

Did you know that in regional Australia we have 13 per cent fewer school leavers participating in higher education than the Australian average? We all know on this side of the House that higher education is the pathway to a higher income and a successful life. But, if we have 13 per cent fewer people in regional Australia participating in higher education, we are reducing the chances of people in regional Australia closing the inequality gap that is growing between people who live in the regions and people who live in the inner cities of this country.

There may be a reason why the Prime Minister doesn't get it. There may be a reason why the Prime Minister cries 'Communist!' every time we start talking about inequality. The reason he doesn't get it is probably that he lives in one of the wealthiest electorates in the country and he is surrounded at his cabinet table by people who live in some of the wealthiest electorates in the country. I'm talking about the Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party and I'm talking about the Treasurer.

Just under one in five school leavers in regional Australia participate in higher education, compared to one in two school leavers in the Prime Minister's local area of Waverley. The reason that he doesn't get the fact that we have a massive problem with inequality in this country, the reason that he doesn't understand that this bill is going to exacerbate the problem, not make it better, is that the world that he lives in is a very different world to that which the majority of Australians are living in. He lives in a world surrounded by privilege, while the rest of Australia is living in a world which doesn't enjoy the same sorts of privileges that the Prime Minister enjoys or that his deputy leader and the Treasurer enjoy. Is there any wonder that he cries 'Socialism!' whenever we start to say: 'Excuse me, sir; there are some problems with what you're doing. Excuse me, but not everyone enjoys the same privileges that you do. Excuse me; if you introduce this legislation, real people are going to suffer.'

In fact, if you live in regional Australia, participation rates in secondary school at age 16 are seven to 10 per cent lower than they are in the Prime Minister's electorate. In regional Western Australia and regional Tasmania, they're also considerably lower, around 20 per cent lower. There are other parts of the country, where people live very different lives to those who are recommending this bill before the House today. We should send a very clear message to this government that we understand the circumstances of people who are living in the outer suburbs of capital cities and the circumstances of people who are living in regional Australia. It's a very different world to the one that the decision-makers in this government are living in.

We understand their circumstances. That's why we're not going to vote for these massive cuts to university funding. We are not going to vote for an increase in the rate of repayment for the fees that are being proposed in this bill today. We're not going to support their plans to abolish the Education Investment Fund. If you compare the approach of Labor governments over decades to higher education to that of the coalition, the Liberal and National parties, you see the world through the prism of privilege. They vote accordingly. Others see the world through the prism that higher education is an opportunity to improve your lot in life. We put in place the Education Investment Fund, which improved the facilities of universities right around the country, particularly in regional campuses around the country, where millions and millions of dollars was invested, including in my own campus at Wollongong. Millions and millions of dollars was invested. What is this government attempting to do? Abolish that fund so that those funds aren't available to invest in university facilities around the country.

Not only do we understand the importance of universities as institutions which are educating the workforce and the citizens of a future society; we understand that in regional areas universities are major economic players in their own right. The University of Wollongong in my region contributes around $1.2 billion in total direct and indirect economic contribution to the GDP over the course of a year. More than 5,200 people are directly employed by the University of Wollongong, making it one of the largest employers in the region. For every 1,000 full-time equivalent roles that the University of Wollongong employs, there are probably another 1,000 full-time jobs that are created in the broader Illawarra economy. We can take from that that the 5,000-odd people the University of Wollongong employs are generating a total employment of around 10,000 for the entire Illawarra district. The University of Wollongong is an incredibly important contributor to our workforce, having over 131,000 graduates in its short time in operation across more than 300 different degree strands. It has a significant research arm and is an acknowledged world leader in the areas of engineering and information and communications technology. For every $1 million of value added as a result of the University of Wollongong expenditure, a further $1 million is probably generated in income elsewhere within the economy. This paints the picture of a very important regional economic institution.

A responsible government that understood the circumstances in regional areas—a responsible government that was in tune with regions like my own—would not be cutting $45 million from the funds of this vital economic institution in the Illawarra. We know the result will be staff cuts. We know the result will be increased class sizes. We know the result will be a university struggling to provide the same quality of education it did in the decades before.

If members opposite are going to do something to improve the lot of people living and working in regional Australia, if the coalition parties—the Liberals and the National Party in particular—are going to do something to represent others than those in the privileged classes living in the privileged suburbs of our capital cities, they have to reject this bill. They have to reject this bill because the results of this bill are going to be a disaster for people who are struggling to get themselves a higher education, for people who are struggling to pay off a university debt and for people who are struggling to get a toehold in a university in this country. It is bad legislation. It should be rejected.

I particularly implore members of the Nationals, who are supposed to represent people in regional Australia: do the right thing by your community. Tear yourselves away from your Liberal Party colleagues and reject this bill. You have to do more than beat yourselves on the chest and say, 'We are a tough, independent party.' You have to do more than be lions in your electorate and lambs down here in the parliament when you come and vote on legislation. You have to put those fierce words into action. You have to stand up for your communities. That's why, in a few minutes time, you should march into this chamber and you should sit with Labor members of parliament and stand up for your communities. We're going to do it, and we throw down the gauntlet to you: do the same thing.