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Thursday, 11 September 2003
Page: 19826

Mr LINDSAY (9:58 AM) —So why is it that I am not surprised that the Australian Labor Party is opposing the closure of the student financial supplement scheme?

Ms Macklin —Because you're out of touch.

Mr LINDSAY —Why is it that I am not surprised? I think there is a key point, that the loans provided under this scheme to students have an effective interest rate of 16 per cent. Sixteen per cent—starting to get the picture now? Who is the party of high interest rates? The Australian Labor Party. Who had home loan interest rates up at 17 per cent? Who had student loan interest rates at 16 per cent? The Australian Labor Party. Well, the member for Jagajaga says I am out of touch but I can tell you that students do not like interest rates of 16 per cent.

The interesting thing is that the Labor Party claims doom and gloom if this scheme is closed, but what it does not recognise is that students, in reducing numbers year by year, are not taking out the loans: they are deciding that they do not need them and that there are other ways that they can provide for themselves. One of the reasons this particular piece of policy is being withdrawn by the government is because the demand is not there out in the market. More than that, it is bad public policy for the taxpayers because half of the loans are not being repaid at all. We have a piece of public policy which says to a student: `We will give you a loan. Here are the terms and conditions of repayment,' and then it does not get repaid. A responsible government would not allow that kind of public policy to continue and that is one of the reasons why this particular piece of legislation is before the parliament this morning.

The government announced and gave warning to students and the higher education sector on 24 April this year that it would be closing the Student Financial Supplement Scheme. It will be closing it because it is not giving good outcomes for students or for Australian taxpayers. The Labor Party does not seem to worry about that. I think that to be a responsible member of the Australian parliament or a member of the government you have to have legislation that does deliver good outcomes for students and for Australian taxpayers. The current repayment arrangements under the bill will not be affected by the closure of the scheme. The scheme is scheduled under the bill to close on 1 January next year and the government is closing the scheme in response to increasing levels of bad and doubtful debt and the reduced take-up of the loans. I note that, since the introduction of Youth Allowance in 1998, the take-up of the scheme has declined by one-third and, on the latest available figures, it continues to decline.

It is instructive to see what others say about this particular piece of legislation. The National Union of Students—not a group that is normally terribly supportive of the Howard government—have reacted positively and they have indicated that the government is heading in the right direction with this particular bill, and so have the Australian vice-chancellors. Again some could argue that at times they are not part-icularly supportive of the government, but currently, with the higher education reform package, they are extraordinarily supportive of the government.

I find the position of the Australian Democrats very interesting. Senator Natasha Stott Despoja, who is the higher education spokesman for the Democrats, said that she has previously expressed concerns about this scheme because of its inequitable nature. She said that it is poorly designed policy that increases the debt of students who are in the worst financial position. She said that many students have been forced to take out these loans because student income support is too low and access is highly restricted. If that is the case then something positive should be done about that; we should not just stay with a piece of policy that is inequitable. Senator Stott Despoja concluded that the answer to student support has never been loans; it has been about providing meaningful income support that is above the poverty line. What the Australian Labor Party is suggesting to the parliament today is that they want to stay with the loans. They do not agree with the Democrats, they do not agree with the government; they want students to continue to be forced into taking loans at an interest rate of 16 per cent. As I said in my opening remarks, why does that not surprise me?

The member for Jagajaga took some time in her contribution this morning to talk about the government's higher education reform package, indicating that it has not yet been presented to parliament. My concern as a regional member and a member who represents the James Cook University of North Queensland is that, if Labor gets its way and votes this particular piece of new legislation down—that is, the higher education reform package—James Cook University is going to lose $30 million over the next three years. The university is beside itself. It cannot understand why the Australian Labor Party would take $30 million away from James Cook University. Staff and students cannot understand; management and the council cannot understand. There will be dire consequences for JCU if it loses this money, and that will be the consequence of the Labor Party voting down the higher education reform package in the Senate. I can tell you that every single student, when they see and understand the consequences of that action on their university, will not be voting for the Australian Labor Party at the next election. The difference made to the quality of education that JCU can offer by not having that money will be extensive indeed.

I think that the Australian Labor Party needs to be more relevant these days to the needs of students and the needs of higher education. Regional universities are the backbone of the higher education system in vast areas of Australia. James Cook University has proved itself to be one of the finest regional universities in the country, but it is going to have quite some difficulty if it does not have access to the very significant funding that Dr Brendan Nelson has wisely provided for regional universities—because they do suffer disadvantage compared to the sandstone universities. It would be extraordinarily disappointing to my community and to the university that I represent if Labor voted down this package in the Senate.

In relation to the closure of the Student Financial Supplement Scheme, it is high time that this country moved on and that we closed a scheme that is not delivering equitable or proper outcomes for students. It is time that the Australian Labor Party got relevant and supported the government instead of voting against everything that the government puts up. It cannot be wrong all the time. I think people are beginning to well and truly understand that. I appeal to the Australian Labor Party to review its decision to vote against this legislation and to support the bill, which is good public policy.