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Wednesday, 15 October 2003
Page: 21446

Mr BEAZLEY (12:10 PM) —In rising to speak on the Higher Education Support Bill 2003 and the Higher Education Support (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill 2003, I want to make a comment briefly on the speech by the member for Hasluck. She gave a very effective sociological analysis of the situation of higher education in relation to Western Australians, particularly in suburban Perth. The statistics that she repeated with regard to what happens in the eastern suburbs of Perth you could cite for the southern suburbs which I represent. In my electorate we have the lowest rate of tertiary participation in the metropolitan areas of the country. Added to that is a real problem in Western Australia with access to places—which this legislation will exacerbate.

The University of Western Australia has the highest cut-off points for entry to every single faculty of the university of any in the country. Ostensibly that means, of course, that the University of Western Australia has the most intelligent students in the country. If you take all of Western Australia's four universities, you will find that they are in the top eight on cut-off points. Indeed, to take UWA again, the requirement for students to get into the arts faculty is the same as that imposed in Sydney on students to get into the law faculty of Sydney University. Those four universities in Western Australia appearing in the top eight in terms of cut-off points do so not because of the intelligence of the Western Australian population but because of the inequity—the shortage of positions.

Murdoch University will go backwards under this legislation. Under the government's plans, Murdoch University will go backwards. Though it has an enviable record on questions of access and a notable role played in the Western Australian community in encouraging people who had absolutely no idea they could access tertiary education, it will be the first to be obliged to introduce full fee paying places. It is a tragedy for that university and it is a shocking indictment of the treatment of Western Australia by this government—set in concrete by this legislation.

I want to talk about the strategic settings of this legislation. From this side of the House, we have heard excellent analysis of the issues involved with regard to opportunity and equality of opportunity that are affected—indeed, damaged—by this piece of legislation. So I will talk about it instead in the context of its investment in our future as a country. Where it fails—I believe most grossly—is in its failure to assist this nation at precisely the point it needs to be assisted if we are to be a prosperous, competitive and secure society this century. This century, those nations that will succeed—and, in Australia's case, I would add to the word `succeed' the word `survive'—will be those who optimise the creative skills of their people, be it in ensuring continued access to skilling, re-skilling and education to expand an individual's knowledge base; be it in business innovation in research and development; or be it in injecting a knowledge edge in all aspects of public policy, from the provision of basic services to defending the nation. That would be the case anyway, but it is particularly the case in a time of war.

We face a long war, the Prime Minister says, and we critically require two things in this nation to fight it—beyond simply competent defence forces and competent intelligence services—enhanced technical and economic capacity and enhanced national unity—that is, everybody in this nation having the sense of being a stakeholder. You do not believe that you are a stakeholder in this nation if you do not believe that your children have every chance to skill themselves, and have themselves skilled through their lives, to the extent that they can make the maximum contribution to society. If you do not believe yourself to be a stakeholder, you find yourself at the cusp of a diminution, in a national sense, of solidarity. Defeating this legislation—with its further public disinvestment in education and its destruction of nation-building unity through a sense of inequity—is the most important piece of micro-economic reform this parliament can engage in this year.

This is a lucky government. It has enjoyed good growth in troubled times. This it owes entirely to the hard decisions we took in the eighties and nineties: opening Australia to international competition and thus supercharging our exports, productivity and job growth. Productivity growth has slowed in the latter part of the last decade—we have not yet noted that. It slowed significantly in an environment where the component that was work force skills-driven declined. This most crucial component of future productivity growth reached a peak of 28 per cent of total productivity growth under Labor in the early nineties. Now it lies at three per cent. Freeing up labour markets in this country has run its course in productivity growth. The next phase must come through skilling our people and encouraging business innovation. University access and investment sit at the very heart of the inventiveness of our people.

The figures on all fronts under this government are simply appalling. Since it came to office, we have had an effective 12 per cent fall in public investment in universities while the average OECD growth has been 21 per cent. We have had the second slowest rate of growth in student numbers in the industrialised world. We have seen staff to student ratios—which were never better than the international average—blow out by 31 per cent. In actual dollars, we have seen $5 billion cut out. Savaging the tax concessions for business investment in research and development, in addition to all these other measures, means that business investment in this country is one-third lower than it would have been if we had stayed on Labor's trajectory. There you can see the two fronts—innovation in business and the skilling of our people—under attack by this government. What is the explanation for this undermining of Australia's capacity in our time of trial? Is it because the government confronts difficult budget circumstances?

I remind members that when we assumed office 20 years ago we confronted a budget deficit in today's dollar terms of $37 billion. But within five years we were in surplus, had reformed the Australian economy; legislated universal health care; increased public investment in higher education; introduced income tax cuts more than twice the size of this government's, without a GST; set business on the path of a 10 per cent per annum real growth in R&D investment; and created over a million new jobs, most of them full time. We set the Australian economy up, effectively for this lot to squander—or to attempt to do so. As it happens, this undermining is not a product of a lack of resources. There is a substantial enough budget surplus now foreshadowed that, for a cost of around one-third of what this government's contemplated tax cuts would cost, the government could restore over four years the $5 billion it cut from universities. I believe this government is walking away from the next crucial phase of micro-economic reform in the economy—that is, expanding access to education and training by enhancing its affordability. This legislation then is not related to its budget opportunity but is rather a product of ideological blindness. Its practical effect is undermining our nation in a time of war. That blindness stems from the government's class-consciousness.

Under Whitlam reforms, Labor purged the last elements of its class war fighting orientation and became a party for all Australians, particularly middle Australians. We reflect it now in every element of our being. The Liberals never made the leap, either in their own sociology or in their own attitudes. Two thirds of this cabinet went to category 1 private schools, but only two per cent of Australians go to those schools—66 per cent of this cabinet; two per cent of Australians. A $100,000 degree means nothing to them intellectually. Members of the cabinet—all of them—think in personal terms in amounts for yearly activity that ordinary Australians sitting around the kitchen table only contemplate for a lifetime purchase of a house. One hundred thousand dollars means nothing to a Liberal cabinet minister. It means a house to many Australians sitting around the kitchen table, and a choice between the two: your house, as you grow into your 20s, or an education. They are blind to the needs of ordinary Australians; therefore they are as blind as Bourbons to what they must do to strengthen our society in this time of trial.

We in this party are not going to fail this test of micro-economic reform. We are not going to fall into the position that this government has fallen into of decreasing access to university, of making it unaffordable for ordinary Australians. We are going to take a stand in favour of public investment in strengthening our nation. That is what we are going to do. We can be confident that those great micro-economic reforms that we put in place at great cost to ourselves politically in the 1980s—reforms which opened up this economy of ours to international competition, the fruit of which we see now in a world around us of economic ravaging—have resulted in a very good performance by the Australian economy. That all came off Labor's reforms. We are the ones who know what to do about micro-economic reform in this nation, and because we know what to do we are going to destroy this latest effort to render our nation once again sclerotic by opposing this legislation in the Senate.