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Monday, 23 November 2009
Page: 12472

Mr WINDSOR (6:55 PM) —This must be deja vu—I remember the last time we spoke on this the member for Ballarat was the preceding speaker. On that occasion we had had some meetings with regional university people in one of the rooms here in Parliament House. A number of the issues that she raised just now were raised on that occasion. Let us hope we do not return to the scene of the crime; let us hope that this legislation is passed this time.

The Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2009 is really designed to recognise student services and amenities. I think there is still some confusion in people’s minds—or some people’s minds—that this legislation is about voluntary student unionism. It is not about student unionism at all; it is about the provision of amenities and services to university students and is particularly important in a regional context, as the member for Ballarat mentioned.

I am very supportive of this legislation, and I would like to reiterate that support by way of a reference to a conference held last Saturday week in my electorate—the Vision New England Summit. It is an event that I hold once a term. I invite all interest groups from across the electorate to send one or two people and determine an agenda that they agree with right across the electorate. So, rather than what normally drives the political process, particularly in this place—the politics of division—people come along and determine what they have in common, irrespective of whether they are, as they were on this occasion, from the Transport Workers Union or the farmers association or the various tourist and regional development groups or whether they are the mayor and general manager of the local council or are involved in a whole range of other organisations across the electorate. Even in this place, many of us would recognise that even though there are arguments at the margin almost daily—and the art of politics is finding where the division is rather than the unity—there is a lot of unity of purpose in relation to a lot of the issues that we debate in this place.

Resolution 12 from the most recent Vision New England Summit states:

That this Summit calls on Coalition and crossbench Senators to pass the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009.

And encourages all organisations and individuals to write to the Senators as a matter of urgency in support of the Bill.

That is an interesting resolution because it comes from a very broad cross-section of political focus within the electorate, not only from the University of New England and others involved with education but, as I said, from all the council groups within my electorate and a whole range of other organisations. It is one of 21 resolutions that the Vision New England Summit agreed to support unanimously. There was no division in my electorate on this particular issue, and it was interesting to see how it played out on the day and gained the unanimous support of all of the interest groups that were there.

One of the issues that plagued this particular issue when it was first introduced by the Howard government was that some young Liberals in particular, people who were actively involved in student politics and who have evolved to this place—you and I, Mr Deputy Speaker Adams, are not of that ilk, but some are—were living in the past, and they still are in relation to this particular issue. They are trying to settle old scores through the politics of this place. Some of those people are in their 40s now, and older, and they should recognise that this bill is not about reinstatement of little cliques of political dominions within various universities. It is about, as I said, the provision of services and amenities to young people at our universities.

I would like to recognise a few people in the gallery behind me. I note that there are quite a lot in the gallery tonight! The first is a member of my staff and it is the first time she has been in this building. Melissa Penrose has been working for me for 14 years, and I welcome her to the building and obviously to such a packed parliament. It is something to behold! Graham Nuttall has always been in this building—members would recognise him, so I will not welcome him because this is his sandpit anyway—but there are two other people in the gallery whom I would like to refer to: Professor John Pegg and Dr Lorraine Graham. Some of you may remember that last week I moved an MPI that related to educational facilities for country people in particular. John and Lorraine are the architects of the QuickSmart program that was the basis of my matter of public importance. The bill that we are debating today, the service fee bill, was also part of that broad debate in the matter of public importance.

I congratulate John and Lorraine for their leadership in relation to that particular program. As I mentioned last week, the QuickSmart program is a unique program in that it is based on assisting those young people with literacy and numeracy problems. We know of them in our various schools, and we have grown up knowing kids who have fallen behind at school. In some cases they never catch up and in other cases they become antisocial and react to the feeling that they are deemed to be failures with their schoolwork.

One of the significant issues that John and Lorraine and their team at the University of New England have been able to achieve is to empirically assess the QuickSmart program over time. It has been going for eight or nine years and is currently in about 200 schools. They are here in Canberra at this particular time to talk to 10 of the schools in the Canberra area that are using the QuickSmart program. That particular program is showing that, over 30 weeks, kids who are falling two, three or four years behind in their numeracy and literacy skills can be brought forward and placed on a positive pathway. More importantly, and this is why I talked about the program last week, that upward pathway does not stop at the end of the program. They have been able to go back and assess young people five or six years after they have finished the 30-week program and have found that that upward path has been maintained. A lot of what is happening here is related to young people’s brains et cetera, but it is also related to confidence and a whole range of factors that are impacting on young people. So I am delighted that they are here today and that they have put this work into this program.

I urge all members, as I did last week, to really look at this program because of lot of money is spent on education in this place. In my view, some of it is wasted; a lot of it is good money. But here is a program that brings kids forward and maintains that pathway, and the success rate is enormous. I used an example last week, and I will use it again, of the Orara school. It is not in my electorate. This program is in my electorate, but this particular school is at Coffs Harbour, in the member for Cowper’s electorate. They were so taken by this particular program that they put 44 young people into it. From memory, 42 progressed at the rate of more than 20 per cent. Two did not, but they had some special issues to be dealt with—and did improve anyway. But the farcical thing in terms of the education system is that the improvement was so great on the external testing that was done that that school lost its disadvantaged school funding the next year because they had been so successful. So what you will see at that particular school are peaks and troughs if we do not come to grips with these sorts of programs where we assist these young people.

The member for Ballarat mentioned briefly the politics of this issue. When the previous government was in power and the voluntary student unionism bill was before this parliament, Senator Barnaby Joyce moved some amendments in the Senate, and those who remember the debate would remember that Senator Fielding became a key number at that time and the legislation went down. But I will always remember—because Senator Joyce had not been in the building for that long at that time—sending him a congratulatory note because of the stance that he took. Senator Joyce is a graduate of the University of New England and would have known, and still knows, the importance of some of the student services and amenities to young people who are away from home and attending university. As I said, I congratulated Senator Joyce on that occasion.

Now that there has been a change of government there seems to have been a change of heart, even though the bill is somewhat different to the previous VSU bill. But I would urge Senator Joyce to look very closely at this bill again because, in my view—as I think he will agree when he reflects on this, as may some of the other Nationals in the Senate—this bill is a significant one in relation to the services that it provides to our young people. It provides that, if the money is not available, it can be part of a loan that the student can pay back after university has been completed.

The National Party senators in particular should pay some heed to what their constituents are saying on this issue. At a recent conference it was voted that they should support this legislation. I think they are in a state of flux at the moment, with some internal divisions with the Liberal Party, so that they are reluctant to break with the Liberals on this particular issue. But I would urge them to look beyond that. Senator Joyce is, I believe, going to be a candidate against me at the next election for the seat of New England, so I should not be praising him up too much. But we will have some degree of common ground during the election campaign in that we both supported this legislation last time, and hopefully he will be supportive of it again on this occasion.

I would urge those senators to reflect on what happened between them and the Liberal Party on the sale of Telstra. I think it is time that they actually did start to stand up on some of these substantive regional issues where our children not only go to university but in most cases live many hundreds of kilometres away from their parents and families whilst at university. Some of the services that this fee goes to providing relate not only to sport and the obvious ones but also to health, counselling and some of the issues where our young people may need help. We would all hope—and I listened to the member for O’Connor earlier on—that none of our kids would need any of those services. But one thing is for certain: if those services are not there, there is no way they will get them. There are occasions when our young people are vulnerable and I think they need the opportunity to seek help. As a parent, I think it is pretty low rent, in a sense, if I can guarantee help to some kids from country backgrounds who need help and assistance from time to time, in that there is a facility at the universities to actually help deliver those services.

I would like to congratulate some of the Australian university sport people from across Australia who have been working hard on this issue, particularly Tom O’Sullivan. Tom has spent a lot of time in Canberra debating this issue and championing the issue with many members of parliament, along with Don Knapp and the University of New England sports director, David Schmude, who was here only last week talking to various people. I would hope that their influence—because they are all very sane, level-headed people—would have some influence on the numbers in the Senate. I would also like to recognise someone who is not with the university movement anymore but who put an enormous amount of work in, in the last parliament: Greg Harris. I think if the legislation is passed, in some shape or other, that Greg will, even though not involved directly now, have been very directly responsible for keeping the issue alive during those early days.

I will conclude by saying that this will be a test for the National Party in the Senate because they actually believe in what the services and amenities fee is about. They fully understand what it means to our kids—particularly country kids but also city kids who are away from home—in terms of service provision. It underpins a lot of the services—services that some of our students may or may not use. But if those services are not there, our students will not be able to use them. As I said earlier, I think that the small contribution that is made, which can be arranged in the form of loan, is a way of making a contribution to university life.

As per my MPI of last week, if members of the House and this packed gallery do not remember anything else they should remember the QuickSmart program, because it is something that really does work and needs our support. There are currently some suggestions before the Minister for Education in relation to that, and the government has been supportive of the program in the past. There are something like 200 schools utilising that program and, when you actually talk to the principals or the teachers of those schools about how it is going, the enthusiasm is quite incredible. If we are serious about the Aboriginal education issue that we talk about in this place quite often, the runs are on the board in the Northern Territory in relation to the empirical evidence—not just rumour and innuendo—of the success of this program in lifting Aboriginal kids who were dragging behind in terms of their numeracy and literacy. So I urge all present to have a look at the QuickSmart program on the website et cetera. If you need to talk to the architects, they will be in the dining room for the next hour and a half.