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Tuesday, 3 December 2013
Page: 1448

Mrs PRENTICE (Ryan) (17:19): Make no mistake—the measures in the Higher Education Support Amendment (Savings and Other Measures) Bill 2013 are Labor's cuts, the culmination of a period of chaotic thought-bubble decision making and thoughtless chopping and changing. For the last five years, Labor has had the university sector on a rollercoaster ride, uncertain what would come next. This occurred in the context of Labor's complete mismanagement of the federal budget—their irresponsible spendathon, as the minister called it. This shambolic time came to a head in April this year when, on top of earlier cuts, Labor announced several measures to hit students and hit universities.

I note the press release by the shadow higher education minister issued earlier today. Surprise, surprise! Now cowering behind the safety of the opposition benches, Labor is performing a spectacular backflip and opposing their own measures. They are doing so even though the cuts to higher education were included in Labor's own Pre-election Fiscal Outlook just a few months ago.

The worst of Labor's cuts was their decision to put a cap on the tax deductibility of self-education expenses. It should have been obvious that this would adversely impact our ability to maintain the skills of front-line staff in areas such as health and education. Indeed, contrary to Labor's propaganda, the vast bulk of claims come from those earning less than $80,000 per annum. Thousands of nurses, teachers and doctors were affected—our front-line staff and those struggling to maintain and improve their skills. Although they deferred it for one year, Labor were not prepared to say they were wrong and abandon this policy. Heaven forbid—that could have actually enabled universities and students to plan for the future! Instead, Labor announced a review and allowed the uncertainty to continue, leaving the sector on tenterhooks and adding further to the fiscal mess they were leaving for the next government. Under a coalition government, with the reversal of this measure, we will restore the stability the higher education sector needs and create an environment that will enable universities and students to drive the research outcomes, innovation and productivity needed for Australia to enjoy a prosperous future.

However, the measures I am speaking about today are among the last of Labor's higher education cuts—the last remnants of those years of Labor's on again, off again funding chaos. Although it is not our preferred policy, given the fiscal disaster we have inherited from Labor, the coalition is unfortunately left with no choice but to proceed with the efficiency dividend. Many of my constituents are students at the University of Queensland and have expressed their apprehension about Labor's cuts and their refusal to provide certainty to Australian universities and their students. We want a strong, high-quality university sector that is sustainable into the long term, which is why we must fix the budget. Similarly, it is not our preference to proceed with Labor's changes to remove HECS-HELP upfront discounts and voluntary repayment bonuses. This will not affect funding for universities but it does remove the incentives for students to pay upfront or to repay their HECS-HELP debt early. Again, given the utter budget disaster the coalition has inherited, we have no option other than to implement Labor's cuts.

There was a much larger group of students who stood to benefit from continued access to tax deductions for self-education, which had been put in direct jeopardy by the Labor measure to cap these tax deductions at unrealistically low levels. The coalition government abolished the cap, along with a raft of other inefficient and productivity-reducing taxes, and this was great news both for workers wanting to upgrade their qualifications and for universities. The coalition is delivering more funding for schools after Labor cut $1.2 billion from schools funding.

When it comes to hypocrisy, we can rely on Labor to be a star performer. It is nothing less than blatant, shameful hypocrisy for Labor to now backflip on their own cuts to higher education. It is a despicable act to leave the nation's accounts in such chaos that there is no responsible option other than to implement such cuts, and yet Labor now in a cowardly manner turn their back when their mess needs to be cleaned up. This is nothing new from Labor—indeed it is what we have come to expect of them. Unfortunately we cannot afford to reverse all of these Labor cuts. The fiscal mess—the national credit card debt—that Labor left does not allow a responsible government to do that. The coalition has removed the worst measure—the cap on tax deductibility. The rest, unfortunately, must proceed to help fix the record budget deficit and rebuild a sustainable economy for a stable higher education sector. The University of Queensland students with whom I have spoken, while concerned about Labor's changes, do understand the need to repair the nation's financial position—and they understand that it is necessary to improve the budget now in order to build a better future.

The measures in this bill do not in any way diminish the coalition's commitment to quality. That commitment is evident in steps the minister has already taken. The government is committed to doing all it can to ensure Australia's higher education system focuses more on quality and less on red tape, and is effective in providing the graduates and research outcomes needed to sustain our economy and culture. These measures are necessary to help us unshackle the chains of poor and reckless financial management inflicted on our nation's budget by an irresponsible Labor government and apply ourselves to the task of working with the higher education sector to develop, maintain, and improve quality and sustainable higher education for the decades to come.

The member for Cunningham and many members of the opposition enjoy making mendacious comments about the Queensland government and the Premier of Queensland, Campbell Newman. I assume they are just jealous of the success he has had in Queensland. I would like to correct the record. It was Labor state governments that closed 139 schools across Queensland. They closed, on average, seven schools each year for around 20 years. The LNP government in Queensland has not cut the education budget—it has increased it. It has spent more money on education. It is looking at closing only six schools, but it is looking at building another 28. So, once again, we have hypocrisy and false information from the other side of the chamber. It is the Liberal Party which has, since our foundation under Sir Robert Menzies, been committed to high-quality higher education and to creating opportunities for students, and we remain firmly committed to those goals today.