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Thursday, 2 June 1994
Page: 1172

Senator TEAGUE (11.10 a.m.) —I rise to speak only about the imposition of new measures with regard to the collection of the higher education contribution charge. In the examination of the Department of Employment, Education and Training by Estimates Committee E for some seven hours last Friday, 27 May, I made this statement on page E130, when we were talking about this matter:

In any event, this has still to be passed by the parliament, and it is quite likely that the Senate will block this new measure.

I am very glad that this debate has confirmed that this measure will be blocked. There is a penny-pinching and unjustified basis for the government going ahead with this, not only with regard to PAYE collections of HECS debts but also with regard to the double penalty to be suffered by those paying provisional tax.

  Those students and graduates who are well off are more likely to pay the HECS debt up front and, therefore, these matters do not arise for them. Those who are less well off will pay HECS debts on a yearly basis when they are employed. If they have the opportunity to set up a small business and are subject to provisional tax arrangements, they will then have this additional penalty of double HECS debt rates of payment. I do not regard that as just and it should not be supported by the Senate.  Accordingly, I support the words of Senator Short's amendment:

. . . condemns the Government for:

  (a) Its desperate pursuit of every last cent of revenue, without regard to the costs that this imposes on industry and on all Australians;

. . . . . . . . .

. . . and for including Higher Education Contributions debt in the provisional tax regime.

I will also support Senator Watson in the precise committee stage amendments that are required to knock this out of the Taxation Laws Amendment Bill (No. 2).

Senator Watson —Both PAYE and provisional tax.

Senator TEAGUE —That is it—with regard to both PAYE and provisional tax collections. I also commend my good friend and colleague Senator Watson for the careful way in which he has handled this and, indeed, all other tax matters over a long period. Senator Watson and I came to the Senate together 16 years ago, and in that time I, more than anyone, have observed his carefulness not only in this chamber but publicly, in his profession and in our party room. His credibility with regard to these matters is very high.

  The government has failed to live up to its promises to consult students with regard to matters that affect students. We have a tired government which has been in office for more than 11 years now. In the early stages it was always professing, `We will discuss with the representatives of students any options for change that may affect students.' Those words, perhaps, are still mouthed before elections by representatives of the Australian Labor Party but they are not lived up to. I refer to my questions and the answers given by the responsible public servants in Estimates Committee E last Friday. I quote again from page E130 of 27 May, where I asked:

More particularly, what measures were taken to consult students before this change?

Ms McKay gave a very accurate answer; I commend her for being straightforward and truthful. She said:

There was no extensive consultation over any of the HECS changes with community groups last year, prior to the announcement in the budget.

On the next page we go on to discuss that answer, and that answer stands. The accurate answer which, after all of the discussion, is the right conclusion is the very first sentence used by the appropriate public servant—in fact, the person in the Department of Employment, Education and Training who is responsible for benefits to students .

  However, a little later another public servant—anyone who is interested can see the name in the text—tried to say, `However, we do consult periodically with all sorts of representatives about general matters to hear their views.' That was not in dispute. What was in dispute was this: `With regard to the options of these specific changes, did you consult with the people who were going to be affected by them?' The answer was, "No.' I took up this public servant's lame defence by asking more about it. The public servant said;

There was a briefing with NUS, before the budget was announced, that outlined what these measures entail.

I asked:

When was that held?

The public servant said:

It was held the day before the budget.

My question:

Was the budget already tightly in place?

The answer from the public servant:

Yes, Senator.

I then asked:

There was no possibility that that briefing—as you have put it—the day before the budget could have changed the government's announcement?

The public servant said:


Obviously that confirmed the original, accurate answer given by Ms McKay. I do not welcome the prevarications and the attempts of public servants who want to please ministers or whatever to try to represent an alternative answer to the essential question. The essential question was: `With these proposed changes that would affect students, did you discuss those changes with the students?' The answer is, `No.' The Labor government—either ministers or public servants—did not consult the students who were affected. Let it never be put forward by this government or by the department that they are fair dinkum in their current consultations about HECS proposals such as these. I will not bore the Senate with Austudy changes, which arose in the same estimates hearings, about which I asked, `Were they consulted?' The answer was, `No, they were not consulted.'

  I regard this as another reason for the Senate to block these measures. The government did not announce these reforms prior to the election. It has no mandate to do this. It is penny-pinching, it is without consultation, and it is not acceptable to the Senate. As Senator Bell said in his speech, we have already debated—this was in the August budget of last year—the increase in the income threshold at which HECS debt is to be repaid. It happens that the parliament approved those changes on the merits of the argument. But these sorts of penny-pinching burdens, unfairly placed on students, are opposed by the Liberal and National parties.

  The government estimates that this measure will lead to an addition to revenue of $5 million in a year. This is a small amount, given the total HECS debt, but it is of great consequence to that minority of students it will affect. The government wants to put a $5 million burden on a few students after they graduate. That is not acceptable. I look forward to the Senate supporting not only Senator Short's second reading amendment but Senator Watson's committee stage amendments.