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Wednesday, 16 October 2002
Page: 5308

Senator CROSSIN (4:10 PM) —I also rise to take note of this response from the Minister for Education, Science and Training. Senator Ian Campbell, I suggest that if anyone in this chamber needs to do a bit of homework I am afraid it may well be you, in relation to your extreme lack of knowledge about higher education. I am sure your comments will well see you remain in the role of parliamentary secretary. Heaven forbid on the day you become the minister for education: you will be on a very steep learning curve in relation to what you do not know about higher education—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESI-DENT —Senator Crossin, I ask you to address your comments to the chair, not directly to a senator across the chamber.

Senator CROSSIN —Thank you, Madam Acting Deputy President. Senator Ian Campbell will be aware that his extreme lack of knowledge of higher education proves that that sector is in crisis. This was not a politically motivated report.

Senator Ian Campbell —Madam Acting Deputy President, I raise a point of order. I ask you to request that the senator be relevant to the document we are debating. It is a document that addresses one issue—that is, the timeliness of a response from the minister to a report by a references committee.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESI-DENT —Senator Crossin, I would ask you to address your remarks to the question before the chair.

Senator CROSSIN —My remarks are in fact very relevant, because we are talking about this minister's response, or lack thereof, to a report that the Employment, Workplace Relations and Education References Committee undertook in relation to the higher education sector. It is not a politically motivated report, nor was it an exercise designed to do anything other than highlight to this government exactly what state that sector is in. A number of members of the committee spent many days and many months travelling around this country. In fact, the committee took submissions from a whole range of individuals—students and vice-chancellors in particular.

Senator Ian Campbell —Madam Acting Deputy President, I raise a point of order. We are not debating the report. The report will be tabled tomorrow and there will be an opportunity to debate that report tomorrow. Today we are debating a letter which contains four paragraphs about the timing of the tabling of that report. Once again, I ask you to ask the honourable senator opposite to address her remarks to the motion before the chair.

Senator Carr —Further to the point of order, we are dealing with the motion that I moved to take note of the minister's letter.

Senator Ian Campbell —Quite right.

Senator Carr —I must put this to you: the letter concerned the government's failure to respond to the Senate report Universitiesincrisis. It pointed out the government's claim that they had not responded because it was at the printers. Thirdly, it pointed out that the government felt that they had some excuse because of the change of minister. The letter further pointed out that the government were undertaking a comprehensive review. The government have introduced a whole series of matters which are consistent with the motion and consistent with the speech that Senator Crossin is giving. The government are simply trying to run interference to prevent the senator from presenting her views.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESI-DENT —Senator Crossin, I would ask you to make your comments relevant to the taking note of the response by Dr Nelson.

Senator CROSSIN —It is quite okay for Senator Ian Campbell on the other side of the chamber to rave on and on about what this government has done for higher education, to make some spurious comments about vice-chancellors being mates with the unions. If you knew anything about the higher education sector, that would be as far from the truth as you can get. But it is not okay, according to you, for people in the opposition to talk about the matter at heart, which is the inquiry into higher education and the lack of response from the minister.

Senator Ian Campbell —Madam Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. I think the senator is now debating your ruling. If she would like to debate your ruling or differ from your ruling, I ask that she move dissent from that ruling and not debate it. She should be asked to debate the letter that we are taking note of, not your ruling.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESI-DENT —Senator Crossin, I ask you to please address your comments to the motion before the chamber on Dr Nelson's response.

Senator CROSSIN —I will continue to talk about higher education and it being in crisis in this country because that is exactly what the report is about. That is exactly what the minister's response is about.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESI-DENT —We are not debating the report; we are debating Dr Nelson's response.

Senator CROSSIN —That is right: his response to the fact that he has not responded to the report that we conducted. Senator Ian Campbell himself raised the issue that the minister is conducting a review of higher education this year. To tell you the truth, that review is really a death by a thousand cuts in that sector. For all the chaos that Senator Vanstone created when she was minister in this area, at least she simply ripped the guts out of the higher education sector in one fell swoop and took operational funding away. This minister, by slowly leaking seven discussion papers onto a web site, is attempting to conduct his own review of education.

Senator Ian Campbell —Madam Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. Senator Crossin again seems to be straying from your ruling and from the standing orders. She is now talking about a policy review being undertaken by the minister. If those opposite want to have a discussion about education policy and the policy review, I suggest that they raise a matter of public importance or an urgency motion, which I am sure Senator Carr could word up for the senator opposite. But you cannot start canvassing the detail of the policy review on higher education policy when you have just moved a motion to take note of a letter explaining when a report is to be tabled. It is absurd; it is outside the standing orders. I ask you once again to bring this recalcitrant senator back to order.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESI-DENT —Senator Campbell, I do recognise the difficulty with which this debate is taking place, but I also understand that Dr Nelson has mentioned in his letter the question of review. Once again, I ask all honourable senators to address their remarks to the question before the chair.

Senator CROSSIN —On behalf of Senator Ian Campbell, perhaps I should apologise for wasting the Senate's time in this way when the letter clearly refers to a review that the minister is currently undertaking. You yourself, Senator Campbell, in your reply to Senator Carr, stood there and talked about the current review.

Senator Ian Campbell —I raise a point of order, Madam Acting Deputy President: the senator must be required to address the chair and not to address remarks across the chamber to me. It is a basic standing order which all senators, even if they have only been here for five minutes, should understand. Her remarks must be addressed to you and not to me.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESI-DENT —I ask you again, Senator Crossin, to make that distinction.

Senator CROSSIN —Thank you, Madam Acting Deputy President. Perhaps I might ask you to remind the senator opposite that I do not need a closed fist thumping a desk to have a point of order taken on me, but that probably emulates that senator's style wholeheartedly.

This letter actually says that one of the reasons we do not have a response at this stage is that, according to this minister, he has been `undertaking a comprehensive review of the higher education sector.' Let me make some comments about that review according to this letter, which is the reason that we are taking note today. We know that the government does not like us bringing this up—and we know particularly, Senator Ian Campbell, your lack of knowledge in this area and the fact that you are feeling extremely sensitive this afternoon about the fact that we are raising it—because this sector is in fact in crisis. The President of the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee admitted to the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations and Education References Committee, on the transcript last year, that that in fact was the case.

The review that is being undertaken by this minister consists of seven discussion papers, put up on a web site, to which people are given an opportunity to respond. Heaven help you if you do not have access to the web site and therefore you have no access to such discussion papers. There has been no attempt to hold community based forums in rural or regional areas, so I am not entirely sure what the word `comprehensive' in this letter actually means, but the review is certainly far from comprehensive. It is a death by a thousand cuts—or, at least, seven large cuts if you look at the discussion papers that have been put on that web site. That is not an excuse for not responding to the many hours that were spent by the references committee of the Senate undertaking a report on and a review of the university sector in this country. That review and that inquiry clearly showed that there are many problems in this country that this government needs to attend to, at least to recognise and to address. This may well be happening in the review, but that is not an excuse for this minister not to at least have the courtesy to respond to—

Senator Carr —Since February.

Senator CROSSIN —Exactly; since February. He should at least have the courtesy of responding not only to the hard work that witnesses put in when they presented evidence before this inquiry but also to the work that the committee secretariat put in in ensuring this committee gets around this country, as well as what Hansard and the like put in and the work that goes into actually writing these reports and taking evidence. This minister has had this report since February. There is no excuse, really, for the fact that this Senate does not have his response to look at.

I want to say some things in response to some of the claims that Senator Ian Campbell made—and if it was all right for Senator Campbell to raise them, even though they were not related to this letter, then it is all right for us in the opposition to respond to them. Senator Campbell made some reference to what he believes may well be Labor Party policy in relation to us wanting to prop up vice-chancellors' salaries and in relation to some claim about vice-chancellors being mates with the people who work in the trade union movement in that area. Having actually worked in that area for the eight years before I came into this Senate, I know there is no such thing as a `club' or `relationship' between vice-chancellors and the unions. In fact, it was the government that you belong to, Senator Campbell, that required that any further increases in the last three years in the higher education sector would only be agreed to by this government in terms of increasing their operational funding if nine out of 15 items were put into the enterprise agreements in universities.

If there is anyone in this chamber who has a close relationship with the vice-chancellors and has tied the hands of universities, which may want to become extremely flexible and productive yet have not been able to because they have been forced to take nine sections out of 15 in your enterprise bargaining list, it is this government. It is genuine bargaining when you do not have genuine bargaining, according to this government. If there is any sector in this country that has been forced, and had its hands tied, regarding what it can and cannot do when it comes to wage increases, it has been the higher education sector through this federal government's policies. It is not acceptable.

The reason people in this chamber are debating this is that this report took months and months to compile. Universities and vice-chancellors all around this country gave evidence to us. We visited many universities. At the end of the day, even according to the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee, this is a sector in crisis. And yet, months later, we still do not have a response to that report from this minister, and that is not acceptable.

Question agreed to.