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Monday, 18 November 2002
Page: 6618

Senator CARR (4:50 PM) — Before question time I was speaking to the Higher Education Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 3) 2002—this Greenwich University bill—which is a belated attempt by the Commonwealth government to try to fix up the mess that it has created as a result of incompetence within the ministry. I indicated—and I am now reading the pinks from the earlier session—that part of the difficulty was the failure of the minister's office to actually fulfil its responsibilities to make sure that the minister's obligations were actually being met.

I indicated that the minister's staff member—who is now a leading advocate for deregulation in this country, Mr Andrew Norton—had actually said, `What does it matter if there is one more bodgie university in this country?' In fact, he said that there are so many bodgie universities in Australia now, one more does not matter. Unfortunately, in the previous session I may well have said it was Philip Norton. I do not want to confuse the two. It is Andrew Norton, a former adviser to Mr Kemp, or Dr Kemp, who made those remarks.

Senator Kemp —Dr Kemp to you!

Senator CARR —Senator, I do not know what he is to you, but I would have thought there would be considerable questions raised there.

Senator Kemp —He is my brother; I can be more familiar!

Senator CARR —You can be more familiar with him. I wonder how familiar he would be with you, though. What we have, then, is a situation whereby, back on 9 December 1997, an officer of the Department of Transport and Regional Development—according to the Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs— telephoned a non-SES officer and asked some questions about the administrative processes for the registration of a university. On 17 December 1997 this happened again. According to the department's answer to me on 6 May 1999, there was a suggestion from a non-SES officer that there were processes to be dealt with through the states. Further telephone contact took place a year later. On 5 August 1998, a Transport official once again rang a non-SES officer in Australian Education International—AEI—to ask how the accreditation processes were run. Once again, they were given the brush-off. It is reported that, on 21 or 22 December 1998, an officer of the Department of Transport and Regional Services contacted a non-SES officer of the Higher Education Division of DEETYA, as it then was, to seek information about the Australian Qualifications Framework and the process by which university courses were accredited in Australia. They were advised in the usual brush-off way. Sometime between 4 January and 11 January 1999, various inquiries were made by fax, email and other means between the two departments. This is what the department of education have presented to the Senate as their explanation of how this catastrophe developed.

The truth is that they have ignored the fundamental fact that the then Minister for Regional Services, Territories and Local Government, Senator Macdonald, was led to believe that an Internet university would work on only one island and, further, that the then minister for education, Dr Kemp, through his adviser Andrew Norton, took the view that it did not really matter at all. So the Senate has been obliged to follow these issues through and, despite repeated Privileges Committee inquiries, complaints ad nauseam and various threats of legal action, truth has triumphed. Truth has finally triumphed in this place because the government has had to acknowledge the shocking failure of its administration. I have heard many a Liberal in this chamber try to defend the government's actions on this. I remember Senator Abetz saying that the opposition had `whipped up some sort of frenzy' and made an `unprincipled and unsustained attack' on this so-called university. He went on to say in June 1999— and I quote him at length because it truly was an extraordinary proposition that the government advanced—that, as far as he was concerned:

Over the months now, we have had to listen in this place to these unprincipled and unsustained attacks. Senator Tierney, to his great credit, has done a welter of research on this and has completely exposed Senator Carr's lack of intellectual integrity and indeed the bankruptness of his arguments in relation to the allegations he has been making against Greenwich University. Indeed, one of the things that Senator Carr has been accusing Greenwich University of in recent times is that they had people of no real academic repute. I think that has been absolutely and utterly laid to rest.

Quite clearly, the government does not hold those views. Despite what the minister has said, it is quite clear that the government has had to acknowledge just how completely wrong its actions have been in regard to that. The Liberal Party made claims in this chamber to defend this shonky outfit and say that the allegations being made were unsustained. It has now come to the point where the government has had to acknowledge that this mob of shysters should be run out of town. It has finally realised its obligation in this regard. We have had a Senate inquiry through the Senate estimates hearings, we have had various debates in this chamber and, finally, the department's internal inquiries and its ad hoc committee headed up by Mr Gallagher have identified that the serious allegations made against these various crooks out at Norfolk Island have been demonstrated to be correct.

What strikes me as the real tragedy here is that it has taken four years of extraordinary damage being done for this government to acknowledge its responsibilities. I think it ought to be demonstrated that, in regard to this government's failure, there is no-one to be blamed here other than Senator Ian Macdonald. He, ultimately, is responsible because he had the opportunity to stop this occurring. We could also point out that Dr Kemp had the opportunity to refuse the approval process and could well have asked the Governor-General to intervene before the legislation was agreed to in its final form. The truth of the matter is that it was Senator Ian Macdonald who directed the administrator on Norfolk Island to sign that legislation into law.

We have a shonky outfit which is one of the worst degree mills this country has ever seen. There is a whole series of them, true enough. There was the university operating out of the post office box. There was the so-called university operating out of a grog shop in Adelaide—the wholesale whisky distributing company. There were various other outfits, but this was the shining one. This was the guiding light for degree mills in this country, and it took four years for the government to close them down. I think it is appropriate now that the government make sure that these sorts of fake degrees and bogus and unauthorised higher education institutes are exposed on a regular basis, because this is a bit like the tax avoidance industry—you need constant supervision to make sure that this sort of moss does not grow all over the education system as a whole. The Australian Universities Quality Agency has a responsibility here but, in its current form, it is essentially a toothless tiger—in fact it is a bit of a squeaky mouse in many respects. It is just not able to do the job, and other actions may well have to be taken to ensure that these sorts of degree mills do not establish a foothold in this country and undermine its international educational effort as a whole.

The attitude that has led to this is a doctrinaire assumption that the market should rule—that is, that we should not interfere in the market and that we should not in any way seek to prevent the market acting as a distributive mechanism. That is clearly an approach that has failed. What we have got to acknowledge, however, is that the cavalier and `don't care' attitudes are simply not good enough. The hard lesson and the joke that have originated from Greenwich should at least have taught us that this government has responsibilities to fulfil and that there is an obligation upon ministers to ensure that those responsibilities are carried out. I hope that this saga is never repeated. However, I think it is important that the Senate remind the government of some of its failings. Therefore, I move the following second reading amendment:

At the end of the motion, add “but the Senate condemns the Government for:

(a) agreeing in December 1998 to the Greenwich University Act passed by the Norfolk Island legislature;

(b) its delay in releasing the final report resulting from the April 1999 Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs resolution calling for an investigation into the academic and resource criteria of Greenwich `University';

(c) its delay in acting on the recommendations of the December 2000 Report on the Application by the Norfolk Island Government for the Listing of Greenwich University on the Australian Qualifications Framework Register that, `the standard of its courses, quality assurance mechanisms and its academic leadership fail to meet the standards expected of Australian universities'; and

(d) its failure to recognise the urgent need for action to address issues relating to quality in the higher education sector”.

I make the point that, as senators, we undertake campaigns and take on issues that often seem very daunting and, in the process, we find that there are considerable hurdles to overcome. It is difficult sometimes for the opposition to punch through when the government is defending these sorts of crooks, when there are certain sections of the media not prepared to challenge the way standards in the sector are declining and when there is a group of people prepared to use the legal system to try to prevent these issues coming to the public fore. For instance, I notice that this crowd out at Greenwich tried to sue ACPET, the Australian Council for Private Education and Training, when they sought to raise concerns about Greenwich's behaviour. And Greenwich tried to sue them in a way that would have crippled the organisation— from memory Greenwich was seeking about $1 million by way of damages. Greenwich did that because the executive officer and the president of ACPET raised the question that there were issues in regard to this crowd.

There is a range of questions that arise and that prevent these issues being debated in public. If it were not for our staff and their research facilities, I suspect many senators would not be able to fulfil their function in this place. I would like to place on the record my thanks to my office for the research effort they have put in. There has been a range of people involved in this process over a number of years, including the current candidate in the Victorian seat of Eltham, Steve Herbert. I trust he will be able to make a very fine contribution to the Victorian parliament. There are many others, including Andrew Reeves from my office, who have worked on it. But I particularly want to thank Jane Nicholls for the persistent effort she has put in to making sure that information has been provided to me, which has allowed me to carry this fight through. I ask for the Senate's support for the second reading amendment we have moved, and I trust that the government never allows this situation to occur again.