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Monday, 15 June 2009
Page: 3027


Senator MILNE (1:26 PM) —I rise today to say how very disappointed the Greens are with the government’s decision not to keep the money that was promised to the education infrastructure fund in the fund. I would like to remind the Senate of the genesis of this and the conversation and the argument that occurred in the Senate. In the first quarter of last year when the government brought in its Infrastructure Australia legislation, there was a long debate in the Senate. At that time, I pointed out that the government’s total focus on infrastructure in Australia was based on the assumption that Australia would remain a resource based economy; it was all about building coal ports, railways and roads and the rest of it. I pointed out at the time that if you are going to move to a post-industrial, post-resource based economy and move to a low-carbon economy your major investment has to be in things like education. It is critical infrastructure for the nation to invest in education, skills training and retention, and move Australia from being an economy based on digging up things, cutting down and shipping away. We have to become a more sophisticated economy. We have to invest in manufacturing, innovation and new technology, and to do that we need the innovation coming out of our universities.

Subsequent to the establishment of Infrastructure Australia in the budget last year, the government—taking on board what had been said about the need to move beyond a resourced based economy—announced an Education Investment Fund. At the time the government said that that fund would come from the transfer of what had previously been known as the Higher Education Endowment Fund, and that it would be added to in this year’s budget. Interestingly, the amount at that particular time was $6.5 billion, which would be transferred from the old Higher Education Endowment Fund. Now, as a result of the government’s decision to redirect money and not fulfil its promise to the nation last year in terms of education infrastructure, we find that there will still be $6.5 billion in the Education Investment Fund. In other words, all we have in the Education Investment Fund now is what was transferred from the old Higher Education Endowment Fund.

All of the publicity and all the hype last year about the money and the interest being made available to universities, to the higher education sector, to invest in new infrastructure was no more than hot air. I am really surprised that universities across Australia have not been much more outspoken in their criticism of the government’s failure. In part, that is because the government made several promises to the higher education sector in this year’s budget. But I wonder how closely the universities have actually looked at them, because the government’s promises for this year are going to be funded out of the Education Investment Fund. The Prime Minister announced that $4.1 billion has been committed in the 2009-10 budget, so we have already seen a substantial amount of the previous fund, the Higher Education Endowment Fund, spent in this year’s budget, with very little capacity in the future to build infrastructure in education, as indeed the Chief Executive Officer of Universities Australia, Glenn Withers, pointed out on 20 May this year. He said that the sector would require extra funding to cover the infrastructure needed to support the government’s plans to expand the number of students attending universities—reforms announced in the budget—and that this spending was not currently covered by the Education Investment Fund. He said:

To reach those [new participation goals] we need more volume infrastructure, not just excellence infrastructure.

Where is the ‘more volume infrastructure’ going to come from for our universities to physically house and teach the expanded number of students who are going to come—and I hope they do come—from the initiatives to increase participation at the tertiary level? This really has been an extraordinary sleight of hand: $6.2 billion of an existing fund, the Higher Education Endowment Fund, transferred last year into the Education Investment Fund and the promised increases not put into that fund but diverted. The universities have not realised that they are actually losing big time because their Higher Education Endowment Fund—or the Education Investment Fund, as they are now calling it—is going to fund the initiatives from this year’s budget, leaving them precious little in that fund to cope with the capital needs they will have for building infrastructure into the future. That is a bad idea.

What is the money going to be used for? The government has announced that $2.5 billion will not go into education infrastructure; instead, it will go to the $4.5 billion Clean Energy Initiative. One billion dollars of that already existed, so it will have $3.5 billion and—what a coincidence—$2 billion has been promised for industrial-scale carbon capture and storage projects under the Carbon Capture and Storage Flagship program. So we are seeing $2.5 billion for infrastructure taken out of the universities sector and given straight to the coal industry. This is the community subsidising coal to the detriment of students and increased participation rates in our universities.

The Greens’ view is well known to the Senate—that is, if the coal industry is confident that carbon capture and storage will work then it will fund it itself. After all, the coal industry has made extraordinary profits over the last 150 years by treating the atmosphere as a waste dump for the coal industry, privatising the profits and socialising the costs. The cost is the greenhouse effect. The cost is global warming. And it is being met by increasing numbers of people dying around the world because of the impacts of global warming that are striking us right now. Why wouldn’t you expect the coal industry to spend $2 billion on its own future? It has no legitimacy without carbon capture and storage. Several of Australia’s leading scientists, David Karoly amongst them, wrote to the coal industry recently saying: you cannot continue with coal-fired power stations unless you have carbon capture and storage, and that technology is not going to be available in the foreseeable future—certainly not in the time frame in which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said we need to address dangerous climate change. We only have until 2015, and carbon capture and storage is going to be nowhere in that time frame.

Only last week I was at the CSIRO centre in Newcastle talking to them about the work they are doing on carbon capture and storage. Here is another example of the complete failure to have a whole-of-government approach on these issues. That particular research institution is looking at the capacity to capture carbon from coal-fired power stations—postcombustion capture—but who is actually doing the map on the capacity for storage? It is no use proving you can capture CO2 unless you can also prove you have the volume capacity in suitable geological structures to absorb the liquid carbon dioxide you are going to end up with at the end of the process. It is no use proving it if you cannot afford to pipe the liquid carbon dioxide from the Hunter Valley down to the Otway Basin in Victoria. Whatever that is going to cost—and of course it will be the community who end up paying for that infrastructure too; you can guarantee it—it will never be cost-effective compared with wind and solar thermal, which you can bring on-stream right now.

The issue here is that instead of the government honouring the commitment to the higher education sector that they made in last year’s budget—and there were accolades from one end of the country to the other because at last Australia was going to invest in education—we find that they are not investing in education at all. They are using the previously acquired funds of the Higher Education Endowment Fund to fund this year’s budget promises. There will be no capacity to build the infrastructure that will be necessary if we are to move to a postindustrial society. If we are to get beyond digging holes and cutting down and shipping away, we need not just excellence in our universities but the people and the physical space and infrastructure to absorb them.

I think it is very interesting that the government has not actually specified where the $2 billion is going in terms of the Clean Energy Initiative. It is trying to suggest that the $2 billion will just get mixed up in the $3½ billion of new money that is going to be spent partly on the $2 billion Carbon Capture and Storage Flagships program. There is $500 million going into Renewables Australia, which is the $500 million previously promised. Then there is $1.6 billion in solar technologies including $1.4 billion in the Solar Flagships program. So mixing clean coal and solar into this Clean Energy Initiative could imply that some of this money is going into solar. If that is the case, the government should be finding the money for solar energy elsewhere in its budget; it should not be taking it out of money that was promised to students in Australia to allow them to participate fully in reasonable conditions—physical spaces—in our universities.

This is a retrograde step from the government. I do not believe that one cent of public money should be used to cross-subsidise the coal industry’s research on carbon capture and storage. That industry is rich enough to pay for its own research. Its future depends on paying for its own research and proving it in a time frame that is consistent with the scientific imperatives. I strongly want to put on the public record the fact that the Greens are disgusted with the government’s sleight of hand on the education infrastructure funding initiative announced last year. As I indicated, I am very surprised that the university sector are not more outspoken on this. We can expect them to be more outspoken in the future as they come to realise how little will be left in the education infrastructure fund when the real test is absorbing this larger number of students, whom I hope we get enrolled. When they do enrol in universities across the country, the universities will be back here saying, ‘What happened to our education infrastructure fund?’ What will have happened to it is that it will have gone across to the coal industry to pump good money after bad down holes in the ground—into technology that is not economically viable and will not be economically viable in the time frame required. Every dollar spent on that carbon capture and storage is a dollar that is costing students, and that ought not to be the case.