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Wednesday, 3 February 2010
Page: 334

Senator CARR (Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research) (6:16 PM) —I commenced my remarks earlier by thanking members who have participated in the debate to date. I also indicated that while we have pretty high levels of tolerance of hypocrisy in this chamber, the cant and humbug that we have heard from the coalition on these matters does reach a new level. I have seen press releases from Senator Cormann claiming that the government has been dragging the chain on this bill.

Senator Cormann interjecting—

Senator CARR —This is a bill that has been ready to go for nearly 12 months. It has been held up by the coalition, who refused my efforts to have this matter dealt with last year and refused to have this issue dealt with as non-controversial legislation.

Senator Cormann interjecting—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Forshaw)—Order! Senator Cormann, will you cease interjecting.

Senator Cormann —Well he’s provoking—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Cormann, I have asked you to cease interjecting!

Senator CARR —As I was saying, the hypocrisy, the cant and the humbug of the impostors that carried forward on this matter, who have sought to frustrate the government at every turn in dealing with a very serious issue, has to be drawn to the attention of the chamber.

Senator Cormann’s statement about the government’s procrastination on the issue of overseas students stands in sharp contrast to the fact that the opposition cannot even work out who is their spokesperson on this matter. One of the contributing factors here is that the opposition cannot work out who we are supposed to deal with. So not only have they been frustrating the work of the government on this question—last year they refused to have this matter dealt with—they have also refused to identify a coherent process by which we can discuss these questions with the opposition.

On top of that we have Senator Macdonald putting out a press release slamming the member for Leichhardt over the issue of the provision of quality assurance for international education. This is a senator who as the Minister for Regional Services, Territories and Local Government approved that shocking scandal of the Norfolk Island Greenwich University. He was the one who gave us the Duke of Brannagh; he was the one who gave us the degree mill at Greenwich University. And on what basis? As I understand it, a conversation between Senator Macdonald and Mr Kemp, who was the minister for education at the time. He agreed to sign off on the approvals and did not know what he had done, and acknowledged this after the scandal was made public. This is an opposition who when in government—and I draw Senator Cormann’s attention to this fact—had a range of education ministers. In opposition, I had to deal with Senator Brandis, Senator Vanstone, Senator Alston, Senator Ellison and Senator Vanstone again back in 1996, who had a policy of avoiding dealing with this question. It was only the persistent campaigning by the Labor opposition that saw a series of amendments being moved throughout the 1990s to deal with these questions.

The truth of the matter is this: when it comes to this very important industry, dealing with quality assurance is the sort of thing that requires consistent and persistent attention by ministers. It is like tax avoidance: it is not something that you deal with and then forget. There are always people about who are seeking to undermine our international reputation, and the failure of the previous government to deal with this question led to a situation whereby there had to be amendments to the Education Services for Overseas Students Act, which was first introduced in 1991, in 1994, 1997, 1999 and 2001. As a direct result of the denial of the government of the previous parliament to address the mushrooming of the degree mills that had been established, we saw St Clements in Adelaide—Senator Cormann would remember this; he would be a great expert on this question—operating out of a grog shop. We had whisky distillery companies operating as universities. This was the sort of action under the previous government, and Senator Cormann wants to put out press releases like this rubbish where he suddenly asserts his expertise in these areas.

The truth of the matter is that the government has acted. The minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, upon coming to office set up a series of measures to ensure that these basic questions of quality assurance were dealt with promptly. And there are some measures that have been dealt with through the states, measures that have been dealt with through the establishment of new regulatory arrangements and measures to be dealt with in establishing new arrangements within the department itself. So the minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, has acted quickly, but it has been the opposition that has sought to frustrate the work of the government in ensuring that legislation of this importance is able to be put to the parliament and carried.

We are very pleased that this legislation has received such widespread support, even though we now see that a number of amendments are sought by the opposition. The trouble with dealing with the opposition is that they really are grossly inconsistent in their approach. I trust that what they said yesterday will be the case today, and we will establish that in due course. Three amendments, in terms of matters that go to accountability of actions for the new fund management arrangements, were dealt with when this matter was before the House and the minister has put a series of responses back to the opposition which we are led to believe have been acknowledged and accepted by the opposition. Amendments that were proposed were properly placed in regulation rather than brought about by amendment. We understood that those were matters that the opposition had accepted, although I see amendments are being moved in that regard. We will argue the case when it comes to dealing with those matters in the committee stages of the bill.

The government does not accept the second reading amendments that are being proposed, essentially because those amendments do not add anything whatsoever to the effective management of this industry. The Deputy Prime Minister has undertaken, through state and territory ministers, to assess all high-risk providers by 30 June this year. She has moved to establish risk criteria by agreement with the states through a joint committee on international education. Of course, that is not dissimilar to the proposal that has been put to us in second reading amendments.

The proposal to establish an independent commission, however, is something else entirely. It is not a matter that the government is able to accept. The minister has established the Baird review and that review is looking at student advocacy, effective regulations and ways in which we can improve the current administrative arrangements. The establishment of the independent commission would certainly not improve that review process. Our view is that that is not a proposition that we can support and we will not be voting in favour of it. Given the hour, I will have plenty of opportunity to explore those issues further in the committee stage. I commend the bill to the chamber.