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Tuesday, 20 March 2012
Page: 2332


Senator BACK (Western Australia) (19:58): The key performance indicator for the Gillard-Brown government is exactly the same as that for a pickpocket in Dickensian England, that being the extent to which this government can rip off its unsuspecting citizens firstly without them knowing it or, secondly, until it is too late for them to be able to take any action. Can't you just see how delighted the likes of Fagin, Bill Sikes, the Artful Dodger and Charley Bates would be if they reviewed what is now the latest of the taxes that are going to be inflicted upon the more vulnerable of our society, and that is our tertiary students. That is why we are opposing the Higher Education Support Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2012. We have seen the mining tax and the carbon tax being applied, the removal of the levy for private health insurance and now we see the imposition of no less than $263 million of tax. It will come to the stage soon where students will be going to Mr Bumble the beadle and saying, 'Please, sir, can I have more?' We all know that Mr Bumble will bellow back 'More!' because it has all been spent and there is none left.

The only reason, as has been outlined by my colleagues Senator Humphries and Senator Mason, that we are considering this at all has been a failure of the government to place its legislation before the Senate on a previous occasion. A very, very wise person said not so long ago in this place, 'It is not what a household or a business or a country or a government does; it is how well it does it.' It is not what it does; it is how well it does it. Do we not see evidence this evening of the failure of this Labor government in how well it has done it—in how poorly it has presented before this place the anomaly which we are now asked to try and address, and that is a discrepancy of $13, being $263 vis-a-vis $250?

We have a senator in this place whose parents came to this country as migrants. It did not matter what they did in their employment. What did matter was how well they did it. In a sense, the indicator for them as to how well they did it was to see their son come into this place. How well have that same man and his spouse done what they have done when only last weekend he had the opportunity to view his daughter receiving her doctorate? What an amazing story in three generations has played out this week in this Senate. That is the action of a household holding to that principle of not what they have done but how well they have done it. The Kodak company introduced digital photography and did not do it well. As we know, they are now in bankruptcy.

I turn to the performance of the Australian government. In this place in recent days, and in late November last year, we have seen the government, in combination with the Greens political party, fail to enable this Senate to do its work and allow senators to stand in their place in this chamber and represent the views of their constituents and their states in the very vigorous debates that have taken place. No doubt we will see more evidence of that this evening. A carbon dioxide tax—not a carbon tax but a harmless odourless gas tax—is going to be imposed on the citizens of this country that we are not yet contemplating. But, of course, it is another example of this government failing in the sense of how well it has done its task.

I now move to the question of university education. Let me outline in this same vein what my colleague Senator Mason espoused to Universities Australia the other day absolutely in concert with the principle of it is not what you do but how well you do it. Senator Mason made the observation to the vice-chancellors of Australia that the Liberal-National Party higher education policy is about quality and standards, not only about numbers. Time does not permit me this evening to reflect on the failures of Labor governments going back to Kim Beazley Sr and the Hon. John Dawkins in their failures in educational policy in this country. But I do look forward to the opportunity of spelling out those failures which have led to the very high incidence now of the need for 457 visa holders to prop up the necessary expansion in our country and in the state that you and I, Mr Acting Deputy President Bishop, represent. There is the fundamental difference. This side of the chamber wants to address itself to how well it does it. The other side is only interested in what it does. I suggest to you that it is outcomes in higher education that count. It is those who graduate from our institutions of higher learning, not the numbers that we put in.

If time permitted I would reflect more accurately on the fact that it is not low socioeconomic students historically in this country who have been the disadvantaged ones in attaining higher education. It has been those in rural and remote areas of the state who have not been able to get to universities in the cities to undertake university studies because we do not have a policy in this country which allows those who must travel away from their homes to receive financial support.

Reference was made here to dentistry and veterinary science. I thank Senator Polley for her comments on that, but I must correct my colleague Senator Mason. He made reference to his time at the University of Queensland as being a languid liberal education. Let me assure you, Senator Mason, across the campus in St Lucia, down where the vet school was, there was no languid education; it was a very, very serious and hardworking education. For what it is worth, for those who think costs these days are high, we from other states of Australia had the undeniable privilege of paying 150 per cent of the student fees. I am pleased to see Senator Sterle come into the chamber because—I am sure I will not embarrass him—it was about him and his family that I was referring earlier when I commented about the quality of a family that saw the principle in the criterion of how well that family has acted in the achievements of that family. That fact that you are here, Senator Sterle, pleases me from that point of view.

Going back, if I may, to this amendment: it says in the case of veterinary science that the amendments as proposed will restrict a student's use of the HECS HELP system to only those studies which result in a qualification recognised as the minimum by the governing body rather than the existing system, which allows students to continue studying until they have specialised. I think that is a ridiculous amendment. Already veterinary science students in their undergraduate programs study for six years. Surely, with the challenges we have in biosecurity, One Health issues, viral diseases and those others affecting this country and the region in which we exist, the last thing we should be doing is cutting off financial support at the end of their undergraduate years. It might be of interest to those in the chamber to know that veterinary science is the most expensive course at university; and, while it is not relevant to this discussion, it is lamentable that at the end of a six-year course of study—probably one of the hardest at universities—the average length of time for full-time members of the profession now is 3½ years. Three and a half years in a profession that took them six years to get their undergraduate degrees for. So I am not happy with an amendment which cuts off that financial support at the end of that period of time.

Let us reflect for a moment, if we may, on whether or not students actually want this compulsory student fee or unionism. A study undertaken at the time this matter was being reviewed indicated that 59 per cent—almost 60 per cent—of students polled opposed compulsory student fees. A second point: only five per cent—one in 20—bothers ever voting in student union elections. Senator Mason is quite right, as is Senator Humphries: the demographic has changed completely from a scenario where we all went from school to university and those from low-socioeconomic families, as indeed I was myself, either received Commonwealth scholarships or undertook cadetships in which departments paid for our education. Today, of course, we know that two-thirds of students are not full-time students straight from school. We know a very high proportion are now in the workplace. We know that their university study is not part of a languid liberal experience but in fact something they do to achieve a qualification so they can improve their status, their career opportunities and their earning ability. So they do not want the sorts of services which are now compulsorily going to be applied to them.

We know, for example, that there are some 200,000 external students who will never, ever use the services of this annual $263. We know that, whether a student is full time or part time, they will be paying the $263. In fact, I checked recently with a student who is enrolled at two universities in Perth undertaking different programs and will be called upon to pay, I understand, not $263 but double that sum of money: $516. So there are many anomalies in this particular activity.

We know that the generation Y students are averse to club membership. We need only have a look at sporting clubs. We need only have a look at service clubs in this country to know that the same young people who are very keen on a game of squash, tennis or cricket are not willing to join clubs; they would rather make private arrangements for that recreational pursuit. They are not akin and attuned, as we were in the postwar period, to actually joining clubs. They have no interest in these sorts of services and facilities. There is no good reason why they should be compulsorily paying these fees.

There is one other point that I think is important, and that is that the university students of today are the business and government agency leaders of tomorrow. They are the people who we expect to lead the Australian community, this nation and the region into the future. Do we want a scenario in which we are encouraging a level of compulsory payment for a service that they will not want by a group of people who when they go into the workplace must understand that those are not the sorts of offerings that will be made to them?

I conclude my contribution to this debate in this way. It is the case that we are discussing it in the first place simply because of a failure: a lack of discipline of this government. We originally were asked to look at a proposal involving $250 per annum. This side of the chamber opposes that anyhow. It was due to slackness and laziness. It was due, in fact, to an inability to manage the legislative process that caused us this evening even to be addressing this position. I say again that this simply is an example of adherence to the key performance indicator of this government: the extent to which it can rip off its unsuspecting citizens without them knowing it or until such time as it is too late for them to take any action. I recommend that this chamber rejects this amendment, as it should so richly do. There is no occasion at all in which we should commend this government for its failure to manage legislation, to bring it before the chamber and to have it dealt with in a way that is acceptable not only to the Senate but to the parliament and to the people of Australia.

The PRESIDENT: The time for consideration of this bill has expired. The question is that this bill be now read a second time.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

The PRESIDENT: The question now is that schedule 1, items 2 and 4 stand as printed.