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Wednesday, 15 October 2003
Page: 21425

Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR (10:42 AM) —If I were to pick an area where there was a great divide between the Labor Party—which I represent today in this House—and the government, there would not be one area that I would choose before education. Education divides us fundamentally, and it does so because those in the government see education as something to be handed out to those with privilege and rarely be handed to those in need. The fact is that there is a major gulf between the political parties in this area—that was shown in the budget and the budget in reply speech by the Leader of the Opposition in May—and it will always be so.

Historically, Labor has always looked to increase access to education. It has always looked to broaden the base of entrance into the tertiary system. It has always looked to enable students from non-elite schools—that is, from government and non-elite independent schools—to gain access to tertiary education. It has always been Labor who has introduced reforms that have provided access to those people not traditionally able to get access to tertiary education. That will never change, and it is therefore a very important issue that the electorate at large will have to consider when we go to the next election.

Clearly, health is a very vital issue to be considered by the electorate, but I think education is an issue that fundamentally divides the two major parties. As I said, it was a Labor government that sought successfully to massively increase the number of entrants to the tertiary system in the 1980s and the early 1990s. Although it is true that Labor introduced the earlier version of today's HECS—I think it is very important that we acknowledge that and note it—the fact is that the HECS introduced many years ago was of a totally different character, a totally different creature, to the one that is now being imposed upon students by this government.

In 1996 the HECS changed with the change of government. There was a dramatic increase in fees, which was a dramatic imposition on students, and therefore an increasing disincentive for ordinary working families and their children to consider tertiary education. That is a fact that most Australians know. The Leader of the Opposition has today clearly enunciated the alternative view to Howard's legacy. Howard's legacy goes to so many things. Overall there has been a $5 billion cut to education since the Howard government were elected. The Howard government would like to impose a fee increase of up to 30 per cent on the students of Australia.

The Howard government fail to ensure that those people eligible to enter university get to university. Each year 20,000 qualified Australians miss out on studying at university because of the policies of this government. These are people who are, quite clearly, qualified, capable and keen to undertake university education, but they fail to do so because this government has put a limit on the number of places available. As I said, there is a great divide in this area. I know that this is something that ordinary Australians will be looking at, and families across the nation will be considering, when we go to the next election. There is no doubt that, in the last seven or so years since the Howard government were elected to this place, there has been an incredible decline in services in this fundamental area. I support the views raised by the member for Reid when he said that this government tries to use the politics of envy and to say to those people who have not been able to get to university, `There is no reason for you to in any way contribute to our education system.' That is patently untrue, and it is a blight on this government to allow such a line to be put. The fact is that education is about educating the nation. An education system is supposed to ensure that the nation is educated for all of its citizens not just for those who are fortunate enough to participate in that system.

The Minister for Education, Science and Training likes to make reference—whether anecdotal or otherwise—to a cleaning woman he met on his way into a university who commented that she had never been in a university and could not see why she should have to pay anything. Labor is interested in ensuring that that cleaning lady has the opportunity to further her education; if not, that her children have the chance to enter university and obtain a tertiary education. Those children could be the first generation of her family able to enter an institution of higher learning. I have been a very fortunate beneficiary—along with many others on this side—of Labor's policies of the seventies and eighties, which allowed me to be the first generation of my family to enter university. I am forever grateful for that opportunity; so much so that one of the reasons I chose to enter this place was to put something back into the system that supported me so well. I hope I can pay that back with some justice and that I am able, in some way, to help the system and help the country that provided me with so much assistance. I do not see education, first and foremost, as the development of individuals, the acquisition of skills or the increase in knowledge of a particular individual—though clearly that is one dimension to the education system. More importantly, I believe education is about making society a better place and ensuring that we have the necessary resources to look after our citizens—whether it be looking after them in the area of health or other areas. The fact is that education is vital and, when we consider the two major political parties in this country, only Labor focuses on the education system as being about improving the wellbeing of this nation's citizens. I think that should be very clearly noted by all Australians when they contemplate who they would like to see preside over the executive government of this nation at the next election.

I think it is fair to say that there have been some really outrageous attempts by this government to privatise education. There is an old Redgum song with the lines:

Daddy bought me a Mercedes Benz

And he bought me a law degree

I can recall hearing that song in the seventies and thinking it was a bit over the top. I believe the singer of that song ran against a member opposite and almost beat him. In current circumstances, he might want to try again and challenge the Minister for Foreign Affairs in his seat. He could sing that song around the electorate because it resonates now. It seemed a bit fictitious in the past that daddy could buy his child a Mercedes Benz and a law degree, but now $100,000 degrees are being put on sale by this government. Clearly what we see here is a government that want to enable people with money, not necessarily with merit, to enter university. They want people who, I suppose, come from the same ilk as they do. What they are saying, through the minister, is that those people who have never been able to get university should not bother trying. They are effectively saying, `Feel resentful because you have not been able to get there. Don't ever consider you will be able to, and nor will your children.' That is what this government say when they make out there should be no reason for ordinary families to even contemplate entering a tertiary institution.

I think this really shows the contempt of this minister and his government for ordinary families who aspire to improve themselves and who aspire to give their children the same opportunities as the sons and daughters of those on the government frontbench. In conclusion, there is a great divide between the two major political parties with respect to education. I think the Australian people know that. I am clearly of the view, from going round my electorate, that this issue is being discussed, and I am sure it is going to be a significant issue when the voters of this nation get a chance to throw this mob out and elect a government that makes education a high priority.