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Tuesday, 24 February 2015
Page: 1124

Mr CHAMPION (Wakefield) (16:17): Thank you, Deputy Speaker, and I thank you in particular for being so tolerant before and just warning me. Your forbearance is much appreciated. So I can give this speech on the Higher Education and Research Reform Bill 2014, a bill that is an assault on the middle class.

Mr Tudge interjecting

Mr CHAMPION: It is an assault on the middle class, and if you want to debate it across the chamber I am more than happy to have a spirited debate in this chamber about this bill, which has $100,000 degrees and an assault on social mobility and the middle class at its core.

This is about values, and it is about an assault on Australian values. We hear the parliamentary secretary opposite asking about other opinions. He should know this: we will oppose this up hill and down dale every inch of the way, because what it is, as I said before, is an assault on the middle class, an assault on social mobility and an assault on the idea that you can go to university, get a degree and then, with that public investment that has been made in you, pay it back in taxes by starting a business, by owning a home, by starting a family, by joining the middle class and by contributing to society that way. It is a very good model. It has been going on for decades. We know that education is the key to social mobility.

We have seen the austerity that the government have visited on the Australian community through the GP tax; they said one thing before the election and they did another afterwards. We have seen it in pensions: saying one thing before the election and doing another thing afterwards. We have just seen a debate on the minimum wage, overtime and penalty rates. We know they will say one thing today and they will do something else tomorrow. That is what we know about the government. You cannot trust their words, you cannot trust the word of the Prime Minister and you cannot trust them on education. Look at their 'Our plan—real solutions for all Australians' document. No doubt a lot of members would have gone to the election clutching this document, and of course there is much about education in it, but there is nothing about $100,000 degrees. There is nothing at all in here about $100,000 degrees. This is the election manifesto with which the Liberal Party went to their communities and said, 'Trust us.' They elevated that issue of trust to a level perhaps unwise for politicians, because of course they have said another thing and they have done another.

In this area of higher education, of course, it is a terrible blow to do this, because we understand that education is key to social mobility, productivity, innovation and having a trained workforce. Most other nations around the world are going the opposite way. They are not making it more expensive; they are making it cheaper. They are investing in their middle class. They are investing in their workforces because of those key advantages.

It is little wonder that, when we talk about overseas, we see an article by a fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations in Asia Unbound, titled 'Tony Abbott has to go'. I know, Deputy Speaker, you will say, 'How is that relevant?' I will quote from the document:

Abbott also does not seem to think it necessary to even discuss policy proposals with his top ministers and other leading members of his conservative coalition. His lack of consultation has made it harder for him to pass some critical legislation. In addition, he appears to have one of the worst senses of public relations of any prime minister in recent Australian history.

That is what a fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations says in a damning sort of article, which I will no doubt refer to again in the future at this dispatch box.

Mr Wood: No, you won't.

Mr CHAMPION: We know these damning indictments of the government and the Prime Minister are ultimately driven by those opposite.

I hear my good friend the member for La Trobe muttering up there at the back. I do not know whether he was part of the 39. I think he would have—

An opposition member: I think he might have been.

Mr CHAMPION: Do you reckon? I do not know if he is part of the 39, but it is of course good to have him in the chamber debating these issues.

So there are broken commitments. There are these devastating critiques not just in our own domestic media but in foreign media, with foreign think tanks commenting on this Prime Minister. And of course we know that much of this commentary is driven by those opposite, driven by this ramshackle government. Barely a day goes by that we do not see one disaster after another—broken commitments and a retreat from adult government, which they promised the Australian people. There is no better place that it is symbolised—apart from health or maybe industrial relations—than higher education. As I said before, $100,000 degrees and $1.9 billion worth of cuts to Australian universities were not in the election manifesto of those opposite.

There has been $171 million cut out of equity programs. They are programs that take working class kids and disadvantaged kids and put them through university. Who could think that cutting funding for those programs is a good idea? It is not a good idea; it is a bad idea. I represent one of those communities which do not send that many kids to university. We know that that is the key—in part, along with a vocational education sector and an apprenticeship sector—that drives up earnings. The more you invest in education, the more you invest in training, the better it is for the individual, the community and the nation.

There is $200 million in cuts to the indexation of grants programs—sneaky cuts. The $170 million in cuts to research training is hardly sensible in a modern economy. There are fees for PhD students for the first time ever, when research is critical to innovation, to economic growth and to the clustering of particularly medical research but to other industries as well, such as defence and other things. If you get industry and PhD research students together, they come up with things that grow the economy and advance our society. To place fees on those students is stupid. It is just plain stupid. And $80 million in cuts for the Australian Research Council hardly makes any sense at all. Those cuts are devastating. Those cuts are designed, of course, to force universities into a situation where they are charging fees.

You might think: 'Well, nothing comes for free. You've got to pay for everything.' That is a common parlance over opposite. But Professor Bruce Chapman, in a rather articulate quote, does highlight the risk to the taxpayer of all this. He says:

The problem, as I see it, is that doubtful debt is a cost to the taxpayer but the universities are essentially controlling what that cost is going to be because the doubtful debt is a direct function of the loans that are outstanding and if the universities control what those fees are then … they will ultimately be controlling the levers that determine what that doubtful debt is and what the taxpayers pay. It is akin to a blank cheque being handed from the government to the universities on the matter of doubtful debt.

So it is not just that this bill has all these nasty things in it: cuts to universities, cuts to research, fees for PhD students, $100,000 degrees, an assault on social mobility and an assault on the Australian middle class. It is not just all of those things. It also creates a huge risk for the taxpayer in all of this because the universities are in charge of the fees and therefore can determine the amount of debt that the Commonwealth will take on in the area of bad loans. So there is a huge moral risk, a huge risk to the taxpayers, in all of this as well.

To highlight one of the other issues which I am aware of, it is of course how this bill would affect our medical workforce, which is always an issue in this country—finding enough doctors, enough nurses, enough allied health professionals. This is what the AMA President, Professor Brian Owler, has to say about these reforms. He says:

… the reforms are a 'ticking time bomb' that would price a medical degree out of the reach of kids from working Australian families, burden medical graduates with debt in excess of $250,000, discourage students from pursuing lower-remunerated medical specialties, and rob rural, regional, and outer-suburban communities of much-needed doctors.

That is what the AMA has pointed out will happen with this bill. So it is crazy stuff.

If we ask the medical students themselves what the effect is, the Australian Medical Students' Association says:

It is important for the Government to recognise the Higher Education Reform will affect more than just students - there are detrimental follow-on effects for rural populations who already suffer from medical practitioner shortages.

So this is going to exacerbate a problem that exists in many of the seats, many of the electorates, which are represented by those opposite. The National Party must have rocks in their head if they think that this is good for them. It is bad for them. It is terrible for rural medical workforces because what will happen is that, as the cost of a medical degree climbs, students understandably will seek to do specialties that give them the biggest return. It is a logical outcome of higher debt. They will seek to do the jobs where they can earn the most money to pay off those very large debts—and they will be large. So there will be a competition to practise in the lucrative areas, and of course a disincentive to practise where it is not so lucrative. That is a very, very important question, I think, for those opposite to answer, because they represent much of regional and rural Australia.

To conclude, I would say that those opposite have a lot to answer for. They did not promise any of this—and those listening in the galleries and those listening at home—

Mr Wood interjecting

Mr CHAMPION: There you go! The member for La Trobe has perked up again. It is good to hear him, good to know he is here. I would not have thought the member for La Trobe would want this bill. I would not think anyone would want this bill. It is not a very sensible thing to be leading with. It does not make a lot of sense. It portrays an austerity mindset, a mindset which is going to hurt the middle class, not help it. As we know, the founder of the party of those opposite, Robert Menzies, made much of helping the middle class, and we find this government doing much to hurt it. It is not just enough to come into this place and mouth platitudes—

Mr Tudge interjecting

Mr CHAMPION: We hear the parliamentary secretary interjecting; he does not like my feedback either, understandably. But this is a bill that hurts working families. It is a bill that hurts the middle class. It is a bill that has $100,000 degrees at its heart. If those opposite think they can get away with all the broken commitments, they are not going to like the outcome at the next election, because the Australian people will hold you accountable.