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Thursday, 27 November 2014
Page: 9519

Senator DI NATALE (Victoria) (12:41): Before I go to the specifics of the proposed higher education changes contained in the Higher Education and Research Reform Amendment Bill 2014, it is important to ensure we are having this debate in its proper context. This debate is really about the sort of society we want to live in. Whether we are discussing reforms to higher ed, whether we are discussing some of the changes proposed to our health system, whether we are discussing changes to income support, particularly for young people, or whether we are having a discussion about the role of the ABC we have to recognise that this is part of a much broader agenda that fundamentally challenges long held views about the nature of Australian society. It is a very deliberate and a very clear assault on the nature of contemporary Australian society.

What we are basically involved in at the moment is a debate about the sort of country we want to live in. On one side we have the current conservative government, whose project is to forge a path for a new Australia—one where there is smaller government, lower taxes and a move towards a user pays society. I know Senator Ryan is dying to interject—I saw his face light up as I mentioned those things—but let us be frank: that is what this is about. I have to say I am grateful in one sense to the coalition because we often have debates in this place that are really meaningless; they are lots of froth and bubble. This is actually a debate about something of substance; it is a debate about the sort of country we want to live in. And at least we are having a debate that means something. If there is anything that I can say that is positive about these changes, it is that, at the very least, we are having a debate about what is the role of government. What is it that we want from our elected leaders? What is the role of education; what is the role of universal health care and how should those things be funded?

Let us perhaps look at some of the underlying tenants that lead to these changes. The first one is that Australia's public service is bloated, that it is inefficient, that we spend too much. But when you look at the facts, this is where it becomes a little more difficult for the conservative side of politics because, when challenged with some hard data, it is very hard to maintain the view that we have an inefficient and bloated public sector. In fact, our public sector and level of debt is much lower than similar OECD countries. There is no evidence to suggest that we need to move towards shrinking our public sector, particularly when you look at the evidence relative to other similar developed countries.

And then of course there is the question: what is the correlation between the size of government, the rate of economic growth and the wellbeing of those societies? There is no real correlation. Some countries have big public sectors, they have a high rate of growth, they have done very well and their citizens have a high quality of life. We have other countries with very small public sectors where the opposite is true. There is no obvious correlation, so the idea of big government or small government is much less important than whether what we have got is good government—that is, whether we have the efficient use of public resources, whether we are allocating those resources in a way where there is minimal waste and where those resources are distributed in a fair and equitable manner. That really is the question that we should be asking ourselves.

Debate interrupted.