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Tuesday, 3 December 2013
Page: 1450

Mr BANDT (Melbourne) (17:27): My grandfather—my dad's dad—spent his life working in the post office, when he was not serving during the war. My grandmother—his wife—spent her life in unpaid labour, as many women of that generation did, keeping the family together. My dad—their son—then went on to do something quite unusual for the family. He went to university. He went to university in part because he could, because it was affordable. He did not have to go into significant debt to do it, because universities at that time were funded well enough to take people like him and give him, and my mum who was there at the same time, scholarships. My mum was a teacher and she met my dad at uni. They understood, between them, the importance of a good education and they understood the importance of Australia being the kind of place where everyone, from whatever background they came from, could go to university and not be turned away at the door because of their income.

They were then able to send me off to university, and that meant that I could live quite a different life than my grandfather did. You would think, with that excellent pedigree and with a good head on your shoulders, that your parents had set you up to make good decisions but when I was at high school I made one that could have set me on a very different trajectory. In the folly of youth I made one of the silliest decisions of my life—I joined the Labor Party. I was less than half the age I am now, and people do silly things when they are young. It only took a couple of years for me to realise the error of my ways. I first started getting involved in politics when I was at university. It became apparent to me that the then federal Labor government was putting people in such debt, keeping the level of student income support so low and slowly winding back university funding so much that it was potentially going to create a situation where people like my dad would never be able to go to university. So my first involvement in campaigns and in politics was in those campaigns to stop the ratcheting up of loans and debt on students, to argue for a living income for students—and, of course, we know that so many of our students at the moment do not have a living income, and I will talk a bit more about that in a moment—and to argue and campaign for better funding for universities.

During the 1990s we saw universities continuing to be run down despite growing enrolments. Then during the Howard years we saw a continuation of those attacks. We saw fees go up, we saw students go into more debt, and we saw universities even less supported. It was no surprise that, after the legacy of the previous Labor years and then, especially, the Howard years, when independent experts were brought in to review the university sector, they said it was a sector that was in trouble and it needed a boost to its base funding. So we had the Bradley review, for example, that said we needed an urgent 10 per cent increase in base funding just to enable universities to continue to do what they had been doing, let alone expand.

This all comes at a time and in a context where Australia has to decide what it wants to do as a society and an economy when the rest of the world tells us to stop digging. Because the thing about booms is that they bust, and the mining boom, at some point, will be no different. We have to make sure that we do not wake up in five or 10 years time to find that we are a hollowed out, uneducated quarry with nothing to sell to the rest of the world. The way that we are going to ensure that we are in a great position in the 21st century is through education, and especially through universities. That is why people right across the sector, whether you talk about students, whether you talk about the staff who work in universities or whether you talk about the people who run them, have been saying it is time for a funding boost.

It is eminently affordable, with the right priorities. At the moment, if anyone goes to a petrol station to fill up their car they will pay 38c a litre in excise on their petrol. If a wealthy miner or resource company in Western Australia or Queensland goes to put diesel into their trucks, they pay the tax and then they get 32c of it back in the form of a rebate. Every year between $1 billion and $2 billion is going out the door from taxpayers so that Gina Rinehart and the like can buy cheap petrol. Meanwhile our universities go underfunded. So it is a question of priorities. As people would have seen going into the last election, the Greens spelt out exactly how we could resource a caring society in this country and fund universities to give them that 10 per cent boost. We could get it done within four years and lift students in their income support. We could do all of that and still balance the budget. It is a question, ultimately, of priorities.

Knowing it is so eminently achievable made it all the worse when, earlier this year, Labor decided to cut $2.3 billion out of the sector and put students further into debt. At the time, Universities Australia said that these multibillion dollar university cuts were the biggest budget hit since the 1990s. That Labor this year was prepared to cut universities to a level that was the biggest hit they had seen since the mid-1990s is something that sent a shiver down the spine of many people in this country and made many people worry what kind of future we are setting ourselves up for. Who is going to be able to go to university in this country in the future? I have to say that this was in an environment where, as we were heading into an election year, university staff, students and the universities themselves actually hoped they might have been able to campaign for an increase to university funding. They prepared a multimillion dollar advertising campaign to try to get Labor and the coalition to boost university funding. Instead, what we found was that the only unity ticket going into the last election, as far as higher education was concerned, was the decision to rip $2.3 billion out of the sector and put students further into debt.

The Greens stood firm at the time. We said we would oppose these cuts and we would oppose putting students further into debt. We were the only party in parliament to do that. The Greens worked with the academics and the general staff from the universities, with the students and with the universities themselves to say there is a better way of balancing the budget than attacking universities and students that are so desperately in need of greater support. There was leafleting, there were postcards, and there were rallies conducted right across the country. There was widespread support from people who had not got involved in anything political for a very long time saying, 'We want a strong and vibrant university sector in this country, and we want to make sure that everyone is able to get into a university, no matter how much they earn.' We campaigned—and we campaigned hard—because we knew that universities were hurting already and could not afford these so-called efficiency dividends, and we knew that students were in debt and that they were hurting.

When I was at university it cost me about half of my student income per week to rent one bedroom in a three-bedroom flat near to where we lived. I only had to work one shift a week in order to make ends meet, and I could devote the rest of my time to study. But students now are not in that situation. Students now are working 15, 20, 30 or 35 hours just to make ends meet. The cost of rent is skyrocketing, and they are going into debt. As Universities Australia have said, they have seen personal debt levels for students go up from $28,861 in 2006 to $37,217 in 2012. That is in addition to the debt that for many is the size of a small mortgage when they leave. So it is no wonder that students are being turned away and that Australian education is becoming more inequitable; it is no wonder that people took to the streets; and it is no wonder that we saw a very big community campaign during the course of this year.

Today I am absolutely thrilled—and I commend Labor for this—that Labor has listened to the community campaign and said that there are better places to find money than by putting students further into debt or by breaking the back of our universities. This shows that community campaigning, together with strong representatives in parliament who will not bend, can change the decisions of a government—including a government such as this one, which is intent on implementing a very brutal agenda for this country.

The National Tertiary Education Union, the National Union of Students and the universities should be incredibly proud of what they have managed to achieve by working together with their allies in parliament, because, provided that Labor's commitment extends not just to this bill but also to the start-up scholarships debt mechanism—which will come in, I understand, in other legislation—very soon students and universities across this country will be able breathe a huge sigh of relief. These unions, the universities and their parliamentary allies will then know that everything they did during the course of this year made a massive difference and that it changed the direction of higher education in this country.

Their achievement would give an enormous boost to everyone who watches what goes on in parliament and thinks there is nothing they can do which will make a difference—because they absolutely can make a difference. When you join with your fellow community members and your representatives in parliament to campaign, you can absolutely stop a bad government from doing bad things. That is the message that we will continue to put out over the next three years, because this government will want to do a lot of bad things. Until now we, the Greens, have often been the only ones in parliament speaking up against such things. But we are learning that the position of other parties can be changed when the arguments are put in front of them and when the community campaign is strong enough. I am very pleased that, as we head towards Christmas, universities and students are going to be getting an unexpected Christmas present in the form of the knowledge that they will not be asked to bear the brunt of balancing the books in this country.

It might be time now for us to focus on where the money for education can come from and how we will resource a caring society. Rather than hitting universities, maybe the government should reconsider scrapping the mining tax and instead fix it. If we kept the mining tax and fixed it, we would not be in the position of debating education funding in the first place. We would be able to create the kind of higher education sector in this country that everyone could be proud of, and we could know that everyone sitting in this parliament had made sure that every future Australian citizen would—like my dad—be able to go to university no matter how much they earn.