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Thursday, 3 December 2015
Page: 9947


Senator MOORE (Queensland) (22:41): I rise to speak on behalf of the opposition and indicate that we will be supporting the Labor 2013-14 Budget Savings (Measures No. 2) Bill 2015. There were originally four measures contained in this bill, across five schedules. The first, in schedule 1, enabled the conversion of student start-up scholarships into income-contingent loans. The second, in schedule 2, imposed an efficiency dividend on higher education funding. The third, in schedules 3 and 4, removed the HECS-HELP discount and voluntary HELP repayment bonus and the fourth, in schedule 5, imposed an interest charge on certain debts. The first three measures were in the 2013-14 budget, and Labor introduced them when we were in government to help fund the Gonski school funding model. The fourth was in the 2013 Mid-year Economic and Fiscal Outlook.

In opposition Labor had previously opposed these measures due to the Abbott-Turnbull government abandoning the Gonski school funding model—that is, not funding years 5 and 6, resulting in $28 billion being cut from schools in last year's budget. Now, for two reasons, we are going to reverse our opposition on two of these measures—the first and the third—by amending the bill in the other place to omit schedules 2 and 5, which contain the second and fourth measures. The opposition is now able to support this bill in the Senate in its entirety. The first reason for the change in our position is the deteriorating state of the budget. I note for the benefit of the Senate that the deficit doubled in this year's budget, and note that we are likely to see this deficit blow out again in the upcoming Mid-year Economic and Fiscal Outlook. Access Economics is predicting a $38 billion increase to the budget deficit over the forward estimates. The second reason is to close the fiscal gap in the context of our own higher education policy that does not resort to the tactics of the Abbott-Turnbull government and impose their $100,000 degrees on students.

By supporting the conversion of student start-up scholarships into income-contingent loans contained in schedule 1, Labor will enable a saving of $920 million over the forward estimates. By supporting the removal of the HECS-HELP discount and voluntary HELP repayment bonus contained in schedules 3 and 4, Labor will enable a saving of $200 million over the forward estimates. Last year the opposition supported over $20 billion worth of government measures that improved the budget bottom line. Since this year's budget the opposition have supported a further $10.7 billion worth of government measures that continue to improve the budget bottom line. Our position on the measures supported in this bill means that the opposition is supporting a further $1.1 billion in improvements to the budget bottom line. Given the state of the budget and the deterioration that has been experienced under this government, it is fiscally responsible that we support some of the measures that are contained in the bill. This is also because of our positive plan for higher education and the fact that we do not countenance $100,000 university degrees. Labor will continue to oppose the imposition of an efficiency dividend on higher education funding, and will continue to oppose the introduction of an interest charge on certain debts. We welcome the removal of the measures relating to the higher education efficiency dividend and the interest charge on certain debts from this bill.

I will now turn to the specifics of schedule 1, relating to the conversion of student start-up scholarships to student start-up loans. Converting student start-up scholarships to student start-up loans was an initiative announced by Labor in the 2013-14 budget. It was a measure that was to be used for one specific reason: to fund Labor's Better Schools Plan. This was never a saving taken without purpose, like so many of the Abbott-Turnbull government cuts. It was a redirection of funding within the education portfolio. It was always to be used to improve student outcomes. But, as we know, the Abbott-Turnbull government has abandoned the Better Schools Plan. It has slashed schools funding and has done its absolute best to slash higher education funding, as well as imposing those $100,000 degrees. This government cannot be trusted on education.

By contrast, Labor has a plan for higher education—a plan to increase per student funding, boost completions and improve quality. The coalition disparaged these cuts in opposition, and they are now embracing them, without any sign that they will use the funds for education. This is in contrast to Labor's plan to keep education affordable and accessible and our positive plan for better universities.

Schedules 3 and 4 relate to the removal of the HECS-HELP discount and voluntary HELP repayment loans. Currently, a 10 per cent discount is applied to up-front student contribution payments of $500 or more. The amount of the discount is paid by the government to the student's higher education provider. Put simply, these arrangements are inequitable. For these reasons Labor included this measure in the 2013 budget as a component of the Gonski funding arrangements. This measure generates savings of $200 million over the forward estimates. The Parliamentary Budget Office has also estimated this measure will generate $573 million in savings through to 2025-26.

In government, Labor opened up access to Australia's world-class higher education system while increasing the amount of government funding for each student. As a result, 190,000 more students are at university today, including many more young Australians of Indigenous, regional or low-income backgrounds. The Abbott-Turnbull government does not have a positive plan and instead seeks to cut funding for undergraduate students by 20 per cent and pursue $100,000 degrees that would make talented kids think twice about pursuing a university education. Those hardest hit by the Liberal government's changes will be those who can least afford it—women, students from low-income or regional backgrounds and graduates who take on important but moderately paid jobs like nursing, teaching and community legal work.

Labor has always been committed to opening access to higher education to more Australians and supporting universities as critical drivers of innovation across the economy. A Shorten Labor government will build on this record, not just because it is a fair thing to do but because our future prosperity depends on it. We will ensure that universities are productive, equitable and accessible, educating the next generation for the jobs of the future. Also, supporting responsible savings is important, so Labor will support the passage of the Labor 2013-14 Budget Savings (Measures No. 2) Bill 2015, as amended.