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Wednesday, 28 November 2018
Page: 11879


Ms RYAN (LalorOpposition Whip) (16:17): As I have said previously, Labor is supporting the Higher Education Support Amendment (VET FEE-HELP Student Protection) Bill 2018 and has offered an amendment to the House. We all distinctly remember the rorts and rip-offs when shonks in this sector were knocking on doors to get people to sign up to courses that they possibly had no interest in doing and possibly didn't have the capacity to complete. They were getting them to sign onto courses that led to a loan being provided by the Commonwealth. We now know the rate at which that was occurring. We also now know that many people didn't even realise that they had signed up to a course until they got their tax return and saw a debt raised by the Commonwealth to repay that VET FEE-HELP loan. This happened to people in my electorate. One woman contacted my office when she found that she owed the Australian tax office $14,000. She said that she distinctly remembered people knocking on her door but she has no memory of signing up to a course. She never heard anything again about said course until she found that she had had a debt raised. This happened all over the country.

This bill provides a remedy for students who have incurred debts from unscrupulous providers under the previous VET FEE-HELP loan scheme. It does this by amending schedule 1A of the Higher Education Support Act 2003 to introduce a broad remedy for students who incurred a VET FEE-HELP debt as a result of inappropriate conduct by a VET provider or their agent—and we know that there were many. This bill provides discretionary powers to recredit a person's VET FEE-HELP debt if the inappropriate conduct occurred at a time before the closure of VET FEE-HELP. In order for FEE-HELP to be recredited, it must be established that the student did not complete the requirements of the relevant VET unit of study and that it is reasonably likely that the VET provider or their agent engaged in inappropriate conduct towards the person in relation to the unit or the course.

This is action taken by the government that is welcomed, as late as it is, by those of us on this side of the House, because none of us want to see these people continuing to be asked to pay for a loan for which they got no product, received no service, certainly received no certificate and certainly received no education. There are 6,000 people who have lodged a complaint with the Ombudsman after being charged VET FEE-HELP for courses they did not undertake. Even more alarming, only a small number of the students who have lodged a complaint have actually received relief from these unfair debts. Debt racked up by dodgy for-profit training providers that went rogue under the coalition government's watch should never have been expected to be paid back by students who were, in fact, ripped off. The fact is that the coalition government is absolutely responsible here, and it is reprehensible that it has taken this long for the legislation to come into the House.

The government knew how much money was rolling out to for-profit vocational education providers, just as it knew the numbers of students that were not graduating from these courses. This happened under their watch, and they need to take responsibility for it. Then education minister, Christopher Pyne, was warned of the gloomy completion rates under the scheme, but the government chose to turn a blind eye as many students were being exploited at the hands of these rip-off merchants. This rip-off demonstrates the importance of investing in a strong public vocational training sector. On this side of the House we clearly understand that and have taken that into our policy directions that we'll be taking to the next election. What's important to note is that, despite reports by the media and despite the government knowing what the completion rates looked like under their watch, this situation continued unabated for at least three years of this government and this government had been in power for five years—nearly six years—before this bill to make sure that students were not lumbered with this debt came into this House.

I think of the days that Labor has filled the speaking lists in this place while those opposite have fiddled. And they have form in this space. 'Why has it taken the government so long to act in this space?' you could ask. I ask: why has it taken them so long to act in many similar situations where vulnerable Australians are being exploited? We only have to look a short distance to see the inaction from this government on its own review and its own recommendation and its own draft legislation in the payday lending space. So they have form here. As we saw this week, they're a work-shy, part-time government going into the future. But it's not new because, even though they may have shown up in this place, they haven't really been doing the work behind the scenes to protect vulnerable Australians, and this is just another example of that. They haven't shut down the rorts. They haven't stopped the scammers who exploit vulnerable Australians. They tarry. They shuffle papers, they shuffle ministers and they fail to act.

We can track when this shonky industry exploded. We don't have to remember the media reports that showed people loading cars and vans with laptops to go and knock on doors in regional Australia, approaching vulnerable people and getting them to sign up with the promise of a laptop. We don't even have to remember that; this government knew. We could see the industry exploding. In five years under Labor, $1.4 billion worth of VET FEE-HELP loans were issued. This government came to power, and in 2014 alone there was $1.8 billion worth of loans. This then jumped to a total of $6 billion in two years. The writing was on the wall, if only this government was showing up to work to check the figures. This money was going overwhelmingly to private providers while public TAFE was languishing.

The coalition has failed in this space, slashing funding from vocational education, leaving prospective students and providers with uncertainty. While they saw the cost of these loans skyrocketing, what did they do in response? Did they do anything to shut this down as soon as they identified the issue? They did not. What they've done is cut more than $3 billion from TAFE, skills and apprenticeships since being elected. So, instead of going after the shonks, they got pen and paper out to ensure that our public TAFEs were underfunded. This coalition government and their cuts demonstrate that they do not value vocational education and skills. The legislation that is before us today shows that finally they will wake up when they approach their sixth year in government.

In many states, this has seen the absolute destruction of public TAFE. I think about my colleagues in New South Wales and what they've been seeing in their state. I think about the state government in Victoria working very hard to turn that around in Victoria and ensure that we've got a healthy public TAFE sector. Meanwhile, the rorters have taken their millions and ridden off into the sunset, leaving the Commonwealth with the debt or the students with the debt. Now the Commonwealth is having to find ways to ensure that innocent Australians aren't paying for something that was never delivered by an industry that was allowed to flourish—in fact, it tripled—under this government's watch. In response to the gouging and rorting clearly identifiable by the increasing loans, did this government close the loopholes? No. In short, they cut funding for public TAFE, for skills and for apprenticeships, while the rorts continued.

This week, having seen the sitting calendar for next year, we know that this government has given up on governing. We know that they would rather sit in their office and twirl a pen than get to work and fix some of the issues facing this country. This legislation and the time it has taken for these issues to be addressed are evidence of that. In contrast, Labor has always championed quality apprenticeships and vocational training because we understand that a skilled and educated workforce is a national economic priority. In my home state of Victoria, we are ramping up apprenticeships by using major projects to ensure that we are getting the skill training we need on the ground for our young people and for our adult apprentices.

We know that we have a skills shortage in areas of this country. We know how important it is to have public TAFE on board to make sure that we get a skilled workforce into the future. Labor will restore public TAFE as the major provider in the vocational education and training system, if elected. I'm proud to be a member of the Shorten team that, if elected, will deliver money and funds back to public TAFE to ensure that we have young people being trained in appropriate courses; that people are able to re-engage with education, no matter where they are in their lifelong learning journey; and that people are going to get quality—that no-one's going to knock on their door and sign them up to a class that won't give them an opportunity for work, or, worse, a course that they may have absolutely no interest in attending or a course that is not necessarily linked to a job at the end of it.

It's an important piece of legislation today. It's important that those 6,000 complainants are given an opportunity to demonstrate that they were ripped off. It's important that those people have an avenue to have their debts wiped. But what is more important is that people in this place learn from this experience that when you're governing you need to pay close attention to the detail, to the portfolio. We need ministers who have an eye on the detail in their portfolios so that the rorters and shonks like we had in this space don't get to ride off into the sunset with millions of Commonwealth dollars, and, more importantly, so that industries aren't allowed to flourish in a space where ministers are looking sideways or out the window, not doing their day job.