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Wednesday, 11 November 1998
Page: 235

Mr LEE (6:31 PM) —Kim Beazley wants to be known as the education Prime Minister, so I am honoured to be asked by him to be Labor's education spokesman. In some ways education is both an inspirational and a depressing portfolio, and it is still inspirational and depressing with you, Mr Deputy Speaker, in the chair as well. It is inspirational because of the importance of education from early childhood to school, to vocational education, to university, in shaping our society, our nation and our economy.

Education is an inspirational portfolio because education is about our future and our ability to shape that future for our children and ourselves. Our primary schools play a vital role in teaching our young children about working, learning and playing together, as well as laying the foundations for a life of learning. Our high schools help our young people set themselves goals and give them the tools to pursue them. Vocational educational colleges help develop those skills for younger Australians to equip them for their careers. Universities push our best students to academic excellence and prepare our next generation of teachers, engineers, scientists, doctors, lawyers, and even politicians. They extend our knowledge of the physical and social world in which we live and, through research, contribute to improving our health, our society and the growth and future of our economy and our nation.

Education is not a once-only process which finishes at 25. More and more Australians are going back to university or their local TAFE college or adult education centre to broaden their education, to improve their chances of promotion, or to completely change their careers. To foster an Australian culture of lifelong learning is one of the great challenges facing Australia now. Education is an inspirational portfolio because of the phenomenal success of Australia's educational institutions in exporting their expertise and attracting very large numbers of overseas students. Australia's education exports now contribute more than $3 billion to our economy. It is hard to think of a more important area in deciding the kind of Australia in which we want to live.

Unfortunately, education is also, sadly, a depressing portfolio because of the untold damage that is being done to our schools and universities, our teachers and our students, by the coalition government through the slashing of funding to schools and universities, the massive barrier of doubled HECS fees driving down university applications, and the looming spectre of the GST adding to the cost of books, software, the Internet, food, clothing, public transport—for teachers and students alike. It will be increasingly difficult to maintain the clever country with such stupid government decisions as these.

I said during the last debate that I would make a few remarks about the processes that have been involved in dealing with this particular bill. Governments and oppositions, of course, do not always agree and there will be occasions when there are differences on issues in this portfolio. But you would be aware, Mr Deputy Speaker, that this parliament only works through the cooperation of both sides of politics in making sure we have a commonsense attitude to the way legislation is dealt with in this parliament. I learnt from the former member for New England on several occasions that an effective opposition can bring the parliament to a halt. If oppositions want to and if they are effective they can make it almost impossible for governments to have legislation pass through this parliament. Thankfully, there are very few occasions when oppositions seek, or are forced, to use the standing orders to that extent.

The point I am trying to make is that I have taken over this responsibility in education with the intention of trying to work constructively with the government and to work in a way that allows proper consideration of legislation in the parliament. We will not seek to unnecessarily delay the passage of legislation but we do believe that important pieces of legislation are entitled to have a fair amount of time for consideration in this parliament. We do not believe that this has been the case with the piece of legislation which we are debating this afternoon.

It is true that part of this piece of legislation was dealt with by the previous parliament but was not passed by both houses of the parliament; that is why it is back here. It is also true that part of this legislation was introduced only into the House of Representatives and that it did not have a reasonable opportunity to be debated. Even if we allow for the fact that the government introduced both halves of this bill into the last parliament, it has made changes in bringing those two pieces of legislation together into a new bill, and that should allow the opposition in the Australian parliament a chance to consider the changes that the government has made in this new piece of legislation. It has redrafted two pieces of legislation into one new, consolidated piece.

The opposition was only given a draft copy of the legislation less than 24 hours ago. We had a party meeting on Tuesday. We were given a draft copy of the legislation on Tuesday afternoon after our parliamentary party had finished its meeting. There was no opportunity for me and my staff to give proper consideration to this piece of legislation, to take a recommendation to the shadow ministry, let alone to give the members of the parliamentary Labor Party and the caucus committee an opportunity to consider this before going to the full party meeting.

I would like to use this opportunity to say that our cooperation on future pieces of legislation on education is conditional upon the minister and the parliamentary secretary—I know she does not have full control over all of these issues—giving us sufficient time to take pieces of legislation to the shadow ministry, our parliamentary party committees and the Labor parliamentary party's caucus meetings. If the government is not prepared to give us sufficient time to allow our members to consider this legislation, then the government is on notice today that we will use the standing orders of the parliament to give the parliament a right to consider legislation in a proper manner. The reason we have not done that today is that we know there are a number of institutions that will need the money on 1 January. So we are going to allow this legislation to pass, even though there has not been sufficient opportunity to consider the legislation today. I repeat once again to the parliamentary secretary, and through her to the minister, that this is the last occasion on which we will allow the government to steamroll legislation on education through this parliament without there being sufficient and fair opportunity for the party that got 51 per cent of the two-party preferred vote to consider the Howard government's intentions.

Having mentioned that we had less than 24 hours to consider the draft legislation, I would also point out that late last night we were given a further government amendment, which makes the sins of omission even worse—added to by a sin of commission, I suspect. Either way, we will not be allowing the government to treat the parliament with such contempt in future on education.

In many ways, this is a very bad start for dealing with legislation on education, and we can only hope that the government gets its act together in future. It is pretty rough to be forcing two such vitally important education bills through the House without any meaningful debate. If the government had had the courage to legislate its funding cuts when they were first announced in 1996 in tertiary education, or in 1997, or even in early 1998, then we would not be faced with the ridiculous situation now where we will be forced to pass this bill almost without debate six weeks before university funding runs out completely.

The minister should have had plenty of time to concentrate on education now that his portfolio responsibilities have been halved, but he has not done too well on this first test. We believe that this is an issue that requires more attention in future.

Before the 1996 election the member for Bennelong, the Prime Minister of Australia, said the following:

A Howard government will maintain levels of funding to universities in terms of operating grants.

The main provision of this bill is to belatedly legislate the government's massive cuts of $840 million to Australia's universities. These cuts correspond to a loss of 21,000 university places. How can we be a clever country when there are such stupid government decisions? The government announced these massive cuts more than two years ago but it is not until now, with less than two months to go before the money runs out, that the government has finally gotten around to legislating them. Australia's universities have been on death row for more than two years but it is only with the passage of this bill that we actually see Dr Kemp take them out and shoot them.

In 1999, university operating grants will fall by $590 million. In the year 2000 they are slashed by a further $140 million to a level $730 million below their funding level in 1998. This highlights the tragic, downward trend as the government fails to realise the importance of higher education to individuals and to the nation, and it demonstrates it is treating education simply as a cost to the budget which must be reduced, however possible.

The government will no doubt trumpet the fact that this bill restores funding for the 450 places it cut at James Cook University. It would have been interesting if the member for Herbert were still in the Main Committee to respond to these remarks. Whilst the restoration of those places at James Cook University is very welcome, we would like to ask the government when it intends to restore the rest of the 21,000 places that the Howard government has cut from Australia's 37 other universities in other less marginal and safe seats.

Could I also point out that if the member for Herbert had been here I would have asked him to explain to us what the government's plans are for the future medical school at James Cook University. During the election campaign he and I exchanged press releases on the future medical school at Townsville. I was certainly very proud to have stood with my former colleague the Hon. Ted Lindsay—unfortunately, the unsuccessful Labor candidate in Herbert at the last election—when we announced that the Labor Party intended to put funding in to establish that medical school at James Cook University. We also went as far as to promise that as soon as accreditation was received by the Australian Medical Council we would allow that medical school to be run by James Cook University.

I did say at the time that if the Prime Minister matched our promise I would be the first person to welcome that. Therefore, I was pleased to acknowledge that during the election campaign the Prime Minister also agreed to match the Labor Party's initiative in putting the funding into James Cook University. That was a bit of a change from 1996 when the then Liberal candidate for Herbert, Mr Peter Lindsay, said that it was impractical to have James Cook University establish a medical school. We are pleased that the current member for Herbert is no longer criticising such a policy. In fact, he is now embracing it as his own.

The question I have for the government, and also for the member for Herbert if he cares to raise this matter in an adjournment or in this chamber at a future time, is: what is happening with the progression of the establishment and funding for that new medical school at James Cook University?

I have heard a rumour—and I would be grateful if the parliamentary secretary or the member for Herbert could confirm this rumour—that there was to be a meeting in Queensland to discuss this very issue about the future of the medical school in Townsville and that it was expected that the federal department of health and the federal department of education would both be represented there. This was to happen shortly after the election. The rumour I have heard is that while the federal department of health was willing to attend that meeting, the federal department of education said that unfortunately they had been instructed not to attend the meeting to discuss the future of that medical school at James Cook University because they had to brief their new minister.

The only problem was that the new minister is the old minister. The only change in this minister's portfolio responsibilities was that he had his workload halved. Yet this is used as some excuse as to why his department was unable to receive instructions to attend this meeting in Queensland to, hopefully, expedite the future of that medical school.

Far be it from me to believe every rumour I hear, but perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs could make some inquiries and tell us whether it is correct that her departmental officers cancelled their attendance at that meeting, which forced the collapse of the meeting, which resulted in a further delay in progressing the establishment of that new medical school at Townsville.

The effects of the massive cuts to university funding have already been felt across the country. In New South Wales 1,285 places were lost at Sydney University, 950 places were lost at the University of New South Wales and, much closer to my home, 655 places were lost at the University of Newcastle, which affects the Ourimbah campus in my own electorate. I intend, as member for Dobell as well as the Labor Party spokesman on education, to keep raising in every possible forum the need for additional federal funding for additional places at the Ourimbah campus of the University of Newcastle. Students who live on the Central Coast have very low post-secondary participation rates, very low tertiary education participation rates, and it will be only through an expansion of the number of places at the Ourimbah campus that we can make sure that more students on the Central Coast have a chance to complete tertiary studies.

Universities across Australia have been forced to cut the range of courses that they are offering. For example, the University of New South Wales has been forced to close its St George campus and its teacher education facilities. At Monash there has been a loss of 120 staff from the arts faculty and the closure of the classics department. In the Northern Territory there has been the closure of the English department, I understand, and at the Sydney University of Technology there have been job losses in nursing, humanities and social sciences.

I was interested to read in the minister's second reading speech the following statement:

The government also recognises that collaboration between universities and industry is critical to expanding our knowledge base and generating wealth. By providing enhanced opportunities for university researchers and research training students to collaborate with the industry, Australia will be better able to position itself in the global knowledge market.

The problem is that this government have introduced funding cuts that have decimated research in Australia. Not only have they cut back funding for universities; they abolished the tax concessions for research and development for the private sector. And changes in industry policy, for example, in pharmaceutical manufacturing, have meant that companies are receiving less incentive to carry out research and development in Australia. I suggest that the minister needs to look very closely at the policies of his own government if he believes that there was any basis to believe that there is an increase in research as a result of this government's policies.

In international marketing and promotion, this bill also highlights the government's failure of commitment in relation to education exports. Two-thirds of the $21 million promised by the minister for the new Australian education international marketing body have simply been cut from existing programs. The Howard government is clearly failing to recognise the importance of the education export industry, which generates more than $3 billion a year for Australia.

The bill also contains funding for open learning organisations in 1999 and 2000. Open learning has been seriously damaged by this government, in deregulating fees for open learning but failing to match those changes with changes to the open learning deferred payment scheme. By increasing the fees but not increasing the capacity of students to defer payment of those fees, the government has placed a substantial financial barrier in front of prospective open learning students.

The bill also alters estimates for special capital projects, various grants programs, superannuation and teaching hospitals, in line with government estimates of relevant inflation rates. In relation to these matters, I can only say the opposition is delighted that the minister seems so far to have left them mostly alone.

There are two final issues I would like to raise. First of all, I want to raise the matter of HECS. Before the 1996 election, John Howard promised he would `ensure that all individuals have a fair and equitable opportunity to benefit from a higher education'. Three years later the government's HECS changes and cuts to university operating grants mean that Australian students have to pay twice as much for their opportunity to get access to fewer places. HECS charges have increased by up to 125 per cent under this government and students are being forced to repay that debt long before they achieve a salary close to average weekly earnings.

In 1997, HECS for arts, humanities, social studies, performing arts, education, nursing and legal studies went up by 35 per cent; HECS for mathematics, science, engineering, computing, health sciences, agriculture, architecture, business and economics went up by 92 per cent; HECS for law, medicine, dentistry and veterinary science went up by 125 per cent. I know that veterinary science would be an issue of concern to you in particular, Mr Deputy Speaker Nehl. It went up by 125 per cent.

The tragedy of these mean-spirited and narrow-minded cuts is that they have had a dramatic impact in discouraging potential students from applying to go to university. The Howard government has raised a massive financial barrier to tertiary education, which is discouraging students, especially those from low-income backgrounds, who are far more likely to be wary of accumulating large debts.

Finally, the GST will increase the cost of food, books, public transport, software and Internet usage for all students, including higher education students, many of whom are on very low incomes. Books have never been taxed before in Australia, and this government's policy to introduce a GST on books is another win for mindless market ideology over commonsense. Schools, TAFEs and universities will be faced with a massive administrative burden. They will have to pay the GST on the goods and services which they used to be able to purchase sales tax exempt, and then they will have to fill out mountains of paperwork to claim back the money they should never have paid.

For these reasons, we will not be opposing the legislation, but I move the following amendment to the second reading motion:

That all words after `that' be omitted, with a view to substituting the following words:

`whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House condemns the government for damaging Australia's vitally important higher education system by:

(1) slashing funding to Australian universities resulting in 21,000 fewer student places; and

(2) driving down University application rates by 3.3% in 1997 and a further 3.1% in 1998 by increasing HECS charges and lowering the repayment threshold'.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —Is the amendment seconded?

Mr Snowdon —I second the amendment.