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Tuesday, 26 June 2018
Page: 4047


Senator BARTLETT (Queensland) (19:07): I, along with my Greens colleagues, oppose the Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (Student Loan Sustainability) Bill 2018. It should be self-evident from even the most cursory glance—and obviously any glance deeper than that—that this bill will impact most significantly on people on lower incomes. It will impact particularly the group of people on lower incomes who have undertaken higher education and training, which is exactly the sort of thing we encourage people to do. It particularly affects younger people, but it also affects older people who are trying to retrain, as they're continually told to do. The high priests of neoliberal fundamentalism that have been driving economic policy in this country since the 1980s demand exactly that of people.

We've got a rapidly changing economy and a rapidly changing workforce where different skills are needed, so you go out and retrain. But, if you go out and retrain, we'll charge you for it and then expect you to pay it back before you've even managed to earn enough to get yourself back on your feet. It's just putting one extra burden on top of another for people who are already amongst those who are struggling the most. That, unfortunately, is a description that applies so consistently to this government that you may as well just put it on play and repeat for pretty much every second piece of legislation—certainly anything that relates to economics in this place.

Last week, of course, we had massive tax cuts—big piles of money—made available to people on the highest incomes, and this week we have this government wanting to make more billions of dollars available to the biggest corporations. At the same time, the government want to push through legislation that will make people who are earning less than the median wage have to pay more if they've had the temerity to try and improve their education. Often it's a necessity to undertake education and training to try and get employment. We all hear it time and time again, the ridiculous mantra from the government benches. I heard it time and time again 10 years ago and 20 years ago: 'The best form of welfare is a job. What these people need to do is get a job.' But when they try to get training or to get an education to enable themselves to get a job, they get more debt. Now the government wants to force them to pay back that debt before these people are even earning enough money to get by as it is.

I am one of those—again befitting my literal greybeard role—from the era when university fees were not charged in the 1980s. It was in my final year at the University of Queensland that the Hawke Labor government brought in tertiary fees again. One of the great legacies of the Whitlam era, along with Medibank, was free tertiary education, which the Fraser government kept free. It was the Labor government, under the spell of the neoliberalism philosophy that is now so massively discredited, that introduced tertiary fees back in the late 1980s. It is a matter of folklore now that Mr Joe Hockey, who as Treasurer liked to talk about the 'end of the age of entitlement', was a student politician at that time in the 1980s. I remember how he protested against tertiary fees. So did I and many other people. Many people were spun the line, 'It's only a small amount,' and, 'You won't have to repay it until you're earning well above average wages, so it's completely fair and just.' Many people knew it was, quite rightly, a classic case of the thin edge of the wedge. And that is what we have seen ever since. The fees go up and up and up, the threshold at which you have to start repaying that debt gets lower and lower and lower. This is yet another stage in that process.

We all know that more and more people, particularly younger people, cannot access secure, permanent, full-time work. We all know how much more difficult that makes it for them, not just to get a loan to buy a house but also to get credit and loans to buy all sorts of things, to be able to get business loans and generate all those other different ways of trying to build a different way forward. When you've got that extra debt on top of it, it just makes it that much more difficult.

The Greens' policy is that we should be reversing this trend with regard to university fees, but the legislation before us is going even further in the wrong direction. With the tax cuts to big businesses and the massively wealthy people who run them, the current government is only going to increase the large wealth disparity that we see plaguing this country. This is another measure that will simply increase inequality. Surely all of us here now know that inequality is one of the major challenges, economic as well as social, facing this country.

An important factor of this legislation that needs to be noted is that it will impact more significantly on women. The lowering of this repayment threshold will be forcing 185,000 additional people to start paying back their fees earlier, when their income is below the median wage. Often, because they've undergone study, they've foregone the opportunity for a full-time income. It is almost impossible to have a full-time income and study full time. It is incredibly expensive to study with all of the extra costs associated with study apart from fees, so the vast majority of students, unless they happen to have wealthy families, are already in economic difficulties as part of going through that. That is fine if it provides the opportunity to come out the other side with greater opportunity to gain employment, but we all know, under the workplace laws that have been in place since Labor was last in government and the way they've now played out under the current coalition government, more and more graduates are finding it difficult to obtain jobs—certainly permanent, stable, full-time jobs. And even when they do find work, wages are stagnant.

The National Foundation for Australian Women found that the proposed changes will have disproportionately more negative impacts for young women attending university. They've stated that graduates caught between these policies will experience considerable financial stress. Graduates who are currently earning $51,000, more of whom are likely to be women, will have less disposable income than someone without a HECS debt earning $32,000. To reflect on the remarks of the previous speaker, who seemed to think that this should all be okay—'If people buy one or two fewer cups of coffee a week, they'll be fine to get by on $32,000 a year'—in any location where there are high housing costs, transport costs, caring costs, medical costs or the other challenges that so many people face, it is incredibly difficult. It will also negatively affect young mothers, in particular, who are already financially constrained by the costs of child care, and may be a further disincentive for them to enter the workforce.

For all the narrative that we hear from others in this place about the need to incentivise people to get a job, what we're actually doing is making it harder and harder for them, putting more and more disincentives in place, and continuing the regime of punishing the poor. As the second reading amendment from my colleague Senator Hanson-Young states, this is another indication of this government's war on young people and the poor. They are quite happy to hand out large amounts of money to their benefactors, to their corporate mates and to the wealthy while, at the same time, saying, 'We've got a budget crisis, so we've got to keep squeezing the poorest.' It's a stereotype, but it's so true. It is, of course, the easiest thing to do. It takes no courage to make changes that assist the wealthy and those that are already influential, but, as others have said prior to me, what does take courage is to make changes that support and assist those that are most in need. This parliament, time and time again, has its priorities very much the wrong way around, because these changes will indisputably make life more difficult for a specific group of low-income earners: people who have chosen or, in some cases, basically been forced, to undertake further or higher education or to upgrade, diversify or broaden their skills. We punish them further for trying to improve themselves.

We are in a situation where young people in hospitality and retail are having their penalty rates cut. They're having their incomes cut, yet some of those very same people, who are already struggling to get by, will now also be expected to be paying more on lower wages. These are young people who can't buy a house or who, if you're a student, certainly can't afford to rent a house unless they're doing it with a group of other people. Today I was talking to a young student named Gabby, who had just finished studying on the Sunshine Coast, about the immense financial challenge of getting through the studying process and coming out at the end of it with an enormous debt. Let's not forget the size of the debts we're talking about here. The previous speaker talked about it as though this is money that people owe the Australian taxpayer. Well, they do, unfortunately, but they shouldn't have to. People shouldn't come out of higher education or upgrading their skills with a massive debt. They certainly shouldn't have to repay that debt when their own income is below even the median full-time income. When they're low-income earners, we're expecting people to pay back a debt that they really shouldn't have incurred in the first place.

The whole argument—which has been shown over the years to be very flawed—that supposedly justified HECS was that people get an economic benefit out of being able to go to university. Certainly, some people very much do, but, if they get a higher economic benefit out of it, they should pay something back to the public through HECS fees. But we're now trying to force people to pay back it when they're not getting a higher economic benefit, when they're actually under the median wage and when they're a low-income earner. That is the bizarre logic that is trying to be applied here to justify squeezing more money out of people who are on low incomes.