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Monday, 9 November 2015
Page: 8039


Senator SIMMS (South Australia) (20:32): I wish to respond to Senator Carr's comments in summarising the Greens' position. Of course, I do thank Senator Carr for reminding us that it was the Labor Party that was the architect of the HEC Scheme in this country—the Labor Party that moved away from free education in this country and saddled generations of students with debt; generations of students who have seen that debt increase as the Liberal government increased HECS a little bit further and built on the work of and the foundations laid by the Labor Party. Senator Carr has referred to it as one of the great achievements of the Hawke and Keating government. I would be very interested to know the views of the National Union of Students and other student organisations who continue to advocate against the unfairness that is at the heart of the HECS system.

Indeed, it was that moment when the Labor Party were in government and initiated HECS that destroyed the concept of free education in this country. And once you let the genie out of the bottle, there is no putting it back in again. What we have seen is the Howard government come in with their agenda to increase HECS fees by 30 per cent and build on the work of the Labor Party and then of course the Abbott government pursuing their deregulation agenda, which sought to even further shift the cost burden onto students away from the public good. That is the work that the Labor Party began when they were in government and is the project that the Liberal-National Party have continued. So I thank Senator Carr for reminding us of that contribution.

I also want to make the point that this approach seems to be premised on this notion of a mythical Australian expat who, upon graduating from their studies here in Australia, boarded a plane in some elaborate effort to avoid paying back their HECS liability. What a bizarre proposition that is! The reality is that we are not talking about a group of people who are tax avoiders, who are skipping the country in some elaborate effort to avoid paying tax; we are talking about ordinary Australians who happen to be living overseas, for whatever reason, who suddenly find that the tax regime in their home country, their previous country, has changed. I am not quite sure how they are meant to become aware of this development. The minister has not shed any light on that. Perhaps they are meant to study The Australian or continue to monitor ABC online and keep an eye on changes to the domestic taxation arrangements here in Australia. It does seem a rather bizarre proposition to expect ordinary Australians who are living overseas to keep such a close eye on domestic politics here in Australia. Indeed, as has been the experience over the last three or so years, it is a space that moves quite quickly. So to expect Australians living overseas to keep track of that is curious indeed.

What the Greens are seeking to do here is provide a level of clarity to people who could find themselves caught out by this unusual tax regime. We are also trying to ensure that we do not trap people retrospectively—that we do not go down the path of applying legislation and a new legislative arrangement to a whole group of people who operated under the previous taxation regime. Senator Carr made the point that, when people took on board a HECS debt, they never thought that they could move overseas and not have to pay HECS. Yes, they did. That was the reality of the HECS regime. That has been the reality of the approach that has been taken in this country since, as Senator Carr has pointed out, the Labor Party initiated the HEC Scheme and undermined free education in this country. Since that point, it has been a feature of the system that, if you happen to live and work overseas, you do not have to pay HECS. Tonight, the Labor Party and the Liberal Party want to change that approach. We have taken the very sensible position of saying that, if you are going to do that, do not apply it retrospectively. Give people a little bit of notice. Let's not base our approach to taxation on this idea that there is some mythical graduate skipping the country to try to create some tax haven over in the UK just so they can avoid paying HECS. Give us a break! So I encourage you to support the amendments that the Greens have put forward.