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Tuesday, 8 October 1985
Page: 824

Senator PETER BAUME(6.15) —The Senate is debating cognately the Student Assistance (Loans Guarantee and Subsidy) Repeal Bill 1985 and the Student Assistance Amendment Bill 1985. The Opposition does not oppose the Student Assistance Amendment Bill which seeks to make some minor changes to restructure certain student assistance review tribunals. To the extent that the Bill puts in place certain administrative arrangements of government, we do not question it and we accept what the Government is doing. The Opposition, however, has a strong opposition to and will oppose the Student Assistance (Loans Guarantee and Subsidy) Repeal Bill. It is to this Bill that I will address my remarks.

This measure is a benefit deprivation measure. It seeks to remove from the tertiary students of Australia a benefit potentially available to them. It is a matter of regret-in fact, it is an indictment of the Hawke Labor Government-that during its time in office it has failed to implement a student loans scheme when legislation existed to put that scheme into place. It is an indictment of Mr Hawke, of his Minister for Education (Senator Ryan) and of his Government that the Government now seeks to repeal the enabling legislation which would make a loans scheme possible. If successful, this repeal will make it impossible for students to avail themselves of the benefits of student loans should any government, present or future, wish to use the existing legislation. Let us be quite clear that it is students from needy backgrounds, disadvantaged students, who would want to use loans but who will not now be able to use them and who will be disadvantaged. This is another example of the Hawke Government removing a potential benefit and seeking to make life more difficult for needy or disadvantaged students.

The loans scheme, which I introduced as Minister for Education in 1982, would have provided an additional source of support for disadvantaged students. It would have provided extra money for students who needed it. It would not have been incumbent upon any student to avail himself or herself of this scheme. However, it would have been possible for any student who wanted so to do to seek a loan. These loans would have been available to students already in receipt of allowances or able to satisfy a means test. The loans were targeted to needy students. What could be wrong with that? The loans were to be made available at concessional rates.

This is merely an extra benefit, which tertiary students could have used and to which they could have turned, which was put in place by the Fraser Government and which this Government has seen fit not to implement. In fact it has put aside the many applications received for loans in March 1983. The loans would have been taken out only by those who wanted them, but, thanks to the Labor Government, students will no longer have that option. As I say, the measure is a benefit deprivation measure, yet another betrayal of Australia's tertiary students by this Government with its miserable record in the areas of student support and tertiary education.

The loans were to be provided at advantageous rates. The legislation which we are asked to repeal now sought only to make available to students loans at concessional interest rates, at better interest rates than they could get on the market. In this day, with this high interest Government and with the country facing the highest interest rates historically for generations, our tertiary students would have benefited from receiving subsidised interest rates for loans which they might have wanted to take out. The Bill which Labor now seeks to repeal provided for a two-year holiday on repayments by students receiving the loans. It provided for needy students to take out loans to improve their chances of completing, and succeeding in, their chosen field of study. The continued existence of the loans scheme would help students. It would not turn away any student from tertiary education, nor would it reduce the opportunities for any student. It is an extra benefit which Labor wants to remove.

Labor must explain to us where the social advantage lies-the benefit to the country or to any student-by taking from students an existing benefit. Of course, Labor has been very big in the past few months about taking away benefits. Ask any large family what it has meant to them to lose the payment of the family allowance for their older student children. Ask them what it has meant to see the value of the tertiary education assistance scheme drop further behind the unemployment benefit. Here we have the removal of what would have been another option for disadvantaged students whose need is greatest and who face the greatest obstacles in making their way through tertiary education.

It is worth while to examine the history of the passage of this legislation. When it was passed it was opposed by the Australian Democrats. They advanced their reasons for voting against it, which I think were incorrect, but that is all right. The Bill was passed in 1982 only because it had the support not only of the then Government, the Liberal and National parties, but also of the Australian Labor Party. What did Labor people say when we tried to put this extra benefit in place? In speaking for the then Opposition in this debate, Senator Button said:

However, as I said, the Opposition--

that was the Labor Party--

does not oppose the legislation. We believe it will provide some benefit to some students and to that extent it is supported.

If Senator Button had that view in 1982, why have Labor senators changed their view in 1985? Senator Button was absolutely correct; this loans scheme would have provided some benefit to some students. He was quite correct that for that reason Labor was right to support the measure. When in opposition, Labor admitted that some needy students would benefit from this legislation and no student would be disadvantaged. So why does it not continue this legislation to allow students the extra option? What ideological barrier has emerged since Labor came to government which has prevented it from providing this extra benefit which might help some students in need? Why repeal the Students Assistance (Loans Guarantee and Subsidy) Act now? No cogent or coherent reasons have been given. There is no coherent reason for repealing this legislation, except blind ideological prejudice.

Not only did Labor vote for the scheme and speak in support of it when it was introduced but also as honourable senators may remember, the question of student loans did not pass straight through this chamber. It was referred to the Senate Standing Committee on Education and the Arts, chaired at that time by my colleague Senator Baden Teague.

Senator Teague —A good committee.

Senator PETER BAUME —A very good committee. The Committee comprised Senator Baden Teague as Chairman and some Labor senators, including former Senator Jean Hearn and Senators Giles and Robert Ray. I have looked at the report of that Committee and I can find nothing in it which raises any objection to the concept of loans. I can find nothing by way of minority report which seeks to have the Senate consider an alternative view. In fact, the recommendations of that Committee, when it reflected upon the provisions of this Bill, were that it was a good and adequate measure which should be supported. Not only did Senator Button support it on behalf of the Labor Party, but also Labor senators on the Committee, when asked to examine the legislation, reported favourably that it was good, benefit-conferring legislation. We cannot understand why the Labor Party now wants to remove it.

I mentioned a few moments ago that Labor has a sorry record in terms of its support for tertiary students. It is worth looking at Senator Button's speech on the 1982 Bill to see some of the things for which he criticised the then Government. Senator Button complained about the gap between the TEAS benefit paid to students and the level of unemployment benefit. Senator Button said:

Following the increases in TEAS in the recent Budget, the TEAS benefit is still at least $5 per week less than the unemployment benefit. What is the incentive in financial terms to embark upon tertiary education when there are very limited assurances about future employment as a result and when the unemployment benefit is pitched at a higher rate?

A very interesting comment by Senator Button. Let us examine the situation since this Government took office in relation to the gap between the TEAS benefit and the unemployment benefit, which so concerned Senator Button in 1982. We know what this Government said about TEAS before it came to office, but what has it done? In its first Budget it increased the education disincentive gap between TEAS and the unemployment benefit from the $5 which I had bequeathed it as Minister, to which Senator Button had referred, to $11. In its first Budget it more than doubled the gap. In the Government's next Budget it increased the gap to $12.30; not for 16 or 17-year old students, but for students 18 years old or over. In its recent third Budget the gap was further increased to $14.72 for students aged between 18 and 20 years and $17.97 for students aged over 20 years. The Fraser Government in the 1982 Budget, when I was Minister for Education, increased the value of the TEAS benefit by 20 per cent. The first three Labor Budgets have seen an increase only marginally greater than that. The gap between TEAS and the unemployment benefit has widened considerably, in spite of Senator Button's rhetoric and the quite explicit promises by Labor to Australia's student population made before the election.

So much for Labor's commitment to provide adequate student assistance. There is all the more reason, in view of this sorry history, to have available student loans as an extra option, with compulsion upon no one to use them, but available to those who might want to take advantage of such a loans scheme.

Sitting suspended from 6.30 to 8 p.m.

Senator PETER BAUME —Before the sitting was suspended I was setting out the reasons for our opposition to this Bill which seeks to repeal the Student Assistance (Loans Guarantee and Subsidy) Act 1982. I pointed out that that Act provides a benefit and that this Bill seeks to take that benefit away. I pointed out that the Labor Party in opposition had supported this Act. Senator Button, on behalf of the then Opposition, spoke in support of it. The legislation had been examined and scrutinised by a Senate standing committee which had approved it and reported favourably. I pointed out that the Act provided access to a benefit which would help needy students under advantageous conditions. I asked the question then: `What kind of social benefit, what kind of social goal, lies behind the desire of the Government to remove this benefit, to remove access to loans and to put forward this repeal Bill?' The Government has indicated no benefit to students and, as I pointed out before the sitting was suspended, the record of the Labor Party in government has been to make students worse off rather that better off.

I remind the Senate again of one of the points made by Senator Button in 1982 when he was speaking for the Labor Party on the Bill to establish the loans scheme. He made it clear that he had a concern about the gap between TEAS and the unemployment benefit. I have been able to demonstrate that that gap is now worse. It has got much worse with Labor in government than it was when Senator Button made his concern known. So much for Labor's commitment, its solemn promise before the election to close the gap between TEAS and the unemployment benefit. Like so many other Labor promises, it was not worth a crumpet. It was not honoured and it shows no prospect of being honoured. It is one of the many promises that Labor made to students which has now gone by the board. That happened as soon as it was snouts in the trough and Labor was in power. So much for the commitment to provide adequate student assistance. It has not come to pass. That gives us all the more reason for wanting to keep in place this scheme which provides access to some supplementary form of benefits.

The Labor Party has an appalling record of broken promises and downright negligence in its handling of student assistance. It was Labor that complained that the gap between TEAS and the unemployment benefit was a disincentive to people seeking further education. If it was a disincentive in 1982, why is it not equally a disincentive in 1985? Why are Labor's complaints of 1982 Labor's practice of 1985? Why has Labor tripled the size of the gap for some students? In its first three Budgets, Labor's increase in TEAS has not been sufficient to keep up with the increase in unemployment benefit and students are now worse off vis-a-vis unemployment beneficiaries than they were when Senator Button, on behalf of the Labor Party, made his quite telling criticism in 1982. The point at issue are the widening of the education disincentive gap, Labor's failure to increase TEAS adequately and Senator Button's admission that the loan scheme would do some good for some students. Surely that was the crux of it-the scheme would do some good for some students and it would certainly do no harm. Senator Button's own words are strong reasons for retaining and activating the student loans scheme. There is no coherent reason not to have it in place and operating except blind ideological prejudice.

This scheme provides extra capacity for poor students; it puts more power in the hands of the consumers of education, compared with the providers and controllers. Perhaps that is one reason why the scheme is out of favour with the Labor Party, which is committed to planning, to holding power centrally and to not letting consumers near it. The Government must say why it wants to repeal with scheme and it must say what social goals it is pursuing. There is none except to take away benefits-to deny benefits which would otherwise be available-and there is no useful social goal that will be achieved by this repeal Bill.

Fees abolition alone, introduced by Labor in 1974, has not been enough to change the social mix in higher education. The loans scheme, now the subject of a repeal Bill by Labor, could have been one measure which would have helped those of limited means to get access to higher education. Surely that would have been to the benefit of students and education generally. For the reasons I have set out, for the very reasons that Senator Button set out in 1982 when speaking to the legislation, the Opposition believes that this scheme should remain and we will oppose the abolition Bill because we think it serves no one's interests, least of all those of students and those of education.