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Thursday, 30 May 1996
Page: 1463

Senator TEAGUE(4.44 p.m.) —It is no surprise to me, as one senator who has been actively involved in the education debates in this chamber for the last 18 years, that there are 18 speakers listed on this important motion and this important current issue, which is to make sure that there is health and prosperity for higher education in Australia.

I stand here today as a Liberal senator proud that I contributed—some will say significantly—to the promises in higher education that we took to the last election. Senator Hill, my close colleague, announced them and it is my objective view—and it is the view of many in this country—that, relative to the status quo, the Liberal and National Party policy on higher education was the best policy we have seen for decades and was certainly superior to the performance of the then Labor government.

I am not now going to duck away from the policy commitments which I helped formulate, which I still support and which I urge upon the ministers of this government to fulfil to the letter. I will not concede $1 short of fulfilling the promises that we gave to the Australian public during the last election. I wish to incorporate in my speech the official summary of the policies for higher education that we made in the last election.

Leave granted.

The summary read as follows

Executive Summary

A Coalition government will:

.   promote quality and excellence in both the teaching and research dimensions of Australian universities

.   promote diversity and choice within the higher education sector

.   ensure student access

.   support the further development of regional universities

.   maintain levels of funding to universities in terms of operating grants

.   establish the Higher Education Council as an Independent authority

.   Increase funding for research infrastructure in universities by $90 million over the next three years, as announced

.   increase funding for the Australian Research Council's Collaborative Research Grants by $30 million over three years, as announced

.   Increase funding for post-graduate scholarships by $9.3 million over the next three years so more students will have the opportunity to receive an Australian Post-Graduate Award with stipend, as announced

.   Investigate tax status of Industry supported postgraduate scholarships

.   establish the Australia Research Council as an independent body and expand its role

.   support the development of a national strategic approach to library infrastructure

.   maintain the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS)

.   maintain AUSTUDY and ABSTUDY

.   relax the AUSTUDY assets test on farm and business assets in businesses in which the parent is substantially engaged

.   review and improve the administration of AUSTUDY

Senator TEAGUE —I thank the Senate. This is the official summary of the Liberal Party and National Party's policy for higher education. I support it absolutely. There are some 16 points that are highlighted in this document. Five of them have direct, specific, positive funding commitments. Let me name them. Firstly, a coalition government will maintain levels of funding to universities in terms of operating grants. That means that there are no cuts to operating grants, not just for regional universities but for 36 universities.

Secondly, a coalition government will increase funding for research infrastructure in universities by $90 million over the next three years as announced—$90 million; it is very specific; it is over three years. That is on the basis of the consultations we made over the last three years that the previous government made insufficient commitments for the research infrastructure of our universities.

Thirdly, a coalition government will increase funding for the Australian Research Council's collaborative research grants by $30 million over three years as announced. That is highly specific. Fourthly, a coalition government will increase funding for postgraduate scholarships by $9.3 million over the next three years, so more students will have the opportunity to receive an Australian postgraduate award with stipend, as announced. That is highly specific. Fifthly, a coalition government will relax the Austudy assets test on farm and business assets in businesses in which the parent is substantially engaged. That has a funding tag to it.

The other 11 dot points on the piece of paper I have incorporated are all positive. They are about quality, about excellence, about teaching, about research, about diversity, about choice, about access, about maintaining HECS, about maintaining Austudy, about maintaining Abstudy and about reviewing and strengthening the Australian Research Council, indeed, making it an independent body and expanding its role.

There is a commitment to the Higher Education Council to establish it as an inde pendent authority. After years of complaining about the way the Labor Party had too many education advisers in their pocket, we want to have a legitimate independent Higher Education Council which is able to speak honestly and with integrity to the government of the day.

I want to mention a number of developments that we have promised. These do not have particular price tags on them. They are fairly usual in policy statements from all sides of the debate in an election and I concede that they do not have precise dollar amounts attached to them. They are a genuine expression of intent. They involve such matters as supporting the further development of regional universities. It is a pleasure to follow Senator Denman in this debate. There are 18 speakers, but I know that Senator Denman and my colleagues from Tasmania have a very real commitment to the university in Tasmania and to the students from decentralised parts of the state who go to that university to study.

Our commitment is to support the further development of regional universities. It is no surprise to me that members of the National Party have been to see the Minister for Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs (Senator Vanstone) with the direct plea that regional universities see the outcome. It is no surprise to me that members, some of them freshly elected, from western Sydney go as a direct delegation to the minister and urge for their universities not to be let down by anything that would depart from the promises we have given.

They are not alone. I want it to be firmly understood in this chamber and in Australia that government members do not sit on their hands when there is a furore—like the one we have seen over the last two or three weeks—in the Australian public. Every day there are headlines and further stories about what is going to happen to higher education. Government members see the same developments, have the same consultations and have the same care for outcomes in our higher education institutions. Let me refer more specifically to the detailed policy. I seek leave to table the policy.

Leave granted.

Senator TEAGUE —This will be familiar to anybody because it is already a public document. It was circulated in February this year. It states:

The Coalition recognises that the significant per capita reduction of Commonwealth funds under Labor has had a detrimental effect on quality.

Do you hear that, Senator Carr? Do you hear that, Senator Chris Evans? Do you hear that, Senator Mackay?

Senator Carr —Yes, but it was wrong.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Patterson) —Senator Teague, if you direct your comments through the chair you will not get that sort of reaction.

Senator TEAGUE —The policy continues:

This has been evident in overcrowded lectures, unworkable tutorials and inadequate libraries. The financial squeeze also has detrimentally affected research infrastructure, research training and research capacity. Overall, this has put at risk the quality of both education and research.

Then comes our Liberal and National commitment:

Higher education in Australia has been and remains overwhelmingly publicly funded. The Coalition accepts the responsibility that flows from this historical fact and while encouraging a broadening of the sector's financial base, will at least maintain the level of Commonwealth funding to universities both in terms of operating grants and research grants . . . The Coalition will continue the practice of funding universities on a rolling triennium basis . . .

I could quote other parts of the document, but it is available for everyone to read. We talk about creative measures and reforms, about enhancing the autonomy of universities, about new developments and even about new revenue. The promises are best summarised by the executive summary that has been incorporated in Hansard .

Let me refer to Labor's $8 billion black hole. This has been repeated by us every day since we discovered it after the election. It is not something which is to be disregarded; it is to be responsibly faced up to. I share the view with many in this chamber that, if better growth figures had been announced yesterday, the deficit would be a little easier to handle. Nevertheless, it has to be handled. The eco nomic ministers of this government have to significantly address the structure of the Australian economy.

My argument is not that that should not be addressed. I am saying: address the deficit problem, giving priority to keeping the coalition's promises made during the election campaign. I do not believe that is an impossible task. I believe there is a majority in the government—at least on the back bench and I suspect in the ministry as well—who want that to happen. There needs to be more careful discussion prior to cabinet decisions on the August budget to put the two important responsibilities together.

I am not breaking any confidences when I say I have spoken to a number of ministers, including the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) and the Minister for Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs, my colleagues in South Australia and the Leader of the Government in the Senate (Senator Hill). It is natural that I speak to all of my colleagues, especially those who are involved in this matter and those who helped with and even announced this policy.

Firstly, they say this to me—and I make this very clear in this debate: no decisions have been made. Do not give the game away. The 18 speakers in this debate should speak with the view that they can have an impact upon the government. Those students and staff who are writing to members of parliament should not give the game away. They should believe that their argument, their persuasion, can have an impact upon the government of the day.

Let me refer to an article that was in the Australian last Friday, 24 May. It was written by Laura Tingle, one of the best journalists in Australia. She said:

During the election campaign, broadcaster John Laws asked Howard—

she of course means John Howard—

"If you had a choice between breaking election promises and running a Budget deficit, what would you choose?"

Howard responded: "We would always give preference to keeping our promises."

I ascertained this week and last week that that is still on track, that that is still the position of this government, of the cabinet and of the Prime Minister. I urge my coalition colleagues to ensure that it remains on track.

There are two important responsibilities: a responsibility to get the economy right and a responsibility to fulfil our promises. Let me draw an analogy. Let us say you are a father or a mother devoted to your children and you promise your darling daughter for her birthday some red ribbons for her hair. Meanwhile, you take every kind of measure to make sure that the house is paid for, that food is on the table and that everyone has clothes. You are highly responsible as a parent in making sure the family is cared for but, out of a misplaced sense of priorities, you forget, overlook or do not place any real emphasis on the promise you gave your daughter to give her some red ribbons. I tell you now that that daughter will not see on her birthday the family's provision of housing and food and all the matters that are rightly considered for the economy of that family. She will know one thing: mum and dad broke their promise and she does not have her red ribbons. I make that point to every senator.

Further, the Financial Review of Tuesday this week contained an editorial headed `Policy first, cuts second'. This editorial made a comparison between the mandates the government has been given for the Telstra-environment heritage matter and to fulfil its promises in education. It says:

. . . in a much broader and crucially important sense there is a core element they both share—unfortunately. This is the way in which government policy appears to be being driven solely by an obsession with delivering financial savings, not by wider policy concerns.

I stand with John Howard on this matter in the undertaking he gave during the election campaign about the priority of promises. I stand with the editorial in the Financial Review on policy first and cuts second.

Even before this debate emerged in all of our universities this month, I had the honour of moving the address-in-reply motion in this chamber. On 1 May I said this in my speech:

The second issue I refer to relates to the essential investment that must be made in education. I stress that there is ultimately no way to dilute the truth that the greater part of education provision must come from the public purse—from the allocation of taxpayers' money through government budgets. There is no ultimate escape from the budget foundation that education requires real dollars from real governments.

The first point from there is that when there is an expenditure review committee, when cuts are being contemplated, you cannot just go into a spending area of such importance as education and believe that you can take the money away and somehow it will just appear from some other means.

There are measures that can be taken—and I referred to that on 1 May when I said:

Although we may have efficiency reforms, avoidance of duplication, a contribution by students and parents through HECS, incentives for university research to win support from the private sector and so on, ultimately the coalition government and all governments must keep their promises for universities, schools and vocational education and training so that there will be no reductions in the real allocation of money from Commonwealth funding.

My first point is that taxpayers expect that taxes are being collected from them for essential social services; that taxpayers do not resent taxes being gained by a government of the day to be spent on education. I put it to you again. In parliament after parliament, polling indicates that education is in the top three issues. The public wants proper public provision for education.

I then referred to our promises. If we have promised something, let us deliver it. In the third and final element of this section of my speech on 1 May I said:

The government's budgetary commitment to education is a fundamental investment in Australia's productive future. The challenge is to make sure that that investment is sure.

It has been fundamental to all 18 speakers in this debate that spending on research, teaching, higher education is an investment into Australia's future. It is an essential investment, and we must not dilute it, cut it short or short-change it. I have put those three arguments more explicitly than perhaps I did on 1 May but they are there essentially in what I said as my final speech here in the Senate. In my speech on 1 May I said, `Thanks for the honour that you all give me to move the address-in-reply. It is the last time I can do it. I will be retiring from the Senate at the end of the next month.'

I stand by everything I said. I urge the government, for the three reasons that I set out on 1 May, to fulfil its promises, to make the investment and to live up to taxpayers' expectations.

I address these remarks to every member of the government but especially to the six members of the Expenditure Review Committee, chaired by the Prime Minister, John Howard, and including three financial ministers: the Treasurer, Peter Costello; the Minister for Finance, John Fahey; and the Assistant Treasurer, our colleague in this chamber, Senator Jim Short. John Anderson and Michael Wooldridge are also on the committee. These six members have the difficult political task—and I genuinely wish them well—of providing advice to cabinet with regard to the August budget. I put to them with as much fervour as I can: do not sell our promises short; do not sell policy short, just to solve the other responsibility; do not put all the eggs in one basket.

In the minutes that remain, I have a few remarks that I would like to make about our vice-chancellors. Before I say this, I wish to declare a personal interest. It is not true that I am seeking to be appointed to a position as a vice-chancellor in the next month or so, but I happen to have among my friends many—maybe most—of the 36 vice-chancellors currently serving in Australia.

Senators know that I was involved in education policy matters through the whole 18 years of my time here in the parliament, and I still believe every word that I have ever said here. I ask for higher education's understanding if, in opposition, we were not able to achieve as much as we had hoped. We are in government now, and I have the responsibility to speak the truth. I have the responsibility to urge my colleagues to weigh the policy issues that are involved in this matter, to take note of the furore out in the community, to take note of what has been said by every one of the 18 senators who have spoken in this debate, and not just dismiss it as if it were an ideological knee-jerk reaction and all about the deficit.

The deficit must be solved but not without proper, responsible regard for the basis on which we won the election. I could refer again to my speech on 1 May. Maybe opposition members opposite were not convinced about this point. I mentioned that there were some lessons that I was not patronisingly giving to members opposite but, to put it on the record, to all of us. I said:

One, do not mess up the economy; it loses votes. Two, do not break promises; it loses votes. Three, do not lie and do not condone lying; it loses votes. I say that very seriously.

I say it again today: don't break promises; it loses votes. In speaking with my colleagues, I am not just commending something because it is a virtue not to break your promise; I am saying: don't break your promise or you will lose votes. There is a political imperative, and I mean it. When the l-a-w tax cuts were deceitfully thrown out by the previous government, the Australian public heard that bell ringing and they threw out the government that did it.

Let me come to the vice-chancellors. As I say, I have got a personal interest. Six months ago I was elected to the Council of the University of Adelaide. I am very happy to serve on that council. I am very happy to serve on its finance committee, its personnel matters committee, its faculty of arts and some other areas. I will not say in the Council of the University of Adelaide or to any of my friends among the vice-chancellors anything that I am not going to be saying here or in public.

Of course, there is a place for some appropriately confidential discussions, and I will not break confidential discussions. But I will not use this broad approach here and not say the same thing in any forum in which I have commitments. I want our universities to prosper. I want my universities in South Australia, the three of them, to prosper.

With regard to the vice-chancellors, I think it is only obvious to say it but no-one has actually said this in the debate so far: I can understand the dismay of 36 vice-chancellors when they hear hints of five to 12 per cent cuts to university budgets, given that promises were made only a few weeks ago, before the election, that there would be no such cuts. We can imagine their dismay. They are only human. They have responded to those hints in the way that any sensible Australian citizen would respond. Let us listen to them. They want their institutions to prosper and they want their advocacy to be effective.

One vice-chancellor has said to me, on the basis of there being such a failure to address the promises given before the election, when hinting at five to 12 per cent cuts, `I feel so much dismayed, so much let down, that I think to cooperate in defining where those cuts should be would be tantamount to subversion of my own university's outcomes and my council would hold me to account.' I think it is reasonable to give assurances to vice-chancellors so that they know that what they say in cooperation will not be used against them.

It should also be recognised that vice-chancellors looked at the policies that were offered in the last election and made a legitimate decision, in my view, that the coalition's policies were better. Some of the vice-chancellors have been so kind or generous to me as to share that confidence. I will not name their names.

Senator Bell —Go on.

Senator TEAGUE —You can imagine the dismay, Senator Bell and Senator Stott Despoja, if you had said, `This is the better policy and I advocate that all of you support the coalition with regard to higher education because it will clearly be better for us.' There is enlightenment in that. There are promises in that. To then find there is a hint that this may be quite different means they will be dismayed.

Finally, I wish to refer to confidential meetings. It is appropriate that there be some confidential meetings, especially one to one or in small groups, with any minister at any time. But if a minister of this government or any other government is to give a statement to a whole industry, it is appropriate to take the model that the Prime Minister used last night for the mining industry. There was a special list of a couple of hundred mining executives, and members of the press, ambassadors and members of parliament were present. The basic guidelines leading to the budget were announced by the minister with responsibility for mining and the Prime Minister.

In confidential meetings, there is a danger that the persons hearing from a minister will be captured and will be breaking the confidence if they then discuss it with their own councils and their own universities. I believe there is an appropriateness for a semi-public level of discussion.

I have a number of things to say. My time is cut short; I had only half an hour to speak in this debate. I can only urge my colleagues in government to fulfil the promises that won us the last election.