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Thursday, 30 May 1996
Page: 1485

Senator McKIERNAN(6.43 p.m.) —It is always a pleasure to follow my National Party Senate colleague from Victoria in debates in this place. His ancestors, just as mine do, come from a place called Cavan in Ireland, although mine were there more recently than his. Nevertheless, neither of us, to the best of my knowledge, has had an invitation to go to the homestead close to here which bears the same name as the town and county whence our ancestors came. We live in hope. If we keep dropping hints, perhaps it will happen.

Senator McGauran —You won't ever educate the Irish.

Senator McKIERNAN —They still can't speak English as well as we can, can they? Another reason I am pleased to be following Senator McGauran in the important debate on this matter is that this is something on which the National Party and the Australian Labor Party can stand up together when we are supporting rural Australians.

In his contribution which has just concluded, Senator McGauran mentioned the Australian of yesterday's date, 29 May. He quoted some statistics from the education section of that publication. I am more pleased to quote the front page of yesterday's Australian where, again, evidence is shown of the Australian Labor Party and the National Party having together stood up to the government, stood up to its slash and burn approach to the budgetary cost cutting and saved the diesel fuel rebate scheme for the farming community of this great country. We will do the same thing and stand together on regional universities. Perhaps we might go a little further and talk about metropolitan universities as well. But that will not in any way denigrate our support for the great regional institutions that abound in the wonderful state of Western Australia, which include, as Senator Campbell would know, those branches of universities in places such as Broome and Bunbury.

It is very sad that the Australian parliament should have to debate such a motion which, I remind the Senate:

views, with grave concern, the turmoil engulfing Australian universities as a result of the Coalition Government's proposed budget cuts-

We know that today universities around this country are in a state of great turmoil, and not only universities. The whole of the education sector is in turmoil because they are under the grave threat of their budgets being slashed.

It is not only universities and educational institutions. Today, I have had calls in my electorate office in Perth and here—although the people have not been able to contact me as readily over here as they have in Perth—on the skillshare program. Enormous concern, fear and worry has been put into the minds of the great people that run those institutions because of Costello's con—a fictitious and shameful campaign by the government to fulfil the Fightback agenda which was so dramatically rejected by the electorate in 1993. It is now back on the agenda but this time under the subterfuge known as Costello's con.

The subject matter that we are debating which, unfortunately, Senator McGauran did stray quite substantially from, continues on. I have quoted part of it about the proposed budget cut. It continues:

and the mishandling by the Minister for Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs (Senator Vanstone) of her portfolio;

(b) notes that the indiscriminate funding cuts will threaten:

(i) Australia's international reputation and higher education export industry,

(ii) university research capacity and course options,

(iii) the quality of service for Australian students,

(iv) university teaching staff numbers and morale; and

(v) potential closure of facilities, suspension of building programs and reduction of student numbers; and

(c) notes that the proposed funding cuts breach Coalition election promises and guarantees—

Those election promises and guarantees were supposed to be written in blood. They were never going to be broken. The promises were going to be all-important on things. If they are brought to fruition—and indeed some cuts are already taking place in different types of programs; I mentioned the training area of skillshare—it will rebound on the Prime Minister (Mr Howard). In the very near future he will in turn find that he has alienated the community because they do not accept the right of politicians to make promises prior to elections, receive an overwhelming support for the programs they put to the people and then, in a matter of a few short months, reject and repudiate what they put to the people in order to encourage them to vote for them in the election.

A great deal of debate has occurred in this place in the past few days through questions to the minister on her negotiations with the vice-chancellors of our universities. A large number of questions have been addressed to her and very little information has been forthcoming from the minister on the current views of the vice-chancellors.

The Australian media have to be given credit for the fact that they are publicising the other side of the coin, namely, the worries in the minds of the vice-chancellors. Questions were asked of the minister who replied that some vice-chancellors are supportive of them sharing the burden of the need for savings. But, when pressed on that, she will not identify any of those vice-chancellors whom, she says, will bear what she describes as their share of the savings.

We do have some vice-chancellors who certainly have not said that they will share the burden. The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Canberra, Mr Don Aitken, said last week on Canberra radio that he was appalled by the government's attitude. That was repeated yesterday by Michael Osborne from La Trobe university. Senator Campbell will be very pleased to hear that there is very little support coming from the vice-chancellors back in our home state of Western Australia for the proposed cuts.

I had talks with one individual at the airport a couple of weeks ago. He has not given me permission to use his name, so I will not press it any further. But he certainly would not have been one of the people I would have put in the category of meeting with Senator Vanstone and expressing support for the cuts. But one person who has put his concerns in writing to me is the Acting Vice-Chancellor of the University of Western Australia, Professor Alan Robson. In a letter dated 23 May 1996, he wrote to me as follows:

Dear Senator

I am writing to seek your support in the face of the severe funding cuts currently mooted for the higher education sector.

As you will be aware from recent media coverage, the federal government has foreshadowed massive budget cuts in order to reduce Commonwealth expenditure by $8 billion over the next two years. Cuts of between 5 and 12% have been rumoured for the higher education sector. If imposed, cuts of this magnitude would seriously compromise our ability to deliver a high quality education to the people of Western Australia and to attract full fee paying international students which represent a major source of export income.

In its pre-election campaign the federal coalition promised that it would maintain universities' operating grants at their current levels and would increase funding in some specific research areas. If the coalition does not honour these promises, the higher education sector will be forced to make drastic reductions to the service it provides. The sector is unable to absorb any more funding cuts without a detrimental effect on the quality of tertiary education. Already since 1983 universities have absorbed cuts of approximately 10% per student, together with a 2% unfunded salary increase late in 1995. Further cuts will jeopardise the quality of educational opportunities available to young people in this State.

The University of Western Australia needs your support. I would be very grateful if you would join the University in this campaign and register your concerns, either verbally or in writing as appropriate, with the federal government.

Yours sincerely

Alan Robson.

As an individual political representative of Western Australia, I am very pleased to join with Mr Robson, the University of Western Australia and those other universities in my state in standing up to this federal government which is taking a slash and burn approach to destroy this country's higher education system. Further, I am happy to join with other university vice-chancellors throughout Aus tralia who are willing to stand up to the federal government.

As I said in my opening comments, I am more than happy, again, to stand beside our National Party colleagues who are going to take the fight up, internally as well as externally, to the government of which they are a part. I appreciate the difficult positions they might find themselves in. But some of us who were in government previously got quite used to that—that is, being somewhat of an opposition party in government. It can be quite difficult from time to time, but I do commend members of the National Party for doing it. As I indicated earlier, they have had some success with the diesel fuel rebate scheme for the farming community.

That fight has not yet been completed. There is still a very large sector of rural Australia which is quite dependent on the diesel fuel rebate scheme. That is the mining sector, which was quite highly praised here today by Senator Parer, the Minister representing the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy (Mr Anderson).

Parliamentarians, like my colleague Senator Campbell, will be receiving the same representations on that scheme from his constituents, as well as mine, back in our home state. I am sure that he will not be letting them down, although he might have to contain his representations somewhat differently to the way I might be able to handle them. Nonetheless, I am pretty certain that all Western Australian parliamentarians will be able to stand together in the interests of Western Australia and, indeed, Australia as a whole and the people of our great country to ensure that we have a future.

It is very important with election campaigns that the policies put to the people by the winning political party are going to be honoured by it. It is equally important that the vanquished who are elected to parliament in opposition put a strident defence to the policies and platforms that were put to the people at election times. A good opposition will make for good government, although I think our best efforts will not be rewarded too greatly, judging by the performances of the ministers in this government.

Nonetheless, I am sure that everybody on this side of the chamber and on the opposition side of the other place will do their very best to bring the fight up to the government. They will do their best to keep each of the individual ministers on their toes and to ensure that the ministers certainly do their very level best to honour the promises that were put to the people just three short months ago—that is, to ensure that those promises are kept.

The fallacy of what colloquially is known of as the `black hole' was exposed yesterday—very dramatically exposed yesterday. It is unfortunate that the script writers for the ministers are still active and still using those very inaccurate figures that projected there might be a deficit of in the region of $8 billion. Growth figures that were released yesterday prove again just what a mistake it is to rely on one quarter's figures. I am not one of the people who do go out and claim that everything in the garden is now rosy because we did have a good set of figures yesterday, because the next set of figures might not be quite as good and, of course, will change things again.

But that is what it is all about: that the projected deficit figure will change, it will continue to change and, because of that, there is no earthly reason now why our higher education system or, indeed, our welfare system or our training systems should be subjected to the slash and burn approach that has been projected by the current government. There is no earthly reason why that slash and burn approach should be allowed to continue. There is no reason why the people of this country—be they vice-chancellors in our academic institutions right across Australia or the students or other workers within those institutions—should be caused to have the fears that they have currently in their mind because of what has been projected by minister and other ministers of this government.

The turmoil that Australian universities are suffering today is an experience that should not be allowed to recur. The government and, indeed, the minister should stand up now, realise the mistakes they are making, the fears they are putting into the minds of the people and perhaps now step back, return to their election promises and get on and give good government to this country. They have got good examples to follow. The examples were put there by the previous administrations, and it will not be too difficult for them to copy those examples.