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Thursday, 22 August 1996
Page: 2947

Senator CARR(3.39 p.m.) —This proposition goes to the question of this government's integrity when it comes to the issues of higher education and other educational programs. As I understand the talk around this town, the Minister for Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs, Senator Vanstone, explained to a number of people before the budget was brought down that, after the budget was brought down, she would be the most unpopular minister for education in the Commonwealth's history. I think that is one promise she has kept. There have been very few others that she has kept.

What we see in these budget papers is an attempt to disguise and deceive, just like the election strategy of the Liberal Party from its very commencement. You promise anything, you say anything and you do anything you think is necessary to get you a few votes and then in practice you do very little of what you promised and what you committed to. We have seen again and again this strategy being followed. These budget papers follow that practice by suggesting that there are increases in education expenditure when, in fact, the opposite is the case.

Minister, as I gave your papers a bit more careful reading rather than just the superficial reading your press relations people would encourage us to do, I found that, over the next four years, the total cuts to budget programs administered by your department will amount to something in the order of $5.8 billion. That is $5.8 billion worth of cuts being administered by this minister in the Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs. That would have to be one of the greatest levels of cuts that any Commonwealth minister responsible for this department has had to endure in the history of this Commonwealth. Yet another great achievement!

The question is: is this just a case of the minister's incompetence or is it a case of the ERC imposing on her decisions that no other minister would accept and, therefore, is it just a failure to administer her department and to defend her constituency the way she ought to as the minister responsible for such an important area of government activity?

We looked at the detail very clearly. We were promised by this government before the election that it would maintain existing programs in the schools area. If I recall the promise made by Senator Hill in February this year, he said, `We will at least maintain Commonwealth specific purpose payments to schools in line with the forward estimates recurrent, capital and targeted equity programs.' When you look at the budget papers that clearly has not occurred.

When you look at the other higher education areas, the promise was simple: `We will maintain the level of funding for operating grants to universities and there will be no cuts in university places.' According to the Sydney Morning Herald, `Iron-clad commitments have been given that the overall funding for universities would be maintained.' So it goes on.

The same pattern is emerging out of every area of activity undertaken by this department. As I read it, it is a very simple proposition. With Austudy the lies and deceit continue. For instance, the statement issued by this government says that the coalition government is firmly committed to maintain the level of benefits to eligible families which Austudy provides. You would think that that means that it wants to spend money on Austudy and maintain the level of benefits. Nothing could be further from the truth because, when you read the budget papers carefully, you find cuts in excess of $514 million being made to Austudy. So, with such things like case management of homeless students, you see that quite significant cuts have been undertaken—quite contrary to the commitments given before the election.

We see in the case of Abstudy and Austudy that the age of independence has been raised to 25 years. We see that the tightening of the various eligibility tests will produce substantial savings from the government's point of view. We see breaches being made in English as a second language and in TAFE programs. We see cuts to operating grants, to growth funding, to the states, to TAFE colleges and to the VET sector generally.

Of course, in higher eduction the case is abundantly clear. In relation to HECS funding, in total some $2.4 billion overall has been taken away from Australians and taken out of the higher education sector as a result of this government's programs—$2.4 billion! Nothing could be clearer: in terms of discretionary funds $214 million has been taken out; in terms of raising the independent allowance for students receiving Austudy payments, some $241 million; in terms of tightening the means test, $817 million; and in terms of lowering the threshold, $312 million. We see similar sorts of figures in terms of differential HECS. Some $623 million in operating grants will also be taken away from this sector.

So what we see is a government that has quite clearly been caught out, a government that cannot keep its word. In a whole range of areas—in the operation of universities, support to students and equity programs—quite clearly this government has not maintained its commitments and has quite clearly breached them. We see that not one extra dollar has been put into equity programs—not one extra dollar! What this government is seeking to do is repackage Labor programs, re-announce them, reclaim them as its own and say, `Oh, yes. We're keeping our commitments.' That is not what it said before the election. In terms of up-front fees, quite a significant impact will be had upon the disincentive rates—that is, people being forced out of universities—as a result of the actions being taken by this government.

Aboriginal education is one of the clearest areas I can point to where fundamental breaches have occurred. These are not big sums of money at all but, in terms of the principles at stake here, in terms of the equity arrangements entered into by this government and in terms of the importance of education in trying to provide a better, fairer and more productive society, this government has failed dismally. Quite clearly, it does not understand the value of higher education and it does not understand the importance of making sure all Australians do participate within it.

We were told that Aboriginal education would be exempt from the moves on ATSIC, that that program would be left apart from any changes. But what do we find today? We find—although we do not see this too clearly in any of the budget papers; that is part of the game, isn't it, making sure that as little information as possible explaining what is happening in the forward estimates is available—on page 8 of the budget statements, which deals with direct assistance in Aboriginal education, that there have been quite specific cuts to programs in the coming year. Of course, over the next four years these cuts will become even more pronounced. I notice there has also been a significant cut in tuition assistance. The vocational guidance program has been cut. The Aboriginal parents program has been cut. In terms of the Aboriginal education strategic initiative program, $1.5 million will be taken out next year, and this cut will grow to $31 million by the turn of the century.

What we are seeing will have quite detrimental effects on Aboriginal tertiary education assistance. This is quite contrary to the claims made that education would be exempt from cuts relating to ATSIC. This is another set of lies, more deceit, more deception. We all understand what that means in terms of equity, because we understand that education provides a vehicle for many people to change their life circumstances.

Of course, this is yet one more opportunity for the rich and powerful to maintain their influence in this society. The minister goes on and on about how hard life was under Labor, but her complaint was that we spent too much, that Labor did too much. She said the way to fix that up is to make the poor pay more. She has offered a few scholarships—a miserable 1,000 scholarships, I think. There are 650,000 students in this country at the moment. What a miserable effort!

I have here a couple of letters I have received from some people who will suffer as a result of these cuts to programs. I will refer to them on another day. (Time expired)