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Wednesday, 2 December 2015
Page: 9602

Senator XENOPHON (South Australia) (12:14): I genuinely meant it when I said that I think it is terrific that Senator Birmingham is Minister for Education and Training. I think that he does have the smarts and the capacity to do a really good job of this portfolio. But I have got to say the arguments that he has put up against Senator Carr's amendment are so anaemic they are in need of a blood transfusion. This just does not make sense. Let us go through some of these arguments. They do not make sense. Senator Birmingham, the minister, says these are last-minute amendments.

Senator Birmingham: I didn't say that was a reason not to oppose them. I just highlighted the hypocrisy in Kim's argument.

Senator XENOPHON: Sometimes if you highlight what you say is hypocrisy—it sounded like an argument against it. But the fact is: we have had to do this on the run. It is not satisfactory. I was prepared to support Senator Lazarus's and Senator Muir's amendment, in terms of aviation colleges, primarily, because I thought that it had merit because it picked up on an unintended consequence of the legislation. So I am prepared to be flexible. I think the opposition has been pretty flexible with a whole stack of amendments that were thrown into the chamber yesterday, and that is why I thought Natasha Bitters' column was very apposite in terms of what has been going on here. This does not mandate a capping of fees but it gives an additional weapon for the government to deal with dodgy providers. It also sends a clear signal. I think that just having this power would, in itself, have a moderating effect on prices. Simply knowing that the government has this power would give some private college providers that are not ethical, that are not doing the right thing, pause for thought in terms of some of their behaviours. We know that the current system has not worked. We know that this is a stopgap measure to try to deal with it, according to Natasha Bitters in The Australian, and I agree with her.

My concern is if the government's argument is that there will be an expectation for us to do something if this amendment is passed. There might be an expectation but the government still does not have to do it. The government has raised a number of concerns about how it would be capped—whether it is too low or too high. Surely it is up to the government to come to the right decision if, in some cases for some courses, there ought to be a cap. I think that it would give a very powerful signal to those operators that are not behaving ethically, in addition to all the other measures in this bill. So I cannot see the harm in the government having this extra bit of power that it could use, should it decide to do so, to deal with this. Minister Hartsuyker said he had turned off the tap of taxpayer funding that will total $2.75 billion this year alone. I am suggesting that we are not turning off the tap, because the tap is still leaking, and this will give the government an opportunity to turn it off for those courses that are not behaving properly. To have the power to cap is absolutely critical for this bill to work. I see this amendment as enhancing the bill in a meaningful way, even sending a signal to those dodgy operators that they need to be aware that the government has the ability to cap their fees. That, to me, is a very useful mechanism.