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Thursday, 17 September 2015
Page: 7079


Senator BIRMINGHAM (South AustraliaAssistant Minister for Education and Training) (09:48): I am astounded that, with two minutes and 55 seconds left on the clock, Senator Carr had run out of bluff, bluster and rhetoric. He had run out of the capacity—

Senator Jacinta Collins interjecting

Senator BIRMINGHAM: No, Senator Collins. I will make sure that I nail Senator Carr in his hypocrisy, Senator Collins—have no fear of that. I will make sure that we nail Senator Carr in his hypocrisy and yours as well. We just heard from the Jeremy Corbyn of Australian politics, I think. Senator Carr is the great unreconstructed left-winger. If Mr Corbyn could be the love child of Senator Carr and Senator Rhiannon, who I see over there, that is probably what Jeremy Corbyn would be.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Birmingham, come back to the point.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: To be serious for a minute—

Senator Fawcett interjecting

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Senator Fawcett says he thought I was being serious. Senator Fawcett, Mr Corbyn is a little too old to be the love child of Senator Carr and Senator Rhiannon, but I think philosophically he certainly is.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Birmingham, we might get back to the question before the chair.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Everything that the previous government touched when it came to policy reforms was completely half-baked, and we are, indeed, as a country paying a price for that. In the education space, that is crystal clear as well. When the former government decided to provide for demand-driven systems for undergraduate places at university or funding of diplomas and advanced diplomas through VET FEE-HELP, in both instances they never considered the full implications and ramifications. What this government has had to do in these areas is come in and deal with the half-baked reforms and half-baked policies of the previous government and attempt to fix them up.

We just heard Senator Carr go on a rant about the 'out-of-control loan scheme of VET FEE-HELP'. Of course, the out-of-control loan scheme of VET FEE-HELP was introduced in 2012 by the previous government. Complaints about it in those early days were received by the previous government, by the regulator and by the department of education. What happened in response to those complaints about the operation of the loan scheme that the previous government set up and Senator Carr criticises so widely? Absolutely nothing. Senator Carr then comes in here and wants to shout, bellow, point the finger across the chamber and say, 'What's the new government doing?' Of course, in all of that shouting and bellowing and in all of that criticism suggesting that our reforms are not enough, did Senator Carr have one policy suggestion? Did he have one proposal of what he might do or what the Labor Party might do? No—because it is all empty rhetoric. It is all just a lot of shouting and bellowing and ranting and raving from Senator Carr and the Labor Party on this topic.

Let us have a look, in relation to VET FEE-HELP, at what this government has done to fix the problem created by the previous government. I agree that the problem is an out-of-control loan scheme, which was set up by the previous government. I agree it is being rorted by shonks and fraudsters and it is giving the majority of good, high-quality vocational education and training providers out there a bad name. This government has taken action. On 1 April this year, we banned inducements and we banned the offering of free laptops, free iPads and cash giveaways—et cetera.

I see the media reports in relation to that continued practice today and I assure Senator Carr that there will be action coming against those providers named in that media report. It is absolutely my intention that, if need be, we will execute one to educate many. If we have to execute more, that will be exactly what occurs. I see Senator Carr and Senator Marshall wryly smiling. Of course, I used a little left-wing rhetoric in that regard, which I know would appeal to the two of you very much and I am sure it would appeal to Senator Rhiannon as well. We have banned those inducements and we have banned withdrawal fees.

Senator Kim Carr: Come Saturday, we will see who is executed!

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I do not think that is terribly likely, Senator Carr. We have band withdrawal fees—

Senator Kim Carr: You won't be in this job!

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I will be very happy to be still in this job, because I am very passionate about this job. I am very passionate about cleaning up the mess that you left and making sure that we leave this place as a much better environment.

We banned those inducements. We have banned withdrawal fees. It was apparently the case that some providers were charging students up to $1,000 to exit from a course, so we have banned those withdrawal fees. It took effect from 1 July this year. We have banned advertisements that talked about VET FEE-HELP being free or government funded or that suggested that you will never earn enough to pay it back. That is because we want people to know that it is a loan. It is not a grant and it is not a giveaway; it is a loan. It goes on your credit rating and it impacts on your capacity to borrow for a house, a car or anything else and you are expected to earn enough from that training to get a job and to be in a position to pay it back.

Importantly, and particularly importantly given today's media stories, the reforms we put in place from 1 July make a registered training organisations responsible for the actions of their brokers. No more will anybody be able to say, 'Well, it wasn't one of our employees who did this awful act and who was out there targeting vulnerable people and engaging in some terrible behaviour.' That is because the RTO will be responsible for the actions of those brokers. The consequences for RTOs if the brokers to the wrong thing could well be the loss of their status as a VET FEE-HELP provider and the loss of their registration as a training organisation, as well as fines, penalties or otherwise. I am determined that if we have to put people out of business to fix this system, then that is exactly what we will do.

We have applied a two-day cooling-off period, which will take effect from 1 January, between enrolment and being able to apply to the VET FEE-HELP loan. This, of course, is about trying to stop door-to-door activities and trying to stop people being targeted in the supermarkets, because there will have to be at least two points of contact from the individual before they can get the VET FEE-HELP loan. They will have to be enrolled first and a there is cooling-off period before the loan application can be signed and made.

We will be banning, from 1 January, the up-front levying of the full debt load in one hit, regardless of the student's progression. Once again, we are changing the incentive. Under the program that Labor set up, the incentive is far too loaded towards simply enrolling people: getting a signature on a piece of paper, having them enrolled and having them signed up for the loan, so then you can slug them for the entire $15,000—or whatever the cost of a course is—up-front and in one hit. That practice will end under this government. We will be making sure that there must be four separate payments and that the incentive changes from one of just signing somebody up to one of actually having people who will progress through the course and that will ultimately deliver qualified people who are there for the right reasons.

Importantly, in addition to that, we will be putting in place minimum standards of educational qualifications—year 12 standard or equivalent—to make sure that those who are signing up for those courses actually have the capacity to do them. That is because VET FEE-HELP only applies to high-level vocational education qualifications—to diplomas and advanced diploma courses. We want to make sure that the Australians who sign up for those courses are the people who have the capability to undertake those courses and complete those courses to earn the qualification. It is all about shifting the incentive, as I say, from just signing people up to knowing that you actually have to sign up people who can do the course, who intend to do the course and who are capable of completing the course.

We will be applying new infringement notices that will hit providers with fines for breaches of all of these standards and guidelines from 1 January. We will have the power to remit the debt and recoup costs from providers, plus penalties, from 1 January. We will make it easier for students who have been unfairly targeted or unfairly treated in any way to get their debt waived. Importantly, we want to do that in a way where it is not the taxpayer who has to foot the bill, which is largely the case under the arrangements that the previous government established. If the debt is waived because the provider has done the wrong thing, then the provider should pay. Not only should they pay for that waiving of the debt but they should pay a penalty for doing the wrong thing as well. Our reforms will ensure that that is the case. We are going to raise the bar on the standard of providers who can access VET FEE-HELP too. From 1 January, only those with a proven history of operating for at least three years and in doing so offering high quality, high-level VET courses will be able to be approved for VET FEE-HELP.

I will not accept coming into this chamber and being lectured by Senator Carr, who sits there, cries out and says that we are negligent and we are not doing anything about it. We are doing a lot about it. We are doing an awful lot about it.

Senator Kim Carr: If you are doing so much, why is still it continuing? You are all talk!

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Senator Carr, you know an awful lot about being all talk because—as I pointed out—you made not one suggestion in your contribution. You were all complaint and no action.

Senator Jacinta Collins: You have got the fixer. What is he fixing?

Senator BIRMINGHAM: We are fixing your mess. That is what we are fixing. You established it; we are fixing it. The reforms we are introducing are not all in place.

Senator Kim Carr interjecting

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Senator Carr, when I bring legislation—

Senator Kim Carr interjecting

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Senator Carr, listen for a second. When I bring legislation into this place to fix this, I look forward to your contribution containing—

Senator Kim Carr: That's it? That's it?

Senator BIRMINGHAM: So what are you going to do? What are your policies, Senator Carr? There have been absolutely no suggestions from you—no suggestions whatsoever. The challenge for you, Senator Carr, is: when I bring legislation into this place—this next tranche of reforms—make some suggestions. Have some policies. Have an idea of your own. You created this mess and you have come up with not one single idea of how to fix it yet. You are devoid of any ideas, Senator Carr. The Labor Party is devoid of any ideas. All you can do is moan and bitch and whinge and carry on but you do not have a single fresh idea. You do not have a single idea or policy to fix this. Have the courage to come in here and tell us what else you would do in addition to all of the measures that we have already outlined and that we are pursuing. Those started with the new RTO standards on 1 April and the banning of certain practices on 1 July. Other practices will take effect and change from 1 January. I emphasise, Senator Carr, that you say it has not been fixed yet. Well, not all of the measures that I have announced have taken effect yet either.

Senator Kim Carr: You're a 'gonna'.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: No, there's no 'gonna' about this—unless, of course, you are going to block it in the Senate or play silly buggers. So, assuming we have your support—which I trust we do, given your lofty rhetoric—

Senator Kim Carr interjecting

Senator Jacinta Collins interjecting

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator O'Neill ): Order! Senator Birmingham, it would be appropriate for you to make your comments through the chair. I ask for a little order from those on the opposite side of the chamber, too.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Thank you, Madam Acting Deputy Speaker—President, sorry.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Is there going to be more change?

Senator BIRMINGHAM: You are the only one who has served in the other place.

Senator Kim Carr: You're going to the House as well!

Senator BIRMINGHAM: This government has also provided additional funding to the Australian Skills Quality Authority—an organisation which I note the previous government established. We get complaints from Senator Carr about how that organisation operates and about some of its failings.

Senator Kim Carr: It's a toothless tiger!

Senator BIRMINGHAM: 'A toothless tiger', he says. Guess which government set up the legislation for that toothless tiger?

Senator Kim Carr: What have you done about it?

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Guess which government appointed not one of the commissioners, not two of the commissioners but all three of the commissioners? It was your government, Senator Carr, that did so.

Senator Kim Carr: What have you done about it?

Senator BIRMINGHAM: What have we done about it? Well, we have new standards for training organisations that came into effect this year. We have provided $68 million in additional funding to the organisation. We provided another $18.9 million in compliance funding for VET FEE-HELP activities in particular. So, Senator Carr, you ask, 'What have you done?' I have spent the entire session trying to explain to you what it is we have done about it. Senator Carr, what we are doing in this space, as we are doing right across government, is cleaning up your mess. What I find remarkable today—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Birmingham, I remind you to speak through the chair.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I am happy to speak through the chair. I would have thought you might have reminded others about interjections occasionally, too.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: I have indeed asked for order from those on the opposite side.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: To some extent.

Senator Jacinta Collins: He has run out of steam!

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Don't tempt me, Senator Collins! It is quite remarkable, Senator Collins—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Birmingham, through the chair.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Through the chair, it is quite remarkable, Senator Collins, after all the bellowing from Senator Carr about all of the problems that he does not have any solution to fix, that the one thing he thinks is the priority issue to bring before the chamber, the one matter he thinks is the most important reform to bring before the chamber, relates to New Zealand people. It relates to the access for New Zealanders to our higher education system. The government supports this policy. We are happy indeed to have this passed. It has been part of legislation that Labor has voted against not once but twice. We are very happy with the policy proposal of Senator Carr, but why on earth it would be his priority to bring it forward as a sort of political stunt rather than as a package of reforms, as the government has proposed, is beyond me.

Senator Carr thinks this is the priority issue, yet he complains about other areas where he thinks vulnerable Australians are being targeted, which they are with bad loans, and where he thinks the taxpayer is being ripped off, which they are with those bad loans, and where he thinks the government is not acting. Yet we are, with many actions. Senator Carr has not one single idea of his own on what to do. His only idea applies to New Zealand citizens. His only idea is about making it easier for more people to access student loans. That, of course, is exactly what the previous government did before, when they set up the demand driven funding system for bachelor places and undergraduate places at universities, when they set up the VET FEE-HELP scheme. All of those policies of the previous government were about making it easier for people to access student loans. Then he comes here and complains about the blow-out in those student loans and complains about the failings of those student loans. Yet the only legislation he offers to this chamber, the only reform he offers to this chamber, is to expand access to student loans to New Zealanders as well. The hypocrisy is really quite astounding.

This government supports the concept of extending the Higher Education Loan Program to New Zealanders—to those who have been in Australia for a long time, meeting specified conditions. The previous government, of course, proposed this measure. But, not unlike many ideas that the previous government proposed, they never actually did anything about it. Now they come in here and say they want to do something about it. We affirmed our support for this in a joint statement with Prime Minister Key in 2014. And not once but twice we have actually tried to legislate for the measures that are before the chamber—not once but twice. And not once but twice the Labor Party voted against those measures. The Labor Party that comes in here and tries to sincerely say, 'We think this is important,' voted against those measures.

The passage of this bill would not itself actually give effect to the shared desire to extend HELP loans to this special category of New Zealanders, because to do so requires the money to cover it to be appropriated. Of course, this bill does not appropriate money. But not having the money, of course, has never been a concern for the Australian Labor Party. The Labor Party is always very happy to do things without knowing where the money would come from or having the money. The Department of Education and Training has said that, assuming a start date of 1 January 2016, the estimated cost of this would be around $12 million over the period 1 January 2016 to the end of the 2019-20 financial year.

To reject this bill will not necessarily prevent this category of New Zealand students from getting access to HELP loans, precisely because this bill will not have the effect of giving them access. Once again, it is a half-baked policy proposal from the Labor Party, the likes of which are reflected in everything they did in the education space when they were in government—in their failure to set up the demand driven scheme for universities in an effective way that would drive the right incentives for behaviour in universities and in their failure to set up the VET FEE-HELP scheme in an effective way that would ensure that training providers and organisations were incentivised to attract quality students, deliver quality training and give those students quality qualifications. Instead, everything the Labor Party proposes is half-baked in its approach and in its measures.

This legislation is no exception to that rule. And of course the hollow rhetoric we heard from Senator Carr earlier on the subject of VET FEE-HELP is certainly no exception to that. Despite being responsible for the problem, despite having done nothing about the problem when becoming aware of it in government, he still offers not a single solution but only empty criticism.