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Thursday, 17 September 2015
Page: 7089

Senator URQUHART (TasmaniaDeputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (10:28): I also rise to speak in support of the Higher Education Support Amendments (New Zealand Citizens) Bill 2015, and I would like to congratulate Senator Carr on bringing forward this worthwhile bill that is true to two of Labor's core beliefs. One is fairness and the other is affordable education. Everyone should have affordable education.

This bill is designed to address a longstanding inequity for long-term Australian residents who were born in New Zealand. It is something that happened and then it stopped and now it is about time to start it again. Under current laws, people who came to Australia from New Zealand when they were young or who were born here to New Zealand parents are unable to access the Higher Education Loan Program, or HELP, as it is commonly referred to. These people are now forced to pay full up-front fees, regardless of how long they have been living in this country. There are close to half a million New Zealanders who are living in Australia who are unable to access the financial assistance that is available to all other Australians who attend or who want to attend university. More than 1,000 of these New Zealanders are actually living in the area where I am, in the electorate of Braddon. These people have built their lives in this country and continue to make a contribution to this country in a very strong way. They will more than likely go on to be productive, contributing taxpayers to our economy. For this reason, they should also be able to enjoy the same educational support that all other Australians are offered.

In the 2013 budget, Labor announced that we would fix this inequity—the inequity regarding people who were born in New Zealand but who came to Australia to live—to make sure that they could access the same assistance when they went to university. We promised to rectify the problem and the proposed legislation to do so was supposed to take effect on 1 January this year. Notably and importantly, those on the opposite side, who are in government now, agreed with this proposal and that it would start on 1 January this year. But in the intervening time we had an election and the legislation did not progress. So, last year, then Prime Minister Abbott met with his New Zealand counterpart and reiterated the intention of the government to follow through on Labor's plans and rectify the inequity. After the election, Prime Minister Abbott said to the Prime Minister of New Zealand: 'We will follow through on that plan and we will make sure that we fix the inequity.' That was then reflected in the government's 2014 budget papers. So it should have been a simple matter that could have been sorted with a minimum of fuss. But, true to form, those opposite tied an uncontentious bipartisan measure to one of the most toxic and destructive bills that this parliament has seen—that of university deregulation.

It was okay to give up the promise that we had made, the bipartisanship that we had shown, the support that we had given the New Zealand Prime Minister at the time, through then Prime Minister Abbott, that we would get this sorted. Now Mr Christopher Pyne, in his position in the government, has tied it to that of university deregulation—a pretty grubby move. So Labor requested that that bill be split off in order to ensure the timely passage of a measure that had been an agreed measure. The government did not do this. Instead, they decided to hold this equity measure hostage to their vicious plan for the $100,000 degrees. Of course, those opposite have form in this area. Mr Christopher Pyne, in particular, has shown that he is not above blackmailing the parliament in an attempt to ram through his plan to see Australian students paying $100,000 and more for their higher education. Only six months ago, he held a gun to scientific research funding if we in this place refused to pass his odious deregulation legislation. Not too long before that, he had dangled a carrot of extra funding for the University of Tasmania in front of Independent Senator Jackie Lambie in an attempt to bribe his bill through this chamber. Of course, I will always support extra funding for our state university, but I will not accept the premise that this has to be at the expense of affordable education for everyone in this country—and neither did Senator Lambie, to her credit. Just as Mr Pyne arbitrarily attached increased funding for the University of Tasmania to his destructive bill, so he is trying to blackmail the parliament, making this equity measure contingent on the passing of his toxic higher education plan.

Mr Christopher Pyne and the Abbott-Turnbull government have done everything they can to make it harder for young Australians to access university. Clearly, Labor will never vote for legislation that will lumber future students with a debt that may continue beyond their working lives. We cannot support a bill that would create a two-tier education system of haves and have-nots. We will not countenance a plan that will force bright young Australians to reconsider whether or not they can afford an education and whether or not they can afford to be lumbered with those bills beyond their working life. Labor will not be bullied and we will not be blackmailed into accepting some of the most radical and extreme legislation this place has seen. Instead, Senator Carr is offering a solution. The solution is the bill before us here today. This bill will allow access to HELP for any individual who has been an Australian resident for at least the past 10 years, who has resided here for at least eight of the past 10 years and 18 months of the past two years. To be successful, applicants must also have been a dependent child when they started living in Australia. I expect that those opposite will live up to their promise and support this bill, as they have done in the past, but I still fear they may continue with their hallmark record of broken promises.

Thousands of university students have been kept in limbo for more than a year while Mr Christopher Pyne tries to pursue his reckless plan for an Americanisation of our higher education system. Australians do not want an Americanisation of our higher education system. We want those bright young Australians to be able to go to university, without them being lumbered with a debt of at least $100,000 and having to decide whether or not they can go on with their education and contribute in the fields that they so dearly want to and have the intellectual ability to do purely on the basis of whether they can afford to pay the cost. That is not a reasonable ask. It is not a reasonable or acceptable position for young people in this country—the young bright minds that will assist the growth of our economic prosperity in this country. It is not acceptable that that burden is put on them, and we will not support that. What this bill will do is put through and put to rest a commitment that was given by the Abbott government and by Prime Minister Abbott to the New Zealand government. We should just get on and do it. Let us untie it from the shackles of the nasty tertiary education cuts that Mr Christopher Pyne wants to put in. Let us make sure that we allow this agreed position to go through today and let us make sure that we provide that opportunity for those New Zealand people who are living in this country, who have done so for many years and who apply by the rules of this process. I would urge the Liberals to put an end to this limbo, do the right thing, vote for this bill and get it through the Senate. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.