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Thursday, 8 October 2020
Page: 5313

Senator STEELE-JOHN (Western Australia) (09:33): [by video link] The arts and the humanities are amazing, and anyone who studies them should be celebrated. We know that the future of employment in this country, the industries that are needed over the next 25 years, the challenges we face as a community are all better faced when people have the opportunity to study in the arts, in the humanities, gaining the skills that are available to people there. I say that proudly as somebody that studied the arts when I was at university myself.

It is also the case that many previous generations to my own have had the opportunity to study in these fields either at a dramatically reduced cost or, indeed, for free. There is an entire generation of so-called legislators in this place who went to university for free, who studied the arts and the humanities for free. There are no fewer than 16 government members that went to university for free. The education minister himself has no fewer than three arts degrees, so you would think in that context that any and all legislation that came before this place would be aimed at opening up opportunity for young people, for students across the country to study at university, and would encourage people to study in these incredibly vital fields where we have the opportunity to explore the deepest questions of our own human nature and collaborate with each other on some of the most challenging topics of our time. Particularly in this moment where so many young people are challenged as never before by the reality of the COVID recession, by the reality of the climate crisis and by the reality of the health crisis, you would imagine that any and all legislation put before this place would be aimed at making it easier for us as young people to get an education. Particularly now, more than ever, in 2020, getting a tertiary degree, studying in these fields, is the modern equivalent of exiting high school as it was for previous generations. Yet, when we look at the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020, when we open the lid and look at this proposal, we see the diametric opposite.

At the heart of this bill is a rank hypocrisy. It is the legislative embodiment of a pattern which is sweeping through our entire society at the moment, and that is the pattern of older, privileged folks denying to this generation, to my generation, the opportunities which they themselves enjoyed. An entire generation of parliamentarians who went to university for free are now moving to block that opportunity—not only to fail to pass on that opportunity but to make it more difficult for students to study in the arts and humanities. It is one of the most unfair and one of the most hypocritical pieces of legislation that we have seen in recent times.

We all know that the major parties in this place operate in a relatively fact-free environment—a fantasy land, if you like—where gas is a clean pathway to the renewable energy future and tax cuts for the rich magically trickle down and help everybody else. That's nothing new, but it is worth noting that there is not one speck of academic evidence from any part of the field that will tell you that making arts and humanities more difficult to study is the right thing to do at this present moment. In fact, the opposite is true. I had the opportunity to serve on the future of work and workers committee as one of my first tasks as an MP, and what we heard very clearly as a committee was that the next 25 years of work in this country will primarily evolve around the human-facing industries, those care industries in aged care and in the NDIS. These are the spaces and places where the trends of automation are least likely to take greatest effect, because of the vital need for there to be humans in those roles. These are all things that are better supported by access to the arts and humanities.

Let me say it again just so that we are very clear: this bill is a hypocritical act. It denies to my generation, to the young people of this country, the opportunities which were enjoyed by the previous generations. It is being perpetrated upon students by a government containing 16 members who themselves went to university for free and by a minister who himself benefited from arts and humanities work at university.

During the course of this campaign, as we have opposed this legislation, thousands of students have reached out to us as a party and shared with us, as Greens MPs, their frustration and anger at the double standard that is represented in this legislation. Whether it be on climate, whether it be on employment or whether it be in education, the simple ask of young people in Australia is that we not have put in our way barriers that were torn down for previous generations. That is what this bill does, and it is not okay. Increasing the cost of an arts and humanities degree by 113 per cent is not okay. It is not acceptable, particularly not at this moment in time. We have young people at universities all around the country struggling with mental health, in a context where the university sector has been critically underfunded for decades and where staff are facing chronic work insecurity, yet we as students are being asked to pay more to participate in this system. We have put ourselves forward to pursue our hopes and dreams, to work with each other, to do the best that we can, and the answer that this government has given us is: pay double and get on with it.

The sickening truth at the centre of this legislation is that it is being done for purely ideological reasons by a government that simply hates the arts and humanities, that has never appreciated the social sciences; in fact, it interprets these fields of study as directly oppositional to its cruel agendas. Whether it was Howard's attacks on the student union movement or the multibillion dollar cuts levelled against the higher education sector by the Labor government, for decades it has been bipartisan policy for both sides of politics to come together to either rip funding out of higher education, making it more difficult to access, or decrease the political power of students.

I am incredibly proud to sit virtually with my Greens colleagues today in opposing this legislation as a member of a political movement that proclaims clearly that university—that education—is a human right and a public good and should be free for all forever. I oppose this bill, along with my colleagues, and will vote against it with pride. I thank the chamber for its time.