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Monday, 25 June 2018
Page: 123

Senator STEELE-JOHN (Western Australia) (21:37): If there is one thing that the Australian public despise about our political debates, it is the presence of hypocrisy. Tonight, in this chamber, as we debate the Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (Student Loan Sustainability) Bill 2018, the air is thick with it. On one side of this chamber, we have a party whose government in the other place is made up primarily of those who went to university for free or at a substantially reduced rate. Now—between giving a $144 billion tax cut to some of the richest Australians in this country and attempting to give $80 billion away to some of the largest tax multinationals in the world—they have decided this evening to stop and give a little kick to the young people of Australia trying to go through university. It is a disgrace and an outrage.

As a young person who, before my time in this place, was proudly a university student, I am absolutely furious, though not surprised. It is clear that this government's agenda, from day one, has been to drive the higher education system of this nation into the ground so that it can be sold off; so that it can be privatised; so that we can convert our higher education system—which has been one of the best in the world—into an American-style system where your pocketbook, not your aspiration, not your drive, determines whether you are able to go on to higher levels of education. It is a system which, we have seen over and over again, fails young people. It fails nations.

Education is a human right and an economic imperative, yet so often it is the first thing on the chopping block in our politics. An obsession of this government has been to cut it to smithereens—$20 billion since the Abbott government came to power. On the other side of the chamber, we have the Australian Labor Party that is very quick to talk about the legacy of Gough Whitlam and is very quick to talk about the benefits of higher education. It seems to also be very quick to forget that it was those on that side of the chamber, the ALP, who attempted in 2013 to rip $2.1 billion out of the higher education system. They instigated two reviews into Australia's higher education system that found a need to increase base funding by at least 10 per cent, but did absolutely nothing. In fact, they cut it. Hypocrisy, in its worst form.

This chamber tonight conspires to continue to punish young people for the crime of seeking an education, to saddle them with debt, to place barriers before those simply wanting to contribute, to gain knowledge, to build the Australian nation from its strongest base, to bring us innovation and knowledge. And the only thing that we can think to do as a legislature is to make it harder. The extent of the government's imagination in this space is to think to itself: 'How can we make this more difficult? God knows, we've got enough money to give to millionaires and billionaires. We've got enough money to give to Google and Amazon. We've got enough money to give to Gina and Clive and Twiggy.' But there's not enough to enable somebody from Rockingham to go to a high-class university, not enough to do something about the fact that university students nowadays exist in an environment unheard of and unimaginable to those who went through the system in previous generations.

University students are graduating nowadays into an environment dominated by insecure work, fear and mental stress. The No. 1 issue identified by young people, particularly those in university, as being their highest priority, the thing they wish we dealt with, is mental health. How do you think it contributes to somebody's mental health, to their anxiety, to load them up with more student debt? You tell them: 'You're entering a job market which requires you to be self-basting and oven ready. It requires you to have multiple degrees and the ability to undertake an internship and the ability to belong to a family that will get you in the front door with a nice little quiet conversation.' And you say: 'You enter that arena and we'll saddle you with a couple more thousand dollars worth of debt. Soon, you will have to start paying it back, while we didn't pay a penny, or we paid far less.'

I wonder sometimes, on this issue, how members of the government sleep at night, and how members of the opposition get to sleep, understanding the lack of ambition evident in their policy aspiration from this base. If you believe that education is a fundamental human right, then your North Star on this subject should be the return of higher education to something which is free and universal, something which is disconnected from debt, something which is provided to all not as a marker of their wealth or of their status or of their luck but as their existence as a human being. It should be alongside health care and housing and a secure job and a safe environment. I could not participate in this place, I could not be a voice for the people of Western Australia, in the knowledge that I was advocating something so small, something so measly, as the tinkering round the edges of the issue that seems to come day in, day out from the opposition.

You have young people, saddled up with tens of thousands of dollars of debt, entering a job market which you know is harder than any previous generation has ever had to face and confronting a housing market which is making the idea of owning your own home an ever-more-distant dream. Meanwhile the climate crumbles around them. And all you can offer is reviews. It's a bit like Newstart. I'll return to my state of WA and inform the people there on the streets, in my community of Rockingham, that Labor is conducting a review into Newstart, along with a review into higher education. For God's sake, the hypocrisy of it! I thank the chamber for its time.