Standing up for Canberra

Changes to Student HELP Debt

What is it with conservative governments, education and access to opportunity and education for all—no matter what your postcode, no matter what your gender, no matter how much your parents earn, no matter what your race and no matter what your religion is?

What is it with conservative governments?


It took until the Whitlam Government to open the doors of opportunity for tertiary education. Prior to that, my mother and my father were bright, young Australians—bright, young Victorians. My mother grew up in a Housing Commission house in Preston in Victoria, just down the road from an abattoir. My father was sent off to do a trade, to become an electrician, at the ripe old age of 15 because his parents couldn't afford for him to go to university. My mother was dragged kicking and screaming from high school. She also had to leave school at 15. She would have loved to have matriculated, as she calls it. But she was denied that opportunity, thanks to the conservative government that was running this nation for so long and denied that opportunity for young Australians from working-class backgrounds and from disadvantaged backgrounds.

It is the tradition that conservatives deny opportunity to those who are less well-off—to those who are doing it tough. My mother and my father are testimony to that. It wasn't until the Whitlam Government and the opportunities that he opened through tertiary education—the opportunity that he opened through free education for so many Australians—that I and my sisters, so many other Canberrans and so many other Australians were the first in their families to be educated.

And what did that mean? For me, it meant an awful lot. My father left me, my sisters and my mum with $30 in the bank in the seventies when I was 11. There was no Child Support Agency then, so things were pretty rough. I've spoken about this many times in this chamber, about the fact that we used to eat out every second or third night at family or friends' houses because mum couldn't afford to put food on the table every night of the week. On the nights of the week that we actually did eat at home, mum invariably didn't eat because she was on a seventies diet. The reality was that she couldn't afford to feed herself and her three daughters.

So I come from what I call a working-class matriarchy. My great-grandmother was a cleaner in the Western District in Victoria. She left school at 11, denied choice and denied opportunity. She brought up 13 children on her own. She was denied choice and opportunity because she left school at 11. My grandmother left school at 13, and was also a cleaner. She worked three cleaning jobs in hospitals and theatres in Victoria. She brought up seven kids on her own in a Housing Commission house in Preston. Her abiding fear was that the state was going to take her children away. The only reason she had that fear was not because she was a bad mother—she most certainly wasn't; she worked three jobs to put food on the table—but that the state would take her children away because she was poor.

When my dad left my mother and my sisters, we were facing the same sort of cycle of disadvantage that had dogged three generations of the working-class matriarchy of my family. But, thanks to the power of education—thanks to the transformative power of education—I broke that cycle, my middle sister broke that cycle and my little sister broke that cycle. Here I am, thanks to the transformative power of education, because it is the game changer. It is a silver bullet.

I broke that cycle of disadvantage—three generations of disadvantage—and now I have the great honour of representing my community here in parliament. Thanks to the opportunity of education, my middle sister is now Australia's first female Master of Wine, and a scientist and a winemaker in her own right. My little sister is a world expert neurologist, a world expert in dementia and stroke.

What was the game-changer? What was the reason for this whole cycle of cleaning and cleaning, denial of opportunity and choice, poverty and disadvantage? The timidity with which you lead your life, where you don't think particular parts of the world are the right place for you, was because of lack of education.

As a result of access to education, my sisters and I have been able to live bold lives determined by the choices and opportunities we sought. Education is the silver bullet, the game-changer, and the opportunities, choices and game-changing abilities it provides are constantly denied by those opposite, through barriers such as this legislation, to all students, particularly disadvantaged Australians of low socioeconomic backgrounds and people in regional and remote Australia.

The government, as my colleagues have said, is proposing a new minimum repayment income of $45,000 for compulsory repayment of the Higher Education Loan Program, HELP. This change is absolutely outrageous. We've heard from the member for Fowler—I commend him on that speech—that Australia has the sixth-highest rate of student debt in the OECD, yet the government is making it even more onerous for students through these changes.

This government is busy giving out $65 billion of tax cuts to the top end of town, yet is continuing to target students in universities right throughout the country. We're not just talking about the University of Sydney, the University of Canberra or the University of Melbourne. Shame on those opposite who represent regional and remote communities for talking in support of this bill! You are denying the young in your communities the opportunity to have a big life.

This government has already cut $28 million over the next three years from the Australian National University in my electorate. Last year the government introduced a plan to make students repay their HELP debts on incomes as little as $42,000; they're currently looking at making it $45,000. Labor opposed that change then and opposes this change now.

University graduates face a housing affordability nightmare, a spike in the price of utilities, a second-rate NBN, cuts to penalty rates—the list goes on. Now the government wants students to start paying back their fees at an unreasonably low income. It is unfair: $44,999 sole income is not a lot of money. It's $865 per week. The average rental price for a house in my electorate of Canberra is $540 per week. Factor this in, and university graduates are left with just $325 each week to pay for utilities, transport, mobile phone bills and groceries.

This amendment would add student fees to that already long list of expenses. And, if a sole income earner had any dependants, it would force them close to the poverty line. Can you imagine trying to pay back the debt and deal with those utility costs, particularly rent here? The average rent here in the electorate of Canberra is $540. If you've got dependants, it's mighty tough. The government is asking people to pay back their student loans before they even consider what they'll be able to feed their family.

Students in my electorate are already struggling with the prospect of paying back these debts. This amendment will change the future of students who have planned their life after university. Students will feel forced to take a job they may not have studied for because the salary's bigger, just so they can pay back that loan sooner than expected. I've heard of students who, as I said, are doing it tough—rent, utilities, and just trying to get food on the table. We all know that textbooks are expensive. They're always a huge hit for parents doing it tough at secondary schools and they're a huge hit for students doing it tough at the tertiary level, because we are looking at hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of dollars for textbooks.

I've heard about the concerns amongst Canberra's students about this proposal. They are very, very concerned about it. Some of them are wondering whether they'll continue to study. We've got a student who says she feels betrayed by the government, particularly if this amendment's passed. She labels it 'a new level of pressure'. These students are already under significant pressure and here they are faced with a new level of pressure by this conservative government—another cut in education. It's just constant.

The 2014 budget was probably the piece de resistance when it came to the tone, values and principles of this conservative government opposite. The government haven't learned from the 2014 budget. Nothing has been learned from the 2014 budget. It's just constant attacks particularly on those from low socioeconomic backgrounds, particularly on those doing it tough, particularly on those from regional and remote Australia, and particularly on the disadvantaged.

Not only is education about opportunity but it's about fairness. The same opportunity should be offered to every Australian, no matter where they live or what their income. I've spoken about my story and how it unleashed so much opportunity and choice for me and my sisters. I am blessed to have participated in a quality public education and am blessed to have participated in free education as a result of a Whitlam Government—a government that realised the opportunities for all Australians in innovation, in creating a modern society, in creating an inquisitive society, in creating a curious society. It was a government that realised the wonder that is offered up as a result of education.

Then we've got conservative governments. We started with Menzies and then Fraser, and now we've got this Abbott-Turnbull Government, a government that has never, ever had one plan for education. It's had multiple plans, and they were all about cuts—at the secondary level, at the tertiary level, at the vocational level.

Since this government took office, $17 billion has been cut from our schools, nearly $3 billion has been cut from vocational education, and Australia has lost 140,000 apprenticeships and traineeships. My electorate of Canberra has seen a 30 percent decline in apprentice and trainee graduates since this government's been in power. And, with universities, we've seen cuts after cuts—$2.2 billion worth of cuts nationally; $28 million worth of cuts from here in Canberra under this government.

It was Labor that opened the door of universities to 190,000 more Australians, many of whom were the first in their family to be educated. This government just slams it shut in their faces.