Standing up for Canberra

The power of education

Before I go on to give my speech, I just want to commend and congratulate the member for McMillan for a very, very powerful speech. The figures are breathtaking, and they are shameful. It is a national disgrace. I am not sure whether the member saw the piece in The Australian magazine on the weekend. It was an incredibly graphic piece on domestic violence. The editor of the magazine wrote in her editorial that, unfortunately, in reading that story, there was no happy ending. 

She said that often in pieces that they put in that magazine she likes to have a happy ending or some sort of resolution or clear sight to see how we can get out of a dreadful situation but that was not prevalent in that article. It is a national disgrace, as you say. Again, as you say, strong men do not bash women. I commend and congratulate you for the work that you are doing in your community to address and hopefully stop this issue, because as you say the figures are devastating; they are breathtaking. It is a national disgrace. Thank you so much for bringing the House's attention to it tonight. All power to you in the work that you are doing in your community to address this issue and eliminate this issue once and for all, because it is a national disgrace. So thank you so much.

There is very much that I and my constituents are aggrieved about following the Abbott government's budget of broken promises. Since the budget, I have been inundated with emails, letters, phone calls and messages from Canberrans who are outraged by this budget, which they see as grossly unfair and based on lies. Everywhere I have been in Canberra since the budget, Canberrans have spoken to me about their outrage. They have told me about how this budget is going to change their lives for the worst. They have told me about their fears for their jobs, their house prices, their children's education, their futures. They have told me that they fear getting sick because they cannot afford the Medicare or pharmaceutical benefits co-payments.

Over the last two weeks it has become clear to me that one of the issues Canberrans are most angry about are the cuts to higher education. Canberra is lucky enough to be home to several excellent universities, including the ANU, the University of Canberra and the Australian Catholic University. Currently, there are over 30,000 Canberrans enrolled in one of these three universities. So it is not surprising that Canberrans are passionate about this issue. There are several changes to higher education outlined in the budget, each more devastating than the next.

The change that will perhaps have the greatest impact is the uncapping of university fees and the subsequent uncapping of income contingent loans, the increasing interest paid on these loans and the bringing forward of the threshold at which point payment begins—'fee deregulation', as the government calls it. What will these changes mean? Will they mean that students will be paying higher fees for their degree, paying more of those fees and paying them sooner? Fees could skyrocket, up to $120,000 to $200,000, as some have predicted. So students will graduate with even heavier debt burdens, with compound interest looming.

I have said again and again in this place that education is the great transformer. Education allowed my sisters and I to escape the cycle of disadvantage. As a result of my mother's tenacity, we were allowed to finish high school, even though times were really tough. Dad had left us when I was 11 and we did not have much money. Our mother could have just sent us off to work but she was absolutely determined, dogged, to ensure that we got a tertiary education. She knew that, without education, your life was limited, your choices were limited, and that quite often you led a timid life as a result of not having an education. She was not going to have that for her girls.

My mother had to leave school at 15—a daughter of a single mother who had seven kids to bring up—and go off to work. Her mother left school at 13—again, another daughter of a single mother, with 13 kids in the family and again a life of limited choice or no choice, no options, and a timid life as a result. My mother's grandmother left school at the age of about 11 or 12, and so she had very limited choices. All of three of these women ended up being domestics or cleaners as a result of the fact that they had limited skills and so their choices and options in life were limited. Fortunately, it was not the path that was available to my sisters and I—thank you to my mother for her tenacity and doggedness in ensuring that we got an education, that we got through high school and that we then went on to tertiary education. As a result, I stand in this place proudly representing my wonderful community of Canberra. My middle sister is a scientist. She has her own business and is a master of wine making —one of only two or three females doing that in Australia. My little sister is a neurologist. She does stroke research in Melbourne. I am very proud of my sisters. I am very proud of their achievements. None of us would be living the lives that we have now if it were not for education.

As I said, these changes are devastating for higher education. I do wonder what would happen if my sisters and I were currently approaching university age, with a single mum who was already working incredibly hard just to ensure that we finished high school. Would we still go to university knowing that we would be saddled with debts that could be up to hundreds of thousands of dollars? I cannot help but think that we would not. That is the real problem with this policy. Increased fees will put off those Australians from disadvantaged backgrounds from going to university. University will become an option only for the rich, only for the elite.

These changes will also affect students who have already graduated from university. Changes to interest rates will impact their loans from 2016. So these Australians thought they were going to university under one system, but, having finished their degrees and paying off their loans, find out now that, thanks to the Abbott government, from 2016 they will be paying higher compound interest. This is deceitful and it is unfair.

What will be the flow-on effects of these policies? For one thing, how is a young person ever supposed to enter the housing market if they are graduating from university with an $80,000 debt? And let us not forget that the government also scrapped the First Home Saver Account and the National Rental Affordability Scheme in this budget. So I fear that housing affordability for young people will become even more of an issue than it is today.

It is not just students being faced with substantially higher debt that is a problem with these policies. These policies will also mean that the government itself is carrying a significantly higher level of debt, and the chance of students defaulting on their loans will increase.

To highlight just how complicated and how unnecessary these changes are, not even the government know exactly what is going on. It has been abundantly clear from their statements over the last two weeks that neither the Prime Minister nor the education minister is fully across the detail of their policy and they have failed to grasp its complexities and its repercussions. Last week we heard the Prime Minister clearly contradicting his education minister on radio. Then he had the nerve to suggest that it is the university vice-chancellors who are confused. The Prime Minister said in a radio interview that only students who start in 2016 onwards would be affected by fee changes. However, the government's own Study Assist website says otherwise.

The fact is: students enrolling in their degrees at the moment have absolutely no idea just how much they will be paying in fees. This is absolutely absurd and it is unfair. Since the budget, we have heard university vice-chancellors and others in the sector, including some in favour of deregulation, expressing their concerns. For example, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney Professor Michael Spence warned that fee deregulation risked pricing middle-class families out of a tertiary education. The vice-chancellor of the University of Adelaide said aspects of the changes were unworkable and unduly harsh. Universities Australia Chair Professor Sandra Harding warned that changes were being rushed. There have been endless vice-chancellors commenting on this.

Last week, with my ACT colleagues, I heard firsthand from ANU students about the impact of these changes, and the message was clear: students and their families are concerned and angry. They believe these changes will discourage disadvantaged students from seeking a university education.

The higher education policies contained in this budget are radical and retrograde, and the sooner the Abbott government realises this the better.

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