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Lee Rhiannon questions minister about uni cuts and impact on staff

Question
Lee Rhiannon 18 Jun 2013

Senator Lee Rhiannon asked a question of Senator Don Farrell representing the Minister for Tertiary Education regarding the government's planned cuts to university funding and the impact on staff wages and conditions.

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (14:47): My question is for the Minister representing the Minister for Tertiary Education, Senator Don Farrell. Given that the financial situation of universities is the only justification provided by university managements for refusing to meet the reasonable job security and pay rise demands of staff and unions at campuses that are currently locked in industrial disputes, do you accept the government's $900 million cut to base funding, as a result of the efficiency dividend, is partially responsible for reduced pay and conditions for staff?

Senator FARRELL (South Australia—Minister for Science and Research and Minister Assisting on Tourism) (14:48): I thank Senator Rhiannon for her question. The government believes that, in terms of negotiations between universities and their employees, it is the job of the universities and the unions that represent the workers to conduct those negotiations. The federal government has set up a system, through the Fair Work provisions, that allows those negotiations to take place. We encourage the parties to the various negotiations to continue their efforts to achieve a negotiated outcome.

The government believes that the best way of lifting wages and improving conditions for workers is through that enterprise bargaining process. We support the parties in that process. We certainly do not believe that the changes that have been made to the funding arrangements for the universities in any way inhibit the parties from conducting those negotiations. This government has significantly increased the amount of money provided to universities over the six years of the government. We continue to support the university sector and we continue to support the process that allows workers and, in this case, universities to engage in negotiations. We look forward to a successful negotiated outcome to these bargaining processes. (Time expired)

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (14:50): Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Considering Labor's backing of 'Your Rights at Work', does the minister support the demands of university staff unions in their work for above-inflation pay rises and better job security? If you are supportive of these reasonable demands, why is the government slashing funding for university budgets rather than increasing it, as you have stated?

Senator FARRELL (South Australia—Minister for Science and Research and Minister Assisting on Tourism) (14:50): Once again, I thank Senator Rhiannon for her supplementary question. I simply do not accept the premise of your question, Senator Rhiannon. The government continues to strongly support the universities and the university sectors. I had the privilege of meeting with the Group of Eight only last week, where we—

Senator Mason: I bet you enjoyed that.

Senator FARRELL: I did enjoy it, thank you. Yes, I did enjoy that, because they know what you do not know, Senator, and that is that this government is supporting the university sector. You will cut the heart and bones out of the university sector. That is your plan, and the workers who work for universities know that the only way they are going to get a fair outcome in a set of negotiations is with a Labor government. God forbid, if you get re-elected— (Time expired)

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (14:52): Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. Minister, hasn't the Labor government already cut the limbs off the university body ready for the coalition to strip it down to a skeleton? Since it is clear that many university managements are using the cuts as a further reason to reduce staff pay and conditions, does the minister take responsibility for deteriorating conditions and the quality of university education as a result of the government's cuts to the higher education sector?

Senator FARRELL (South Australia—Minister for Science and Research and Minister Assisting on Tourism) (14:52): I thank Senator Rhiannon once again for her question. Again, I do not accept the premise of your question, Senator Rhiannon. There are more students studying in Australian universities now than in the entire history of this country. More students are studying and they are studying because of the policies of this government, the fact that we have been prepared to match our words with funding, and the university sector is continuing to improve and increase.

The reality is that the bargaining processes that we have set up under the Fair Work system enabled both parties, the universities and their employees, to sit down and negotiate a set of terms and conditions. That is the system we have set up. It is a fair system; it is fair to all of the parties. We encourage all of the parties to do that. That is going to result in a good outcome, I believe, for the workers who work for the universities and it is also good for— (Time expired)

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