2nd reading speech on Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (2014 Budget Measures No. 6) Bill 2014
Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (13:21): The community has been resonating with anger about this budget. There have been Bust the Budget rallies all around the country. It is extraordinary that, four months after the budget came down, the anger is still there. At many of these rallies, people have heard from Labor MPs standing up and condemning this government. Time and time again at these rallies they have heard Labor members of parliament speak out against the budget. Yesterday, the government was on the skids with this very ugly part of the budget and this very bad legislation. The attempt by Treasurer Hockey and Prime Minister Abbott, with the support of Liberal and National members of parliament, to load pressure and hardship onto ordinary people, onto disadvantaged people, looked like it was just about over. And what have Mr Shorten and Labor done? The absolute deal of all deals. Talk about a get out of jail free card! They are helping this government, a government that is on the nose, that is so doing the wrong thing to the very fabric of our society by loading problems onto families, people with disabilities, students and so many others who will really have to think about how they are going to make ends meet.
My portfolio of higher education is an area, again, where I have shared many platforms recently with Labor MPs, condemning the government for what they are doing to higher education. In this Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (2014 Budget Measures No. 6) Bill 2014, there are some things that will make life much harder for students. But what have we seen today from Labor? They have just voted it through in the lower house and now they want to rush it through here. This is really extraordinary. Today, 2 October 2014, is a very ugly day now in Labor Party history-a day when they did a deal not just with any Liberal government but with the Abbott Liberal government, a government that within a year of taking office has brought forward some of the most notorious, destructive policies that we have ever seen from a conservative government.
Again, I think it is informative to contrast what Labor are doing today with what they have said. Obviously, when they are speaking at Bust the Budget rallies, they are up there whipping up the crowd about how terrible the government is, that they will stand firm and the budget must be rejected, but they have also got down to specifics. Opposition leader Mr Bill Shorten, on 11 August, actually signed a public pledge which stated:
I, Bill Shorten, pledge that the ALP will block proposed changes to higher education in the senate ...
This is a change to higher education that we are dealing with in this social services bill. Yes, there is a big bill that Minister Pyne is spruiking around the place, but there are very significant aspects of this legislation that will bring hardship to many students and that, for many, will be the difference between being able to do their studies and not being able to do their studies, if they can find the course that they want to do at the university that they have chosen. In monetary terms, what the ALP are doing is supporting the coalition's $400 million cuts to student welfare-student welfare in the form of relocation payments and also overseas portability.
Senator O'Sullivan: They should be congratulated for their foresight.
Senator RHIANNON: I do acknowledge the interjection just made. It is interesting that it was from a member of the Nationals, who so often go around saying how they are the friends and supporters of regional universities. But the Nationals senator who just interjected and his colleagues are solidly there with the government at every turn, working-
Senator Siewert interjecting-
Senator RHIANNON: I acknowledge the interjection from my colleague as well, that this is very dishonest territory that the Nationals are entering into. They are out there trying to make out that they stand up for regional universities and students from country areas, but they are about to vote for legislation that will change benefits for regional students to a degree that will bring them further hardship, hardship that will multiply as the years roll by. My guess is that they have probably convinced themselves, 'Well, it's not much'-not at the moment, but in time it will be.
These relocation payments are something that I have found, from my own experience of meetings at universities, a number of students raise with me in terms of what a difference they have made. For instance, I met some students from the Blue Mountains and from the suburbs of Western Sydney who were able to get relocation payments to move closer in to the city to be able to take the courses that they wanted to do at Sydney university. In one case, it was vet science; in another case, it was an economics degree. That would not be possible now because of the way eligibility for relocation payments is going to be judged. If your parents live in a major city-major cities being defined as capital cities, including Newcastle, Wollongong and even the Central Coast and the Gold Coast-you will no longer qualify for this assistance. That will make it particularly hard for disadvantaged students and students from working-class backgrounds, whose families cannot afford to help them to move to another capital city, another centre, another university so they can continue the studies that they have their hearts set on.
It is another insidious aspect of this government's policy that they are incrementally looking to change higher education in ways that will return our university system to being the domain of wealthy, white, often men, if the changes in the higher education bill that Minister Pyne is bringing forward go through. But right now the changes to relocation payments will really make it harder for young students, young men and women, who come from families that cannot support them. A lot of families would obviously try to assist their children so they can go ahead and study. But you should not have to rely on your family for that assistance. You should be able to access this relocation payment which Labor is about to help the government ditch.
As I mentioned, these cuts adds up to $400 million, and the largest component of these cuts will remove access to relocation scholarships for students whose parents live in a major city-and I will say them again because the Nationals senators in this chamber need to hear it, because they are always telling us how they are the only voice for regional areas-such as Wollongong, Newcastle or on the Central Coast. They are areas where at times the Nationals have even had MPs, and surely they should be representing their interests, as they should be across the board.
For many students, this relocation scholarship payment has made a difference in terms of their ability to move to university and get established. If you talk to students, particularly undergraduates but also a lot of postgraduates these days, the cost of living is really hard for them. Relocation costs for an individual student add up to about $7,000 over the years that they study. This is money they could use to assist them with their rent, transport, food and other daily living costs. That money can make a real difference when you are really counting your pennies, working out how you are going to get through the week and whether you can pay the rent that week, buy a present for your mum-all those things that make up one's life.
Let's just remember that we have heard time and time again from Labor MPs about how bad this budget is, about how they are standing up for students and for universities and about how they are the voice for public education. They have spoken at rallies, meetings and universities. We have heard from the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Shorten. He, along with other Labor MPs, have signed this pledge. It is very specific in terms of their commitment to block-that is the word from their pledge-proposed changes to higher education in the Senate. That is what we are talking about today.
He cannot just try and quarantine that to Mr Pyne's bill. It is not that simple. Life is not linear in little boxes. We are dealing with legislation now that, if it were to pass, would add to the challenges, the hardships and the difficulties so many students face, particularly students from families where nobody has ever gone to university before. They are very proud of their son or their daughter who has gone to university. It is often very hard for them because they have not grown up in a family where people have had that opportunity. They are giving it everything they have got. But money comes into it, and that needs to be considered.
The other aspect we have here in the deal that Labor has done with the coalition in regard to higher education is overseas portability. This was just a very basic bit of humanity, in that your Centrelink payments were not cut off if you went overseas for less than six weeks. In a country like Australia, with so many people in our society with relatives, families and loved ones overseas, to visit them for an emergency, periodically they will need to go over-
Senator O'Sullivan: You cannot be serious. You want to know if they are overseas and you want to worry about it.
Senator RHIANNON: I acknowledge that interjection from our National MP from Queensland, showing his caring attitude to students who have every right to be able to go overseas for whatever needs that they have identified. It was only for six weeks. Your payment was not cut off by Centrelink. That was one of those reasonable things so life can work in a more humane way and people are able to deal with whatever comes up and with whatever challenges that they might face. But that is to be removed. Again, it is another measure that Labor has decided it is time to axe.
The sum total of what Labor has done here is a monumental deal. Just in higher education alone, it amounts to $400 million that they are cutting from student support. That is on top of what this legislation will mean for people with disabilities and for a whole range of families, particularly single parents, as well as students. My colleague Senator Rachel Siewert, who has led for the Greens on this issue, has spoken many times on it in this place and has addressed many rallies, met with stakeholders around the country and identified what it will mean very clearly when she spoke today. What we are seeing here is that these are the people being loaded up with the costs because, in the May budget, this government-with the work of the Treasurer, Mr Hockey, and signed off by the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott-came up with a very ugly budget cutting out billions of dollars. The money has to come from somewhere, and it is loaded onto ordinary people by cutting the entitlements that they have every right to.
This is where we need to identify what Labor is doing. How did they come up with this plan? Do the Labor senators in this chamber know anything about this, or has it just been handed to them on a plate by the Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten? These are very relevant questions, because yesterday the government was on the run. Labor actually had some backbone on this very issue. The fight was on. The message of the bust-the-budget people was being heard here by, from what I could see, the majority of senators. Then, all of a sudden, Mr Shorten caved. We have seen him do that on the terror laws. We have seen him do it on the war in Iraq, and I heard today that he is starting to do a bit of backtracking there by saying that there could be mission creep going on. The leader of the Australian Greens, Senator Christine Milne, identified long ago that mission creep was one of the first things that would happen. It is good that Mr Shorten has caught up with that so he is starting to look for a bit of wriggle room. But he did sign off with the government, and he signed off with the government on these terrible so-called antiterrorist laws that deny people so many basic rights and risk them being abused by this government. Now we have another one on higher education-
Senator O'Sullivan: Would that be like your arrangement with PUP.
Senator RHIANNON: I acknowledge the further comments from the Nationals senator which show his caring attitude and how far that extends, particularly now that we are not even on students but are on the whole exploitative aspects of this legislation. This is legislation that should not be passed under any circumstances. From what I can see, the Labor senators are not coming in on the debate, which starts to answer the question. I am not sure if it is the correct answer, but you look for answers when you get into these debates and you see such sudden shifts in how parties conduct themselves. Yesterday this legislation was being widely condemned, with detailed speeches from many colleagues from the Labor Party about how problematic it was in so many areas, and now there is silence. I hope I am wrong.
I notice that Senator Kim Carr has just come into the chamber. I think it is very important that they do come in on this debate and explain why Labor has now decided to vote for this legislation. It was voted through in the House of Representatives quite quickly this morning. I will be interested to look at who were the Labor MPs in the House of Representatives who signed that pledge. As some senators have just come into the chamber, I think it is worth repeating because it really highlights the essence of contradiction-that would be one polite word, but you could say betrayal-from Labor with this policy. This is the pledge that Mr Shorten and a number of Labor members of parliament signed:
I, Bill Shorten, pledge that the ALP will block proposed changes to higher education in the senate ...
We are now in the Senate. Maybe Mr Shorten could use the excuse that we could not do anything about it in the House of Representatives. We can here. Labor and the Greens can vote together. We can put a good case to the crossbenchers. We can stand up for the people of Australia. We can stand up for Australian students who are out there with very little money trying to do their best, do a bit of work, do their studies, get by and come forward with good marks. But now we have put some real obstacles in their path.
So what is Labor's position? Are we going to hear from Labor on this most important issue? The last speaking list that I saw indicated that that is not going to happen, but it is certainly needed. What has happened here is extraordinary. As I said before, 2 October 2014 is going to be a very dark day in the history of Labor because it is the day in which a monumental deal has been done-a deal between Labor and the coalition to do over so many people. Labor is giving-
Senator O'Sullivan: Like the one between the Greens and the PUP?
Senator RHIANNON: Again, I acknowledge the interjection from the Nationals senator. Labor has given the government a 'get out of jail' card. There has been such widespread condemnation of this budget. Who can remember when a federal budget was still being discussed, still making people angry and still resulting in meetings and protests around the country more than four months after it was delivered?
Just on Sunday, I was at a meeting-
Senator Fifield: Try 96, 97, 98, 99 and 2000.
Senator RHIANNON: I am happy to acknowledge that interjection too. I think you are helping my argument. On Sunday I was at another 'bust the budget' rally-
Senator Fifield: Or 83, 84, 85, 86.
Senator RHIANNON: I am happy to acknowledge the interjection. On Sunday, in Campbelltown, I was at another 'bust the budget' rally. It was very impressive. There were a range of speakers. There were Greens members there; I understand there were some Labor members there-
Senator O'Sullivan: Did you tell them about the debt you left behind?
Senator RHIANNON: I am happy to acknowledge all your interjections. This was more than four months after the budget was handed down, and at the rally there were TAFE teachers, nurses, people from the Australian Education Union, the National Tertiary Education Union, the Nurses Association and a range of young people talking about the call centres that they work in. It was a very informative meeting, but again that white-hot anger about the budget is still there. I wish that that Campbelltown meeting was this Sunday so I could be telling them about Labor has done. It is extraordinary.
We should be hearing from our colleagues on the opposition benches about what has happened here. The turnaround within 24 hours on something so fundamental to the very fabric of our society, let alone the economy, is quite breathtaking. If Labor go ahead and vote with the coalition on this, we will see $400 million ripped out in the higher education area. What they have done is deeply wrong. Again, I congratulate the 'bust the budget' people for the huge-
Senator O'Sullivan: You supported them for six years. For six years you kept them alive.
Senator RHIANNON: I am happy to acknowledge the National Party senator's interjection. He has obviously been distressed-
Senator Hanson-Young: Will he speak?
Senator RHIANNON: Will he speak? That is an interesting question, because the Nationals-
Senator O'Sullivan interjecting-
The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Back): Order Senator O'Sullivan. Proceed Senator Rhiannon. You only have 55 seconds.
Senator RHIANNON: I am happy to acknowledge the interjections and take your advice. We have talked a lot about Labor, and I think it is useful to talk a little bit about the Nationals. They are experts at walking both sides of the road. In this parliament, they vote solidly with the Liberal Party. When they are in country areas, they tell their constituents: 'You need us in parliament to stand up to the Liberals and to stand up to Labor; we are the only voice; we are the only opposition.' It is absolutely untrue. They are absolutely in lock step with their Liberal colleagues time and time again.
Senator O'Sullivan: It's called solidarity. The alternative is anarchy.
Senator RHIANNON: We have heard the senator say it is solidarity. What we have now are Nationals, Liberals and Labor in solidarity, in lock step, on one of the most dangerous and irresponsible pieces of legislation, which rips money off so many people.