Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (16:23): The Liberal-National government are trying anything to win the numbers to get this higher education bill passed. What we saw announced today by Minister Pyne is not a compromise; it is the Abbott government's great big new tax. But it is not a tax on those who should pay, the big end of town; it is a tax on ordinary people. It is a tax on, effectively, prospective students, students and their families, They are the ones who will cop it if these measures go through. We know that because of the way it has been set out. It would be based on a sliding scale, between 20 and 80 per cent. The details of this tax have been set out. No matter what language the government may come up with, the proof is out there. That is what we are dealing with: something that is completely unfair and adds to the burden on students and their families. It is certainly not a compromise.
Why has this come about? The minister is spooked—that is why we have this debate on today. He was spooked because so many people across this country were starting to realise that the soft sell that came out of the budget simply was not true and that the government, from Minister Pyne across to the Prime Minister and all their spokespeople in this place, were not being honest with the public about the cost burden that was being pushed on students.
Remember that the original bill was slashing $5 billion out of higher education. It really was a budget savings measure, but you cannot take that much money out of higher education without putting a heavy cost burden on students. Yes, the current bill does not take $5 billion—it is about $680 million—but it still is about putting the cost burden onto students and their families. This is where the minister got spooked, because the understanding has been developing since that budget came down that $100,000 fees were something that people could more than likely face. If they wanted to do something like vet science, it could be $200,000. They are real figures. People were starting to realise that. The government was realising it was losing its support.
That is why what Minister Pyne has done has really brought back that whiff of desperation that is wafting around the government. This time, it is Minister Pyne who has delivered the latest problem that this government has, because he has concocted this very dodgy plan. It is a dodgy plan because the government is trying to boost support in this place for this bill. This is what it is all about. It is another con job to try to convince, in the first instance, the crossbenchers: 'Wow! We should actually be supporting this, because we have a good plan for higher education.' You can hear what Minister Pyne would have been saying to the Prime Minister: 'Don't worry, Tony. I can get you the numbers in the Senate. I've got it all worked out.' I can hear the minister saying: 'It's perfect, Prime Minister. We can talk about limiting the fees that students will pay. At the same time, we'll actually be cutting the funding we have to give to the universities, and our friendly vice-chancellors can increase their fees.' He thought he had all bases covered, but it is a con job that has so quickly fallen apart. The wheels barely stayed on Pyne's wagon this time. As I said, it has been labelled a—
Senator McKenzie: You should get on board. It's a great wagon to ride.
Senator RHIANNON: I think you have already fallen off, Senator McKenzie, on this one, because Pyne's penalty plan is in fact more evidence that deregulation does not work. This is very relevant to the Pyne plan, because when he first launched, back in May, his great plan about deregulating fees he would argue that the marketplace is the way we can determine what fees should be and that students can get a fair deal there. But, all of a sudden, now he has really ditched the idea that the marketplace is the solution. Twitter has gone pretty wild about all these statements. This is from @daveyk317:
If Uni's can't keep the $ from increased FEES why INCREASE THEM?
To PREVENT EQUAL ACCESS to education, that's why!
That is what so many people have seen with what this government is up to. It is elitist. It is about putting the cost burden on students and their families, and that will mean it will be much harder for working people to get to our universities.