Last week in Parliament House Tara Ward, Jess Ferry, Karen Vincent and her son Noah presented me with a petition signed by many Canberrans on live exports.
23 June 2011
I rise to discuss the benefits of free trade to the Australian economy and the Australian consumer. Estimates from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade show that households have benefited by $3,900 per annum as a result of the reductions in tariffs and the elimination of export quotas over recent decades. A large part of that boost has been in the form of prices being lower for consumers than they would otherwise have been in the presence of tariffs. The real prices of heavily protected products have fallen sharply. Boys' footwear has fallen by 50 per cent, prices of major household appliances have fallen by 47 per cent and prices of automobiles have fallen by 37 per cent. One in five Australians is now employed as a result of exports and imports. Australians working in export industries are paid 60 per cent more than other working Australians.
I want to use this opportunity to praise the trade minister, Craig Emerson, for his recent statements in this area. He follows very much in the traditions of the Hawke and Keating governments of trade liberalisation. Trade liberalisation in Australia has been a Labor achievement; whether through Gough Whitlam's 1973 tariff cuts or the Hawke tariff cuts in 1988 and 1991, the tough decisions have been Labor decisions. The Australian economy is better for that—we are a more resilient economy. I think one of the reasons we have weathered these shocks so well in recent years has been because Australian businesses naturally think of themselves as international businesses engaged with the world economy and diversified across international markets.
Lowering Australian trade barriers is worthwhile in its own right, regardless of what other countries do. As the great Cambridge economist Joan Robinson put it, it is worth removing the rocks from your harbours even if other trading partners do not take the rocks out of their harbours.
Thankfully, our other trading partners have also been taking the rocks from their harbours. Among Australia's major trading partners in the Asia-Pacific region, which buys 70 per cent of Australia's exports, average tariffs have been cut over the last quarter century from more than 25 per cent to around five per cent, according to a recent Productivity Commission trade policy statement.
I would like to use this opportunity to pay tribute to the late Senator Peter Cook, who was, for a time, Australia's minister for trade and, when I worked for him in the late 1990s, the shadow minister for trade. Peter died a little under six years ago, having resigned from this place almost exactly six years ago. He was just 62 at the time when he passed away, but he left a great legacy. He held a range of different portfolios, including industry, shipping, resources, industrial relations and trade. He understood intuitively that the benefits of trade liberalisation flow to all Australians.
He understood, as very much a self-taught politician and one of the last who had not finished high school to serve in a cabinet, the benefits of comparative advantage, of doing what Australia does best. When he returned from the 1999 Seattle trade talks, where he and his wife, Barbara, had been caught up in the riots and the tear gas, Peter set about rewriting Labor's trade policy. Its opening paragraph firmly committed our party to free trade.
He was an instinctive internationalist, perhaps because he was engaged in that most global of sports—sailing. When doctors told him he had only a year to live, Peter Cook told them what he thought of their prognosis by buying a 41-foot yacht. He never lost track of what mattered. He cut through the arcane complexity of trade agreements to make simple and straightforward points, and he recognised so well the interconnection between a strong social policy and an internationalist outlook.
On the shores of Lake Geneva, the building that was once the International Labour Organisation is now the World Trade Organisation. Yet it still bears on its walls the original social realist murals, depicting workers battling for their rights. Peter Cook once remarked how fitting he found the building, melding the rights of labour with the principle that trade across national boundaries should be unfettered. It was a great gain to the parliament and public debate that Peter Cook served for 22 years in the national parliament. We owe him much.
Financial Framework Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2011
23 June 2011
Dr LEIGH (Fraser) (10:28): I was trying to think, as I was listening to the confected outrage of the member for Goldstein, where I last heard so much passion for such low stakes. I realised it was in the current debate over the Liberal Party presidency. I know the member for Goldstein is an Alan Stockdale man and I am sure he would also have views on some of this overblown, overheated debate that has been going on in the public arena. Peter Reith is the policy candidate, isn't he?
The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Hon. Peter Slipper ): I remind the member that we are debating the Financial Framework Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2011 and he ought to be relevant to the bill.
Dr LEIGH: As you rightly point out, Mr Deputy Speaker, we are focusing today on a piece of legislation which is the eighth financial framework legislation amendment bill since 2004. It is part of an ongoing program whereby the government will address financial framework issues as they arise, taking a whole-of-government approach. This bill, if passed, would amend a number of different acts. It would amend the Commonwealth Authorities and Companies Act 1997, updating arrangements regarding the corporate plan for a government business enterprise to enable the content requirements of corporate GBE plans to be specified in regulations, rather than in the act. It would amend the Financial Management and Accountability Act 1997 to clarify the legal status of determinations, instructions and guidelines issued under the act. It would also clarify specific provisions and make consequential amendments in these two acts and a further six acts, updating the Commonwealth’s financial framework and improving the governance arrangements for several Commonwealth agencies and bodies.
I was struck by the member for Goldstein's aspersions cast on the former member for Melbourne, Mr Lindsay Tanner. They particularly surprised me given that the member for Goldstein has been admirably open about the relationship between his own personal life and his job, given some of the real challenges we face here. So I found it somewhat disappointing that he would reflect on Lindsay Tanner's stated decision to resign to spend more time with his wife and children and cast aspersions on Mr Tanner, suggesting that his decision to leave the parliament was in some way policy related. I would like to use this opportunity to pay tribute to Lindsay Tanner for his extraordinary work as the minister for finance in the last term of government and commend him on his recent book Sideshow, which has opened up an important debate about how we deepen policy discussion in this country.
When we think about the financial framework of the Commonwealth it naturally draws us into appropriate levels of Commonwealth borrowing. It is useful to use this opportunity to dispel a few myths which have been out in the community—sometimes written on bunting surrounding polling booths—about the level of government debt. According to the 2011-12 Budget Paper No. 1, net debt is forecast to peak in 2011-12 at 7.2 per cent of GDP. It will fall to 5.8 per cent of GDP in 2014-15. It is extremely low by international standards. Average net debt levels in the major economies measured for all levels of government are projected to be around 80 per cent of GDP in 2011. So Australia's net debt will peak at less than one-tenth of that of major advanced economies.
What have we bought for this debt? We have two things. Firstly, we put in place substantial fiscal stimulus during the global financial crisis, stimulus which was timely, targeted and temporary and which saved around 200,000 jobs. But, of course, those opposite would have had us do something much worse. Most of the rise in government debt is a result of the fact that revenue is written down in a downturn. Corporate profits in particular fall substantially. By taking a no-debt position those opposite would have had the federal government cut spending in the global financial crisis. There is a precedent for this. During the time of the Great Depression, President Herbert Hoover cut spending as the slump began. It is generally regarded as one of the worst macroeconomic decisions in history—and that is the approach that those opposite would have the Australian government take. A no-debt approach suggests not only a no-stimulus approach; it actually suggests that when downturns come governments should cut spending. There could be no clearer definition of fiscal irresponsibility.
The billions that have been wiped off budget revenues and the hit on the budget as a result of recent natural disasters have meant that it has been necessary to increase the government borrowing limit a little earlier than anticipated. That increase to $250 billion has been supported by one of the many predecessors of the member for Goldstein as shadow finance minister. Senator Barnaby Joyce has said that the National Party will responsibly support this amendment, but the member for Goldstein rails against it, instead shouting about 'sovereign risk', an argument that is the last refuge of a shadow finance minister who has run out of every other idea. The Commonwealth government borrowing limit is lower than would have been the case under the projections in the period of the global financial crisis. In the 2009-10 budget, gross debt was expected to reach more than $300 billion. The $250 billion limit is, of course, noticeably lower than that.
It is useful to put Australia's debt levels into perspective. One way of thinking about this is to think about an individual earning $100,000 per year who owes $7,200. That is substantially below what the typical Australian household owes, for example, on their home, and it looks more like the kind of loan one might take out to purchase a modest hatchback car. In fact, many Australians carry credit card debt of more than $7,200. They probably should not, but it is certainly an indication that the Commonwealth debt levels are extremely modest compared to household debt levels. They are also extremely modest compared to debt levels in other countries. For example, US net debt will hit 85.7 per cent of GDP in 2016, UK net debt will peak at 79.5 per cent of GDP in 2013 and Japanese net debt will hit 163.9 per cent of GDP in 2016. The Australian government's financial positions have been backed by the RBA, whose statement of monetary policy has said that 'with the budget projected to return to surplus over the next few years, the impact of fiscal policy will be contractionary'. Compared with Australian households and compared with other developed economies, Australia's net debt levels are low and manageable.
Global rating agencies and the IMF take exactly the same position. Standard and Poor's said recently that Australia has 'exceptionally strong public sector finances' underpinned by 'low public debt and strong fiscal discipline'. In response to the budget, S&P noted the 'sound profile of Australia's public finances, which remain among the strongest of its peer group'. Net debt will return to surplus in the next budget and to zero in 2019-20.
It is important to recognise that the government borrowing limit not only takes into account net debt but also takes into account investments the government makes for policy purposes on which we need to borrow to fund, such as, for example, the National Broadband Network. The member for Goldstein would have Australians remain in the slow lane of the information superhighway.
We on this side of the House see superfast broadband as being a key infrastructure investment in the future. It is a network which will transform the way in which we deliver education, health and the jobs of the future.
Opposition members interjecting—
Dr LEIGH: Those opposite are happy to interject, to rail against the investments of the future, but one wonders what they will say in their dotage when their grandchildren ask them: 'Why is it that Australia was left behind? Why did Australia not invest when other countries were investing?' That is the position they take on many other debates as well: 'Australia should not try to clean up its economy; Australia should not make the investments in the infrastructure of the future; Australia should not make investments in the education of the future.' The increase in the government debt level is required to make productive investments like the National Broadband Network. It is also required for other instances in which the Commonwealth borrows money in order to make important policy investments—for example, HELP, where government makes loans to young Australians to go to university; which students will of course pay back. The HELP policy is supported by both sides of this House. One would naturally expect that as more students go to university there are more HELP debts and it would be necessary for the Commonwealth to factor this in when thinking about our borrowing limit. We have invested in the residential mortgage backed securities market. We have a small stake in the IMF, and that too necessitates an increase in the borrowing limit.
The utter lack of understanding by those opposite of the importance of government borrowing has a long history. It is not just something that those opposite are misunderstanding now; it is something that they misunderstood while in government. In 2002 the then Treasurer, Peter Costello, made an ill-fated attempt to shut down the government bond markets, suggesting that it would be appropriate to retire all government bonds. On The 730 Report on 30 October, 2002, Ken Farrow, from the Australian Financial Markets Association, pointed out:
'What's at stake is the fundamentals of the financial market of this country. We have a zero, risk-free, curve that the Government bond market creates. Off the back of that curve, most other financial products are priced. Our futures market is priced off that bond curve, and our derivatives market.'
Mr Farrow pointed out in the same interview:
… if you remove the government bond market, we'll see an increase in interest rates.
Peter Costello eventually backed off that attempt to shut down the government bond market, but those opposite have clearly learned nothing from that episode. Clearly, they misunderstand the many roles that the government borrowing limit plays.
There has been a quite sensible proposal made that, instead of the government borrowing limit being expressed in dollar terms, it should instead be expressed as a share of GDP. That proposal is presently being considered by the government.
Naturally, as the size of GDP and the size of government proportionately increases, one might expect that the government borrowing limit would need to increase. That is a proposal that is on the table at the moment. I commend the bill to the House.
What is Canberra Gang Show?
Canberra Gang Show is a theatre production performed annually by ACT Scouts and Guides from a script written by a youth creative team. It provides an opportunity for learning, developing and sharing theatrical skills, both on stage and behind the scenes. CGS11 has three goals for every member of Gang; to have fun, for each person to learn, and to put on a good show.
All aspects and roles involved in a theatre performance – costume, lighting, sound, front of house, sets, props, security, makeup, publicity, music, choreography and more are fulfilled by members of Scouts or Guides from the ACT. Rehearsals start in March and the commitment by young Scouts, Venturers, Rovers and uniformed helpers is enormous.
The Canberra Gang Show has been running for 44 years, first stepping into the spotlight in 1966 with the assistance of Melbourne Gang Show. In 1968 the show was run by ACT members. Over its colourful history, the show has only been performed in 3 different venues; The Canberra Theatre between 1966 and 1974, the Playhouse until 1982 and Erindale Theatre ever since.
Canberra Gang Show 2011 is scheduled for the July school holidays in the Erindale Theatre at the following times:
• Sat 16 July Opening Night
• Tue 19 July Matinee & Evening Performance
• Thur 21 July Matinee & Evening Performance
• Fri 22 July Evening Performance
• Sat 23 July Matinee & Evening Performance
Over the past year, I've been fortunate to have several people help out as volunteers in my office, assisting me with speeches and submissions, helping solve constituent problems, answering the phone, and assisting with campaigning activities.
So I thought it might be useful to put out a formal call for interns and fellows.
Keen to apply? See the FAQs below.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the criteria?
Enthusiasm, intelligence, and an interest in helping shape progressive ideas.
How long are the placements?
It depends on you. My office can accommodate anything from a week to a couple of months (though longer stints would probably need to be part-time). We will only have one intern/fellow at a time.
What would I gain?
A unique insight into parliament and constituent engagement.
What can you supply?
We can't promise anything more than a desk and a chair. You'll probably need to bring your own laptop.You may be working at either the electorate office in Braddon, the Parliament House office, or both.
What's the difference between a fellow and an intern?
A fellow will complete a piece of writing - which is likely to be a submission or a report. School work experience students are likely to work as interns, while graduate students are likely to work as fellows. Undergraduate students could take either role, depending on their skills and interests.
How do I apply?
Email andrew.leigh.mp <asperand> aph.gov.au with a one-page CV setting out your experience and skills, plus a covering email saying why you'd like the position and what period you'd like to work. Either I or my overworked chief of staff Louise Crossman will get back to you within two weeks. It would be helpful to contact us at least a month before you'd like to start volunteering.
So for anyone who has any doubts - I'm not on Twitter (but I do offer a wide suite of e-products, including an e-report, a blog and regular replies to emails...).
Update, 17 Oct 2011: I'm still not on Twitter. Would my twitterganger please desist?
Update, 31 Jan 2012: For the month of February, I'm trying a one-month Twitter randomised trial, at @ALeighMP.
Nine young people and one local team have received grants as Local Sporting Champions.
Federal Member for Fraser Andrew Leigh today announced that the ACT Under 17 Girl’s State Softball team had received a $3,000 grant along with nine sportspeople who each received a $500 grant to assist them with their sporting endeavours as part of the Federal Governments Local Sporting Champions program.
Local Sporting Champions provides assistance to teams and individuals to attend national sporting competitions to help develop sporting talents of local youngsters.
Andrew Leigh, Chair of the Fraser Selection Panel, said selecting the recipients wasn’t an easy task.
“Canberra has a lot of talented young people and many of them live north of the lake. It’s good to be able to help them with their travel and accommodation costs,” said Andrew Leigh.
“This round of grants is helping the nine individual sporting champions attend national mountain bike, swimming, and athletics championships.”
“Attending national meets is very important in developing our sporting talent. You learn so much.”
“The Under 17’s trained hard and raised funds to get to the national titles. I’m pleased to be help to them showcase our local softball talent,” said Andrew Leigh.
The selection panel for the round two included AIS swimmer Sally Foster.
Local Sporting Champions is a $3.17 million national initiative of the Gillard Government supporting sports in local community.
The program is available to athletes, coaches, and officials aged between 12 to 18 travelling more than 250 kilometres, return, to participate in a national sporting completion.
“If you know young people who need financial support to participate in a national sporting competition, please encourage them to apply for a Local Sporting Champions grant,” said Andrew Leigh.
More information about the program can be found by contacting Andrew Leigh’s office on 6247 4396 or visiting www.ausport.gov.au/champions.
24 June 2011
Andrew Leigh and Sally Foster assessing funding applications
Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Senator David Feeney welcomed today’s opening of the Royal Australian Navy’s new $18 million training facility at HMAS Creswell, Jervis Bay.
The new damage-control training facility will enable Navy personnel to build their skills in responding to toxic hazards, fire fighting and conducting emergency repairs afloat.
Senator Feeney said the site was one of the best Navy training facilities in the world.
“This $18 million simulator can replicate the most serious circumstances which could occur while ships are at sea,” Senator Feeney said.
“This is precisely why the Navy trains its people so thoroughly and is providing outstanding facilities. Simulators such as this one are a cost-effective and smarter way of doing business.”
Federal Member for Fraser Andrew Leigh also welcomed the investment.
“Ships at sea cannot call on emergency services in the unlikely event that things go wrong. Sailors have to be prepared to deal with any number of rare but potentially hazardous situations,” Mr Leigh said.
“This $18 million facility will be great for Jervis Bay and the Royal Australian Navy.”
The new Damage Control Training Unit differs from the old in that simulated ship’s compartments are hydraulically mounted to deliver the rolling motion ships experience at sea. Trainees now have to deal with ship movement while they fight fires or stem water flow in flooding compartments.
The Royal Australian Navy School of Survivability and Ship Safety is contained within HMAS Creswell at Jervis Bay. The new training facility is part of the $83.6 million HMAS Creswell redevelopment project, which has also seen the refurbishment and expansion of trainees’ accommodation and classrooms.
It also includes a new physical-fitness centre providing an indoor swimming pool, cardio fitness room, weights room and multi-purpose hall.
HMAS Creswell is the home of officer training in the Royal Australian Navy.
Higher Education Support Amendment (Demand Driven Funding System and Other Measures) Bill 2011
21 June 2011
Productivity lies at the heart of raising Australian living standards. As US economist Paul Krugman once said, 'productivity isn't everything, but in the long run it is almost everything.' So the challenge in raising Australian living standards in the future is to crack the nut of higher productivity.
During the 1980s and the 1990s, tariff cuts, competition policy and enterprise bargaining were among the key policy drivers of raising productivity in Australia. Today, one of the policies most likely to boost the rate of productivity growth is education reform. Raising the human capital of the workforce is essential if we are to adapt to changes in the labour market. This agenda involves both raising the quantity of education—boosting the average number of years of schooling that each person receives—and boosting the quality of the school system.
Labour is focused on both of these agendas. We are keen to ensure that, as technological changes diffuse through the Australian economy, workers of the future are able to adapt and use those new technologies. In the case of schools, we want to create incentives for students, teachers and principals—the whole school community—to perform at their best. If we can do that, education reform will also be a great economic reform.
Part of this agenda also involves ensuring that Australian universities work as effectively as they can, that Australian universities serve more young people and that they do so as effectively and efficiently as we can ensure.
On coming to office, Prime Minister Gillard, as the then Minister for Education, commissioned the Bradley review to look into our higher education system. The Bradley review confirmed the need to boost student numbers in Australia. In the words of the review there was a 'decisive need for action' to boost numbers of qualified people in Australia. The report noted that, in 2003, 43 per cent of the young people in the United Kingdom aged between 18 and 30 participated in university and that, by 2020, Britain is hoping to have raised this number to 50 per cent. Ireland already has a participation rate of 55 per cent and is aiming for 72 per cent in 2020. But, by comparison, in the last years of the Howard government only 29 per cent of Australians aged between 25 and 34 had a bachelor's degree or above. This government has an unapologetically ambitious agenda in skills and training, and a critical part of that is ensuring that we boost university participation. By 2025, we hope to have 40 per cent of Australians aged between 25 and 34 years holding at least a bachelor's degree. This does not come at the cost of our trades. In fact, the two sectors complement one another. As the economy grows we will need more skilled workers across a whole range of skills.
We recognise that in the context of operating within our region we need to ensure that Australia's workers are well trained; that they have not only the skills for the jobs of today but the skills set that allows young Australians to engage in lifelong learning—to continue to adapt as technological change happens. One thing we can be sure about is that for a mechanic graduating now the cars of 30 years hence will not look much like the cars of today. For an engineer graduating today many of the engineering technologies of the future will not look like the engineering technologies of today. So we need to ensure that our education system encourages lifelong learning.
A demand driven model of university funding ensures that Australia is prepared for these opportunities. Rather than governments guessing at future labour market trends and determining numbers—a command and control approach—this government is uncapping university places. Undergraduate places will no longer have to be rationed. From 1 July universities will have the flexibility to set student numbers based on industry and employer needs.
The bill of course retains the ability for the government to respond to any new skills shortages and, if necessary, to the oversupply of graduates in particular areas. But we are responding to a key insight, which is that forecasting future labour market trends is difficult. I refer the House to a paper by the Centre for Independent Studies' Andrew Norton titled Mismatch: Australia's graduates and the job market. Andrew carefully takes the reader through a range of evidence on the poor quality of labour market forecasts. He points out that:
Some industries are cyclical. Civil engineers are in tight supply now, but during the early 1990s recession a construction downturn left 30% of recent graduates unemployed. In the late 1990s, the Australian IT industry argued that it faced severe shortages of workers. As it turned out, many IT professionals struggled to find work in the early 2000s.
The key problem with forecasting labour demand—working out from a central planner's point of view which industries are going to grow and which are going to shrink—is that often it is technology that is driving industry change. Because technology changes discontinuously—we cannot of course forecast the new innovations that are going to come in—we tend to be quite poor at forecasting the industries or occupations that will grow and those that will shrink.
I cannot say that the legislation before the House today will entirely satisfy all of the demands that my friend Andrew Norton would want, but I hope it goes at least some way to addressing his criticisms. He has very articulately set out his concerns about the mismatch between the graduates Australian universities produce and the labour market demand and the difficultly of predicting with precision supply and demand for graduates.
The bill also will require each university to enter into a mission based compact with the Commonwealth. Compacts provide assurance concerning the alignment of university missions with the Commonwealth's national goals in the areas of teaching, research and innovation. They do so in a way that recognises that the objectives of government and universities are often shared objectives. The government will continue to work cooperatively with higher education providers through compacts to ensure that individual university missions serve Australia well in teaching, research and innovation.
Consistent with the Bradley review's recommendations on demand driven funding, we are also abolishing the student learning entitlement. The student learning entitlement currently limits a person's ability to study at university as a Commonwealth supported student to the equivalent of seven years full-time study, subject to exceptions specified in the act, which allow for further periods of 'additional' SLE and 'lifelong' SLE to be allocated. The student learning entitlement has introduced an additional layer of red tape into an already complicated system and it trips up genuine students who have done nothing wrong. By abolishing it we are again going to help to free up universities and allow them to get on with the job of teaching the next generation of students and not miring them in difficult red tape.
We know that application of the SLE has resulted in instances of hardship for particular students. Take for example the instance of a student who completes a three-year undergraduate science degree and then wants to re-enrol in a six-year medical degree. In that case the student would exceed their SLE and no longer be eligible for a Commonwealth supported place. They would have to complete their degree as a full-fee-paying student. Is that what we really want? Is that what this House supports? Do we really want to say to science graduates: 'No, you cannot train as a doctor unless you are willing to pay full fees for part of your study'? I do not think that is what we want to say. That is why scrapping the SLE is good policy.
Increasingly, a degree will be necessary for people to access high-skill, high-wage jobs. We want to encourage people to pursue higher education rather than erect barriers to participating in the higher education sector. We particularly want to encourage those Australians who want to go back to university to add to their qualifications. We do not want them to be caught up in red tape.
The problems with the SLE have been recognised by those opposite. In July 2006, in a speech to the John Curtin Institute of Public Policy about university regulation, the member for Curtin described the student learning entitlement as 'red tape'. The member for Curtin also indicated that the Howard government was at that time, in 2006, considering its abolition. She said:
Turning to the ubiquitous issue of government red tape—I am happy to listen to sensible suggestions as to how I can remove impediments to diversity and increase flexibility. As a result of the AVCC 's report on red tape, I have agreed to consider the abolition of the Student Learning Entitlement, which measures a student's consumption of Commonwealth supported education.
But we are now in this extraordinary position where the coalition is fighting to defend a policy that the then coalition federal minister for education had handpicked to be scrapped. The student learning entitlement is a discredited rule dating back to 2003. It ties universities up in red tape and trips up genuine students who have done nothing wrong. Sadly, what we see today from the coalition in opposing the scrapping of the student learning entitlement, a measure which should enjoy bipartisan support, is what we are seeing across the board in other policies. It is one thing for the coalition to walk away from reforms that we have long championed and they have long opposed but, on an increasing number of issues, we are seeing the coalition rejecting coalition policies. We have seen it on climate change where, in 2007, the coalition went to the election supporting a price on carbon and are now opposing a price on carbon.
We have seen it in respect of fuel taxation. In 2003, the then Treasurer, Peter Costello, announced reform of LPG taxation, reform that we are now, after an eight-year phase-in period, implementing. But those opposite have now decided that they want to walk away from that reform. And we are seeing it with the student learning entitlement policy, which those opposite wanted scrapped in 2006 but are now pursuing the maintenance of. This Nelson-era piece of red tape should be abolished but, instead, it seems that the coalition want to tinker with it at the edges and add to the bureaucracy.
Australia's universities have long been required to divert resources to administer this costly and ineffective entitlement system. In a submission to the Productivity Commission, in 2009, they argued:
There is ... no policy objective being served by the SLE, and there are considerable savings that can be achieved from its removal. As the first students subject to the new arrangements will shortly be exhausting their SLE, it is particularly timely to solve this issue now to avoid problematic decisions having to be taken regarding upcoming enrolments.
It is extraordinary that, after almost four years of hearing nothing from the coalition on higher education, this is almost the first issue that they are prepared to take a stand on. Abolishing the student learning entitlement will free up universities and they will be able to get on with what they do best: teaching the next generation of students. Its removal has been supported by almost every higher education group in Australia: the National Tertiary Education Union, the National Union of Students, the Australian Medical Students' Association, the Australian Technology Network and the network of Innovative Research Universities. All of these organisations support scrapping the SLE. But the Liberal Party continue to block SLE reform.
By contrast, the government is getting on with the job of ensuring that more Australians can study at our universities and that those universities are doing as good a job as they can. This year we will fund more than 480,000 undergraduate places at public universities. With an anticipated four per cent growth, next year this figure will rise to over half a million places, a 20 per cent increase since 2008.
To fund this historic expansion of opportunity, the government has provided an additional $1.2 billion in this year's budget, bringing the total demand driven funding to $3.97 billion over successive budgets. I know this will be welcomed right across Australia, and possibly nowhere more welcomed than in my own electorate of Fraser where I am proud to have the University of Canberra, the Australian National University, the Australian Catholic University and UNSW@ADFA.
Finally, I want to say a few words about free intellectual inquiry. The bill will amend the Higher Education Support Act to promote free intellectual inquiry. It is an important principle, underpinning the provision of higher education in Australia. Free intellectual inquiry will become an object of the act. The government's funding arrangements should not be used to impede free intellectual inquiry. Universities will be required to have policies that uphold it in relation to learning, teaching and research. Naturally, most universities already have such policies and I know that they are all as keen as we are to support research and teaching environments that promote free intellectual inquiry.
By focusing our reform agenda on the neediest students, there is also another pay-off. I have spoken of education policy as great economic policy, but education policy is also the best social policy that we have ever developed. A great education is a first-class antipoverty vaccine. If you read biographies of people who grew up in disadvantage, so often a great education is what makes the difference. I commend the bill to the House.
National Consumer Credit Protection Amendment (Home Loans and Credit Cards) Bill 2011
21 June 2011
The Australian dream of owning your own home is usually only possible through a home loan, yet taking out a home loan can be the biggest financial commitment that most Australians make. Credit cards promise that bit of help to manage the family budget. Whether it is helping to get access to cash in an emergency or helping to pay for those little extras like a holiday, accessing quick and easy credit is an attractive option for most. But, in the excitement of thinking about a first home or a new home, or the possibilities of what can be bought with a credit card or an extended credit limit, the obligations that banks and other credit providers place on consumers can be forgotten.
When you are thinking about moving into your first house, the last thing you want to do is read through the fine print in a dense home loan contract. When you are planning your overseas holiday, you do not read the clause about the additional charges associated with a cash advance. The changes proposed in this amendment are part of a broad suite of reforms that seek to increase fairness for consumers seeking credit, help to better educate consumers about what it is they are signing up for and create a set of uniform laws across Australia.
It can be extremely difficult to work in an area where every day you see people suffering from extreme financial hardship.
I would like to use this opportunity to commend the consumer rights advocates in my electorate for their hard work. Some of the groups doing marvellous work include Moneycare, provided through the Salvation Army, Street Law, the ACT Welfare Rights Centre and Care Inc., which includes the financial counselling service and the Consumer Law Centre for the ACT.
My friend Liz Dawson has shown me around Moneycare at their Dickson offices and I have seen how hard they work to provide assistance to people in the community who are under pressure from their debts. Moneycare reminded me that many people suffering from financial difficulty as a result of credit card and home loan stress often end up with depression or anxiety as a result.
Care Inc. is the main consumer law advocacy body in the Australian Capital Territory and also provides advice and assistance to consumers. They wrote a submission on the financial services and credit reform green paper that preceded the range of legislative reforms. They rightly point out that, even though low-income earners carry less debt than high-income earners, the potential for that debt to have a negative impact on their lives, families and general wellbeing was far greater. Here in the ACT we boast some of the highest living standards in the country. But even in a relatively well-off electorate like Fraser there is still disadvantage, and we need to remember that, even though those generalisations about Fraser might be true for many, they are certainly not true for all.
Care Inc. told me that a local elderly woman on a pension was given a mortgage for the exclusive use of her son to purchase a business. The son was unable to repay the mortgage and the elderly pensioner was at risk of losing her home because of the loan, which she clearly could not service and from which she received absolutely no benefit. Care Inc. also told me that they had a client who was a homeless man living off a credit card. The man was unemployed and had a range of financial and other legal difficulties, yet he was still given a credit card.
In addition to low-income earners suffering from mortgage and credit card stress, financial counsellors agree that in the last five years there has been a significant increase in the number of middle-income earners suffering mortgage stress. One way that we can help people, regardless of their level of income, to avoid financial stress due to debt is to assist them to understand what it is that they are signing up for. The Gillard government have introduced a range of measures through the National Financial Literacy Strategy—measures that Tony Abbott included in his 'hit list' to pay for the flood reconstruction. The government are doing this in recognition of the fact that this is an important way of helping Australians to understand and pay their debts.
Requiring banks to provide their information in a simpler and more concise format is one part of how the government are helping consumers. We need to remember that the most vulnerable members of our community are the ones least able to access legal advice to assist them to understand their rights and obligations. The most significant changes—the changes that will provide genuine assistance to vulnerable consumers—are requirements to provide consumers with information that is easy to understand.
The key facts sheets to accompany a home loan will enable consumers to better compare home loans and better compare the loans offered by the big banks with loans offered by credit unions and other smaller providers. Potential credit card borrowers will also be provided with a key facts sheet showing interest rates on purchases, cash advances and promotional offers. These facts sheets will help those who do not have the ability to wade through pages and pages of complex legal and technical terms to understand what they are signing up to.
In the House Economics Committee's inquiry into this bill—ably chaired by the member for Dobell—we heard a range of witnesses support this measure. In fact, research by University of Queensland law lecturer Paul O'Shea, referred to in the explanatory memorandum, has taken an innovative approach to assess the impact of simplified disclosure statements. He has shown that, when a sample of respondents were presented with current disclosure statements, only 37 per cent correctly answered a question about the maximum interest rate. With a redesigned disclosure statement, 80 per cent answered the question correctly. On a question about the time to pay off the credit, only 13 per cent gave the right answer when presented with the current disclosure statement, as compared with 100 per cent when given a redesigned disclosure statement. The research provides empirical support for what many of us would have intuitively thought—better disclosure improves customer knowledge.
It is important for us to encourage banks and other lenders to produce their material in a format that is comprehensive yet easy to understand. This is just as important a part of developing financial literacy as teaching consumers how to read complex credit contracts. We are going to ensure that loans are easy to compare by ensuring that all financial providers—banks, credit unions and building societies—have to put their key facts sheets in the same format. That will mean that consumers can compare like with like.
Care Inc., the local service I mentioned earlier, rightly points out that financial service providers can afford lawyers to draft their standard term contracts, whereas the most vulnerable in our society do not have the capacity to obtain legal advice on their rights and obligations prior to entering into credit contracts. Care Inc. also notes that in their experience their clients do not read the contracts in full and several do not even keep a copy of their contract to refer to if required to challenge any of its terms.
The changes to ban unsolicited offers to borrowers to increase their credit limit are also important to help consumers understand their financial obligations. Credit limit increases are targeted to consumers with outstanding credit card balances who are struggling to maintain their repayments. They target people with an immediate need for credit, and agreeing to the offer is often made very easy. The decision to increase credit is not done in a competitive market with an ability to compare interest rates and card features to take the most financially appropriate option. The people targeted by such offers are often not in a financial position to benefit from a competitive market.
Letters offering increases are presented as marketing or promotional material rather than as an application for additional credit. This is misleading. Many consumers assume that the financial institution has done an assessment of their capacity to repay before sending out the offer and they have an unrealistic expectation of their own capacity to repay. The bank nominates the amount of increase and it does not necessarily reflect the financial capacity of the consumer. This is almost a predatory practice that preys on the most vulnerable members of our community. This bill will stop lenders from placing consumers in further financial hardship. I used to think that it was really important to educate people to understand complex financial documents. I thought we should be encouraging citizens to see the importance of carefully reading each and every document, regardless of how dense and confused these might be. But now I take a different approach. My philosophy now is that, rather than forcing consumers to do the hard work, we should be looking at reducing complexity. Why do we need to have confusing documents rather than easy-to-read tables? Sure, there is still a need to understand contractual terms, but a one-page document will enable consumers to understand the most important points, and they will know where to look if they need more advice, detail or information.
There are so many interesting things to do and to read in life: brilliant literature, trashy fiction as a guilty pleasure, movies to watch, sports to participate in and families to spend time with. Why should people be forced to spend their valuable leisure time wading through complex documents? I would rather we encouraged people to read for pleasure, rather than spending excessive time on financial contracts. Put another way: we should look at financial literacy as an obligation for lenders as well as for consumers. Through this bill and previous changes to the National Consumer Credit Protection Act, Labor has demonstrated a commitment to eradicating predatory lending practices and promoting better information for consumers. As the Treasurer said in his second reading speech, this bill 'is part of our commitment to always stand on the side of consumers'. I commend the bill to the House.