Morrison Government attacking universities - Speech, House of Representatives


This government's attitude towards universities has been nothing short of outrageous. At a time when there is capacity in our universities due to the slowdown in the number of international students, we should be inviting more Australians to study at our great institutions. Yet what is this government doing? It's cutting government funding to Australia's higher education institutions on a per-student basis, and it's raising student fees, making it harder for Australians to get an education, at the very time at which we should be educating more young Australians.

This stands in complete contrast to the way Labor handled education in the early-1990s recession—the recession that those opposite referred to as the ‘Keating Recession’, despite the fact that many other countries in the world saw a global downturn at that point. They won't have this recession called the ‘Morrison Recession’, but they're happy to call the early-1990s global recession the ‘Keating Recession’.

What did the Hawke and Keating governments do at that time? Labor enabled many more people to expand their educational opportunities. We encouraged young Australians to stay on at school, knowing full well that were they to leave school, into the teeth of that global recession, the chances were that they wouldn't be able to find work. So, we encouraged the increase in the educational capacity of young Australians. We wanted them to be learning when they couldn't be earning.

But what's this government doing now, a generation on, when the equivalent to finishing school is attending university? They're putting their head in the sand. They're attacking universities. There might be a recession and a pandemic on, but the mob opposite are never too busy to play the culture wars, to attack Australian higher education institutions. They wouldn't even allow many of us on this side of the House to speak when their higher education bill was being rammed through. As soon as they'd done their deal with the member for Mayo, they just guillotined the debate. Many of those on this side of the House—I worked at the Australian National University, finishing up as a professor—didn't get a chance to speak in that debate, because they just wanted to ram through their retrograde attacks on higher education the moment they had the numbers.

They're scared of debate. They're talking about free speech in universities. Part of the deal in which they managed to get this through was to strike a deal with One Nation to get some so-called free speech bill through, legislating what already operates in practice. But while they were talking about their commitment to free speech in universities, they wouldn't allow free speech in the parliament. They wouldn't allow parliamentarians to have our say. No, they just wanted to ram it through without debate.

The fact is that I haven't had a single constituent contact me and say, 'Hey, what I reckon would be really good right now would be if you made it harder for young Australians to get a spot at university, if you made it tougher for young Australians to have an opportunity to study.' No-one's contacted me about that. Instead, I've seen many young Australians struggling to find work. We saw those queues outside the Centrelink offices. We saw the impact on young Australians. We saw a million casuals shut out of JobKeeper because of the ideological predispositions of those opposite. They shut a million short-term casuals out of JobKeeper, despite the fact that they knew that in many cases that was arbitrary, that these were people such as a casual teacher who might have been working at multiple schools but hadn't been with this particular school for a full year and so was shut out of JobKeeper.

And they shut universities out of JobKeeper. They kept changing the rules on universities, the moment universities thought they might have a go. It was a bit like Lucy and Charlie Brown with the football: he's been promised one more time, 'I won't pull it away; it'll be there to kick.' He takes the run-up and at the last moment she pulls it away and he falls flat on his back. That's what those opposite did to universities—but, I beg your pardon, it was not all universities; private universities were alright. A couple of private universities could get JobKeeper. But if you're one of the 40-odd public universities in Australia, you couldn't get JobKeeper. So, they've had to fire more than 10,000 staff, with another 10,000 potentially on the chopping block, according to the National Tertiary Education Union.

Right here in the ACT, a jurisdiction that is heavily dependent on higher education, the Australian National University are doing all the belt-tightening they can. They have cut back on senior staff costs, they have foregone travel costs and they have tightened their belts in every possible way they could, but they still weren't able to prevent hundreds of jobs going at the Australian National University. At the very time in which we're asking university researchers to assist in finding a vaccine for COVID-19, this government is cutting funding to universities. At the very time in which we need researchers to deal with the scourge of dangerous climate change, this government is cutting funding to universities. This government is full of climate change deniers; it is in thrall to its backbench. And today Australia is finding itself increasingly isolated on the world stage; with President-elect Biden now committing the United States to zero net emissions by 2050, Australia stands isolated. More than 70 countries have signed up to zero net emissions by 2050. Every state and territory in Australia, major business groups and the scientists are telling us that we need to go to zero net emissions. So Australia is now left out on the fringes of the debate—I was going to say 'in the cold', but it's really in the heat! Australia is left out with Saudi Arabia and Jair Bolsonaro's Brazil.

They say that it's only when the tide goes out that you find out who's swimming naked. Right now, Australia's nudity on climate change policy is being exposed for the world to see. The fact is that the Morrison government has had 22 climate policies and still is unable to deal with the tinfoil hat brigade sitting on the backbenches over there, who are driving the government's policy agenda. It's no coincidence that those who are touting unproven cures for COVID-19, like hydroxychloroquine, are the very same who are touting climate change denial. They're small in number but they're powerful in their ability to make the tail wag the dog, to ensure that Australia is left behind in international climate change negotiations. We were there, while Australian bushfires were burning, arguing in the Madrid climate conference that the world should do less to combat dangerous climate change. That work is going on within our universities. The research on climate change is continuing in our universities, and yet it is this government that is attacking universities, that is attacking scientists and that is doing its level best to ensure that scientists are relegated on these major issues.

It is unconscionable that, at the very time in which Australia is suffering a human capital crisis, we're not investing in human capital. Instead, the budget was very heavy on physical capital. Labor doesn't begrudge measures such as the accelerated depreciation measure that the government put forward. But we have to recognise the way in which these things work from an economics standpoint. Claudia Goldin and Larry Katz talked about inequality as being a race between education and technology. When education and technology both advance, you get growth with fairness. When technology advances and education stagnates, then you get a widening gap between the haves and the have nots. That's why when Labor were in government we were committed to encouraging automation and to encouraging education. It's why we went to the last election promising to properly fund schools, vocational training and universities, and, at the same time, with accelerated depreciation measures. But what we saw in the latest budget was an incentive for firms to invest in new machinery—new machinery which, potentially, could be job displacing.

So if you're an older worker—an over-35 worker—you will have looked at the last budget and seen a budget that said to your employer: 'Here's a big subsidy to invest in machinery that could well do the job of your over-35 worker. Oh, and here's a subsidy to hire under-35 workers who could well do the work of your over-35 worker.' If you're an over-35 worker, the budget that the government brought down was dangerously unbalanced.

What we should be doing instead is ensuring that we invest in the sources of growth, that we invest equally in technology and education. That is where this government has led us down. That is where the government's university and education policies have let us down. And that is why we are seeing universities having to let staff go, at a time when instead we should be expanding funding to universities and expanding the places available for students to study.


Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.