GOVERNOR-GENERAL’S SPEECH;Address-in-Reply – 01 Sep 2016

The Australian people must be thinking to themselves: ‘What was the point of the double dissolution election? One of the longest campaigns in Australian election history—all for what? To make the Senate completely unwieldy? To make Mr Turnbull vulnerable to any disgruntled backbencher in the House who decides to block government legislation just because they can?’ Mr Turnbull’s decision to reform Senate voting then immediately go to a double dissolution—foolishly backed by the Greens, who actually lost a senator, in a moment of political naivety that would make the Democrats laugh out loud—has delivered a chamber with 20 crossbenchers, including the Greens. It is a chamber where there is even less chance to pass legislation than the previous chamber, which the government were so keen and so eager to dismiss. We are looking at a period—however long Mr Turnbull lasts as Prime Minister—of inaction, division and desperation. It has only been a couple of months since the election, but we already have a multitude of Senate backbenchers defying the will of the Prime Minister. We are facing a period where Mr Turnbull will be too busy trying to stop himself being rolled to actually spend time governing.

When we were here last, the government used the opportunity not to pass legislation that would benefit ordinary Australians but to produce a double dissolution trigger. It has literally been months since this chamber has had anything of substance to deal with. In fact, most of this year has been spent orchestrating a double dissolution trigger for the government’s political benefit. That is extremely disappointing because Australians have real problems that need to be solved. Australians face real challenges that the government has the power, although not the will, to fix. Instead of listening to the endless internal Liberal bickering and rumours about when Mr Turnbull is going to be rolled, Australians want real solutions.

For the Labor Party and me, one of the most important issues is education. It cannot be understated just how important education is for Australians and for the future of Australia. Education is the key to opportunity, innovation and the future economic and social prosperity of our nation. The Gonski review linked quality educational outcomes for students to increased national productivity. Individuals who reach their full potential in schooling are usually able to make better career and life choices, leading to successful and productive lives. Success in schooling also helps to provide the skills and capacities needed to keep a society strong into the future. It deepens a country’s knowledge base and level of expertise and increases productivity and competitiveness within the global economy.

The Gonski panel found that higher educational achievement leads to significantly bigger economic returns, when they investigated the relationship between cognitive skills and economic growth in developed countries. Australia must become a clever country again. We can do that through properly funding our schools and higher education institutes. It is particularly vital for the people of Tasmania, the state that I am honoured to represent, that we get our education system right. On 2014 figures, Tasmania had the second-lowest year 12 retention rate, behind the Northern Territory, with a rate of around 67 per cent. While the latest NAPLAN result showed that Tasmania is not at the back of the pack, Victoria and the ACT are scoring considerably better, and there is still considerable work to be done. As a small state, we need to ensure that we give our children the best opportunity possible to allow us to innovate and take every advantage available.

Time and time again during the election campaign, I heard from parents who were angry—and they were really angry—about the government’s unwillingness to support the full Gonski education-funding reforms. Parents want to make sure their children are getting the best education possible, and they know that that will not happen under the Turnbull government’s policy.

On this side of the chamber, Labor understands the importance of the federal government’s properly funding all Australian schools. This is why we committed to fully funding Australian schools in accordance with the Gonski funding model. Unfortunately, the unity ticket on which the Liberals claimed to be with us on education dissolved just like magic as soon as Mr Abbott became Prime Minister. This is very disappointing, because Labor argues that, as found by the Gonski review, education is not just a cost; it is an investment which will ultimately benefit Australia as a nation.

Labor’s ‘Your Child. Our Future’ policy represented the most significant improvement in schools education in Australia for two generations. No matter what their background, no matter where they live—in a city, a suburb or the regions—and no matter what type of school they go to—government, Catholic or independent—Labor wants every child to have the same chance of succeeding at school and in life as any other child in the country. As part of ‘Your Child. Our Future’, the Gonski funding and reforms would have been delivered on time and in full, and the Turnbull government’s cuts would have been reversed.

This $37.3 billion investment would have seen every child in every school funded on the basis of needs. ‘Your Child. Our Future’ would have driven reforms that improved teaching and learning, securing Australia’s long-term economic future and giving students the basic skills they need for the jobs of the future. This funding was not a blank cheque. It came with strict obligations and benchmarks for systems, schools and teachers so that parents could track improvements in their children’s learning. Labor’s policy would have invested $3.8 billion more than Mr Turnbull in Australian schools in 2018 and 2019.

And we would have seen a $60 million increase in funding in Tasmania, including $14 million in Bass, $21 million in Braddon, $10 million in Denison, $9 million in Franklin and $9 million in Lyons in 2018 and 2019. Around 80,000 students in public, Catholic and independent schools would have benefited. Unfortunately, though, under the Liberal Party, Tasmanian children will miss out. Over a 10-year period, the Liberal Party’s model sees $640 million funding ripped away from Tasmanian schools and Tasmanian students. It is extremely disappointing that this Liberal-National government chooses not to make our children a priority.

A part of the ‘Your Child. Our Future’ policy that I am particularly interested in is the increased investment in students with disability. Ensuring that children with disability can get the quality education they deserve is a central part of this policy. Had we won the election, Labor would have more than reversed the Turnbull government’s cuts to the More Support for Students with Disabilities program, investing a further $320 million in children with disability. The government’s own education department admits that the program had a positive impact on students with disability before it was cut. Students with disability, their parents and teachers have waited long enough for proper schooling support. Under Labor, the wait would have finally been over.

I call upon the government to put politics aside and adopt our ‘Your Child. Our Future’ policy for the sake of Australia’s future. Labor’s new needs-based funding model would deliver additional per-student funding for students with disability, ensuring that they receive the additional resources and support they need to achieve their potential.

We all remember that, before the 2013 election, the Liberals promised an ‘absolute unity ticket’ on school funding, and we all know that instead they dumped the Gonski reforms, cut $30 billion from our classrooms and cut the $100-million-a-year More Support for Students with Disabilities program. The Liberals promised to fully fund the needs of students with disability in line with the Nationally Consistent Collection of Data on School Students with Disability, but instead they will go a whole term of government without doing anything at all, leaving tens of thousands of students missing out on the support they need. Completing the Gonski reform on time and in full and reversing the Liberal cuts to students with disability would mean better training and development for teachers and more targeted support for students learning within the classroom.

Under Labor’s plan, by 2020 Labor would ensure 95 per cent year 12 or equivalent completion, and by 2025 Labor would return Australia to the top five countries in reading, maths and science. For Mr Turnbull’s Liberals to talk about innovation while they are cutting funding to education is just that—all talk. That is because, as well as failing our school students, Mr Turnbull and his government are failing the vocational and higher education sectors.

This government just does not realise the value of the higher education and VET sectors. We can see this by its continued assaults on the higher education sector. This is a government that wants to bring in $100,000 degrees while slashing funding to universities. We have with our current HECS-HELP scheme one of the best and fairest higher education systems in the world, and the government just wants to destroy that. Our nation’s future prosperity and social cohesion require public investment in quality higher education that is available to all who merit a place, as our major competitor nations already realise.

The pathetic attempt by those opposite at higher education policy is a discussion paper released on budget night which still promotes deregulation, with $100,000 degrees and a lifetime of debt a real prospect for Australian students. And the budget still incorporates the 20 per cent cut to university teaching. In fact, higher education expert Mark Warburton estimates that the cut to university budgets could be a ruinous $3.75 billion. The Liberals’ assault on universities and students from the 2014 budget has already been rejected twice by parliament, despite the government trying every trick in the book to get it passed. Even though the Senate and the public have comprehensively rejected the unfair and unnecessary $100,000 degrees and savage cuts to university teaching, the Liberals continue to cling to those measures.

I call upon the new senators in this place to put education first and reject the government’s deregulation and defunding plans for Australian universities. Universities and students have a right to know if the minister has learned the lesson of the past two years and whether he will push the delete button on damaging changes to higher education policy.

Mr Turnbull likes to talk about innovation, jobs and economic security; yet the measures he has supported so far undermine each of those objectives. Students and their families, businesses and communities all benefit from a strong higher education sector. If Australia wants to be a clever country that really does hold innovation as a central tenet, we have to properly support the higher education sector and the students who want to gain higher education qualifications.

The previous Labor government opened access to university; 190,000 more students are at a university today as a result of our reforms. Access will always matter to Labor, and we will continue to support the demand-driven system. But our next wave of university reform will focus on completion and quality. We want Australian students who start university to finish university with a degree. Department of education figures show that 23 per cent of people who started a degree as full-time students in 2006 had not completed it after eight years. So there is evidence that attrition rates have been getting worse in recent years, meaning that even more students are likely to leave university with a debt but no degree. And, with the Commonwealth investing $14 billion of taxpayers’ money in universities every year, Australians are right to expect outcomes that benefit the entire community: young Australians graduating as teachers, nurses, doctors, engineers and scientists, enhancing our society and our economy.

Labor want to see an ambitious goal to increase the number of students completing their study by 20,000 graduates per year from 2020. A future Labor government will work with the university sector to ensure that incentives within the demand-driven system are introduced to achieve this goal. And, because students need to graduate with skills, knowledge and resilience for their working life, not just mark their name off at a class, we committed, prior to the election, to invest an additional $31 million in the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency or TEQSA. The boost to TEQSA would have lifted the quality of teaching and resources to ensure that students graduated with a high-quality education that would win them the jobs of the future. This additional investment would have provided the assurance that our investment in higher education was achieving the right outcomes for students as well as for our economy—highly skilled, highly adaptable, technology-literate graduates who are ready to compete in the world.

Investing in education is the single most important thing we can do to maintain Australia’s prosperity and secure the jobs of the future. Labor has always been committed to opening access to higher education to more Australians and supporting universities as critical drivers of innovation across the economy. Labor stands ready to work with Mr Turnbull and Senator Birmingham to find a better way to fund universities sustainably over the long term. But they have to genuinely want to put the needs of the sector and their students first.

The three Tasmanian members who were opposed to Gonski funding, Andrew Nikolic, Brett Whiteley and Eric Hutchinson, are now the ex-members for Bass, Braddon and Lyons, and, in large part, that is due to their opposition to an education policy their government overwhelmingly supported. The self-described ‘three amigos’—and my colleague Senator Polley did a wonderful speech on it yesterday—failed to listen to their constituents who called for action on education funding reform, amongst a host of other issues, and they have paid the price. I call upon the remaining Liberal senators in Tasmania to take heed of the fate of the former members for Bass, Braddon and Lyons, and call upon them to advocate for a full return to the Gonski funding model, because that is what Tasmanian students and schools need and want.

I am extremely pleased to see the election of three new Tasmanian Labor members in the other place: Ross Hart in Bass, Justine Keay in Braddon and Brian Mitchell in Lyons. They have worked extremely hard in the months and, indeed, the years leading up to the election, engaging with their communities—something that the three amigos failed to do. They did the work, as I said, that the previous Liberal members failed to do and actually talked to their constituents, listened to their concerns and supported policies that would make the lives of everyday Tasmanians better. It was a wonderful achievement by the Tasmanian Labor team. I know that the new Labor members for Bass, Braddon and Lyons will work extremely hard and will continue to stand up for the people of Tasmania, particularly for better education funding. The new members, along with the re-elected Julie Collins, member for Franklin, and the Tasmanian Labor senators, are all fully committed to the Gonski funding model, through our ‘Your Child. Our Future’ policy.

Unfortunately, despite my hopes, we are unlikely to see the Liberal-Nationals government prioritise education. They only want to cut services, not fund them. They want to cut services to cover up their failure to manage the budget. And, after three years in power, the Treasurer and those on the other side continue to try and blame Labor for the coalition legacy of debt and deficit blow-outs and their run of reform failures. This is a government, we need to remember, that has tripled the deficit since 2014—tripled the deficit since 2014—and has blown out net debt by $100 billion.

The government could fund education properly, but the Treasurer would need to reach out across the chambers and make sensible and fair budget savings. Labor has put on the table over $80 billion in savings that the government could support and move swiftly through the parliament. But, unfortunately, Mr Turnbull quickly turned his back on that offer. Instead, Mr Turnbull will give a $50 billion tax break to business, including over $7 billion to the big four banks. The banks need a royal commission, not a massive tax cut. It is clear where the priorities of Mr Turnbull and his Liberal and Nationals colleagues lie, and it is not with the children of Australia. Those opposite should go back to school and learn something about fairness and building a clever nation, because they are currently receiving an F for fail.