In the News
Mr HAWKE (Mitchell) (11:15 AM) —I rise to speak for a second time on the Fairer Private Health Insurance Incentives (Medicare Levy Surcharge) Bill 2009 [No. 2] and related bills because, of course, this legislation has already been rejected by the Senate. We now see a government desperate to impose this ideological agenda on the Australian people. It is an agenda that they did not apprise the Australian people of prior to the last election. Indeed, all of the statements from the shadow minister for health, now the Minister for Health and Ageing, and the Prime Minister indicated that they would not touch the rebate system. Quotes to that effect are numerous right up until 2009. Even as late as 24 February 2009 we heard:
“The Government is firmly committed to retaining the existing private health insurance rebates,” Ms Roxon told The Age.
That is the minister for health in 2009, telling the Australian people that that government is firmly committed to retaining these rebates.
People are entitled to ask: what is really going on? When the Senate has turned this legislation down, saying it is a breach of election commitments and not an appropriate way to manage the health system, why would the government seek to reintroduce this legislation in the face of such opposition? The answer is their mismanagement of the budget. Of course, now we do not have any money to fund a proper healthcare system. This is not an issue of private health versus public health. This debate is not about that, although some of those opposite are trying to turn it into an ideological debate. This is about how we fund the healthcare system. Funding is certainly one of the issues we have heard a lot about in this debate, and it is something I would like to talk about. How we fund all of the needs of the healthcare system is critical.
In Australia the biggest component of federal government expenditure is welfare. It is more than double the expenditure on health in Australia. That is important to note, because we have a strong and thorough welfare system that spends in the order of $110 billion a year, more than double the healthcare budget, and that is not counting state budgets and all of the money spent by state governments. Yet every government in this country, whether state or federal, knows that we are facing a funding crisis in relation to health. How do we meet future challenges? How do we fund those challenges? The answer is not going to be found in government expenditure alone. No government can afford to increase expenditure to fund healthcare challenges completely. We need a private healthcare system. It is not a luxury or something that we can take for granted. We need to ensure that it is a strong and vital system. The legislation that is before us today is going to undermine that system.
There is a public healthcare system available to those who cannot afford private health care and a private system for people to fund by putting their own capital into private health cover so that they can make a contribution to their own health care, thereby lifting the burden off the taxpayer and enabling money to be spent where it is needed. That is why I say there is an ideological component in the legislation before us. Certainly the ‘fairer’ in the title of the legislation is a misnomer. There is nothing fairer about changing these rebates, putting more pressure on the public system and ensuring that there is a worse healthcare outcome for all. It is commonly the rhetoric of socialist governments to say things are fairer when they are bringing everybody down. Simply put, this is something that will drag everybody down.
Coming from an electorate that has the highest proportion of families in this country, I reject the contention that people on $75,000 a year are wealthy. I reject the contention that couples on $150,000 are wealthy. I come from an electorate with a high average income, the second highest average income in Australia. However, most of that income is spent on mortgages. My electorate also has the highest proportion of mortgages of any electorate in the Commonwealth. It is one of the fastest-growing areas in Sydney. I know that all of that disposable income is spent on simply affording the family home in Sydney. I know that people on $75,000 pay a higher marginal tax rate and that people on $150,000 pay one of the highest tax rates. You cannot simply say that people on $75,000 or $150,000 with two, three or four kids are wealthy, so they can afford not to have these rebates. That is not a proposition that I accept. It is about the signals that you send to people out there in the community as a government. What is the signal from this legislation? The signal is: we do not want you to take up private health care. The indirect signal you will send is: the government does not prioritise private health as something that is valued. It is only a 30 to 35 per cent rebate. It is something that says to people: if you are prepared to put your capital into your own health care, the government will make a contribution as well.
The member for Bonner spoke about a fear campaign, and there is a fear campaign being run by the Prime Minister of this country in relation to this matter. With Laurie Oakes on Sunday we saw that fear campaign dramatically exposed to the Australian people. The Prime Minister claimed on national television that, if this measure was not passed by the parliament, there would be a cost to the Australian taxpayer of $100 billion. He claimed that that was in the Intergenerational report and that the Intergenerational report backed up his claim that, if we did not do this, private health in Australia would cost the taxpayer $100 billion. Clearly that was a complete and utter misrepresentation. The Prime Minister said:
What the Intergenerational report tomorrow will reveal for the first time is that the cumulative impact of knocking that major reform back is in the order of one hundred billion dollars over the next several decades.
Of course, when industry went to research this claim it found it is not in the Intergenerational report. Indeed, industry rejects completely that this is the case. Why would a Prime Minister make a claim of $100 billion? There is a real contention about this quote, because $100 billion is what we already spend on welfare. We spend less than half of that on the health budget—$50 billion goes into health. Is health worth $100 billion over several decades? Most people in this chamber and most people in the Australian public would say, ‘Absolutely it is.’ If we are providing a rebate which means the government pays one small component and other people put a larger component of their capital into their own health care then that is a great system because the government has the smallest share of the payout in that case.
If you remove that incentive, we have heard many arguments from those opposite that there will only be a few people who leave the system. I can say anecdotally, even from speaking to people in my own age category—and I am one of the youngest people here—that people do not just say that they will leave the system. Speaking to people who have private health cover I hear that they will reduce their level of cover. That is an issue that has not been addressed by those opposite. Reducing the level of cover and putting a burden back to the public system is not going to be a good outcome either. Even if it is a small amount—10,000, 15,000 or 20,000, whatever we want to argue about the figures, it could be more and it could be less—that will place an extra burden on the public system.
Then there are the people who will reduce their level of cover or will not be attracted to take up private health insurance. How will that be a better outcome for the health system in Australia? That is what this government has failed to demonstrate. I want to record here that private health insurance is not just for the rich. There are over one million people with private health and hospital cover who live in households with a total annual income of less than $26,000—over one million of these households have some form of private hospital cover. They are saying there is a value in putting their hard earned capital of $26,000 or less into the private health system. Why would they make that assessment? It is because there is great value in putting aside your capital to look after your own health and it is a value judgment they have made. It is because the government has a system which rewards them for doing so and it is a good system. Why then should a person on $75,000 not be entitled to a reward? They work just as hard; they do earn more money and they get taxed more as well. They have as many taxes, charges and imposts as anybody else. It is as vital to those people as it is to people on $26,000 that there is an incentive to take up private health because we still operate under that mentality that we have a universal healthcare system—that is still one of the prime directives in public health in Australia—and so anybody is entitled to put the whole burden of health care onto the public system. I say that we should retain the incentives because those incentives are working and doing a good job for us in keeping our system sustainable—and we do have a major funding challenge.
I think where this debate turns to an ideological issue has cost us enormously. Taking my own electorate again, a brand new private hospital, the Hills Private Hospital, has opened. It has an emergency ward; it is a fantastic thing. It cost in the order of $200 million. Speaking to the managing director, who has worked in public and private health in Australia, in New Zealand and in the UK, it could not have been done in the public system for less than double that amount. He is very clear about that. We want private capital in health, we want private capital in research, we want private capital in health insurance and we want them to build hospitals. It is a good thing; it is not something that we should be threatening or rejecting. It is a complementary and positive thing to the public healthcare system and it is something that we must be very focused on continuing to encourage.
When I spoke to the people running the Hills Private Hospital about getting someone to open it, they told me that they have opened three private hospitals in western Sydney, under the New South Wales Labor government, in areas where, for the New South Wales Labor government—let us be very clear—it will be a long time coming before they can build a hospital. Even though in the north-west of Sydney we have had a massive growth in population, a huge expansion in the number of families and in the demand for services, and a scaling back in hospitals like Blacktown, Blue Mountains, Hawkesbury of all kinds of units and services, there is no plan to build a major hospital in the north-west of Sydney. If the private sector did not deliver this hospital, there would be no new hospital in north-west Sydney even though it is one of the major growth corridors in our largest city in the country.
So we can talk about records all we like. We can talk about the Labor record at state government level or we can talk about the Howard government record at federal level, but the reality is all governments are increasing funding to health, they are increasing it substantially and it is not enough to meet the expectations and the demands. That is the reality of this debate. So why would we take a measure in this chamber today to reduce the incentives for people to put their own capital into their own health cover? It is an absolute and utter wrong signal to the market. I always enjoy getting lectured by Labor members such as the member for Bonner about the market because they have a lot to say about the market these days—everybody is a free market person today, as was once famously said. The reality is that signal to the market at this time that we are reducing incentives to take up private health insurance from whatever categories of income and age group is the wrong signal at the wrong time. It will mean that fewer people will put less capital into their own health which is exactly what we do not want at a time when we are facing funding crises, shortfalls and challenges across the entire health system and nobody has the answer to that.
Kevin Rudd came forward and said: ‘I do have an answer to that. If by the first six months of my government we have not solved the problems in health, the federal government will intervene and take over the healthcare system and, of course, take over hospitals.’ We have seen a complete and utter backtrack on that position and we still have no answer or no plans from Kevin Rudd—yet another broken election promise and commitment. We all wait with breathless anticipation to see how he is going to solve the issues of public health that he committed to solve prior to the last election.
In summarising, I have spoken on this prior to this and I think that some of those comments that I made including that three-quarters of my own electorate is covered by private health insurance are really important arguments. I do not see that it is a difficulty to me; I do not see that as a problem. I think that it is a good and important fact that we encourage as many people to take out their own health insurance and we encourage as many people as possible to look after their own health because that allows us to do more in our public system. We should not mistake the signals in these bills. The fact that this government has not worked with the industry and peak body associations to even amend or look at another option in relation to this means that it is ideological and hard headed about undermining the private health insurance system.
There are plenty of third-party bodies—the Australian Health Insurance Association, the Australian Medical Association, the Australian Private Hospitals Association, the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, the National Association of Specialist Obstetricians and Gynaecologists—who all say that this will put greater pressure on every person who is privately insured and will also put greater pressure on the public system. That is something that we should take from these bodies with great concern. Why add extra pressure to every person in private health? Why add extra pressure to people in the public system? If there is a budgetary crisis in the Rudd government, health ought to be sectioned off from that crisis. If we have gone from a state where we had zero net government debt and a $10 billion surplus to having a $50 billion deficit or more and a problem with the budget, it ought not to be health that is used to solve that crisis. I make that position very clear.
The Prime Minister in trying to allege that there would be a $100 billion cost, which is completely fictitious and not backed up by the Intergenerational report, indicates that he is thinking about how to solve his budgetary crisis—the debt that we have gone into. Health is not the area that we should be looking at. There is no way any federal government, whether it be this government or a future government, can decide to fund every health need and challenge that we are going to face. We are going to need to have a strong private health system as well as a well-funded public system.
Therefore this kind of measure is a retrograde measure. It will mean that fewer people are taking up private health. It means that Australians will pay more for their health care. Even if you argue that it is only 10,000 or 15,000 people, when they leave the private health insurance system—those who understand all about insurance systems know, and all of our free-market economists on the Labor back bench will particularly note this—that you then have less money in the pool to pay all the claims. Therefore the insurance premiums have to rise. There is no doubt about that. There is no argument about that. I know that with all the lectures we are getting from the Labor backbench on the market that that will resonate very strongly with them.
The key points about this legislation are that the government is refusing to budge because it has an ideological obsession with private health, but this should not be turned into a debate about the public system versus the private system. That debate ought to be trash-canned straightaway. The reality of modern Australia is that we have a strong public health system and that we have a strong private health system. Governments provide incentives for people to put their own capital into private health and we need them to do so. We need people to put as much of their own capital into private health as we can encourage them to. We know that even people on household incomes of $26,000 or less—one million of them in this country—made the judgment that they are going to put something aside because of the incentives we as governments have put in place. Why then is that not good enough for people on incomes of $75,000 and over or on $150,000 and over? We want them to put as much of their capital aside as we can encourage them to. You must have incentives for that to happen. You must have incentives under a universal healthcare system.
This is a good system. It is a working system. It is the same as saying, ‘The Rudd government inherited zero net government debt and a $10 billion surplus so we can go on a spending spree.’ Now we know that we are all going to pay the price for profligate spending, for $900 cash bonuses, $22 billion in cash handed out to people. There will be an enormous price to pay. If that is why we are seeing these bills reintroduced again after being refused by the Senate then, certainly, that is a failing of this government.
I also want to say that the government have broken their election commitment. I want to remind everybody about that one more time, because we are going to hear a bit about this. They promised they would not touch the rebate system. They had to promise that prior to the election because all Australians know that the private health insurance rebate system works. It works because the government provided it as an incentive and people take up that incentive. There are 11.1 million Australians who have a form of private health insurance. We have a working system and we need more capital generated into the private system to relieve the public system so that it can be funded adequately for governments to meet the challenges.
Together, as a complementary model, we can achieve a level of quality funding for health in Australia, but it must be together. This ideological division of public versus private will not be useful. It will mean a lot of pain for people in private health. It will add pressure to the public health system. Coming from an electorate with a large proportion of families and people on private health, I can speak with authority and say that people will leave the private system and return to public health, and people will seek to reduce their level of cover. Both of those things are unnecessary. We do not need to take this step. If we do not take this step we can continue to work on how we fund these challenges and how we make sure more people are putting as much of their daily budgets as possible into their health care. That is the way that we will have a chance of funding this system. The reality is that no government in this country can meet the challenges purely through government funding alone.
Mr HAWKE (Mitchell) (9:44 PM) —I rise tonight to speak on the government’s so called Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (Charges - Customs) Bill 2009 [No.2] and related bills that are before us. From the outset I want to make it very clear that I am strongly opposed to what I regard as the Rudd government’s proposals to implement a carbon tax, a new and complex tax in my view that will add to the size and scope like no other measure in Commonwealth history. You ought not to take my word for it. Terry McCrann, in his article of 8 August 2009, says that the ETS is a tax. He warns all Australians ominously:
It’s not called a tax, but if it waddles like one, quacks like one, and most pointedly raises money like one, it’s a tax. And not just any old tax—it’s a huge and continually growing tax.
For those who are concerned about the Liberal Party’s position in this debate and on this issue, I want to open my remarks by reinforcing in the strongest terms that the coalition joined with all other non-Labor senators to vote down the Rudd Labor government’s proposed emissions trading scheme. We are back here today with the same legislation because of the Labor Party’s determination to use this issue as the great wedge of our time. It is my view that Labor is now playing pure politics with the issue of climate change.
What we know is that the government’s emissions trading scheme is deeply flawed. I accept today that it is true that many people are caught up in the idea that an ETS could solve a perceived problem with climate change caused by humans. It is a thesis that I want to reject today in a number of ways. It is clear from what we have seen from the Rudd Labor government that politics appears to be the goal of the rush with this legislation. What we have seen is that principled operators in this debate, like the Greens in the Senate, have preferred to oppose the emissions trading scheme on the view that it will not achieve environmental outcomes. Indeed, they make a very valid point that going through all of the rigmarole that is involved with this legislation will not produce a demonstrable environmental benefit. In fact, there is a serious body of evidence that suggests that there will be a questionable outcome from the entire scheme.
When you have parties like the Greens saying that this is not an effective scheme and that it will not work the way that the government says it will, the Independents in this place saying that it will not work and the myriad of business and independent voices around Australia saying that they have grave concerns with the way that this legislation will operate, we ought to think very carefully here in this place about what we are doing. We ought to pause, we ought to reflect and we ought to have a debate about it. And yet we have this procession of Labor backbenchers telling us that we ought not to be having a debate; that somehow this is the moral imperative of our time and we ought not to question the detail of the scheme, how it will operate or how it will affect everyday Australians.
But when you look at this legislation—and it is a very big and complex piece of legislation—it is very difficult to drill down to what simply the government is trying to do. It is an oxymoron to say that you can have a simple explanation of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme or the emissions trading scheme when you examine the size and complexity of what they are attempting to do. If you look at the bills in front of us, essentially they are trying to create an overall disincentive for people to emit carbon through the use of taxes, permits and other mechanisms. But the idea is that a disincentive will be created for the emission of carbon in the economy and in the daily lives of individuals by using all of these different mechanisms.
However, there is something that the government has failed to demonstrate. After it collects all of this revenue and tax that will be raised by all of their mechanisms, it will then proceed to subsidise heavy industries, heavy emitters, polluters and what they term low- and middle-income households. By the use of subsidy, they therefore remove the very disincentive that they are trying to create in the first place to reduce the emission of carbon. So you go through this massive churn in financial terms, in legislative terms, in taxation terms to produce an environmental benefit that is questionable and negligible. That is why there is pronounced opposition in the Greens and other parties to this type of scheme. It is one of the reasons why I oppose this scheme as well.
If you look at what the many business organisations and large enterprises consider will be the outcome of this, the Minerals Council of Australia, for example, showed that per capita revenue raised by our Australian scheme compared with similar cap and trade schemes in the USA and the EU, Australia comes out remarkably worse off. For example, a comparison of per capita revenue raised by competing schemes in the first full year of operation of a cap and trade scheme shows that Australia would raise $404 per capita, the United States would raise $57 per capita and the EU would raise just 80 cents per capita. That is $404 per capita compared with $57 per capita and 80 cents in the USA and the EU. As the member for Fremantle pointed out, we are sure punching above our weight in relation to per capita revenue raised.
From the evidence that we have seen, there has been little or no scrutiny of the Rudd Labor government on this scheme and the design of the proposed legislation that is before us. This is a very disturbing problem. From what we have seen, it is clear that the Minister for Climate Change and Water cannot explain the government’s own cap and trade system when asked about it many forums. The minister cannot explain their permit system, the role of voluntary measures in the system and how all of these measures would interact. On this point regarding the system of permits and subsidies, it concerns me greatly that the Minister for Climate Change and Water is not across the detail of how this scheme will operate. This adds to my already great concern about a measure that will give government the most unprecedented boost in its scope and its size in our Commonwealth’s history.
In addressing these bills, it is important for us to ask why we should act before the rest of the world and ask about the experience of carbon trading where it has been developed to date. When you examine what has happened in other places in the world, the European experience with carbon trading has badly backfired. That demonstrates that an artificially carbon trading market has severe problems that quickly undermine the intention of the mechanism: to reduce the emissions of carbon. In Europe, for example, you have a dichotomy. Developing states in Eastern Europe are seeking to expand their economies and therefore in a way hijack the intention of the carbon trading scheme by offering freer and cheaper permits in those states, undermining the whole integrity of the system. In fact, when you look at the European experience, it is completely uninspiring.
It is my view that carbon trading could well represent the biggest distortion of the market and the biggest single intervention in the economy in modern history. There was a great article from Bloomberg on 17 July 2006 by Matthew Carr, who records the following:
When EU officials created a market for trading pollution credits they boasted it was a ‘cost conscious way’ to save the planet from global warming.
Five years later, the 25-nation EU is failing to meet the Kyoto Protocol’s carbon-dioxide emission standards. Rather than help protect the environment, the trading system has led to increases in electricity prices of more than 50 per cent and record profits for RWE,AG and other Utilities
This is a market distortion if I ever saw one. The government created market distortion which ought to frighten every Australian, considering the proposition that an ETS could be good for the economy—50 per cent increases in electricity is nothing to be taken lightly. Bloomberg conclude in the same article that the $44 billion a year market in carbon trading is an environmental and economic failure. That is according to Open Europe, a policy group that assesses the EU’s laws. So let us be clear. We represent 1.4 per cent of the world’s emissions and if we do nothing naturally that will fall to one per cent. In fact, if we shut everything down in Australia, growth in China would account for emissions in just eight months that take a year for Australia. So why would we pursue a policy mechanism that has demonstrably failed in Europe?
Certainly I accept the argument of my colleagues and many people in the community that we ought not be doing anything before Copenhagen and preferably ought not be adopting this system at all. But the Rudd government has had this obsessive mantra about passing a scheme before Copenhagen. It must be asked: why? A government that continually moans about artificial gases is forcing an artificial time frame on us. I believe that Copenhagen, to this government, is about opportunity. I question the motives of the Prime Minister in pushing this scheme before Copenhagen. The government claims it is a world-leading measure, but actually it puts our economy and the jobs and industries of Australians at risk. I do not believe that Australia is well served by being locked into a course of action when the major world emitters are not and when we represent only 1.4 per cent of the world’s emissions. I do not accept the argument of the member for Wills that there is a moral imperative for us to do something when we are so insignificant. If we did not act, it would not of course make any difference to the world’s carbon emissions.
When you examine the impact of how this legislation will affect many sectors in our economy there are great concerns. I highlight some big ones here today, particularly the areas of agriculture—basic areas that have always been so primary to Australia’s role in the world as a producer of food. I think our role as a producer would be seriously threatened under this legislation. I quote Senator Heffernan, my friend and colleague, who has a prescient feel for agricultural issues. He says:
As an opposition it is imperative that a more practical solution be achieved which does not put our nation at a disadvantage nor burden consumers and small businesses with large increases in electricity prices. One of my key concerns about the Rudd government’s proposed legislation was its refusal to rule out putting agriculture into the ETS after 2015. If our farmers were subject to an ETS, whilst the United States and European Union have exempted their farmers, not only would they be at a competitive disadvantage but many would become insolvent overnight, particularly beef, dairy and sheep farmers.
The idea that many farmers would become insolvent overnight is something that the government must take into account in the design of this legislation and what it is proposing. It is a very serious matter that agriculture, so primary to this country’s production, be considered and treated in a way that is not to its detriment.
I want to raise my own area of concern and that is small and medium sized business. To me one of the greatest areas of concern is what will happen to business if this legislation passes this place. It was remarkable to hear the Treasurer come in here recently and say that some businesses may face higher input costs, as he put it. He said they would be modest increases. I feel that displays a rank contempt for small and medium business. Imagine going to many of the small and medium business operators in my electorate and saying: ‘You are going to face an increase in your electricity prices. It will only be modest so don’t worry about it. There will be higher input costs in a range of areas, but you will survive somehow.’ The government does not have an answer for those small and medium enterprises that will face higher input costs and higher electricity costs as a result of this legislation.
We will see a reduction in employment. We will see a reduction in investment. We will see a toughening of the environment for small and medium enterprises. I think it was remarkable to hear the Treasurer of the Commonwealth saying that these simply represent modest increases with no other explanation for small and medium enterprises. In some respects, what would you expect from someone who thinks that entering into $300 billion of government debt was a beneficial thing for our economy?
The Liberal Party has a very different view in relation to small and medium enterprises. The Liberal Party is the party of enterprise and freedom and it is because of our belief in these things that I cannot in good faith support a new tax that will so heavily impact on so many small and medium enterprises across our country. It is these people, many of them in my electorate—self-employed people, people who have worked to create their own businesses, the innovators, the creators and the producers—that this massive new taxation scheme threatens the most. It is this base of self-reliance, ingenuity, innovation and hard work that stands to lose the most from this unfair new tax. I reflect and record very clearly here that my electorate, in contradiction to what some of the members opposite have said, have been contacting me expressing concern mainly about how this massive new taxation scheme will impact on them and their small and medium sized businesses. Mitchell is home to so many small business people who innovate, manufacture, produce and employ. The more people who come to understand an ETS and understand that it really represents a tax, the more they make clear to me their concern with the proposed legislation and their ability to pay any new tax of the nature proposed.
I have no doubt that the Labor Party is using climate change as its most potent political weapon to win elections and it may be that Australia ends up with an emissions trading scheme no matter what any opposition party does. However, it is vital that the government take into account the serious concerns in many sectors of the Australian economy and that those concerns are well founded on costs and the ability of business to survive under such an oppressive regime. There is increasing concern about the science, conflict about the figures and a growing number of people who are concerned that the climate change debate has been deliberately hijacked for political purposes worldwide. We have seen commentators like Janet Albrechtson in her column today highlighting the contribution of Lord Monckton, who was warning that the aim of the Copenhagen draft treaty is to set up a sort of transnational government on a scale the world has never seen. It is a thought that I think should be seriously reflected on at least.
We have seen world leaders like Vaclav Klaus, who wrote a book called Blue Planet in Green Shackles, who essentially started saying that today’s debate about global warming is essentially about freedom and points out that much of the environmental moral imperative that is suggested behind this legislation is coming from a political perspective. We have seen people like Andrew Bolt, perhaps one of the strongest critics challenging populist opinion on this topic, suggest there are serious concerns that ought to be taken into account by many credible and reputable scientists—serious and measured professionals. We have seen works from people like Professor Ian Plimer, who penned a great contribution called Heaven and Earth. We have seen a movie just released in Australia to much fanfare, Not evil just wrong. It makes an important and ongoing contribution to the ordinary debate about the ongoing causes of climate change. And it is good to see that there is a genuine debate that is being considered on both sides of this argument, in short shrift to the contempt that is being shown by some people to other people’s points of view.
We should also heed the warnings of respected figures like the Hon. Ian Callinan AC QC, High Court Justice from 1998 to 2007, who said:
Emissions regulation offers government an irresistible opportunity to centralize and control every aspect of our lives; on our roads, on our travels, in our workplaces, on our farms, in our forests and our mines, and, more threateningly, in our homes, constructed as they will be compelled to be, of very specific materials and of prescribed sizes. It is not difficult to foresee a diktat as to how many lights we may turn on and when we must turn them off: the great curfew. The new regime has the capacity to make the wartime National Security Regulations look like a timid exercise of government restraint.
I read that quote out because I feel it is a very powerful and compelling warning from a respected figure in our nation’s history who points out that his examination and his intelligence teaches him that these proposed bills seriously threaten our freedom.
Governments, in all their forms, have been trying to run our lives one way or the other for all of human existence. Since the advent of capitalism and free markets, governments have been limited and rights for citizens have offered us protection against unbridled government. The true story of Australia’s success since its European settlement is a story of rugged individualism and the unbridled ingenuity of its citizens in overcoming a harsh and brutal climate, a story of hard work and achievement that has produced one of the highest standards of living in the world. This high standard of living now faces a most serious assault from a Labor government determined to use a green veneer to impose a tax on every form of industry, activity and human endeavour in our country.
From the design and intent of this legislation before us, it appears our historical protections are no longer enough to stop government from interfering in an unacceptable way in our daily lives. Under this carbon tax, will you need a permit to conduct your life in the way the government requires? A permit to conduct your business the way the government deems valid? A permit for yourself and your family to exist on the terms the government thinks appropriate? Forcing Australians to apply for permits or live off subsidies from government for working to produce a higher standard of living for themselves and their families is a system I cannot and will not support.
I reject these bills. I reject the premise of these bills: the premise that the government can impose a system of taxation on every sector of our economy that will make a true difference to the climate of the planet. I reject the premise that a Labor government can artificially create a carbon market that will reduce the emission of carbon in a way that will alter the climate of our planet. In fact, every Labor intervention in our economy has resulted in higher taxes and more government. There is no evidence before us to suggest this legislation will be any different. And in rejecting these premises I also reject these bills. I reject the Labor Party’s unprecedented program to expand the size and scope of the Australian government.
Monday, 19 October 2009
I rise today to speak on the Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Re-registration of Providers adn Other Measures) Bill 2009. I want to continue on from what the member for Forde was saying in relation to the importance of this sector to the Australian economy. We know that it is the third-largest export industry for Australia. This is a fantastic Australian success story. In 2008 it brought in about $15.4 billion. It employs many hundreds of thousands of people. It is vital that we continue to allow such an important sector to achieve and do so much for our economy.
The government’s legislation, as it is proposed, seeks to do a number of things in addressing many of the problems that all of us here have been aware of in recent times. Particularly, it enables a re-registration process for all institutions that are currently registered on the Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students. It looks at requiring providers to publish the names of education agents who represent them and promote their education services. I want to address those two things separately.
Firstly, I record my support for the provisions which require providers to publish the names of education agents. I think this is a widely supported provision and it will go some way towards enabling a better outcome where unscrupulous operators, or people who have engaged in unethical behaviour in relation to overseas students, have been caught in that activity. That is one way of ensuring more transparency and of limiting the possibility for problems. Of course, there are other ways that the industry itself suggests and that we may consider at a future time.
Secondly, I want to raise an issue in relation to the other main provision of this bill, which is that it will enable a reregistration of all institutions that are currently registered on the Commonwealth register. That is one way of addressing the problems that have arisen in the public domain. The argument is that there have been some alarming allegations made against some private education providers. For instance, students who have complied with all their requirements have been forced to pay additional fees over and above their agreed payments or risk having their visas revoked. Of course, that is unacceptable. However, I want to note in this place that that is not the practice of most of the providers of private education. In fact, most of those fine institutions have been responsible for the growth in this sector of the economy and have exported a fine quality product to overseas students. It has been a wonderful success story in Australia.
It is also important to note that there are already significant regulatory mechanisms in place. It is very difficult to establish a private education facility, as perhaps it ought to be. There are substantial state and federal requirements to ensure that it is a rigorous and difficult thing to do. When passing this legislation, we should consider not burdening those very successful enterprises that have met substantial regulatory requirements with going through a process where they revisit issues that they have already addressed in a substantial way. That is the feedback that I get from many of the private education providers who have been in business a long time. There is no question about their bona fides. But there is a question regularly asked of them by state and federal authorities, and they answer that question in a proven, acceptable and demonstrable way. Their reputations are not in question in relation to the allegations that are now in the public domain.
I want to caution that perhaps the process by which this reregistration will be conducted, particularly by the regulation, should be carefully considered and that an extra compliance burden not be placed on those completely ethical and properly regulated businesses that have conducted themselves in a proper fashion for a long time—and that is most of the sector. We have some wonderful stories about this sector. The businesses that have behaved ethically and built very successful education businesses are the custodians of our reputation internationally.
We know that education is an enabler; it is something that lifts people out of their situation. In our region, education is making a great difference to the vast number of people who still do not enjoy the standard of living that we do here in Australia. Exporting education is a great and powerful enabler for our region. It is something that enhances Australia’s reputation and role within our region and it has the capacity to do a great deal of good for our future relations with such important neighbours and trading partners. So it is important that we do not damage the reputation of this important sector by acting injudiciously. I would not suggest here today that that is the intention of the government. Rather, I simply say that, perhaps in our rush to respond to alarming situations, there are unintended consequences of that rush.
Legislating is not always necessarily the best answer to a problem like this, particularly when you look at peak bodies like the Australian Council for Private Education and Training. They represent about 1,119 organisations around Australia. Membership of their body requires a certain standard and a certain set of ethics and that, in effect, allows for self-regulation and that limits the capacity for problems and fraud. Some of the members opposite have spoken about self-regulation. Self-regulation can be a much more effective response in many instances than government legislation. In relation to these problems, the reality is that whatever legislation you pass, you still require a great deal of industry input of self-regulation to occur. We ought to be encouraging a system of self-regulation.
Some of the private providers that came to see me spoke of the mechanisms they use when one of their private institutions fails or may not be able to meet the commitments it has made to overseas students who have arrived here to study. Of course, this is the critical area. With the best will or the best intentions in the world, an institution may not be able to meet its commitments. An insurance scheme put together by a peak body could provide the capacity for other institutions to share the load of the member or institution that is unable to meet its commitments and could therefore take on the overseas students and so alleviate the problem. It is that kind of practical and considered industry specific solution that we ought to consider as an alternative in helping to deal with this situation. The legislation before us will deal with a very different situation—that is, people who behave unethically and do not met their commitments to overseas students. The legislation is designed to protect students who can often be vulnerable or who are unable to protect themselves—and that intention is a good thing.
In summing up that section of the provisions, I caution that we ought to very carefully ensure that the reregistration process does not inadvertently add continual and extra pressure on institutions that go through very rigorous processes to meet their accreditation at both the state and federal levels.
The other provisions of this bill are quite important. They go a long way towards alleviating many of the serious problems which have arisen in recent times. Fraudulent practices can cause irreparable damage to this vital industry for Australia. It is important that we act to send a signal to those people who would engage in fraudulent practices that they will not be accepted and that they will not be able to continue that activity.
As an opposition, we have great concerns that this legislation goes the entire way in relation to these matters. The coalition has proposed amendments, and I record my support for those amendments because there needs to be a tightening up to prevent students being duped by incompetent or dishonest providers. Some of these are high-quality amendments and I recommend them to the government. We have introduced, for example, an amendment aimed at ensuring that regulatory bodies follow a risk management approach when determining the reregistration of providers. This is what I have been speaking about. This risk management system would mean that you look at the experience with the already registered entities—that is, those which have been in operation for a substantial period and have a record of success, being long-term viable businesses that employ thousands of people and potentially educate thousands of students. There ought not be a particular burden or question asked of those successful enterprises, which are not in question.
We really believe risk management in the approach to the implementation of this legislation is absolutely vital. As I have spoken about, there are already significant hurdles in place for many colleges and education facilities. Therefore, that amendment is a high-quality amendment. I do not think any government, of any persuasion, should stand and say, ‘We are the arbiters of all things that are good in legislative terms or legislative instruments.’ Indeed, when oppositions or other parties propose sensible and common-sense amendments, governments ought to consider those amendments with a view to improving legislation. I think that a risk management approach in reregistration is simply common sense and good policy that ought to be adopted by any government.
Looking at some of the other amendments that we are proposing, it is also critical that education agents are providing reliable and up-to-date information to prospective students. We have proposed that improved services be provided by education agents and a requirement that education agents will undertake qualified training. Once again, this is a sensible amendment. As a result, more accurate information will be given to prospective students, ensuring that their education experience in Australia is in line with their expectations. Again, this is a sensible amendment which is proactive and positive and will improve this proposed legislation. Indeed, the provision in the bill requiring the publication of the names of education agents is a good provision and should be supported. Equally, I accept that our proposed amendment that they undergo qualified training is also a good proposal which ought to be seriously considered and will improve the integrity of this legislation.
The third area of concern which we have as an opposition is the default fund for reimbursing overseas students if their provider ceases operation. This fund reimburses the student when the fund manager is unable to secure a suitable alternative training place for the student. Looking at how many recent provider closures there have been, this fund is obviously at a level where it must be fairly close to some sort of collapse. Recently, there has been a spate of very significant collapses, of private closures. They have been well publicised and there is an issue in relation to this fund. We have sought some more amendments that seek to improve the accountability and transparency of this fund—something I widely support. Under our amendment, the fund manager would be required to provide the minister with a written report in each instance of provider default where a claim is made on the fund. The minister would then have 30 days to table this in parliament. In terms of accountability and transparency, that is a good amendment. Thinking about how we could practically deal with the problems that come from provider collapses, then of course an assurance fund is one practical way of ensuring that we deal with the on-the-ground problems created when a provider collapses.
Without labouring the point too many times today, I really want to record my full support for this important sector of the Australian economy. This is our third biggest export area. It provides $15.8 billion to the Australian economy. The experience is overwhelmingly positive with the major number of private education providers in Australia for overseas students being ethical and conducting themselves to a high standard, promoting a good quality product that is in demand by our neighbours. Many of our neighbours choose to educate their children here because of the quality of the products that Australian institutions are offering.
The private education sector for overseas students is a great Australian success story. I feel that this legislation will allow for those institutions which are behaving fraudulently or unethically to be further limited. That is a good objective. However, in doing so, I would caution the government in reiterating that it ought to think carefully about how that is achieved. The legislation ought not place extra burdens upon those very ethical and properly conducted operators who have been in business for many years and provide good products. It ought to take a risk management approach and consider the opposition’s amendments in the spirit in which they are intended.
The Rudd Government is proposing mandatory internet filtering which could have serious implications for the speed and cost of online services in Australia.
Interestingly, all Parliament House staff including Members and Senators can currently opt-in to have their own work computers filtered.
Given the Rudd Government is considering imposing mandatory filters for all Australian internet users, I have sought from the Speaker of the House of Representatives details about how many Parliament House computer users, especially Government Members and staff, have chosen to opt-in for this House of Representatives voluntarily filtering scheme.
It will be interesting to see how many Members Senators & staff of the Rudd Government has chosen to voluntarily filter their own internet, when they are proposing a mandatory filter for all Australians. I suspect very few indeed...
See below my Questions to the Speaker on Hansard.
Mr Hawke (Mitchell) to ask the Speaker:
How many (a) Members, (b) Senators, (c) ministerial staff, and (d) Members’ and Senators’ staff, are eligible to opt for voluntary internet content filtering.
How many departmental staff, and other employees who work in Parliament House, are eligible to voluntarily have their internet content filtered.
How many (a) Ministers, (b) Members, (c) Senators, (d) ministerial staff, and (e) Members’ and Senators’ staff, have opted to have internet content filtering.
How many of those in parts (3) (b) to (e) are with the Government.
Has the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy opted to have voluntary internet filtering.
How many staff members of the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy have opted to have voluntary internet filtering.
- How does the default filtering system for Parliamentary and departmental networks differ from voluntary internet content filtering.
Mr HAWKE (Mitchell) (4.00 pm)—Mr Speaker, I seek leave to make a personal explanation.
The SPEAKER—Does the member claim to have been misrepresented?
Mr HAWKE—I do, Mr Speaker.
The SPEAKER—Please proceed.
Mr HAWKE—During question time, the Minister for Social Inclusion, not being very socially inclusive, sought to suggest that I made false claims about the Baulkham Hills North Public School in relation to Building the Education Revolution funding. I did no such thing and, indeed, I quote the words of the Baulkham Hills North Public School P&C president who said that, in accepting the funding for a much needed hall, ‘strongly rejected being bullied into accepting a design that will never meet the needs of the school and is a waste of taxpayers money’.
The SPEAKER—Order! The member will resume his seat.
Mr HAWKE—I seek leave to table the email from the Baulkham Hills North Public School P&C president.
Leave not granted.