“I will not allow Australia to become the dumb country,” Glenn Lazarus – a 188cm, 115kgs former rugby league prop turned Palmer United Party Senator – told the Parliament last night.
In a dramatic evening of intense lobbying, last minute number crunching, and frenzied text-messaging, Lazarus and his colleagues held to their word and mowed down the first charge of Christopher Pyne’s deregulation crusade.
Referencing the recent and pending graduations of his own children, Lazarus told the Parliament he was concerned Pyne’s bill would inhibit young Australians, especially those from the bush, from accessing higher education.
“If your plan is for one year, plant rice. If your plan is for 10 years, plant trees. If your plan is for 100 years, educate children,” he said, apparently channelling Confucius.
This is how the first skirmish of the Abbott government’s higher education wars ended – with an uncomfortably suited-up footy legend, who is bankrolled by a mining billionaire, stonewalling the country’s sandstone universities to prevent them uncapping fees, and forcing students pay for a generation of government under-investment in their sector.
Through all the chaos, you couldn’t help but see a little poetry.
But as Parliament reconvened today for the year’s final, raucous spectacle, Pyne has already pitched the next battle, and reintroduced his legislation to the House.
Gone is the government’s attempt to tie the rate of student debt repayments to the bond rate, a move predicted to greatly increase long-term student debt, especially devastating for those who spend time out of the workforce (re: mostly women).
In submissions to the Senate’s review of the legislation the measure inspired virtually no support at all, and pro-deregulation vice-chancellors including Michael Spence and Ian Young publicly condemned it.
Its demise was welcome, but close to inevitable.
In a further bid to lure crossbenchers, Pyne has also moved to ease fears of the dreaded ‘$100,000 degree’ by offering to give the ACCC power to keep an eye on fee prices.
It didn’t help him last night and it hasn’t assuaged the true sceptics.
“Christopher Pyne’s amendments don’t provide the protection they seem to offer – giving the ACCC ‘price monitoring powers’ will result in a higher education equivalent of the much derided ‘FuelWatch’ scheme,” Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon said in a statement yesterday.
At a press conference this morning the Minister conceded the new package was virtually identical to the one the Senate rejected by 33 votes to 31 on Wednesday evening.
Though Pyne now appears to be flogging a dead horse, students celebrating would be well advised against partying prematurely.
“As far as I’m concerned, round one is over, round two begins tonight,” the Minister said on 7:30.
And he’s right. With some of the excesses trimmed, and time for more trimming to be done, the focus now turns to gauging which Senators support the legislation’s fundamental aim: to uncap the cost of degrees.
That measure, at the very heart of the package, will be a game changer for higher education in this country, and there is every reason to think it will make the sector less accessible and less equitable. Unlike rates of repayment or other side-measures, it will be heinously difficult for future governments to role back.
Unions and other opponents of the legislation have had their campaign made easier by Pyne and the cruel extras he included in his original legislation. But now, if he decides to wind more of those aspects back or water them down, opponents will be forced to have a more complex conversation with the electorate about why allowing universities to set their own degree prices is a bad idea.
In his interview with Leigh Sales, Pyne pointed to one factor that makes this a harder fight to win.
“Universities Australia has been absolutely superb in their support of the government’s agenda,” he said.
Like the PM, Pyne has consistently exaggerated the support offered by the university sector for his legislation, which includes an enormous funding cut to public universities.
But it’s fair to say that, with some notable exceptions, senior figures in the industry, especially G08 vice-chancellors, have turned up to defend the legislation when another champions couldn’t be found. While noting reservations about other parts of the package, they’ve consistently and heartily endorsed uncapping prices.
This is what makes last night’s Senate victory so spectacular, and so fragile.
Let’s not forget that for all its tumult, the current Senate offers a road of least resistance to conservative legislation, and a measure that cuts spending and opens the public sector to market forces – as Pyne’s does – is exactly the kind you would expect to find a way through.
With Palmer’s block unpredictable, Muir, Madigan and Xenophon in play, and Day and Leyonhjelm ideologically aligned with Pyne, it always has been, and remains, the Minister’s vote to lose.
Add to this the public lobbying of vice-chancellors, and the vociferous support of the Coalition, and it becomes clear just how impressive the work of the bill’s opponents has been (even considering the nasties Pyne included on top of deregulation itself).
Labor and Greens opposition ensured the Coalition would at least have to fight to get the legislation over the line but in his address last night Lazarus hinted at another reason the numbers fell against Pyne.
“In talking with universities and student union groups, I cannot find any reason to support this bill,” he said.
Given the prominent backing of prominent vice-chancellors, Lazarus is clearly not referring to those in the highest offices of the ivory tower when the says he has been “talking with universities”.
Despite a prime opportunity for some good old-fashioned Tasmanian pork-barrelling, Jacqui Lambie made similar remarks.
“To support the education bill and ruin it for other universities around Australia, the kids around the rest of Australia for the Tasmanian University – they wouldn’t ask me to do that,” she said.
As these comments reveal, the support of vice-chancellors has not been enough to fool crossbenchers into believing deregulation is necessarily the best way forward for the sector, or that it is heartily supported by “the universities” – only true if you assume that staff and students opinion doesn’t count in that determination.
The petitions, phone calls, protests, emails to crossbenchers, TV stunts and new alliances formed by those in the university system who still believe in public education have clearly played a role, perhaps a crucial one, in fighting back Pyne’s first attack.
Vital too, it must be said, has been the unease and confusion about the details of the plans in the broader electorate.
With Pyne’s new legislation tabled and set to be debated in February next year, we’ll soon see how genuine Lambie and the other crossbenchers have been in their criticisms.
Particularly key will be Lazarus and Wang. Given Palmer’s propensity to rolling over on legislation for last minute trade-offs, their opposition in three months time is far from assured. That said, the consistently stern statements issued by Lazarus do mean that any backflip would be pretty spectacular, and not only because he weighs 115kgs.
For Pyne, the dilemma is how many of the side-measures he is prepared to cut to get deregulation through.
For the unions and students fighting alongside Labor and the Greens, the job to convince crossbenchers and the public that deregulation is in itself a problem – the real fight – starts now.
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