New Zealand HECS

23 November 2015

Dr CHALMERS (Rankin) (12:26):  It is my pleasure and my honour to speak on the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2015 and especially to follow the member for Kingston—what a forceful advocate for participation in higher education in this country and somebody who speaks a lot of sense when it comes to the issues before us today. As she mentioned, there are a number of changes in this bill: changes to grants and standards and the renaming of a university—a whole range of sensible measures. The focus of my remarks today will be on what I a consider to be an absolutely crucial change—the most important change in this bill—allowing New Zealand citizens who have been long-term residents of Australia access to the Higher Education Loan Program.

This is an issue very close to my own heart. I proudly represent a very big community of those who are New Zealand citizens or New Zealand born and Pasifika members of my community as well. It is a privilege to represent them. Nine of the 10 biggest New Zealand born electorates in the country are in South East Queensland. Deputy Speaker Vasta, yours is one of them, as you would know. So we do have a concentration of New Zealand born people in our part of Queensland. They enrich our community and they also strengthen our economy.

Of the many issues confronted by New Zealand citizens in Australia, the specific one dealt with in this bill has been raised with me over and over and over again, since I was elected a couple of years ago. Whether it be at the Woodridge markets, at the schools in my electorate, whether it be at the forums I have held at Griffith University with the member for Corio, whether it be at the board of the Logan campus of that university, whether it be in the lunch rooms at Polar Fresh in my electorate, which has a big Kiwi contingent amongst their workforce, whether it be in conversations and forums hosted by the National Union of Workers, or whether it be forums and meetings organised by Oz Kiwi, the issue of access for New Zealand born kids to the Higher Education Loan Program comes up over and over and over again. From these conversations, I know and understand the core inequity here—New Zealand kids need to pay up-front if they are to join their classmates at university, even if they have been here for a long time and even if their parents have been paying the same taxes as Australian parents. This is a real problem for so many New Zealand born students, as you can imagine, who cannot afford to pay the fees up-front and are, therefore, blocked from going to university.

This acts like a boom gate which comes down on Kiwi students on the pathway from school to university.

I know, anecdotally, from the conversations I have with school principals that, when a lot of these students get to the point, late in high school, where they understand that university is not a realistic option for them, all kinds of issues flow from that: kids giving up on university and perhaps not paying as much attention to their studies as they might otherwise if they had more of an opportunity to go on to university. At Griffith University, in my electorate, the head of Logan campus, Lesley Chenoweth, has a great saying about how the objective here is to build aspiration and to widen participation. The current arrangement, which we are changing through this bill, blocks aspiration and limits participation. That is not good enough for the students in my community and, indeed, right around the country.

This is not the first time I have spoken about this particular issue in the parliament. It has a long and chequered history which, as the member for Kingston said, does not reflect terribly well on those opposite. My predecessor in Rankin, Craig Emerson—a terrific local member and a terrific minister—made the announcement in April 2013 that we would fix this problem. Since the change of government, there have been a series of missteps and delays, which has been very unfortunate, particularly when you consider that a deadline was missed which meant that another whole year of Kiwi students who might have had access to the HELP program had to miss out while the government played their usual brand of politics with this bill.

It is an unfortunate reality that after Craig Emerson made the announcement in April 2013 we had the former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, make an agreement with the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Mr Key, that this would be progressed. Then it was attached to the university deregulation agenda, which meant that it could not be passed. We had the member for Sturt, in particular, very reluctant to pass this aspect of the bill. He held it hostage to the $100,000-degree agenda that the member for Kingston mentioned, so that deal between Mr Abbott and Mr Key was not implemented at our end, which is a bit embarrassing for our country. Then we had Senator Carr, in the other place, move a private senator's bill to try to decouple this important initiative from the $100,000 degrees, and we were rejected by the government.

Then, after that, we had the new Prime Minister, Mr Turnbull, make the same deal with Mr Key that Mr Abbott had made a year or so earlier. It is highly embarrassing that an Australian Prime Minister has to make the same deal twice, but it is good to see that now we are finally making good our commitment to New Zealand—not just as a nation but to the people of New Zealand who have lived in my electorate and right around the country for a long time and whose kids deserve the opportunity to go to university. We welcome this legislation, but we do say that it comes after a very disappointing delay, characterised by some pretty petty politics from the member for Sturt, which has seen the aspiration and participation of Kiwi kids held hostage to a political strategy from the other side of the House.

But people in my community are less interested, of course, in the politics of an outcome; they want the outcome itself. So I want to say that this legislation today is a victory for people who have campaigned for this change. It is better late than never. A lot of people in my community and in the surrounding areas are very excited about the change. I do want to acknowledge the colleagues who have helped make this possible: current colleagues like Senator Carr, the member for Kingston, the member for Hotham and others; and former colleagues like Craig Emerson, as I mentioned, and also the former state member for Woodridge, Desley Scott, who was a constant, tireless campaigner for this change as well.

Most of all, I want to congratulate the groups in our community who have campaigned for this change—now successfully. I am talking here about groups like Griffith University, the NUW and Oz Kiwi who have been tireless advocates for this piece of justice in our higher education arrangements. They know, as I do, that this is an important issue affecting the New Zealand community in Australia, but they also know, as I do, that it is not the only issue. I want to thank everyone who came to a forum I held in Logan Central earlier this month—a forum organised by the NUW and Oz Kiwi, which was very well attended, where we talked about some of the issues beyond access to higher education.

The other challenges relate to Howard-era policy changes which created two classes of Kiwis in Australia, with post-2001 arrivals disadvantaged against pre-2001 arrivals but paying the same taxes and exposed to substantially greater risk of poverty and intergenerational immobility. This side of the House recognises and understands those challenges faced by our New Zealand brothers and sisters, and that is why at our last national conference we put into the ALP platform, for the first time, a resolution that notes the inequity for New Zealand citizens living in Australia under the terms of the Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangements.

I mentioned earlier that New Zealand-born people in Australia make an important contribution to my community and to the broader economy, and I think it is important that we see them in that light. Too often, I think, we rely on outdated stereotypes or outdated notions of what New Zealanders in Australia contribute to our economy. Too often we see them as a cost. But there are facts on the table now, thanks to the Productivity Commission, which show just how substantial that contribution is from New Zealand-born people in Australia. The Productivity Commission report, Strengthening economic relations between Australia and New Zealand, found that Kiwi citizens living in Australia, compared with the general Australian population, had a higher labour force participation rate and a lower unemployment rate. Just from those two simple statistics, that outdated stereotype that some people want to push about Kiwis in Australia is not just wrong anecdotally in my experience in my local community; it is also wrong factually at the aggregate macro level around the country.

We do need to see Kiwis differently in this country—too often it is dominated by that outdated stereotype. We need to understand the challenges they face here. We need to see what we are doing today with higher education loans as the beginning of a more fair set of arrangements for New Zealanders and not the end. I support this bill. I say to those students who will take up a university offer next year and who might not have otherwise been able to: we wish you well for your studies; we know the return on Australian investment in you will be substantial and it will be long lasting.