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E&OE TRANSCRIPT, DOORSTOP, PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA. MONDAY, 9 NOVEMBER 2015
SUBJECT/S: VET FEE-Help Legislation, Trade Union Royal Commission, GST
Good morning. There’s important legislation before the House today on the issue of VET FEE-HELP and the debt that is arising for far too many vulnerable students who are ending up with too much debt, quite often with a qualification that’s not recognised by employers because of quality issues or even worse students that end up with large debts and no qualifications because they have been enrolled most inappropriately in courses that were never going to meet their needs.
To date the government has taken some actions, Labor has supported those actions, but we feel that they are far too slow of the mark in addressing this matter so today I am going to be moving amendments to the Bill before the House.
They will have three affects. Firstly we are calling for the establishment for an industry Ombudsman. This is being proposed and supported by various stakeholders it’s time to give students a direct access to a complaint resolution process, somebody on their side to get the issues resolved for them. Secondly we will be calling on the government to support the call that Labor has had in place for over six months now, to have the Australian National Audit Office look closely at the operation of the VET FEE-Help scheme and thirdly in the in-detail part of the debate I will be moving an amendment which I think is critically important.
The way these loans operate is that the RTO, the training provider, signs the student up to their course and signs them up to the loan but the loan is provided by government. We now will be proposing that the government must directly contact and communicate with the student making it clear to them that they have undertaken a loan, what the conditions of that loan are and the amounts that are to be involved and that the student must then reply to the government saying they understand the loan and they agree to undertaking it. I have heard stories, and my colleagues are repeating this, of people who have no idea they have signed up to a loan that could be $20-$25,000 until they get their tax done and if they are somebody that doesn’t do a tax return then that could be in a couple of years before they even discover they have a loan. My view and Labor’s view is that given this a government loan, that’s not acceptable and we need to put in place measures to make sure that those people are making informed decisions and understand the debt that they are undertaking.
It’s our belief that this will take an important step towards stopping the shonky shark-like behaviour that is going on in the sector, protect students but also protect the economy. We need to know that job qualifications and training certificates have meaning and quality and protect the tax payer because at the end of the day if these debts are no re-payed it’s a bill that the tax payer has to pick up.
I will be moving those today and I hope the government sees the sense, we think they are very reasonable propositions and are able to come on board with supporting our amendments.
JOURNALIST: Have you talked to the government at all about what their response might be?
BIRD: I have had a number of conversations, we have had three Ministers in two years so it’s a matter of keeping up with each Minister as we are dealing with them but the Bill before the House today is something we will support but our view will be put very strongly to the government, and I know that there is media speculation that the government is looking at actions themselves, so what we will be saying to them is that these are very reasonable propositions that we are putting forward and we think that they will have real impact. Out hope will be that they support the amendments.
JOURNALIST: Just to go to the process of it is there a risk that this could delay loans being given or people starting courses, it seems like a bit of red tape?
BIRD: I think at this point in time the really important issues for the sector, and I hear this not just from students but also from private providers that are quality ethical providers, who are very concerned about what is going on. We have to protect the reputation of the sector and the qualifications that they are issuing. I think that this sort of situation where you are dealing with what is a crisis for the sector, that it is important to have confidence in the way that the finances are operating and in particular when it’s a loan.
I don’t see any reason why an RTO doing the right thing can’t enrol students and indeed have them commence their studies while they are waiting if there is any sort of delay. It’s not my view that there should be a delay, it’s a matter for the RTO they need to quickly provide the information to the Department about what the loan application is, the Department gets a statement out to the student and the student replies. Now if RTOs are doing the right thing I would suggest they would be probably saying to students, you will get communication from the government, its asking if you want to take this loan on and it will give you the details, get it back as quickly as you can.
I really do believe that ethical RTOs will manage that system, those who are out there just to rip people off to get access to these loans without full disclosure and proper process, they may struggle but I think that is the intention of cracking down on that sort of behaviour.
JOURNALIST: Can I just ask you about the Royal Commission, what do you make of the Royal Commission basically exonerating Bill Shorten at 8pm on a Friday night?
BIRD: I think there are some real questions about the process that occurred on that occasion as there have been on other occasions. The reality is that it is quite clearly a political operation, I don’t think they did themselves any favours by doing what they did in the way they did. I also have to say by not providing the advice to Bill Shorten beforehand, as he was the subject of those comments, it’s clear and has been clear I would argue for quite a while that it is a political Royal Commission and it doesn’t surprise me. I know Bill is a great advocate for workers and always has been and has taken great pride in the work he has done on behalf of the workers. There are questions to answer about the process.
JOURNALIST: Just on the GST, are you comfortable going to the next election fighting against an increase or a broadening of the base of the GST considering history would show that it probably didn’t work for Labor last time and the Liberal government went on to win two more elections?
BIRD: I’m very comfortable on fighting for people’s capacity to meet their cost of living and the GST will be a serious hit for that particularly for those who can least afford it. I think in this government, whether it’s an Abbott/Turnbull government, whichever iteration what they have been doing is fundamentally trying to solve their problems by attacking the incomes of those who can least afford it.
We see it in the debate about penalty rates and now we see it in the debate about the GST. There are options for governments to get finances back into a better balance, Labor has put forward some but I don’t think the solution to their problems is to constantly take a position that most heavily impacts on those on fixed incomes, on pensions, people who spend all of their income because they have to just to live. To add significantly to their cost of living is hardly fair nor is it a reasonable position to take and I’m more than happy to be having the argument about that in my community.