Constituency Statement: Health

Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (10:29):  I want to take the opportunity today to speak on behalf of constituents about their very serious concerns about the Abbott government's GP tax. This, in particular, has been raised in our local paper, the Illawarra Mercury today, and I want to reference some of the comments that have been made. But I should indicate that it has been in response to the front page of the Illawarra Mercury yesterday, which I have here for those who were not able to see it. This is what it said 'Pain. Pain. Pain.' It reflects the front page of the Illawarra Mercury under a previous Liberal government budget where taxes were increased and the impact on health was a concern. So this ran yesterday in the Illawarra Mercury, and it prompted some locals to write in and raise their concerns. What is the size of the problem? Illawarra-Shoalhaven Medicare Local statistics show that we had 2,130,799 GP consultations in the region last year. There are over 50,000 pensioners across the region, so this is no small impact. In Cunningham specifically, there were 800,489 bulk billing services in 2013—that is, 86.24 per cent of the GP services delivered. At $7 per visit, that will lead to an increase in my electorate alone in costs for GP services of $6,497,575. It will not surprise members that locals are very concerned. In particular, today in the Illawarra Mercury local Milton GP Brett Thomson has outlined his concerns as a health professional. He said that he bulk bills the majority of this patients. The changes announced in Tuesday's budget for him will mean his patients will pay $7 up front or, if chooses to waive that fee, he will receive $5 less in government rebates; He said: I do think it will have some effect on some people and unfortunately it will be the people who are most vulnerable, I suspect. The people who are the poorest, people who are older and socially disadvantaged. We say to people here, 'Oh you need to drive to Wollongong from Milton for a specialist appointment' and they say 'I can't afford the petrol. I can't go this week because I don't have petrol'. We don't realise there are people living on the edge. They've said people who are under 30 and unemployed aren't going to get the dole for six months. If they're not eligible for the dole, how are they supposed to make a co-payment? These are the concerns of locals, pensioners, GPs and all sorts of health professionals. I think the government should seriously reconsider this proposition.

BILLS, Social Security Legislation Amendment (Green Army Programme) Bill 2014 Second Reading

Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (13:10): I take the opportunity to speak on the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Green Army Programme) Bill 2014 and acknowledge that its purpose is to amend the Social Security Act 1991 and the Social Security Administration Act 1999 for three specific purposes: firstly, that recipients of Green Army allowance are not also able to receive a social security benefit or pension, with the exception of family assistance and childcare payments where participants are eligible; secondly, that income-testing arrangements that will apply to the social security pension for the partners of Green Army participants; and thirdly, that participants in the Green Army program who are not Green Army team supervisors are not to be treated as workers or employees for the purposes of certain Commonwealth laws. I acknowledge that the shadow minister, the member for Port Adelaide, has moved an amendment to the bill. It does not decline to give the bill a second reading, but it seeks that the House note a number of matters. I indicate that I support the amendment put by the shadow minister. The amendment requires that the House note, firstly, that the program will be deeply flawed in its design and implementation, given the poor environmental record of the current government; secondly, that the bill provides insufficient protections for participants in the areas of occupational health and safety, workers compensation and rehabilitation; thirdly, that the government should clarify why participants do not have employee status, even though they are to be removed from the social security system and paid an equivalent training wage; fourthly, that the government must provide assurance that the Green Army Program will not displace or reduce employment opportunities for existing workers; fifthly, that there is a lack of detail of the training provisions in the program, namely specified minimum hours, provision of accredited and recognised training and opportunities for ongoing training and career pathways; and, finally, that it is important to support young people to make the transition to meaningful work and further training opportunities. I would like to take the opportunity today to outline why the amendment is worth supporting, as it raises a series of very important issues about the program that need to be debated. Whilst this bill deals only with the social security elements of the Green Army Program, it is clear that this is as much an employment program as it is claimed to be an environmental one. I will not go specifically to the issues about the total inadequacy of this initiative, as it sits forlornly in an environmental framework that has torn apart action on and protection of our natural environment by this government. The shadow minister for the environment addressed this extensively in his speech during the second reading debate. I would in particular draw the House's attention to the article referenced by the shadow minister in that speech that was published in TheIndependent in the United Kingdom and entitled 'Is Tony Abbott's Australian administration the most hostile to his nation's environment in history?' It is a harsh assessment but, I would suggest, one that is pretty accurate. In considering the merits of this particular program, I would acknowledge that the concept of combining action on environmental challenges with commitment to training and lifting the skills of the population is neither new nor a concept that this side of the House is opposed to in and of itself. In fact, we believe that environment based work and training programs can be an effective opportunity for job seekers who have an interest in, and a capacity for, this type of work—an opportunity to gain some real skills, knowledge and experience in a sector that should see growing job opportunities in the future. I refer members to the May 2011 report of the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency, AWPA, on emerging and future skills needs in the green and energy efficiency sector. In its report, the agency identified a call for jobs and skills in a range of sectors and courses. It is of course likely that many of the emerging industries and jobs that were discussed in the report have been very negatively impacted by the decisions of the Abbott government to walk away from responsible environmental action in this country. I take this opportunity to put on the record my personal appreciation of the excellent work that has been done by AWPA and to express my great regret at the decision by this government to disband this agency. AWPA was established in 2012 by the former Labor government, replacing Skills Australia, to provide expert, independent advice to government on current, emerging and future skills and workforce development needs. It brings together—it has not quite been disbanded yet but soon will be—the peak national bodies, such as ACCI, the Australian Industry Group and the ACTU, to achieve industry leadership on these matters. Disbanding the key national policy and research body on skills while we have jobs being lost across the country is nonsensical. Clearly there is a real opportunity to provide, and a sound basis for providing, work based and training opportunities in this industry sector. However, the bill before us does not lay out the detail that is required for a full analysis and discussion of its efficacy. The questions raised in the shadow minister's amendment must be addressed. I acknowledge that some of these issues have been the subject of an inquiry in the other place and that, since this bill was introduced, further information on how the Green Army will operate has been released, although this information has only slowly emerged piece by piece—and only as it has been requested. Continue reading


Only one year ago I had the opportunity to address your national council in Melbourne as the relatively recently appointed Minister for Higher Education and Skills and I am very pleased to be with you again this year, although now in the role of Shadow Minister.  The Federal Labor Leader, Bill Shorten, has asked me to take on the role of Shadow Minister for Vocational Education, and I am very pleased that he has entrusted me with such an important area of public policy and an issue that has been a passion of mine my whole working life.  I started out as a high school teacher and then spent many years teaching at TAFE and I know I share a conviction about the power of education and the critical importance of a strong public education sector, with all of you in this room. Last year I took the opportunity to make a commitment to you that I would continue to be a champion for TAFE and I am very happy to be with you again and to re-affirm that commitment to you. I would like to share just one story with you of why such a commitment remains as important as it ever was – and it is a story I know each and every one of you could match many times over every year in your work. Like many members of parliament I put out a local newsletter across my electorate to update people on issues affecting our local area and national policies of importance to them individually. Only this week my latest newsletter was distributed and I included an item letting locals know about the two inquiries currently being conducted by both Houses of Parliament about our public TAFE.  I knew that TAFE as an institution is well-loved and valued by locals throughout the Illawarra and many of them might want to make a submission or follow the hearings. On Tuesday I received an email in reply and I would like to share it with you- at the request of my constituent I have removed her name but she is very happy to have the details shared publicly: “Dear Sharon I would like to thank you for your informative newsletter.  I read about the TAFE inquiry, and posted a submission… But I want you to know that I really value the opportunity to have a say in this Inquiry, as TAFE has been an important factor in our family.  I fear the loss of such a flexible public service that provides quality training and LEARNING opportunities in even quite small towns throughout NSW.  During the last few years of my working life I had the pleasure of working with people in social housing in the southern areas of NSW.  Access to TAFE was a critical factor in enabling many of these people to improve their family circumstances, gain employment and life skills.  All these things are critical to building resilient communities.  I feel reluctant to include these issues in my submission as they are other people’s stories.  But these are very important issues for rural communities and older people whose jobs are disappearing.” The attached submission, instead, goes through this lady’s own life experiences and how important TAFE was to her when she became a single parent of four children.  TAFE helped her retrain sufficiently to gain employment to support her family and then to articulate that qualification into a university degree which she did whilst working full-time and raising her family, or, as she puts it herself, “supporting 4 ravenous teenagers.” Importantly, her example meant that her children had a great role model of the value of study.  Two of the children completed apprenticeships through TAFE and another did a vocational certificate IV.  Her eldest son went on to gain an honours degree from university. TAFE has been there throughout life for them – she reports on how one son returned to TAFE following a workplace injury and was able to develop a completely new career.  Her daughter returned to TAFE after having two children and upgraded her Cert IV to a Diploma and “is now the sole breadwinner in her small but resilient single parent household.” She concludes her submission by stating: “TAFE has opened the door to new skills, given us scope to change careers, and helped us build a resilient extended family that values education and training.  My small grandsons all understand the importance of learning, becoming skilled, and seeking employment.  TAFE has provided the base for this ethos.  Please do not dismantle this wonderful system that opens pathways, teaches practical skills and is located in even the smallest towns throughout NSW.” No words by any politician or policy maker can ever capture so powerfully the importance of our public TAFE system as the testimonials of the students whose lives are enriched and, very often transformed, by the energy, skills and professionalism of the teaching that takes place in them every day, every semester, every year.  It builds on the experience and culture of decades of delivering the knowledge, skills and aptitudes that are of worth and value to students and to the employers they go on to work with.   Continue reading

Land Transport Infrastructure Amendment Bill 2014, Consideration in Detail

Ms BIRD: (Cunningham) (16:08): I am very pleased to support the amendments proposed by the shadow minister for infrastructure and transport to the Land Transport Infrastructure Amendment Bill 2014 and I endorse the comments made by my colleague, the member for Perth, who has just spoken. I speak on this issue from two bases. Firstly, there is a strong awareness of the issues in my own electorate, given that the road connections to the port of Kembla—shared between my electorate and the electorate of the member for Throsby—are so heavily utilised by trucks servicing the port. Secondly, I am well aware that, if you live in a rural or regional community, the roads are critically important—they are a part of the lifeblood of Australia. I am sure the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport is also aware that in regional and rural communities roads are essential for community members to be able to participate in life. Families use roads to take kids to school, people drive to visit others, and drivers, whether they are small carriers or driving for large trucking companies, earn their living by travelling on roads. As I say, roads are a critically important part of the lifeblood of rural and regional Australia and keeping people safe on these roads has to be one of the most significant things that we undertake when legislating in this space. The proposed amendment, to have the Heavy Vehicle Safety and Productivity Program specifically identified under a separate funding stream in the act, is both reasonable and sensible. In March 2013, under the previous government's Heavy Vehicle Safety and Productivity Program, joint funding of just over $8 million was provided—approximately $4 million from Commonwealth and $4 million from the New South Wales state government—to upgrade the existing truck stop on Mount Ousley Road. Mount Ousley Road is the key feeder road into and out of Port Kembla and it has, as you could well imagine, a lot of trucks travelling on it. I am very pleased that my state colleagues, in government, expanded the use of the port by the addition of the movement of cars, but that has, of course, resulted in a lot more usage of the road. The announcement of the $8 million investment in the truck stop upgrade along with the announcement of a $1.4 million trial of Cooperative Intelligent Transport Systems Initiative along the Hume Highway to Port Kembla, where again $700,000 was contributed by the state government, were very important for the wellbeing and safety of road users. These are some very good initiatives in the promotion of the wellbeing and safety of road users. I support this particular amendment from a background of having worked with the shadow minister when he was Minister for Transport and Infrastructure. I also acted as deputy chair of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Transport and Infrastructure under, as the shadow minister indicated in his earlier speech, Mr Paul Neville, the then chair and member for Hinkler. It was my very first experience of committee work and I have to say that he taught me very well about the good work a committee could do. The committee presented a report titled Thegreat freight task: is Australia's transport network up to the challenge?which indicated that a significant increase in the movement of freight around our nation would require serious infrastructure investment into the future. The report noted that we also needed to put the related regulations and protections in place. The committee travelled around the country to look at ports, roads and rail networks to determine what tasks needed to be undertaken. I was very pleased eventually, on our coming to government, to become the chair of the committee. Following a reference from the shadow minister, we had an inquiry into the need for a Safe Rates Remuneration Tribunal. We received, as the shadow minister indicated, very moving evidence not only from truck drivers and from the union representing them, the TWU, but also from families that had suffered grief and loss as a result of tragic road accidents involving heavy vehicles. The committee recommended to the minister that establishing the Safe Rates Remuneration Tribunal would be the most appropriate action to take, given of course that there was cross-portfolio coverage. The view of the infrastructure and transport committee was that it was the appropriate body to put in place and, as the shadow minister said, it should now be given the opportunity to prove its value and prove what it can contribute to all of us in the community. Finally, as the Minister for Road safety, I had the opportunity to see, firsthand, how important these sorts of initiatives are. I think the amendment is very reasonable. It is a sensible amendment and it embeds something that I think we should all be proud to support.

Education Funding Matters of Public Importance

Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (15:34): I would like to give points for effort, but I am not going to. One of the most significant issues facing the restructuring of our economy is the matching of skills to the emerging demands and the transformations of the economy. We have two senior ministers who are supposed to have direct responsibility for skills and education. Neither of them can even be bothered to be here. That is the reality of the significance that this government gives to the skills development that is needed in this nation to face the challenges that so many of our communities across the country, but in particular in Western Australia, face. Previously as a member of some of the standing committees of this parliament when those opposite were last in government, the former Treasurer, Mr Costello, asked the committee to travel around the country and look at the pressures that would be on the economy post the mining boom. One of those that came out loud and clear from all of the visits that we did to Western Australian towns and into Perth itself was the lack of match between skills and emerging demands for training and where the new economy would create opportunities. It is a critically important factor. The former speaker, the minister, made the point that it is important to have industry on board. Throughout the Labor government, industry—ACCI, the AiG—consistently stood side by side with the government to give priority to skills development in this nation. We put in place the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency; we put in place the Australian skills quality assurance framework to make sure that training was not available but was also quality and that it matched the needs of industry. We put in place a program, as the shadow minister outlined, through our school system. We were building trades training centres in schools and we were linking that to the pathways through things like the— Mr Nikolic: Small numbers. Ms Collins: It is a 10-year program! Ms BIRD: It is not small numbers! I challenge members opposite. I cannot believe that the minister had actually ever visited a trades training centre. Look at them across electorates. They were being built. Schools were keen to have them. They were great success stories and local businesses were working with them. And if those opposite are seriously complaining that there were not enough of them, take it up with your own minister because you have just cut a billion dollars out of the program. Every school that was waiting to get on to that program has now— Mr Nikolic: They have been waiting six years. Ms BIRD: You claim that under us they have been waiting six years? They are never getting them under you. They are not getting them at all. So for all of the talk, all of the concern and all of the crocodile tears about youth unemployment and creating pathways for young people, you are cutting the program that provided those opportunities for schools across the entire region. The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Hon. BC Scott ): Order! The member for Cunningham might resist using the word 'you' because I will not have any authority on the subject. Ms BIRD: I understand. I would never cast that aspersion on you. The reality is, for those on the other side, there actually is a real skills challenge facing this nation. When we look at what those in government said in their policy papers leading up to the election about skills, it is deafening in its silence. You took one policy to the election: to provide some income loan support to apprentices. That was it; that was your whole skills plan. So it would not surprise you that we are extraordinarily anxious about what cuts to this sector are hiding in those 900 pages of the Commission of Audit. I know some of the junior ministers have not seen it, and I am only presuming that the ministers in the cabinet who are directly relevant for this area have seen it. I would say go and grab them and have a quick talk to them. In government we put in place programs—working in co-investment models with business—like the National Workforce Development Fund and the Workplace English Language and Literacy Program to raise the skills of existing workers, to match the needs of emerging industries and to make sure that we lifted the productivity of our population. Those programs had better not be on the table for cuts. Those skills that industries need in areas where we are seeing the transformation of industry—for example, in the mining industry in WA—and those skills in affected industries moving to a production model and relying on a new set of skills for workers along the supply chain had better not be on the cutting board under the Commission of Audit. (Time expired)  

BILLS, Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Amendment Bill 2014, Second Reading

Ms BIRD: (Cunningham) (11:28): I rise to speak to the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Amendment Bill 2014, which seeks to change the operation of TEQSA, Australia's national higher education regulator. I move: That all the words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting the following words: whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading the House notes that the: (1) Government has failed to offer an adequate response to the Review of Higher Education Regulation; (2) bill does not adequately demonstrate how the international reputation of the tertiary education sector will be protected; and (3) Government has failed to provide appropriate time for consultation and consideration of the bill. The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Broadbent ): Is there a seconder to the amendment? Ms Kate Ellis: I second the amendment and reserve my right to speak. Ms BIRD: Australia needs TEQSA. We need a genuine national regulator for our higher education sector. We need to preserve our international reputation as a higher education provider and we need to provide reassurance for all students. This is especially so since the government has indicated that it wishes to deregulate and expand private provision. We need a regulator who is independent yet accountable. The public has a right to be assured that public moneys are well spent on universities, including through appropriate probity guarantees. Genuine quality assurance by universities, particularly given that they are self-accrediting institutions, needs to be verified through a regulator. We recognise that there are different approaches in research and in teaching, just as we recognise the importance of institutional autonomy. It is important that we have a clear quality assurance framework in place that allows us to work in partnership with the higher education sector. The TEQSA Act should be part of that framework, but it is not in itself the answer. I will firstly put the establishment and operation of TEQSA in its historical context. The last time those opposite were in office, a number of new entrants sought to operate in the higher education sector in Australia. The coalition sought to expand the sector but gave too little thought to protecting quality. Unsurprisingly, unscrupulous operators sought to make money without any concern or care for providing genuine, high-quality education. What followed were a series of scandals which were quite damaging to the sector. One example is the case of Greenwich University, which operated on Norfolk Island and marketed itself as an Australian university. Another was St Clements University which, it was later discovered, was run out of the same premises as a whisky wholesaler. There were clearly real and emerging problems in the sector. Operators were misusing the names of reputable international institutions to establish degree factories and exploit immigration loopholes. Such institutions damaged the reputation of our sector as a whole. When Labor formed government, we determined that this was not only unacceptable but that strong action had to be taken. As a result, we established the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Authority to provide a robust regulatory framework. When, after a period of operation, concerns of administrative overreach were raised, we responded by appointing two very capable and respected professors, Kwong Lee Dow and Valerie Braithwaite, to conduct a review of higher education regulation. When we were provided with the review last year, we welcomed it immediately. It was a considered and comprehensive piece of work. It reflected broad consultation and a deep understanding of the sector and the forces at play in the regulation of the sector. The report recommended changes to administrative practice and legislative interpretation. Some of those recommended changes are reflected in this bill. The emphasis, however, was on a change in culture. Quality had to be understood as a mutual goal—partnership was the key. This was the defining principle of the university compacts process Labor introduced and the review recognised it as the key to success. The review emphasised—indeed it emphasised it again and again throughout the report—the importance of building relationships in the sector. It emphasised the importance of data sharing and the importance of reducing duplication and aligning work, especially between TEQSA and ASQA. These are just some of the areas where the government has fallen short with this bill. Two key questions remain: does the current bill genuinely respond to the findings of the review of higher education regulation and, just as importantly, how do we ensure the accountability of the new agency? There are red flags here from the start. This bill was rushed into parliament without any consultation with the reviewers, universities, other providers or students. As far as we can tell, the bill has been given very little consideration. It was also presented without an exposure draft and without any sensible policy responses to the review. It stands in isolation. This very concern was raised in the review. It said: It is easy to recommend apparently straightforward amendments to legislation which appear agreed by everyone. But this is worryingly simplistic, patching individual pieces of legislation can fix functional irritations, but will not necessarily change the way in which the legislation is being applied and why. It is a shame that in response to such a considered piece of work, we have what appears to be a hasty piece of work, an impression heightened by the fact that the minister apparently did not foresee it just one month ago. Why do I say that? Just one month ago, the minister appointed a new commissioner to TEQSA. I acknowledge that the minister gave directions to the chief commissioner late last year, but again these do not form a full policy response. Information passed between the commissioner and the minister does not form a public policy position that is open to scrutiny and to the input of the sector. Without time to consider, without consultation and without knowing what other actions are proposed in relation to this issue, it is very difficult to know the full ramifications of the changes proposed in this bill. For example, the review recommended that the government put in place a mechanism for TEQSA to consult with the sector and suggested an advisory committee. But where is that proposed advisory committee? The review also strongly recommended the government work to identify duplication both of activity and of legislation, particularly with respect to the Higher Education Support Act, the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Act, the Education Services for Overseas Students Act and the TEQSA Act. There is no evidence to suggest that the government has given this any consideration and the concern is that, perhaps ironically, we will see a patchwork of amendments and regulation down the track to address this omission. Continue reading

Federation Chamber Petitions Employment

Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (12:34): I also want to talk about unemployment and jobs today. Indeed, my own area of the Illawarra was identified as the second-highest in New South in a recent survey about youth unemployment. It is a very, very important issue that many of us face. I want to commence my comments by also expressing my own personal care and concern for thousands of workers who today are in a terribly difficult circumstance as a result of Qantas's announcements and the many hundreds who have been affected more recently by announcements in the automotive industry and Alcoa. Coming from the Illawarra, I and my colleague, the member for Throsby, went through this situation not all that long ago, with the restructuring of BlueScope. It is a good outcome for BlueScope in the long-term and there has been some good reporting for the current year, but it was a really tough time for hundreds of workers in our area. So I sincerely acknowledge that it is a particularly tough time for them now. I want to report to the House that the member for Throsby and I attended on 19 February a jobs expo in the Illawarra. This was a really tremendous outcome. It directly flows from the investment that the federal Labor government made in the area through the Illawarra Regional Innovation and Investment Fund, which was established following the BlueScope announcement, and the work of the local employment coordinator, Jane Robertson, on positions that were established for local employment priority areas by former Prime Minister Rudd at the time when the global financial crisis was hitting and we need to shore up employment opportunities in local areas. Jane and her team have been organising these job expos as a way to link the companies that got funding—and, indeed, any other companies in the area that had job opportunities—with job seekers in the local area. They had a tremendous turn-out. Over 300 jobs were available as well as training places available on the day, and the expo was very well attended, as they always are. I was able to catch up with four companies there who were direct recipients of the funding program under the Illawarra Regional Innovation and Investment Fund. It was a co-funding program. So the companies themselves were investing money in collaboration with the federal government and they were then obviously to create jobs out of that—that is the whole purpose of it. Four of those companies were there on the day with jobs available. Internet Solutions Australia Pty Ltd is a computer-based platforms company that is doing very well—not only Wollongong established and developed but also now trading internationally. They were targeted for six jobs for their particular program. Also there was Skydive the Beach, which is quite an alternate and very different type of program, involving jumping out of planes skydiving—something that they were trying to encourage me to undertake but I was pleased to see them prosper without my participation. They indicated to me that their target was 20 jobs and they are actually exceeding their target for recruiting people into that business. So that is another great story. Superfine in Focus is a printing company—so still jobs and opportunities in the broader manufacturing sector. They do a lot of the mass printing that we would be familiar with around catalogues and things like that. They established in the Illawarra as a result of that fund. Their target was 190 jobs and they said that they are well on the way to that target. These are not only full-time jobs; they are also particularly targeting apprentices—which goes to the issue that the previous speaker was talking about in terms of those entry level opportunities into the job market for young people. They were very keen, though, to tell me that their apprentices have ranged from 18 to 56 years old. So they are also targeting and recruiting mature-age apprentices. That is great, because that is part of the story that we want to engage with the BlueScope workers about—that there would be opportunities for mature-age workers as well. South Coast Private Pty Ltd are a mental health facility, and they were there at the expo recruiting as well. There were some good outcomes—recognising that these are tough times—and I want to acknowledge the great work of the local employment coordinator, AusIndustry and our Department of Human Services, who were all there to work on the day.

Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment Bill 2013; Second Reading

SHARON BIRD:  I rise to indicate my support for the Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment Bill 2013. The bill seeks to make amendments to empower the Tuition Protection Service to better protect students, and therefore Australia's reputation as a country offering the highest quality vocational and tertiary education. Firstly, this amendment bill seeks to ensure the Tuition Protection Service has the power to force the refund of prepaid fees where a provider fails or a course is cancelled. Secondly, this bill is designed to ensure that the Tuition Protection Service has the power to force a refund of prepaid fees where a visa for a prospective student is refused. The Tuition Protection Service is a great reform of the previous Labor government. It emerged, as many would be aware, from the crisis in our international education sector due to the lax immigration rules of the Howard government in relation to student visas. These lax rules had led to unsustainable volumes of international students, and the failure saw the entrance into the market of some providers running what could only be described as immigration scams. This led to serious questions being posed about the quality of an Australian education and the soundness of education providers. This was clearly very damaging to the entire Australian education sector. I quote one comment of the time to give a taste of what was being said. In the Monthly in November 2010, journalist Margaret Simons described the situation as such, saying: Most of our big export industries do their business out of sight of city dwellers. Mines are dug and ore extracted without stirring the dust on suburban streets. There is one such industry, though, whose major commodity is visible in our capitals. That commodity is human beings. They are the confused young people trying to serve us in low-rent fast food outlets. They are the lonely kids on city streets or sharing rooms—and even beds—in crowded houses in the suburbs. They are an underclass in the labour market, with working conditions that undermine those for all lower paid workers. Dodgy colleges had sprung up like mushrooms for the single purpose of providing students a piece of paper that was the pathway to residence. Instead of delivering the skilled workers our country and other countries needed to compete, those Howard government policies had resulted in Australia gaining migrants whose qualifications would not stand the test. It was a crisis for our immigration program and our education system. It was imperative that the Labor government act to clean this up, and we did. We cracked down on dodgy colleges, we cleaned out the migration agents and we tightened the rules. Not acting on this situation challenging the sector's potential for sustainable growth was simply not a viable option. Education courses had become linked to migration outcomes. Following the Baird review, we acted to improve regulation of the sector. This involved higher entry standards for colleges, and more information for and more care of the students. Also, this is where the Tuition Protection Service came into existence. The service's establishment was one of a suite of measures to restore integrity and quality to our international education market. Its purpose was to act as a single point of placement for students who were affected by provider default, with adversely affected students either being placed in an alternative course or paid a refund from the Overseas Student Tuition Fund. This money comes from an annual Tuition Protection Service levy. This levy is placed on all registered providers of international education including vocational training providers and private and public higher education institutions. In 2013-14, this levy collected $6 million for the Overseas Student Tuition Fund. In 2012-13, nine providers closed, according to the annual report of the TPS. These closures affected 907 students. In these circumstances, 498 students sought assistance from the Tuition Protection Service. Of these, 64 were placed in alternative courses and 218 students received refunds. From this history, we can see there is clearly a great need for the Tuition Protection Service. Its annual report reveals that the TPS fears that up to 22 providers with around 4,400 student could close in the coming financial year as a result of things such as business failures or regulatory action. There is clearly a great need for the continued operation of the Tuition Protection Service. It works quietly and effectively to help to protect Australia's billion-dollar international education sector. The effect of the amendments in the bill before us is to clarify its powers in relation to prepaid fees. Clearly these are not minor matters for those who are affected. International education is our fourth largest export industry, after iron ore, coal and gold. It sustains more than 100,000 jobs and generates some $15 billion in annul revenue. Prospects for sustained growth are good. The OECD estimates that by 2020 there could be three million more students worldwide seeking an offshore education. Asia will continue to be a source of growth in student numbers for years to come. However, we face profound challenges to retain Australia's market share in international education. Competitors are vigorous, especially those in North America and Europe, where they are making up for a shortfall in revenue following the global financial crisis through a renewed emphasis on international education and especially students from Asia. Continue reading

Australian Research Council Amendment Bill 2013

Ms BIRD: (Cunningham) (12:16): The opposition will be supporting the bill before the House. The purpose of the Australian Research Council Amendment Bill 2013 is to amend the Australian Research Council Act 2001 for two purposes. Firstly, to apply indexation to the appropriation figures that are already set out in the act and, secondly, to add a figure for the last year of the forward budget estimates for the financial year commencing 1 July 2016. It is a fairly standard procedure for updating those figures in the act. Of course, the Australian Research Council itself is a statutory authority and its purpose is to advise the government on research matters. It manages the National Competitive Grants Program and has responsibility for the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) initiative. The act sets out the maximum amount of funding that can be provided to approved research programs in each financial year. Currently, the latest year referred to in the act is the 2015-16 financial year. The bill will increase the funding cap for the financial years commencing 1 July 2013, 2014 and 2015 by the application of an indexation formula. Then it will also insert the funding cap for the financial year commencing 1 July 2016, as the additional year. The funding caps are indexed annually to maintain the value of the base funding for those approved research programs. I want to take the opportunity to make a few brief comments in addressing the bill about the context of the Australian Research Council. I would point out to the House that, under the former Labor government, the Australian Research Council was restored to its position as an independent authority, awarding peer reviewed grants. Under the Howard government, which preceded the Labor government, projects were rejected by the minister for research. Under Labor's period in government, no projects were rejected by the minister for research. The Australian Research Council was an independent authority and we respected the peer review of the grant application process. Australia's researchers are entitled to the very best research infrastructure the country can afford. The country, in exchange, is entitled to answers to the big challenges of our time. We need researchers to be working in partnership with our industries and our communities on that task. In order to support what is very important work, Labor in government put in place a number of measures to assist this work. We, firstly, boosted investment in science, research and innovation to record levels, including $3 billion over four years for CSIRO and $3.6 billion since 2008 for research funded through the Australian Research Council. We put research in universities on a sustainable footing, with more than $8.7 billion paid in university research block grants since 2008. We invested $1.5 billion in research infrastructure through the Education Investment Fund, attracting a total investment of $3.5 billion. We supported over 800 of our best and brightest midcareer researchers with Future Fellowships worth over $844 million. Also, to much great excitement and I am sure this will play out in future years with a great deal of interest across the community, we secured the Square Kilometre Array for Australia, a multibillion-dollar global investment. We also opened up research and development tax incentives to more firms, and boosted the available benefits. Importantly, and I go back to the comments that I made at the beginning, we guaranteed research freedom through compacts with universities and independent research agencies. Labor will continue to champion the nation's scientists and will make the most of their potential. We are concerned to bring research and business together in new innovation precincts, of the scale to attract the attention of investors all over the world. We are keen to see the work of our best and brightest in Australia build on the momentum of the Square Kilometre Array. Continue reading

Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Consumer Protection) Bill 2013

Ms BIRD: (Cunningham) (13:26): I am very pleased to have the opportunity to speak on the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Consumer Protection) Bill 2013 today and to indicate that I will be supporting the bill. I will briefly reflect on the comments of the previous member about the broad purpose of the bill before us, which is to put in place three amendments related to consumer protections in the telecommunications sector. The first amendments are, obviously, to improve the efficiency of the Do Not Call Register Act. Can I put on record at this point my congratulations to former Speaker Anna Burke, who originally started the process to establish a Do Not Call Register, doing a lot of work as a backbench member of the opposition at the time. The purpose of the Do Not Call Register Act was to regulate unsolicited and unwanted telemarketing calls. It is well recorded—and indeed the previous member made this point—that vulnerable people were particularly harassed by those sorts of unsolicited calls. The register provides that a person must not make, or cause to be made, a telemarketing call to an Australian number if that number is registered on the Do Not Call Register, and the call is not a designated telemarketing call. The explanatory memorandum to the bill indicates that a problem had arisen, and this amendment seeks to redress that. To use the direct words, it says: In some instances, the ACMA has encountered difficulty in establishing evidentiary links between the first person and the other party providing the telemarketing and/or fax marketing services. This has commonly arisen because agreements between the parties relate to the sale and/or marketing of the first person’s goods or services without any specific reference to the means by which the goods or services are to be sold and/or marketed. Amendments are proposed to address that problem. Amendments are also proposed to streamline the process for developing and amending industry codes under part 6 of the act. This is to be achieved by: firstly, enabling industry codes to be varied rather than requiring that they be wholly removed; secondly, extending the application of the reimbursement scheme for developing consumer related codes so that it also applies to varying such consumer related industry codes; and, thirdly, requiring code developers to conduct transparent and accountable code development processes, specifically by publishing on their websites draft codes and variations, and any submissions received about them. The amendments also go to the improvement of the operation of the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman scheme, by providing greater clarity about the ombudsman's role and expected standards of operation, by requiring the TIO scheme to comply with standards determined by the minister, and by requiring periodic public reviews of the scheme conducted by a person or body independent of the TIO and the telecommunications industry. The protection of consumer rights is very important, particularly in a very fast-developing sector such as telecommunications. I know the shadow parliamentary secretary at the table with me, the member for Chifley, has put a lot of his own time and energy into looking at this issue. It is an issue that is very pertinent to people in all our electorates, so I want to take this opportunity to talk about an area of telecommunications service on which I—and, I am sure, many members of this House—have received significant complaints over time, but particularly since the election: the provision of broadband services. With the member for Throsby, I was particularly concerned to see, not so long ago, that there had been a significant change to the information provided on the NBN Co. site about the progress of the rollout of the national broadband network. People in many suburbs in my area had been able to look on the map on the NBN Co. site and see where they sat in terms of the framework rollout—whether they were in the area for programs to be commenced within one year, in an area which would commence within three years, or in an area which would be commenced post that time: more than three years but within the overall build time. I was lobbied by lots of people who were not in the one-year or the three-year programs, saying that they wanted to be fast tracked. People were very supportive of the construction rollout and just wanted to see it happen even more quickly in their areas. In some sort of Machiavellian interpretation of the word 'transparency', everything has now disappeared. As I said before, it is as if the government believes that invisibility is the ultimate form of transparency. It is actually completely the opposite. Not providing any information is not being more accountable to the population, and I have had quite a lot of complaints. Whole suburbs across my area—Woonona, Russell Vale, Corrimal, Bellambi, Tarrawanna, Fairy Meadow, Fernhill, Towradgi, Balgownie, Kembla Grange, Wongawilli, Horsley, Marshall Mount, Penrose, Dapto, Wollongong, West Wollongong, Mangerton, Mount Keira, Keiraville, Gwynneville, Mount Saint Thomas, and Coniston—were previously on maps, so that residents could see where the construction was programmed to start, and hold me accountable as the local member for that commencement going ahead. Now they look at the map and they see nothing. They have no idea what the current proposal is. As a result of this, as members may be aware, there has been a national petition underway, online. It has been run by the NBN defence group. Many residents came to see me about this in late November. I think it was on 26 November. They brought to me a copy of the petition which, at that point, had 270,640 signatures from across the nation. A freelance graphic designer—one of my local constituents, Marina Varda—came along with a number of other constituents to present the petition to me and to ask me to raise the matter in the parliament. I am absolutely happy to do so on their behalf today. The petition was set up by a 20-year-old student Nick Paine through, and it is to Minister for Communications, Mr Malcolm Turnbull, asking him to consider the coalition's policy. I acknowledge the former member for Gilmore, who is in the gallery—in the heavens above us. It is lovely to see Joanna Gash, again. Continue reading