The education minister’s bullishness in defeat of his university reforms epitomises the government’s struggles in the senate. By Sophie Morris.

Senate defeat for Pyne’s education reforms

Watching Christopher Pyne try, and fail, to push a massive overhaul of higher education through a messy senate, it is easy to imagine an end-of-year report card that his younger self might have brought home from school.

A report would likely praise young Christopher for his diligence and determination. His refusal to acknowledge defeat would be noted, even when confronted by challenges others would find daunting. His attempts to befriend new students would be canvassed, with a line to criticise his enthusiastic passing of notes and inability to read social cues from other students.

There might be an encouraging acknowledgment that young Christopher was by no means the worst student in the class. There was, for instance, a lad named David, fond of guns and ships, who needed a lot of extra supervision. And star pupil Julie was rumoured to have “gone bananas” at the prefect behind the sheds at little lunch. But the conclusion would be resounding: “Despite all his hard work, Christopher failed his major test and we recommend he repeat the year.”

As the government this week limped to the end of the parliamentary year, weighed down by unpopular budget measures and beset by internal tensions, Pyne’s bull-at-a-gate efforts on university reform gave the lie to Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s boast that 2014 had been a “year of achievement”.

Granted, the government has delivered on pre-election promises to axe the carbon and mining taxes and seems to have largely stopped, or turned around, the boats. It has also, as Abbott reminded the Coalition party room on Tuesday, landed three big free trade deals and made difficult decisions on industry assistance. It has toughened terror laws and responded decisively to tragedies in the skies.

Abbott’s budget repair promise is looking shaky, though, and major structural measures that were unveiled in the budget in May, such as the university overhaul, the $7 GP fee and the increase in the cost of medicines are in limbo or missing in action. So, too, is his signature paid parental leave policy.

This will all be thrown into even starker relief within a fortnight, when the government confirms the blowout in the deficit in its midyear economic and fiscal outlook, as savings measures are stuck in the senate and as crossbenchers extract expensive concessions on other legislation.

Amid slowing economic growth and plunging iron ore prices, Treasurer Joe Hockey issued a warning that living standards could fall without structural reforms, blaming Labor for blocking government measures.

The higher education debacle has not helped on that front.

The plans to, among other things, deregulate fees and cut course subsidies by 20 per cent were supposed to save the government $3.9 billion over four years. Last-minute concessions on Tuesday afternoon, which failed to win over enough crossbenchers, have reduced those savings to just $451 million.

As meagre as those savings are, given the extent of the overhaul, the fact Pyne has immediately introduced tweaked legislation back into parliament within hours of his first bill being rejected means the government might at least be able to count them towards the bottom line in its budget update. But the passage of the bill remains uncertain.

Four of the eight crossbenchers voted with the government on Tuesday, but that’s still two votes shy of what was needed, given the staunch opposition from Labor and the Greens. And two of those crossbenchers who backed the government – John Madigan and Ricky Muir – insisted they were only supporting the Coalition on the procedural issue of allowing further debate and were not necessarily locked in to support its legislation.

On Wednesday morning, Pyne dusted himself off from his senate defeat the night before and kicked off “round two” of the battle, showing what his supporters might call pluck and his critics might label delusion. He has incorporated the concessions into the revised bill he introduced to parliament, to be debated more fully after the summer break.

The concessions include scrapping a planned increase in the interest rate applied to student loans, pausing interest rates on loans to low-income parents who are primary carers of children under five, and establishing a $100 million fund to help universities transition to the new regime.

That’s nice, said the universities, but not enough. Universities Australia, which Pyne frequently cites as supporters of the reform, would rather a $500 million transition fund and a kinder funding cut than the proposed 20 per cent, thank you very much.

Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of university chiefs are braying for reform that will free them from reliance on the government and allow them to source more funds from students.

The lone dissenter among the vice-chancellors, the University of Canberra’s Stephen Parker, upped his rhetoric, accusing the peak body of engaging in a “strange form of suicide ritual” for providing any support for Pyne’s proposals.

“This isn’t a savings measure: it is ideology in search of a problem,” says Parker.

Yet Pyne remains confident of eventual success. So confident he now seems to concede in a roundabout way that some degrees, such as medicine, may cost $100,000 under the new regime. “Doctors are amongst the highest paid people in our community, so they’ll be able to pay their degrees back faster than anybody in society,” he says on that matter.

The reforms are “inevitable”, he says. “They are necessary, and they will happen.”

Pyne will be working over summer to win over more crossbench senators. The disarray in the Palmer United Party gives him hope. PUP’s senate leader, Glenn Lazarus, has indicated his resistance to the measures is as solid as his physique. After mocking Pyne for “harassing” him by inundating his phone with text messages begging for his support, Lazarus vowed he would never back fee deregulation.

Describing Pyne’s package as “revolting” and “bad to the core”, Lazarus said he was worried about the debt burden on young people.

Likewise, former PUP senator Jacqui Lambie, who quit the party last week, deployed the rhetoric of class warfare. “This legislation is deliberately designed to keep working-class people in their place by Liberals who think they are born to rule and lord over normal Australians,” she declared, urging Muir to join her in opposing the measures.

But the dark horse of the PUP, West Australian Dio Wang, is beginning to make his voice heard. His is the voice of an economic rationalist, who does not oppose fee deregulation in principle and could certainly be won over by Pyne with further concessions, particularly for regional campuses.

Expect to hear more on that front in February. A week before parliament is due to return and once more debate higher education, Wang is planning to attend a forum on higher education in regional Australia organised by lower house independent MP Cathy McGowan.

McGowan is the forgotten crossbencher, sitting as she does in a chamber controlled by the Coalition. Something of an earnest swot, she has been quietly meeting all eight crossbench senators in recent weeks to talk about universities.

Post-budget consultations in her regional Victorian seat of Indi identified the higher education measures as being of most concern to her constituents. She hopes a number of the crossbench senators might attend the forum in Wodonga, organised with La Trobe and Charles Sturt universities.

“We need to talk so we can work out what principles should underpin the policy, rather than this cargo cult mentality of the government saying,‘We’ll give you this or we’ll give you that,’ ” says McGowan.

Independent senator Nick Xenophon, too, is urging more time and conversation about the sector’s future, rather than a rush to back the “radical experiment” being pursued by the government. In a characteristically thoughtful speech on the legislation,
he said: “While I am not opposed to some reforms in the sector, changes of this magnitude should have been an election issue.”

McGowan could easily be dismissed as irrelevant, except that the Victorian state election result last weekend suggests she may represent an electoral trend that might become impossible to ignore. Not only has an independent, Suzanna Sheed, snatched a heartland seat from the Nationals in Shepparton, but micro-parties have also won control of the state’s upper house. Various factors are at play here, but a common thread to these outcomes is voters’ growing disillusionment with the major parties and willingness to try something different.

The ousting of a first-term Coalition government in Victoria has certainly served as a wake-up call to the federal government, as well as a signpost of possible troubles ahead for its hopes of an overhaul of taxation and federalism.

Compounding the government’s issues in the senate, stories emerged of tensions in the government, with chaos reported in the office of Defence Minister David Johnston and rising frustration at the centralisation of power in the prime minister’s office.

Given Abbott acknowledged parliament’s penultimate week was “a bit ragged” for the government, this week was looking positively threadbare as the scheduled sitting hours ran out.

In one apparent win, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison managed to shore up senate support for wide-ranging legislation to reintroduce temporary protection visas and “fast-track” processing of 30,000 asylum seekers, after agreeing to a range of concessions and insisting 460 children would spend Christmas in detention if the senate did not pass the bill.

As the parliamentary year inched towards its close, Labor leader Bill Shorten reached peak zinger with the publication of a “little book of lies”, chronicling the “disappointment, dysfunction and deceit” of the government.

It may be some small consolation to the government that Shorten will come under rising pressure next year to move beyond dad jokes and three-word slogans and begin to develop credible alternatives, particularly on climate policy and dealing with rising spending on health and education.

If Pyne’s approach is anything to go by, the government’s strategy is to stick to its guns and crash or crash through, in the hope that next year it gets to do more of the latter than the former.

The government’s main response to its inability to push its measures through the senate has thus far been to blame Labor. That looks remarkably like the strategy of an opposition. And there’s no room for two of those.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 6, 2014 as "Senate defeats lone Pyne".

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Sophie Morris is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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