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He calls himself a ‘fixer’ but Christopher Pyne’s achievements heading the Coalition’s education portfolio have done nothing to support this school of thought. By Mike Seccombe.

Christopher ’The Fixer’ Pyne’s bid to deregulate uni fees

Minister for Education Christopher Pyne during question time this week.
Credit: AAP IMAGE

Christopher Pyne is the most cheerfully shameless politician in Australia. No one else even comes close to Pyne for chutzpah.

There was the minister for education on the ABC’s Insiders program last Sunday morning, repeating to host Barrie Cassidy his threat to hold $150 million in scientific research funds and 1700 of the nation’s top scientists hostage to his plans to deregulate university fees. 

“Well, Barrie,” said Pyne, wearing his most serious face. “There are consequences for not voting for this reform, and that’s very important for the crossbenchers to understand. The consequences are that potentially 1700 researchers will lose their jobs …”

For good measure, he repeated the threat. If the minor players in the senate did not agree to his plan to cut government university funding by 20 per cent, and allow institutions to make up the money by stinging students with higher fees, science funding was for the chop.

“If the crossbenchers vote against the savings, they can’t expect the government to come up with the spending,” he told Cassidy.

A day later Pyne was on TV spruiking the cause of “reform” to higher education, this time with Sky News’ David Speers. But his message was quite different, as was his facial expression. The serious face was gone.

The exchange went thus.

Speers: You made it very clear yesterday …

Pyne: I’ve dealt with it.

Speers: … that you had to get the reform bill through …

Pyne: I’ve fixed it.

Speers: ... otherwise 1700 positions would go.

Pyne: I’m a fixer.

Speers: How did you fix it?

Pyne: I fixed it by funding it in another way, which you’ll find out in the budget.

Speers: Why can’t you tell us?

Pyne, with a coquettish smile: I want it to be a surprise for you.

Pyne appeared not the slightest bit embarrassed. Now he categorised his previous threat to research funding as “a distraction”. He moved right along to the next tactic to try to get his unpopular measures through the senate. 

“The government will split the bill, and set aside for later consideration the 20 per cent reduction in the Commonwealth Grants Scheme,” he told a lunchtime press conference.

Alas for him, the crossbench senators made it immediately clear that would make no difference either.

The next day, another morning TV appearance by Pyne. This time on the Nine Network’s Today, where interviewer Karl Stefanovic put it to him bluntly that his university deregulation plan was “a dead duck”.

Said Pyne in response: “I never give up, no, I will not give up. You couldn’t kill me with an axe, Karl, I’m going to keep coming back.”

And that is true; Pyne is indefatigable. If one ploy doesn’t work he moves on to the next, apparently unembarrassed and ineffably cheery.

He outlined some of the measures he has tried to make his radical deregulation policy acceptable to the senate.

“Whether it was the research funding, whether it was the 20 per cent cut to the Commonwealth Grant Scheme [i.e., government funding], reduced the 10-year government bond rate to CPI, created a $100 million structural adjustment fund … If they now vote against the reform, well, I don’t think anybody could say I haven’t overturned every stone to try and make this change.”

That’s true. As one of the smartest and most influential of crossbench senators, Nick Xenophon, observed this week: “Minister Pyne is incredibly flexible. More flexible than a yoga instructor, I think sometimes.”

Tactically flexible, that is. What is missing from his approach, say almost all his critics, is strategic policy vision.

Let’s take, for example, one of the measures he touched on, in the interview with Stefanovic, when he said he had “reduced the 10-year bond rate to CPI”.

This was a reference to one of the major elements of the higher education policy, the loan scheme by which students can borrow to fund their studies.

It used to be called HECS, an acronym that stood for Higher Education Contribution Scheme. Pyne rebadged it, in a bit of nominative sleight-of-hand as the Higher Education Loan Program, or HELP for short.

But it was not a help, except to a government intent on shifting more cost onto students.

Education economist Bruce Chapman, one of the architects of the original HECS, says it was the most problematic part of the “most radical” changes ever made to higher education.

Not only would university fee deregulation lead to much higher course costs for students – Chapman notes that when it was implemented in Britain average costs trebled – students would be charged much higher interest on their much higher debts.

Instead of being indexed to inflation, rates would be tied to the government’s long-term bond rate, the rate at which the government can borrow money. In the past decade, that rate has been about 1.5 points above inflation.

Just about everyone except Pyne considered this inequitable. It would load up debt on those students least able to afford the costs of their education.

Chapman notes that when the senate held an inquiry into the Pyne plans last year, 163 of 165 submissions opposed the idea. The ever-flexible Pyne has now scrapped it. The cost to the government, according to the non-partisan Parliamentary Budget Office, is $11.67 billion over 10 years.

So Pyne is justified in saying, as he did this week: “I couldn’t have bent over further for the crossbenchers.”

It has made no difference. On Tuesday, crossbench senators Nick Xenophon, Jacqui Lambie, Glenn Lazarus, Ricky Muir and Dio Wang joined Labor and the Greens to defeat his higher education bill, 34 votes to 30.

Pyne is now scrabbling to find new ideas that might make his plans more palatable. One, from Chapman, would see the government reduce funding to tertiary institutions that increased their fees by unacceptable amounts. Less plausibly, Pyne is toying with the notion of penalising institutions whose alumni do not pay their HELP debts.

There is no doubt higher education funding needs to be addressed. But there are time-tested ways of going about reform. Inquiries, consultation with “stakeholders”, white papers, green papers.

As one expert in the area noted, this is a complex area that needs to be considered as a stand-alone issue. “Instead, radical change was dropped in the context of a budget.”

The suspicion, fuelled by the evidence that Pyne is clearly only considering the negative consequences of change after the event, must be that he and the government had more of an eye to cost savings than to serious reform.

There is, note the experts, a pattern here. Pyne’s last-minute shift on higher education policy is a repeat of what happened previously on schools funding.

Shortly before the first question time of the last sitting period of federal parliament for 2013, he and his leader, Tony Abbott, called a press conference to announce they were reversing themselves yet again on the subject of schools funding.

It was the fourth policy position in four months.

First, they opposed the Labor government’s Better Schools Plan, which grew out of the Gonski inquiry into school funding. Pyne called it a “Con-ski”. Then, with an election looming, they reversed course, and promised, in Abbott’s phrase, a “unity ticket” with Labor on Gonski.

More than that, they promised no cuts to education.

Less than two months after the election though, Pyne announced he was abrogating the Gonski deal.

Then, in the face of a revolt by the state governments, he reversed again, and committed, half-heartedly, to Gonski. But instead of a six-year implementation period, Pyne has only guaranteed to stick to it for four years. The problem of inequity in funding and inequality of outcomes between poor and rich schools has simply been kicked down the road, past the next election. The school sector is left in a state of uncertainty.

Another example: the move to a national school curriculum. A review had been done by an independent body with the aim of bringing all states into line. The states, tired of ideological battles over curriculum, had signed up. Then Pyne announced a review of the review, and ideology reared its head again. It was a sop to the Liberals’ social conservative base.

There are other examples, but the point is made. Pyne is a politics guy, not a policy guy.

He fought his first election at age 12, at Adelaide’s Saint Ignatius’ College, in a mock election where he served as campaign manager for the Liberal candidate.

When he was 17, he joined three organisations in a single day: the Liberal Party, the University of Adelaide’s Liberal Club and the Young Liberals. He later became president of the latter.

He worked as research assistant to Senator Amanda Vanstone before entering parliament at just 25. He is steeped in Liberal Party philosophy. Politics has been his life.

As a consequence he has developed the traits of a campaigner, not an administrator: a toothy grin, a facility for remembering names, an exaggerated persona. He is an able debater, a witty interlocutor, and a very cunning leader of the house. He puts on a great show.

But to date at least, his ministerial achievements can be summed up in one word, and it is not “fixer”. The word is “uncertainty”: about the future of university reform, about school funding, about almost everything he has touched, save the school chaplaincy program.

Said Nick Xenophon this week: “One of the problems this country faces is a government that keeps breaking promises and has a haphazard way of policy formulation.” He cited Pyne’s failed higher education reforms as a textbook case.

It was water off a duck’s back, though. Pyne continues to smile and jape his way through the policy wreckage, all the while popping out new thought bubbles and assuring us he will fix it. Eventually.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 21, 2015 as "Minister Fix It". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper's national correspondent.