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ABSTAINED – Matters of Urgency — Cost of Living: Students

Matt O'Sullivan

I inform the Senate that the President has received the following letter from Senator McKim:

Pursuant to standing order 75, I give notice that today the Australian Greens propose to move "That, in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of urgency:

Labor is refusing to support students who are bearing the brunt of this cost-of-living crisis, including from soaring rents, ballooning student debt, woefully low income support payments and unpaid placements, whilst splurging hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts for the wealthy and dangerous nuclear submarines."

Is the proposal supported?

More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

With the concurrence of the Senate, the clerks will set the clock in line with the informal arrangements made by the whips.

Mehreen Faruqi

I move:

That, in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of urgency:

Labor is refusing to support students who are bearing the brunt of this cost-of-living crisis, including from soaring rents, ballooning student debt, woefully low income support payments and unpaid placements, whilst splurging hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts for the wealthy and dangerous nuclear submarines.

It must be depressing and overwhelming to be a student right now. Students are struggling to afford groceries, to pay for medicine or period products, to afford train or bus tickets even, and to pay weekly bills. They are surviving on instant noodles and lining up in queues for free food. Students are struggling to pay rents to keep a roof over their heads. They're facing rent hikes from greedy landlords. International students are pitching tents in lounge rooms and sleeping in bathrooms.

Students are caught in a debt spiral. Labor allowed student debts to rise by an astronomical 7.1 per cent on 1 June, handing down even longer and larger debt sentences to millions of students. This is on top of the 3.9 per cent increase last June and a predicted further 3.9 per cent next year. Student debts will have ballooned by 15 per cent in just two years under the Labor government. The situation gets even worse for students who are required to work for free as part of the degrees they will be paying off for decades. It should be the other way around. Degrees should be free, and students should be paid for the work that they do.

Last week I joined Students Against Placement Poverty to launch their campaign against yet another unfair and unjust aspect of our education system: unpaid placements. Hundreds of thousands of students are working countless hours without pay or compensation. Work placements are especially common in feminised fields of study, and this further entrenches gender inequality. One student spoke, through tears, about completing a placement in a hospital and needing to work seven days a week just to afford to live each day, saying, 'You can't process anything when you have to work seven days a week. How do you learn and how do you get better?' Students are being pushed to the limit, going months without a day off. They finish their placements at 5 pm and go straight to paid shifts at the pub or the grocery store. Students are choosing between putting petrol in the car to get to a placement and putting food in their stomachs. Inflation is increasing because of corporate profiteering, and it's students who are suffering. Students are working multiple jobs and cutting back on necessities but still barely scraping by.

It's an absolute travesty that a Labor government is allowing this to go on. How is it that senior executives and CEOs of some of Australia's largest listed companies are pocketing 14 and 15 per cent average pay rises when so many students can barely stay afloat? It is absolutely atrocious and outrageous. Young people's futures are being stolen from them. Yet whenever someone points out to the government how bad things are for students, Labor's response is to either defend the current system, which is clearly cooked, or deflect to the universities a court process—a process that could take years to implement.

This is not good enough. Something needs to be done right now, and the government has the power to do it. An education system that pushes students further into inequality is a completely broken one, and a welfare system that doesn't lift people above the poverty line is an utterly cruel one. Labor knows students are struggling now. To say anything different shows how out of touch with reality they are. Labor could lower the age of independence for youth allowance from 22 to 18 and raise all student social security payments to above the poverty line, to at least $88 per day. Labor could take meaningful action for renters by freezing rent hikes. They could wipe student debt, pay students a living wage for placements, and make university and TAFE free.

There is absolutely no doubt that we can afford these measures. It's just a matter of priorities. Labor has made the terrible choice to give $313 billion in tax cuts to the wealthiest and $368 billion for dangerous war machines, while supporting struggling students and those doing it toughest is apparently too costly. Despite the hardship that students are facing, their courage to speak up, to organise and to mobilise to turn things around has not diminished. They are rallying in the streets. They are bravely telling their powerful stories. They are building a powerful movement for change.

So, thank you to all the students for being such staunch activists and showing grit in the face of the such difficult circumstances that they face. The fight goes on.

Sarah Henderson

There is no doubt that students across this country are hurting, and they are hurting because of the cost-of-living crisis caused by the Albanese government. As the opposition leader has told the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, the one issue that Australians are raising with us again and again is the cost of living. Inflation has lifted from 6.3 per cent to 6.8 per cent. We know that interest rate rise after interest rate rise is impacting on the cost of mortgages, rents and groceries, and of course there is the hideous broken promise: $275 a year, Labor promised 97 times before the election. That's how much Labor said Australians' electricity bills would be reduced by, and what a laughing stock this government is.

We have never seen a more crippling rise in the cost of living, including in electricity and gas bills, than under this government. And as Senator Faruqi has correctly said, students are suffering, and this is caused absolutely front and centre by Labor's crippling inflation rate, which has driven up HECS debts by a crippling 7.1 per cent. So, on 1 June, just over three million Australians were hit with a crippling 7.1 per cent increase in their student loans, fuelled by Labor's high inflation. This is the highest HECS indexation rate in more than 30 years. The indexation hike linked to the CPI will drive up the average HECS loan of $23,685 by $1,700. And, as we know, this additional liability, this massive increase in student debt—affecting literally millions of Australians—is even affecting the ability of Australians to borrow, because HECS debt is taken into account when you apply to borrow money from the bank to buy a home.

After so many bad decisions and broken promises from this government, it is clear that the Albanese government is tone deaf to the cost-of-living crisis that so many students are facing. It is astonishing that the education minister, Mr Clare, rather than be empathetic to the situation that so many students are in, made a blanket statement that he saw no case to change the HECS payment system—until he realised that people were paying down their HECS debt and those payments were not being recognised in real time. People are being indexed on the higher rate which applies at the beginning of the financial year. I have called for the HECS payment system, which is antiquated, to be reformed. I am now pleased the education minister is looking at this. But, frankly, he was asleep at the wheel.

This comes at a time when the government is proposing the Startup Year loan scheme, which is nonsense. The Startup Year loan scheme will give full fee paying students funding, imposing this hideous cost of up to $23,600, to do accelerator courses. It's for student entrepreneurs but under circumstances where students can currently do these courses for free. What a complete nonsense! As I have announced, on behalf of the opposition, we are opposing the Startup Year loan scheme. It is a defective bill, it is unfit for purpose, and it potentially puts several thousand students a year at risk of having this horrendous debt imposed on them with very, very little benefit. This bill is so bad that it doesn't even protect student's intellectual property and doesn't do things like giving them the rights for a refund if these courses don't stack up. So this is nonsense and, frankly, a demonstration that the government, as I say, is tone deaf to the cost-of-living crisis that Australians are encountering—particularly students, many of whom are struggling to put food on the table and to pay the rent. For the government to put forward this loan scheme is reckless, irresponsible and will place students in a further debt trap.

Louise Pratt

The Labor government is committed, as it has always been committed, to supporting all Australians, especially our students on their journey to gain an education, to build their life and to contribute to our community and economy. It is, of course, very clear to all of us in this place that the rising cost of living is hitting Australians very hard, including students. That's why we filled the budget with measures targeted at supporting concern for cost-of-living pressures, including for students. We had at the centrepiece of our budget a $14.6 billion cost-of-living package. I would note that, with inflation still much higher than what we would like and more persistent than would be ideal, these measures do make a meaningful difference to the cost of living, including for students. And they're targeted at where the cost of living actually rests—for example, in energy consumption, in seeing your doctor and in the price of medicines.

Under the last government, in inquiry after inquiry, we saw students and other young people on Austudy, in representations to Senate committees, arguing, for example, that they couldn't afford to see a doctor and that they had to choose which medicine they would take or whether they would turn on their heater in the wintertime. They felt they had no choice, frankly, other than to be cold. So there's a real reason we targeted our measures at the pointy end of the cost of living, not a catch-all for all students. Yes, many students are doing it tough, but I did notice in recent Commonwealth Bank data on inflation and trends and who is hurting most in the economy currently that they found, if you are a renter and a young person who's moved out of home and into share housing—that is, indeed, quite stressful, and that is why it's really important that Commonwealth rent assistance has been improved. But they did, in fact, see in this data that discretionary spending for students who live at home with their parents was still being sustained and that where you see the real pointy end of cost-of-living pressures is frankly on renters and on people with significant mortgages. So there is a real reason that we have targeted our measures in this way.

Under those opposite, we saw a wasted decade and the wrong priorities, with falling real wages, cost-of-living pressures and $1 trillion of debt without an economic dividend to show for it. We understand that this takes time to rectify. Part of rectifying this is ensuring that Australians can make it through with the qualifications that they need to build our economy and build their own futures.

We are targeting our policies to ease cost-of-living pressures and directly reduce inflation by three-quarters of a percentage point over the next financial year. We are here to ensure that students can cover basic costs while focusing on their studies and career aspirations. This includes more fee-free TAFE. It includes an increase to the base rate for eligible recipients of JobSeeker, Austudy, youth allowance and other working-age payments. Rates of student payments, youth allowance, Austudy and ABSTUDY will increase by $40 a fortnight from 20 September. There are some 318,000 young people under 25 who will benefit from this. And, very significantly, we are increasing the maximum rates of Commonwealth— (Time expired)

Long debate text truncated.


Date and time: 5:31 PM on 2023-06-14
Senator Pocock's vote: Abstained
Total number of "aye" votes: 11
Total number of "no" votes: 25
Total number of abstentions: 40

Adapted from information made available by