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Watching the Senate « Previous | |Next »
December 4, 2003

I'm now watching the Senate debate on Nelson's Higher Education Bill. I'm taken back by what I see. Shocked even, at the minimal kind of legislative review taking place. The background is one in which the core public funding of universities has been decreasing with the costs of education increasingly being shifted onto the students.

The Government's legislation and policies are currently being defended by the Independent Senator's; defended by (Senator Harris) and not by the Government Senator---Senator Vanstone---who is currently doing point duty.

How come? Why has the task fallen to them? Why have the Independents allowed themselves to be boxed into the corner where they will take the flak for this legislation? Why are they allowing the Government to get away with rejecting the ALP or Democrat amendments without providing any public reasons for doing so?

Democrat amendments distinquishing between universities and other commerical educational providers and then linking different regulations and funding to these different providers are automatically knocked out. They are not even considered. It's a charade that is being played out as the amendments of the ALP, Greens and Democrats will be rejected no matter how worthy they are in defending the autonomy of the liberal university (teaching, research and community responsibility) This is not about passing legislation for the good of the country or on the merit of the argument in the Senate. It is just about passing the government legislation whilst saying they are acting on the advice of the Vice-Chancellors. The Vice-Chancellor have made a shoddy deal.

To the Senate debate. The defences being made about the definitions of the basic object of the Act--what is a university---are poor. The traditional liberal principles that embody the ethos of university institutions (free thinking, quality, excellence, research, enlightened inquiry) are being ignored in favour of money and fee paying. The failure to say in the Act what public universities do, and what their obligations are as independent and autonomous institutions, means that the institutions of higher education have become money making institutions.

Now we shift to the ALP amendments that spell out what the financial viability of a university is. These are rejected without debate. No defence is made for the reasons why the Independent Senators or the Government reject the amendments that are being made by the Australian Greens, ALP and Australian Democrats. There is no public reason here at all. It is just machinery.

What do we glean from this. A backroom deal? It appears that it is vote for all government amendments and reject all the opposition ones. Since the Government is not even bothering to argue its case there is no reasoned argument. The deal has nothing to do with improving the legislation. Nothing by way of argument is being placed on the public record. It is just political machinery without even bothering to keep up the charade of debate and review.

Two of the Independent Senators Murphy and Harradine are testy. They gesture to the written advice they have from the Government about particular amendments, and they criticise the refusal of the government to provide reasons for rejecting the Opposition amendments.

However, Senator Vanstone can only huff and puff. She has little knowledge of the legislation and cannot, or will not, provide a defence.

What is even worse is that the Government does not seem to care that it is just the political machinery of a deal on show. It is actually indifferent to the process of public reason in our political institutions.
Update
7pm. I'm due to go out to dinner at a local Indian restaurant. The Industrial Relations amendments have been put on one side to allow for a deal to be struck between Nelson and Murphy. It's more of the same: all government amendments pass; all the ALP, Green and Democrat amendments fail. It's depressing.
11pm. After dinner. The "debate" is still going. Carr, Nettle and Stott Despoja are plugging away. The deal between Nelson and Murphy has been struck. The bill will be passed tonight.

I'm stunned. I thought that the 4 Independent Senators would have postponed the legislation until next year? Why the rush? The universities had enough money for next year. Postponement would have allowed let cooler heads to prevail.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 11:42 AM | | Comments (4) | TrackBacks (3)
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Comments

Comments

senator Len Harris is a Pauline Hanson's One Nation senator and not an independant....says much about those that cant get the simple facts correct....want to see the One Nation policies the alp,liberals,greens, unity party have NOW adopted ?...atsic gone for instance...why arent the liberals labelled racist?..

i usually try to avoid posting comments on posts that i completely empathise with, as i do in this case. However, i cannot bring myself to accept that resistance is futile, particularly when it's as necessary as it is to reforms like these.

Has democracy always been like this, or have the ideals of democracy been lost in the same way that the purpose of education is being ignored in this debate?

Why wouldn't the independents back the legislation which is being advocated by the managers of the universities, namely the vice-chancellors? It seems that they listened to the VCs on blocking the workplce reforms part of the Govt package. Who else but the VCs would you expect the ind. to be guided by? They certainly can't listen to every student or professor who wants to put their two bobs worth in. Now you might personally disagree with your VCs stance, but you might have to accept they have a bigger picture in view than some incumbent staff of the unis. They may have taken the pragmatic view that in the absence of more user pays, coupled with some more immediate Govt funding, then the tertiary sector was to be a shrinking one. Personally I take the view that demographically this would be inevitable as health becomes more of a priority for all Govts over time. More user pays simply allows the sector to hold the fort on this.

Observa, that is fine as far as it does.
The Vice-Chancllor perspective which the 4 Independent Senators seem to have followed is about looking after their ownisntitution. It is about protecting the bottom line.

NO doubt they would be very pleased with the improvements to the legislation made but the Independent Senators.

What drops out o fthe picuture is protecting te long run future of the public universities and the public higher education system as a distinct from nurturing the ones that wil go increasingly private.

And very little was achieved for SA universities----unlike Tasmania.