The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) held a candidates forum at Griffith University’s Nathan Campus today to discuss higher education issues. The campus is in the marginal Brisbane seat of Moreton, held by embattled Liberal Gary Hardgrave. Hardgrave was invited to the forum, but did not attend. This continues a poor trend of Liberal no-shows to similar public events in Brisbane and as well as non-responses to interview requests by citizen journalist organisations such as Youdecide 2007.
Those who did turn up were Labor candidate Graham Perrett, Democrat Emad Soliman, the Greens' Emma Hine as well as the Senate candidates Larissa Waters of the Greens and Senator Andrew Bartlett of the Democrats. Graham Perrett spoke first. This is Perrett’s second time running for Moreton (which covers the Southern part of the Brisbane council area). Perrett is the favourite this time round and needs a swing of 2.8 per cent to take the seat.
Graham Perrett was born in St George in south-western Queensland in 1966. Perrett is a former teacher, solicitor and union organiser with degrees in English and Law. Prior to the election Perrett was a senior policy advisor to the Queensland government. He began his speech by saying he was “living proof” that Labor’s education policy was all about opportunity. He said that if it wasn’t for Gough Whitlam, he would still be a farmworker in St George.
Perrett went on to say that education was “the enabler of the economy” and a “building block for long-term economic prosperity”. He decried “the shameful legacy” of the Howard Government that saw spending in public education in decline and is now well below the OECD average. Perrett said there was “a skills crisis in education” and the Federal Governments own research shows Australia will need 240,00 more skilled workers by 2016 to ensure the country’s economic future.
Perrett said Labor would invest $450 million in early childhood learning which would give 4 year olds maths and science lessons. Labor is also planning to invest $2.5 billion in “state of the art” trade training centres in all Australia’s high schools. Perrett said this initiative would turbo-charge the education skills of the next generation of Australians. Perrett also lamented the introduction of Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) and the resultant de-funding of university campus services. He said Labor would not bring back the old “flawed” system but would soon announce a new “not out-of-pocket” policy in this area.
Greens local candidate Emma Hine spoke next. Emma is a PhD science student at the University of Queensland. Hine spoke about her $20,000 HECS debt which she hopes to pay off when she enters the workforce. She said she would also like to own her own home but it would be difficult to pay off a HECS debt as well as a mortgage. She also condemned the gradual reduction of resources in academic institutions. Teachers are spending more time doing administration work and less time in the classroom. Funding cutbacks are also impacting diversity of what is being taught.
Hine then handed over to Larissa Waters (an ex-Griffiths graduate) to outline the Greens’ education policy. Waters is the Greens Queensland senate candidate and with last Friday’s news that the Greens and Labor are moving close to a national preference deal, she now stands a very realistic chance of winning Queensland’s final senate seat. She said there was now “a good chance” the Greens would be the balance of power in the Senate and they would use that power responsibly. She said they would keep the government of the day “honest and accountable” and the party had 43 policies listed on their website on a range of issues.
She said the Greens supported a return to free education. The Greens would abolish HECS and HECS debts. “University education used to be free,” she said. “It still is free in Sweden, Norway and Argentina”. She said the Greens costed free education at $2.5 billion a year which wasn’t much compared to the $34 billion tax cuts announced last week by the government. Waters said the Greens would repeal the VSU legislation and she asked the question: what has happened to campus life? “Going to university is not only about getting a degree,” she said. “It’s about embracing a different culture”.
Local Democrat candidate Emad Soliman spoke next. Soliman was born in Egypt and has a degree in Computer Engineering. He visited Australia in 1991 and then worked internationally before settling in Brisbane in 1995. He is now working in an academic position at Griffith University. He began by saying that it was the “generosity of the education system” that attracted him to return to Australia. He said this was now being undone by the Howard Government actions. By shutting down funding for education, the Government was dealing with a threat from “enlightened minds”.
Soliman condemned the commercialisation of research and pointed out “30 years of achievements” in education by the Democrats in the Senate. He said the Democrats were in favour of (pdf) abolishing full-fee degrees for domestic undergraduates, removing VSU and HECS, and revising the indexation formula for university grants to accurately account for inflation.
Senator Andrew Bartlett, the Democrats Queensland Senate candidate spoke last. Bartlett would appear to be the likely loser if the Labor-Greens national preference deal goes ahead. But he is not going down without a fight. He said the Senate contest needs to be emphasised in its own right. He said that for higher education “the Senate result is crucial”. He said the VSU legislation got through the last Senate because the Family First senator “failed dismally in his judgement” and did not negotiate any sort of compromise.
Bartlett reminded his audience that the Coalition won the Senate that year by taking the last Queensland seat from the Democrats. Bartlett said the “large hike” in HECS fees prior to the 2004 election was also the fault of the independent senators who held the balance of power at the time. Bartlett hoped that if he did have to lose his seat, he would lose it to one of the minor parties. He said that if he lost the seat to the Liberals or Labor, then all Queensland’s seats would be with the major parties. But he believes he can still win. He said he was “effective and experienced and [has] delivered on issues”.