Protesters objecting to HECS changes briefly interrupted a post-budget Q&A that saw Education Minister Simon Birmingham defending the budget against claims it targeted young people.
At least two protesters were removed from the theatre of the Gold Coast Arts Centre after shouting over the top of Senator Birmingham as he began answering a question on the fairness of raising HECS repayments.
“It’s a university town, there is a good deal of passion here in the audience”, host Tony Jones said.
“Students have been protesting for generations,” Senator Birmingham said.
“It’s a shame they’re not being listened to,” Greens senator Larissa Waters interjected.
Senator Birmingham, who had been challenged by an audience member on his history as a student politician who vowed to fight fee increases, said “a lot has changed in 20, 30 years”.
“A lot’s changed in the last decade. We’ve seen enormous growth in the number of Australian students going to University.”
After being interrupted by the protesters, Senator Birmingham said the “phenomenal” growth in Australian student numbers was a good thing, but had come at a cost.
“That’s a good thing in terms of the cost of providing higher education and funding it into the future,” he said.
The entire panel endorsed the value of higher education, each member in turn congratulating or encouraging an audience member who said she was encouraging her four children to go to university and was herself about to start.
However, the Government’s planned changes to HECS — raising the amount students are asked to repay and reducing the income level at which they start — did not earn wide support.
Senator Waters, who thanked the protesters for raising the issue of education costs and corporate tax cuts, said education was “an investment in our future; it will help all of us”.
“This is another attack on women by this Government that doesn’t really have many women in its ranks to help do a reality check on these sorts of decisions,” she said.
In contrast, the non-Parliamentary members of the panel were more concerned about other issues: Australian Industry group chief executive Innes Willox pointed to the problem of ensuring there were jobs available for graduates, while tax lawyer and researcher Miranda Stewart, from the Australian National University, called the HECS increase “not overly onerous” and pointed to childcare costs and the interaction between the family benefits and personal tax rates as bigger problems.
However, Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen called the revised threshold of $42,000 — down from $55,000 — “obscenely low”.
Budget accused of ‘abandoning’ young people
Mr Bowen went on to attack the budget’s approach to young people across multiple areas, particularly housing.
“If you look at this budget in total, take somebody on $50,000 … people on $50,000 are doing it tough,” he said.
“They have to pay $250 extra in health repayments and $1,000 in total. And this with tax changes — this budget was meant to be about housing affordability.
The final questioner of the night went directly to this point, pointing to recent cuts in penalty rates and saying: “And now, a person earning $343,000 a year tells me I need to pay more for my education.”
“Why are you targeting my generation and our desire to at some point live a life that you have already been enjoying?”
Senator Birmingham pointed to budget measures to help young people save for their home deposit, and said the Government was focused on growing the economy to make sure jobs were available.
He was asked by Jones if he feared a backlash from young people at some point, but said: “Tony, we’ve seen university students protest at every change to HECS or the HELP regime every time a Government has gone near it … that’s not unusual.”
But Mr Bowen said young people were being targeted by the Government.
Professor Stewart, who has worked for the Australian Tax Office, agreed: “Over the last few years we’ve embedded a set of measures that enable older people to accumulate wealth and young people are bearing, I think, relatively more tax.”
Mr Willox, who has three children, said he would “rather be 53 than 23 … I wouldn’t want to go through that again”.
He went on to say that concerns held by young people over housing affordability and jobs were completely justified, and that “these are tough times”.
Senator Birmingham, asked by Jones if he agreed with former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser’s infamous statement “life wasn’t meant to be easy”, said the Government was looking to preserve the advantages of the HECS system of deferred fees.
“In Australia, we have many opportunities and the opportunity for people to go to university without paying a dollar upfront, to pursue their dreams, is something that’s not afforded to many people around the world,” he said.