The Turnbull government has failed to invest in the infrastructure needs of our country

Read the full speech below. 

Ms BUTLER (Griffith) (16:51): In this cognate debate, I want to particularly talk about the Nation-building Funds Repeal (National Disability Insurance Scheme Funding) Bill 2017. Sadly, the Turnbull government's focus in this set of bills is on tearing down nation building, not on building our nation for the future. The Turnbull government has failed to invest in the infrastructure needs of our country. Of course, I'm not just talking about roads and rail, although those are important; I'm talking about the infrastructure that our higher education and vocational education sectors need to become the sectors that they should be for the future so that they can continue to play such an important role in our national economy and in our nation's life.

The Education Infrastructure Fund was a key plank in the previous Labor government's move to transform Australia's education and research capability and address years of underinvestment from the Howard era. As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, Australia's international education sector is one of our great success stories. International education and international tourism are our greatest service exports and it's important to focus on what undermining the sector's ability to invest in infrastructure will mean for international trade. The Nation-building Funds Repeal (National Disability Insurance Scheme Funding) Bill 2017 will close the Building Australia Fund and will close the Education Investment Fund. These funds were established by Labor in 2008. They're managed by the Future Fund, with withdrawals and expenditure being overseen by independent advisory boards against the nation-building fund's evaluation criteria. This isn't the first time that this government has sought to get rid of the Education Investment Fund since it's been in office. The fund has been frozen for a number of years. There was a previous attempt to abolish it in the Asset Recycling Fund Bill 2014, but we were successful in removing those provisions from that bill, which is a very good thing.

As I have gone around the country meeting with universities, they have been very proud to show me examples of their investment in infrastructure that has been partly funded by the Education Investment Fund, the EIF. I have done that, obviously, in the course of my responsibilities as the shadow assistant minister for universities. I have had the opportunity to see the benefit that investment has had for local communities. For example, when I visited Rockhampton recently, the vice-chancellor of the CQUniversity spoke to me about how Labor in government had supported the university to create Queensland's first dual sector institution. The Labor government had supported a proposal by the university to bring together higher education and vocational education through a merger of CQUniversity and Central Queensland Institute of TAFE. They were very proud of the work that had been done in that regard, and they asked me to particularly pass on their thanks to the now shadow Treasurer, Chris Bowen, for his role in assisting with obtaining the support. The education investment funding that contributed to that project was $73.8 million. They leveraged a further $120 million in order to make the project work, because, of course, funding from the Commonwealth can often be supplemented and complemented by funding from other sources—in that case, Queensland government support and other funds. It was a groundbreaking transformation for the university, and it wouldn't have been possible without a significant injection of funds from the Commonwealth's Education Investment Fund and Structural Adjustment Fund.

It helped create the biggest regional university in Australia, with more than 2,000 staff and 35,000 students across 19 locations. It gives people living in regional areas seamless access to a full range of post-school education and training options and allows them to skill up for the workforce needs of the future. Some people used pathways from vocational education into higher education, while degree students in higher education can also access additional trade qualifications to ensure they're employable and comprehensively skilled. This has really been used to better integrate the university into the local community. Key infrastructure projects made possible through the EIF with that particular university include the Rockhampton health clinic, the Mackay city campus refurbishment, the Mackay engineering building, and interactive learning spaces and systems.

Another university that I visited recently is the University of the Sunshine Coast, which showed us the flagship building that they had managed to build through appropriate investment from the Commonwealth and other sources. It's an amazing building. You go into this immersive kind of round virtual reality room, and you are immersed in whatever the images happen to be. At that point we were shown an interactive map, which was 360 degrees around us, of the university's footprint in the local area. This is the sort of new technology that Australian students should have access to. We should have world-class facilities for domestic students. It's also technology that helps to make our universities more attractive to students from outside our country but within our region, students that we want to attract to Australia to continue to build the really important service export that is higher education.

As you would know, Mr Deputy Speaker, higher education and vocational education trade exports contribute more than $22 billion every year to the Australian economy. So continuing to build up the institutions that we have and to make them world class is important if we want to continue to drive that international education spend, and it's important, as I said, for domestic students so that they can have world-class facilities and get the skills, knowledge, attributes and characteristics that you can get through world-class higher education and that they will need for the jobs of the future. We don't want Australians to be in low-paid, low-skilled jobs. We want them to be in high-paid, high-skilled jobs in the future, and that takes investment in vocational education and higher education.

This bill seeks to remove almost $4 billion in funds that were earmarked for investment in education. That's what this bill does. There was another bill before the House recently that also sought to remove almost $4 billion in investment in higher education. That was the government's higher education cuts package—the cuts to higher education of almost $4 billion in fiscal terms over five years. It had fee hikes for students and the reduction of the repayment threshold for the Higher Education Contribution Scheme payments. All of those things were a tax on this country's ability to provide a high-quality higher education system. So is this bill that we're debating today.

Since 2008, up until the Abbott-Turnbull government abandoned the EIF program, around $4.2 billion had been provided to co-finance measures to update and modernise Australia's vocational, higher education and research facilities across 71 projects. I've given the example of CQUniversity. I've talked about Sunshine Coast university. I should also talk about the University of Tasmania. These universities have been able to receive some Commonwealth support in relation to investing in infrastructure for teaching and research. I should also mention the University of Sydney, which is incredibly proud of the work it has done to build spaces that really generate collaboration—genuine multidisciplinary approaches to higher education and to research. You can visit these campuses and see the work that they have done.

Another example is the Advanced Engineering Building at the University of Queensland, which received $50 million as a contribution from EIF funding, raised $15 million from the Queensland Innovation Building Fund, $62 million from its own funds and $2½ million from private philanthropy. This is an iconic building for teaching and research in engineering. I have had the benefit of visiting this facility as well, and it is absolutely wonderful to get to go and see it. I could also talk about the University of South Australia's Materials and Minerals Science Learning and Research Hub. Materials and minerals are so important to our nation's economy and to trade, just like higher education and vocational education are.

There is Swinburne university's Advanced Manufacturing and Design Centre. As a nation we need to move more and more into advanced manufacturing. We need to have a manufacturing sector for the 21st century, and it's been really wonderful to see the work that has been done in relation to advanced manufacturing in Australia. The Leader of the Opposition and I were fortunate enough to visit Incitec Pivot in Brisbane during the week before last to see the advanced manufacturing work that is being done there, by way of an aside. But to return to the EIF: another example is at the University of New South Wales. It has the Tyree Energy Technologies Building, speaking of energy.

All of these are just examples of what can be done when we invest in higher education, vocational education and research infrastructure. It is a very great shame that the government is now closing down the EIF. Universities Australia has said that closing the EIF, which has $3.8 billion remaining in it, would make it harder for the sector to create new jobs, generate research breakthroughs and compete for international students. All of those things, with respect, are absolutely correct, and that is why this government should decide not to pursue the abolition of the EIF and instead to properly invest in education and research infrastructure, to stop attacking higher education and vocational education in this country and to do the right thing and invest in this very important sector for Australians.

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