The Prime Minister's personal behaviour, his words, his lack of empathy, and his lack of care has failed international education and international students during the pandemic.
Federation Chamber - 18 February, 2021
I want to commend the member for Moncrieff on making a dry technical bill somewhat interesting and also acknowledge the fact that, like me, she genuinely cares about international education and wants the best for it. Like with me, it's very important to the economy in your community. And so I commend you on that. I think we're a rare breed at times in the House for such a significant export sector.
The bill is pretty technical, and I think the previous speaker has done a good job in outlining what is in essence a non-controversial piece of legislation. I won't go over that. I want to turn my remarks to the second reading amendment. The focus of my speech will be to call out the Australian government's failure; the lack of care for international education and international students during the pandemic; and in particular the Prime Minister's personal behaviour, his words, his lack of care and his lack of empathy for international students over the last 12 months.
I say at the outset that I am a big supporter of international education in this country. Students enrich all of our cities and our regions. They enrich our communities and our campuses and places of study. They make our places more vibrant. It's also our fourth biggest export sector—or it was before the pandemic—worth more than $40 billion a year in export revenue to this country. It's the biggest single export sector in my home state of Victoria.
The soft power, though, that we have accrued over decades to this nation as a result of international education is incalculable. We have educated onshore, in their formative years, more than one million people from South-East Asia and our region. You could not put a value on that if you tried. Then, of course, the human capital, the talent that Australia has retained over many decades from people who have come here, bright in their society, and decided to fall in love, stay and build a life in our country, has been a wonderful thing for our country.
We should be so proud of this sector. We should celebrate the success we have achieved over decades through universities and TAFEs but also, sometimes overlooked, the many reputable and innovative private providers in the sector—English language providers—which are important in their own right but who often are a feeder for people who come as tourists or backpackers and decide to stay. It's a pathway.
In the context of such a wonderful thing for our country that is the international education sector, it is perplexing to see the government's lack of response for 12 months, to see the Prime Minister's personal behaviour, or misbehaviour. At times it has made me ashamed. The Prime Minister's lack of care, which I will get to, is bad enough, but his blatant and overt hostility to international education and international students is outrageous. It's bad enough that there has been no national support provided. It's the only one of Australia's top 10 export sectors that the government has done nothing for. Waiving a few fees, as this bill may allow it to do, is 5c off the table—it's a crumb off the government table—as a tidal wave of economic devastation has been wrought over this sector.
The tourism sector received $240 million of support in the previous budget, and yet 60 per cent of the tourists in this country are international students or their visiting friends, family and relatives. What has been done for the international sector? What has been done for student accommodation providers that are facing insolvency after July as the pipeline of students dries up? Nothing—no engagement, no support. All we hear from the government is, 'Blame the states'. Somehow it's the states' fault. Well, it's not. It's our fourth biggest export sector.
The cabinet won't admit it, but we know from sources that the cabinet has rejected proposals brought by ministers last year to support this sector because of the Prime Minister's and the Treasurer's personal hostility to doing anything. Unbelievably, doing nothing would have been better, but the Prime Minister went out on national television, as this emergency took hold, and said to students: 'If you don't like it, go home.' Go home! I don't think he understands the damage, the harm, that that has done to our reputation and to the emotional wellbeing of students.
I spoke to the CEO of a large accommodation provider, who said that, literally the day after the Prime Minister said 'Go home', he had a queue of students at the front desk thinking they actually had to go home. They were paying fees. They were part of the community. They had invested in their future. We should be so privileged that young people in their formative years decide to invest what, in many cases, is a fortune for their families. It's an investment in their future, their entire life, to pay tens of thousands of dollars to come and be kept safe in our community, to be cared for by our community, to spend their formative years in Australia. We should value this. But the Prime Minister told them to go home.
It's no surprise. Remember when he was in trouble for his own government's failure to invest in infrastructure? He said: 'If you can't get a seat on the train, or you can't drive down the road because of congestion, don't blame me for not investing in new infrastructure; blame the international students; they're taking your seat'. What nonsense! This guy has got form.
We are a high-cost, high-quality provider in a very competitive market. We have hundreds of thousands of students offshore right now, unable to come into this country, who are still paying those fees, studying offshore and online. I want to say very clearly to those students and to the international students who are here right now, paying top dollar: Thank you. Australians are a better people than the way we've been represented by our Prime Minister, who has not shown any care, any empathy, any recognition of the plight that you have suffered, the destitution that you have faced, seeing, potentially, the life savings of your families threatened, being chucked out of work, being unable to pay rent, literally starving and relying on food vouchers.
There has been not one word of care from the Prime Minister, just a dismissive, arrogant, narcissistic 'Go home!'
That embarrassed me and I was ashamed as an Australian at his lack of care. International students deserved a lot, lot better than they have had from this mean, miserable government. It does not represent the views of Australians. You are welcome here and we look forward to the day where students are able to come back onshore and study in our communities.
In the last few days we have seen—in the most tragic, the most vile of circumstances—the Prime Minister's lack of empathy, his lack of human compassion, his narcissistic response. If, as we've been told—as we've witnessed, as the nation has witnessed—the Prime Minister can only understand the plight of others through thinking about his own children, then I ask how would the Prime Minister feel if one of his children was stranded in a foreign country during a global pandemic, starving, kicked out of their place of employment, unable to support themselves? Would he like the host country to show a little care, a little compassion? I would hope so—just as other countries that aren't Australia have shown, like the UK, Canada and all our competitors and peers. That's bad enough but it has also damaged our national interest. As I said, this is a $40 billion export sector. Can anyone really imagine this government pouring scorn on the coal industry or the iron ore industry or the gas industry or the agriculture industry or the tourism industry? For some reason it's only international education that has their back turned on them—overt hostility from this government. I do not get it. I have never understood it. His predecessors didn't have this view. There is something wrong with this Prime Minister. There is something not right about him. It is just a bizarre hostility and it should stop. Seriously, lobsters got their own planes to be flown overseas and students got nothing.
Let's have a look at the jobs impact. More than 250,000 jobs in Australia rested on this sector last financial year—250,000 jobs! That is more than the entire mining sector. It's more than the entire agricultural sector. It is a service sector. It is jobs intensive. As I said, 60 per cent of tourists to this country are international students or they're visiting friends and relatives. It is bad enough we have seen the job losses of tens of thousands in universities, but reputable private providers and accommodation providers are facing insolvency. These are businesses that won't come back. We're about to see the end of JobKeeper. There are, quite rightly, calls for sectoral recognition for the tourism sector. Sectors that rely on the borders being open for the businesses to survive warrant particular attention. I say very clearly to the government: put the international education sector on that list of sectors that deserve some support. They're worthy of support. They need help for the next six to 12 months—until we can get through this crisis.
A few suggestions have been messaged to the Prime Minister by the peak bodies, falling on deaf ears. Letters have been sent recently again to the Prime Minister, the national cabinet, all the chief ministers. The states and territories performance has been better than the national government but still at times a bit slow and a bit patchy.
The first thing that we need from the government is positive messaging, not telling students to go home. That ricocheted around social media. It destroys our future pipeline, our marketing and recruitment pipeline. If nothing else, if you just want to be mercenary about it and not human and empathetic, what do you think that does to a word-of-mouth sector? As a leading education CEO told me a few months ago:
We are trying to work with the government. But the major negative is the messaging from Morrison, rolling out the unwelcome mat and highlighting a lack of support for students. If we can get things right though we are in the box seat, Australia has huge potential advantages from this crisis—
because the states and territories have managed the health response so well.'
The second thing we need is some kind of indicative return date. The UK and Canada have kept their borders open. I understand, of course, that being an island continent we're in a different context, and we treasure that. It was the government's failure, the Prime Minister's failure, to take responsibility for quarantine months ago. As his own report that he asked for said, 'it's a national responsibility', but he just wants to blame the states. If he had done that months ago when he had that report we would not have this impossible choice between 41,000 stranded Australians on whom the Prime Minister has turned his back. Turn back the boats—at that point he is responsible for borders and quarantine. You wouldn't find a politician in this place who has banged on more about borders and quarantine, but when it comes to 41,000 stranded Australians he turns his back on them. It's the same with international students. If he hadn't created this mess over the last 12 months, we would be able to be bringing students in safely and securely and save tens of thousands of jobs. We shouldn't be in this choice. As I said, we also need some targeted industry assistance to this sector, which is more than warranted. Zero dollars for international education but $240 million for tourism says it all.
The final thing I will say is: please, a little more empathy for the plight. I know we can't bring students back right now. We could have before we saw these contagious strains emerge; we could have done that safely if the Prime Minister had brought citizens home and done his job, as it says in the Constitution, and stepped up to manage quarantine, but we are where we are. Have some empathy. I've had emails because students understand I care about this sector, because I have spoken about it. You get terrible stories. Imagine the plight of a fourth- or fifth-year dental student who has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars—more than their entire family's wealth—in their future. It is their last year, and they're unable to come back and complete it onshore. They're distraught. Students have told us this. We have seen cases of students attempting suicide because they feel they have no future left. Have a little empathy—a little hope, at least—to help people get through these circumstances. People like that are in limbo. The truth is that Australia has relied on some of these medical and dental students actually staying, because they're the ones that go to regional areas and provide desperately needed medical specialists in regional areas. This is a selfish national interest, not just a moment of human empathy.
I will finish with a quote from a very simple email from one of the student advocates, who loves Australia. Their palpable love for Australia and Australians shines through, despite the way that, I believe, they have been profoundly mistreated by this heartless, cruel Liberal government—not that all members of the government are evil, nasty and cruel, but culture comes from the top. The Prime Minister's lack of human compassion and lack of empathy that was on display for the nation this week has driven this lack of care, attention and response. He owns it. This email said: 'Many students have had a tough year. They've had many significant issues—educational, financial and personal—due to the uncertain situation. But most of them are very disappointed about the Australian government and give up. Some are happy to learn online at home. Therefore, only students who have partners in Australia are craving to come back ASAP. I suggest if the government could open the border, even to those few students with compassionate reasons.' Imagine a student who has never met their child because they have had to go home, and their Australian partner is here with the baby they've never met? We've spoken to these people. Show some compassion. Students have been anxious and isolated, and they face destitution. They just want some help or at least the government to stop the harm and show some care and empathy.