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Debate on Attendance by a Minister

The Albanese government was elected on a promise of transparency and accountability, and the response from the minister is reflecting anything but. Prime Minister Albanese and his ministers continue to show absolute contempt for the rules of the parliament, including the rules of the Senate and Senate estimates, defying orders to produce documents as required.

Minister Watt has just contradicted Senator Chisholm and the Minister for Education in his lame excuse as to why these documents will not be tabled. The bottom line is that these documents are not protected by a claim of public interest immunity. They do not fall within the exemption—and, Madam President, and I even wrote to you about this matter, such was my concern. The minister has made a claim of public interest immunity in relation to documents related to cabinet deliberations. This does not meet the test.

The Minister for Education is falsely suggesting that these documents are documents essentially concerning cabinet deliberations. This in fact conflicts with the letter that he wrote to Senator Chisholm on 7 December 2023, when he said, ‘A public interest immunity claim may be made in relation to information and documents which were prepared for the dominant purpose of briefing a minister on a cabinet submission.’ This is not what we’ve just heard from Minister Watt, where he said they were for the dominant purpose which reflected deliberations of cabinet and in relation to deliberations of cabinet. So we are hearing weasel words from this government, and we will not cop it. The three million Australians with a student debt will not cop it. The fact is that the three million Australians with a HELP student loan, most of which are HECS loans, have suffered an 11 per cent increase in their debt due to Labor’s sky-high inflation in just two years, an average increase in their student loan of around $2,700 over two years. It was 3.9 per cent in 2022 and a shocking 7.1 per cent in 2023, with another big rise on the way this June. Escalating student debt is even impacting on Australians’ capacity to borrow money to buy a home. With so many students struggling to put food on the table, enduring Labor’s cost-of-living crisis, this is appalling.

The minister promised to review the antiquated ATO HECS payment scheme. We sought documents in relation to that review. This review has disappeared into thin air. Yes, he has made some statements following the accord final report, but what about the review? At the moment, Australians are being indexed, effectively, on payments they have already made because the ATO does not account for repayments in real time. If someone has a debt of $20,000 and pays off $5,000 during the year, they are still indexed on the original $20,000, which is wrong, which is unfair and which is unjust. Nine months after we sought these documents in Senate estimates, we are still seeing this government fail to comply with Senate orders. We will not cop the dodgy PII claims that this government is making. The Senate has not accepted this PII claim. I again say to the Minister for Education: we require these documents. You are required under the rules of the Senate to provide these documents. We have received advice from the Clerk in relation to the scope of a PII claim, and this PII claim does not cut the mustard.

So, President, we are very disappointed in the government’s failure to be transparent, in the government’s failure to comply with the rules of the Senate and in the government’s contempt—absolute shocking contempt—for three million Australians with a student debt which is absolutely escalating like no tomorrow under this government.

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