Today I pay tribute to the life of Joan Yeo, who died in the early hours of 9 October, of motor neurone disease, at her house in Bowral. She was 72. She was surrounded by her husband, Phil, and daughters, Claire and Fleur, joined shortly thereafter by her son, John, who flew home from London.
Joan was a stalwart and much-loved member of the Southern Highlands branch of the Labor Party for over 40 years. She was a dedicated member throughout the seventies and eighties, and, even when the numbers were small and the finances were thin, Joan was always there to do her bit. She was a strong woman and she was passionate: passionate about her politics and passionate about the rights of women. She did not just talk the talk; she walked the walk. She was involved in everything over her life.
Today we pay tribute to Edward Gough Whitlam, QC, AC: patriot, veteran, barrister, Prime Minister, ambassador, Australian legend, husband to Margaret and father to Antony, Nick, Stephen and Catherine. We pass on our condolences to his family and all who knew and loved him.
Throughout the course of this discussion we have seen the best of the Australian parliament. We have seen the outflowing of genuine affection and admiration for a great Australian, and I believe in this discussion we have genuinely held up a mirror to the Australian nation. Gough himself was more than a reflection of Australia as he found it. He was a leader who gave political voice to Australia not as he found it, but as he thought it could be. As Gough himself explained in 1973, his government was elected on the basis of policies which were developed carefully, steadily and intelligently to meet the important demands of our community.
His was the politics of courage and conviction. Indeed it is hard to imagine Australia without the reforms that were driven through by the Whitlam government. In the area of equality, we turn our minds to the reforms to the education system: free access to tertiary education and needs-based funding for our school system. In the area of electoral reform: one vote, one value; lowering the age of voting so that the age of voting was the same as the age at which you could be conscripted to go and fight for the country—the age of 18. In the area of gender equality, we have heard many speakers talk about the importance of his family law reforms: no-fault divorce, introducing onto the PBS the contraceptive pill and reopening the equal pay case to ensure that that important principle could flow through to our industrial tribunals. In the area of land rights: ensuring that the First Australians could once again have full custodial ownership of their traditional lands. On race discrimination, one of his first acts was to ban race-based sporting contests, which was an incredibly controversial issue in the early 1970s, and we all remember the controversy around the Springbok tour. It went beyond that, he was indeed the father of modern multiculturalism.
It is a great pleasure to follow the member for Shortland in this important debate. You could not find a more passionate advocate for the interests of health consumers in this country. It is an area of long-standing interest for the member for Shortland—indeed, before she came to parliament she was an allied health professional herself.
The bill before the House is an important one. It deals with private health insurance, the government's subsidies to the private health insurance industry, and how they can be managed in a sustainable way over the long term. It gives parliament the opportunity to focus on how we fund our health system and the role that private health insurance has in that funding arrangement.
Private health insurance is important. It costs the Commonwealth budget in terms of the rebate approximately $5.8 billion a year. That's right: $5.8 billion in 2014-15, which is a little bit less than 10 per cent of the Commonwealth's total health expenditure. It is right and proper that Commonwealth government and this parliament regularly focus on the performance of private health insurance and how much we are paying for this subsidy.
Local Members Sharon Bird and Stephen Jones issued a challenge to Education Minister Christopher Pyne in Parliament today, asking him to front up to the Illawarra and explain his Government’s outrageous higher education cuts to over 31,000 University of Wollongong students.
Just before Question Time today, Stephen Jones said:
“Today the Member for Cunningham and I stand in Parliament and challenge the Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne to come to Wollongong and explain his egregious changes to the higher education system, which is going to deny thousands of students from the Illawarra region their chance for a better chance in life.”
Sharon Bird and Stephen Jones used the opportunity to reconfirm to the Parliament and their electorates that they will continue to work strenuously to defeat this legislation.
“You should get to university based on your ability, based on your passion for your chosen field of study, based on your determination to contribute to the nation, not on—never on—what you can or cannot afford to pay. It is unacceptable. Labor will fight it and the community will join with us in that fight,” Sharon Bird told the Parliament.
“A university degree should not be a debt sentence. This has been the overwhelming message from people right across the region in response to Christopher Pyne’s reckless higher education legislation”, said Stephen Jones.
“Coming from this region we know how important it is to give people on ordinary incomes access to affordable higher education. Doubling the price of university fees and locking students from low income backgrounds and rural and regional areas is not the answer.”
Both members stated that Minister Pyne needs to explain to students and their families across the Illawarra why, instead of removing barriers to affordable higher education, his Government is putting more in the way.
Today the member for Cunningham and I stand in parliament and challenge the Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, to come to Wollongong and explain his egregious changes to the higher education system which are going to deny thousands of students from the Illawarra region their chance for a better life. The University of Wollongong has a unique role in the region. It started its life as an offshoot of the University of New South Wales and as a teachers college. But it really got a kick-start when the Whitlam government opened up higher education to students with backgrounds like mine and the member for Cunningham's to ensure that they could get the great opportunities available through higher education.
Today the University of Wollongong is a full-service university training nurses, doctors, engineers, teachers, lawyers and accountants. Many of them are the first in their family to get a degree. Many of them are getting a second chance in education. This is all at risk because of this government's 20 per cent cut to the University of Wollongong's funding, the massive increase in university fees and the increase in interest rates on those university debts that those opposite are voting for. My question to the Minister for Education is this: Why is free education good enough for you but not good enough for the students of Wollongong? (Time expired)