The Federal Government’s attempt to deregulate universities appears doomed, with Education Minister Christopher Pyne being accused of trying to “blackmail” crossbenchers in an attempt to secure their support.
Mr Pyne told the ABC’s Insiders program the Government was preparing to put the changes to a vote in the Upper House on Wednesday.
Labor and the Greens remain staunchly opposed to the proposal and the Government is yet to secure crossbench support.
Mr Pyne said he would consider cutting scientific research funding if the legislation is defeated, arguing the Coalition would have to seek savings elsewhere if deregulation was not embraced.
“There are consequences for not voting for this reform and that’s very important for the crossbenchers to understand,” Mr Pyne said.
“The consequences are that potentially 1,700 researchers will lose their jobs.”
That comment has sparked an angry response from many of the crossbenchers the Government has been trying to negotiate with.
Newly independent senator Glenn Lazarus labelled it “blackmail”.
“Australians should be angry that the Abbott Government is threatening to hurt people by cutting more jobs, including research and scientific positions, in order to try and blackmail the Senate into supporting deregulation,” he said in a statement.
“This is disgusting behaviour and demonstrates the appalling ethics of this Government.”
Another independent senator, Jacqui Lambie, who is in hospital, said she would “move heaven and earth to be in the chamber … to vote against Pyne’s vile legislation, even if it means being hooked up to a drip”.
“Mr Pyne will need more than just a Kleenex I offered him at the start of this debate for the political pain I’m about to cause him,” she said.
“He may need a dose of the intravenous antibiotic I’ve been on.”
Labor, Senators to mount challenge
Labor Senator Kim Carr will try to counter the Government’s bid for reform by tabling a motion in the Senate on Monday to release the scientific infrastructure funding immediately.
“This motion will be co-sponsored by Senators Lambie, Lazarus, Muir, Rhiannon, Madigan, Wang and Xenophon – clearly the crossbenchers are not going to respond to this attempt to blackmail and intimidate senators,” Senator Carr said.
Family First senator Bob Day said he would vote for the bill because it would boost opportunities for people from low income families and mean they could access low cost no-frills universities.
So far Senator Day is the only confirmed backer for the higher education reforms.
David Leyonhjelm, from the Liberal Democrats Party, said if the vote was held today he would not support it.
“I have two rules that I apply to these things: rule number one is the taxpayer must not be screwed [and] rule number two is don’t forget rule number one,” Senator Leyonhjelm said.
“My concern is the taxpayer is going to end up on the hook as a result of these reforms.
“I am generally in favour of deregulating university fees on the basis of price and quality in a normal market system, but because of the HECS scheme the price signal is severely blunted.”
Newly-independent senator Glenn Lazarus said he will not negotiate with Mr Pyne and that he will vote against the bill.
Xenophon says scientists being held hostage
Another key crossbencher Nick Xenophon said scientific research cuts would turn Australia into a “dumb country” and send some of the nation’s best scientists overseas.
“I just can’t believe that Christopher Pyne is holding 1,700 scientists hostage to this policy,” he said.
“This is not the way to negotiate with the Senate, it is reckless, it is irresponsible.”
With the research funding due to run out in June, Australia’s chief scientist Ian Chubb said damage is already being done.
“People are already looking for jobs,” Professor Chubb said.
“References are being written, boards are not signing off on accounts because they might be insolvent in the second half of the year. Things like that are already beginning to happen.”
But Mr Pyne said he was confident of a breakthrough.
“I always fought right through to the end and we will fight right through to the vote,” he said.
“It’s too important not to win for students and for universities and for Australia.”
Mr Pyne said he saw the decision by Senator Lazarus to leave the Palmer United Party on Friday as a chance to woo the last remaining PUP senator.
“That might present opportunities in terms of Dio Wang who has indicated in the past that he supported the reforms but was constrained about voting for them by Glenn Lazarus’s opposition,” he said.
Mr Pyne said the Government was prepared to entertain a range of compromise options in the lead up to the vote.
“Everything is on the table except the centrepiece of the reform which is deregulation,” he said.
“If the Government gets deregulation, which is going to be good for universities and students, all the other matters are open to negotiation.”
A spokesman for Motoring Enthusiast Party senator Ricky Muir said he remained against the concept of deregulation.
Senator Muir is expecting to meet with the Minister on Monday afternoon.
– with Louise Yaxley, ABC