Design flaws in university package give Nationals chance to flex muscle on Coalition policy

a man wearing a hat: Photograph: Wolter Peeters/AAP

© Provided by The Guardian
Photograph: Wolter Peeters/AAP

In ordinary times, a federal minister breaking ranks to attack government policy would be big news. But in these strange times – with the pandemic still unleashing its cruel fury – the attempt by the Nationals to flex their muscle on policy flew largely under the radar.

The regional education minister, Andrew Gee, from the NSW seat of Calare, sailed very close to the wind when he issued a statement under his ministerial banner declaring that the university package had “a glaring and potentially detrimental design flaw” that could harm women, mature students and regional Australia more generally.

Released just hours after the draft bill was published this week, the statement contained the sort of language you might normally expect from an opposition holding a government to account. Gee said he had the backing of his party, the Nationals, to fight for three changes, including sparing those studying mental health and social work from the eye-popping 113% increase in fees for humanities students.

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The airing of the disagreement is significant because Scott Morrison’s cabinet handbook says members of the cabinet must publicly support all government decisions made in the cabinet – and cannot repudiate the decisions of their cabinet colleagues unless they resign. While Gee is in the outer ministry, not the cabinet, the same handbook notes the cabinet principles apply to the whole ministry, not just cabinet ministers. “If you’re on the backbench you have the right to comment as you wish,” observes the backbencher Barnaby Joyce.

Senior Liberal sources have told Guardian Australia they are perplexed that Gee has spoken out so stridently about the package given that his own department was involved in its development. The extraordinary nature of the intervention was underlined this week when education department officials told a Senate committee that they had briefed Gee on the university package at least five times and had also provided one written briefing on the legislation.

Under questioning, the head of the education department, Michele Bruniges, said she could not recall any other instance during her career of a minister issuing a media statement complaining of a glaring design flaw in legislation for which that minister was partly responsible. Other education officials were aware of his concerns about the package – because the department had helped organise the regional university roundtable meetings that informed Gee’s position – but not “with the intensity” or “the adjectives” of the public statement issued on Tuesday. Presumably they knew about the nouns and verbs.

But we’ve already moved onto the “don’t mention the war” stage of the dispute, with the government desperately trying to tamp down talk of a split in Coalition ranks. Everyone is getting along famously, if you ask the deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack. The Coalition parties are “working together constructively”, the Nationals leader says, to ensure the education reforms “are the very best they can be” (words that could very easily appear on a student’s report card).

The cabinet minister with overarching responsibility for the bill, Dan Tehan, also tried to stay above the fray on Thursday. Tehan, a Liberal who represents a regional Victorian seat, insisted he was happy to receive feedback. Despite being no ordinary stakeholder, Gee had merely “put forward some suggestions that he thinks will improve the legislation”.

Based on conversations with government insiders over the past few days, Guardian Australia understands the junior minister is not about to lose his job. He won’t face serious repercussions for speaking out in such strident terms for two main reasons. One is that there’s always been a degree of latitude given to the Nationals to differentiate themselves from their senior Coalition partner from time to time. Another reason, say insiders, is that the government currently has much bigger issues on its plate, not least the far-reaching impact of the pandemic and the health and economic response.

Gee is understood to have the strong backing of his Nationals colleagues in taking this stand. It’s important to keep in mind that the revolt comes at a time when the Nationals have been struggling to articulate a vision that captures the excitement of their core constituency. In recent years, the Nationals have come under pressure in the regions from minor parties like the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers and One Nation. At times the Nationals have attracted criticism for backing mining interests over farmers (and demanding support for a new coal-fired power station in Queensland an article of faith). There was a blowup over the leadership of the Nationals at the beginning of this year, although McCormack survived Joyce’s challenge. Then the pandemic spawned a Liberal and Labor leader-dominated “national cabinet” – with the side-effect of sidelining the Nationals. The seriousness of the moment did not prevent an unedifying, personality-driven bout of in-fighting before the Eden-Monaro by-election.

So it’s handy for McCormack and his Nationals team to have a genuine policy issue to take up with vigour. The university package is one in which the real effect on people in the regions collides with the government’s stated policy intentions. The idea of dramatically hiking up the fees for students undertaking those dreaded humanities degrees may have instinctive appeal to a certain type of Liberal ideologues – but the Nationals have said: “Hang on a second, we don’t want our people to become collateral damage.” The overwhelming majority of the Nationals party room want Nationals ministers to “stand up” for their communities and, in the words of one member, to “punch above our weight”.

a man wearing a hat: Andrew Gee’s criticism of the Coalition’s university package comes at a time when the Nationals have been struggling to articulate a vision that captures the excitement of their core constituency.

© Photograph: Wolter Peeters/AAP
Andrew Gee’s criticism of the Coalition’s university package comes at a time when the Nationals have been struggling to articulate a vision that captures the excitement of their core constituency.

Gee sought to do just that when he declared country Australia must be given equitable access to mental health services and support after the devastation of bushfires, floods, drought and Covid-19. He is sounding the alarm that the inclusion of social work, behavioural science and mental health disciplines in “the highest paying cluster for students” will “only serve to further increase the maldistribution of mental health workers in country Australia” and has “the potential to impact women and mature students looking to upskill and move into higher paid jobs”. All of this should be core business for the Nationals.

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These aren’t the only problems with the university package. As we’ve covered before, the government apparently has no modelling about whether the changes will incentivise students to study science instead of humanities, which was the stated rationale. The sector warns the fee-and-funding shuffle could create perverse incentives for universities to enrol students in courses that the government does not consider as priorities. Another concern is that in order to fund important measures such as an overall increase in the number of places and incentives for regional and remote students, the government is cutting the average subsidy per student. The draft bill also flags the removal of financial support to university students who fail half of their first-year courses.

You would hope that with such weighty issues at stake – and with clear disagreements internally – the government would take the time to get it right. Remarkably, though, the government has allocated just six days for feedback on the 42-page draft bill. Departmental officials explained away the short deadline for submissions by saying Tehan was “very keen to get that into the parliament and have it passed to make sure it can take effect for the next calendar year”.

While Gee was quick out of the blocks, anyone else who is worried about “glaring and potentially detrimental” design flaws had better get a move on and put in a submission.

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