6 July 2023
The Hon. R.A. SIMMS (15:56): I move:
That the motion be amended by inserting after 'Adelaide University' the words 'with the following amendments:
In subparagraph 1(b) leave out 'non-commercially confidential' and after subparagraph 1(d) insert a new
paragraph as follows:
(da) the consequences for Flinders University'.
I take this opportunity firstly to indicate our position on the Liberal Party amendments, which we will support. They are sensible amendments. I will talk a little bit about those amendments and indeed about the amendments that we are putting forward, but first I want to make some general remarks about this process and convey my profound disappointment to the government for the way in which they have dealt with this matter.
The Hon. Nicola Centofanti highlighted the background to the push for a parliamentary inquiry. It was last week when I heard that there was the potential, there was certainly a lot of media speculation, that there might well be an announcement that the two universities were keen to start up a merger. I began canvassing with my colleagues support for the idea of a parliamentary committee to look into the proposal. It was very clear from the government's comments in the lead-up to the announcement that they did not support having any parliamentary scrutiny of the proposal. I think the terms that were used were 'denial', 'delay' and 'this has got to be dealt with quickly'.
On the weekend, I came out and indicated that the Greens would be moving to establish a parliamentary inquiry into this. I was joined at that announcement by the Hon. Frank Pangallo from SA-Best, who was supportive of the call, and also, on the same day, the Liberal Party came out and supported it as well. The Premier subsequently, a day later, indicated that he was initially against an inquiry because it would be a delay. Then he was in favour of an inquiry, but only if it was six months.
I think, as I pointed out in media interviews, it is for the parliament to determine how long such an inquiry should progress for. All members of this place were aware of the crossbench's intention to establish an inquiry. I was totally transparent around that and around the issues that would be canvassed by such an inquiry.
Rather than picking up the phone and talking to me and providing an opportunity for all of the parties to get together and nut out the terms of reference for a joint parliamentary inquiry, instead the Labor Party plays a political game where they spring this on everybody unawares in the other place and then try to ram it through here today. That is disappointing because actually I think all of us would have agreed to a joint parliamentary inquiry.
I do not think anybody in this chamber would have said, 'Don't have a joint parliamentary inquiry.' If you had wanted to do it, why not sit down and talk to us? Pick up the phone. That is all they had to do is pick up the phone and have a chat with me, maybe have a chat with the Hon. Frank Pangallo, who had also been working on the terms of reference, engage with us in a respectful way and we could have all worked out something, rather than coming here today with terms of reference that miss the mark and with a short-term reporting process.
This really, I think, typifies the arrogant way in which the Malinauskas government have approached this issue, the way in which they have politicised this whole merger process. It is profoundly disappointing to me, and indeed the Greens, that members of university staff across the two universities found out about this plan through a media story that was reported on Saturday night. No-one from those universities had the courtesy to actually let their staff know before Saturday evening. How disrespectful is that?
Then, to add insult to injury, you have our two vice-chancellors being politicised by the Premier holding a joint press event where the Premier takes ownership of this whole proposal, and then the government is too arrogant to lower themselves to actually talk to the crossbench before today around crafting some terms of reference for an inquiry and a process. So what we have, when we step into this chamber, is a shambolic dog's breakfast, which actually typifies the botched approach that the Malinauskas government has taken to this whole process.
It is interesting to remark that during question time I asked the Hon. Clare Scriven about the government's commitment during the last election. They indicated they were going to have a commission of inquiry into this proposal—that is an independent process—but instead what we have is the Malinauskas government running their own process, taking ownership of this, and the role of the parliament is just to rubber stamp. The parliament is seen as an inconvenience, an obstacle, to them pursuing their agenda, and that is disappointing because actually it is this parliament that is going to have to change the law.
If you want to make friends and influence people on the crossbench, this is not the way to do it—just a little tip. If you wanted to try to win people over to support your bill, this is a really curious strategy. We will see how it plays out, but it is a really curious strategy that they have embarked upon, rather than the strategy of collegiality and engagement with one's colleagues in this small chamber. It is disappointing, but anyway this is where we are at.
Enough about the process. What about the substance? All of the amendments that the opposition are putting forward we will support. I want to indicate in particular why I think the extension of the time frame is important. It has never been my intention or the intention of the Greens to try to frustrate on this issue. All we have said is that we have concerns about the impact on jobs, we have concerns about the impact on staff, and those concerns are shared by the NTEU, they are shared by a number of academic staff, and they are informed by the experience of what has happened in other jurisdictions around the world where there have been mergers—look at Manchester university.
Indeed, there was a survey that came out today that demonstrated that Australia's largest universities fail to deliver good outcomes for students and that the highest student satisfaction was among our nation's smallest universities. It is against this backdrop that the Greens wanted to have an inquiry to consider the issues.
This idea that we need to proceed with this at breakneck speed I find really bizarre. If the government needed to get this done in this quarter of the year, why did they only announce it on Saturday? Why did they not work to do it in the early half of the year, so that there was appropriate time for the parliament to work through the issues? Why was the engagement of the parliament at the end of the process rather than at the beginning? Why has the government's approach been: this is a fait accompli, sign along the dotted line, rather than giving the parliament the opportunity to consider the implications in a thorough way?
That is why I think it is quite reasonable for the opposition to propose an extension. It would be my hope we could get the committee done earlier than the Leader of the Opposition has proposed, but why not give enough time to appropriately ventilate the issues? We are supportive of those amendments.
To speak to the amendments that I am putting forward, one of the key issues in the media this week, which I found really astounding, has been that it seems no-one in the government has read the business case underpinning this proposal. The Premier has not read it. The minister for higher education, the Deputy Premier, has not read it. We know the Hon. Clare Scriven has not read it, but that is not unusual, with respect. She often does not indicate whether or not she has read reports, but I do not think she has read this one. It is not her portfolio, she will say—the catchcry in this place.
I know a lot of people in the community will ask, 'Why haven't they looked at that information?' At the very least, I think the people's representatives in the parliament should actually have an opportunity to access that information and that is why I am moving this amendment, because I think it is appropriate that the parliament consider those issues.
The final amendment that I am seeking to advance today is one that considers the implications for Flinders University. A fair point that has been raised with me is: what about people from low socio-economic backgrounds from Flinders University? I grew up in the southern suburbs, I am a graduate of Flinders University, and I know that a lot of people from Flinders University will ask what role they are playing in this process and whether they will get access as an institution to the same support that is being afforded. I think it is worthwhile adding that into the terms of reference, so that some of these implications can be considered.
It is disappointing that this is the process we have landed on. The Greens welcome an inquiry. We were the ones calling for it. We would have been happy to achieve a joint parliamentary inquiry. I just wish that the government had sat down and had a chat with me. I am not that difficult to deal with. I am actually quite nice.
The PRESIDENT: The Hon. Mr Simms, I think we will be the judge of that.
The Hon. R.A. SIMMS: I would have been very happy to sit and have a chat with them. Everybody knows I am really easygoing, and they could have sat down and had a chat with me and we could have nutted something out. Instead, what we have is this booby trap that has blown up in all of our faces today, the exploding cigar that one pulls out of the drawer and it has blown up in everybody's face. There could have been a different process that was adopted. I hope there is some collective learning from this, so that we do not do this in the future.
There are legitimate questions that need to be ventilated through this process, questions for students and questions for academic staff. I have to laugh when I see the debates about mergers and so on. There is often very little discussion around students and their interests. It is like the old saying that a hospital would be great if not for the patients. The universities do not work without students. They are a fundamental stakeholder group. They need to be consulted. They need to be engaged. I hope that the government starts to engage with them, starts to talk with them, starts to talk with the broader community, rather than just simply announcing these things as a fait accompli.