No rush on uni fees
Prime Minister Tony Abbott says his government has plenty to do before it worries about changes to university student fees. Nine news.PT0M55S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2uge0 620 349 September 26, 2013
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has publicly slapped down his Education Minister Christopher Pyne over his comments to scrap university service and amenity fees in a move to head off a damaging split within the Coalition.
Mr Pyne denounced the fees as ''compulsory student unionism by the back door'' in comments that inflamed old tensions between the Liberals and Nationals.
On Thursday Mr Abbott said the government had no plans to remove the fees and would focus on tackling more important issues.
"The important thing is to ensure that we maximise access to universities": Tony Abbott. Photo: Sandra Hutchinson
The rebuke of Mr Pyne, one of the most senior ministers and a close confidant of Mr Abbott, has sent a strong message to others that Mr Abbott expects a single unified message with no surprises or controversies.
''It is very important that the government speaks with a united voice,'' he said.
In only his second news conference since being sworn in, Mr Abbott said in Melbourne: ''We are going to be a very busy and active government over the next few years and this is not a priority for us and we have no plans for change in this area at this time.''
Since the potentially embarrassing controversy broke, Mr Abbott's office has issued strict rules for public comments by ministers.
In remarks that stoked old tensions in the Coalition, in which the then rookie Nationals senator Barnaby Joyce crossed the floor in 2005 to protect regional university services, Mr Pyne had said getting rid of the compulsory charges was a goal of the new government.
He said it would move at an appropriate time to abolish the system of compulsory fees.
That brought an immediate response from Michael McCormack, a Nationals MP and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Finance.
Mr McCormack said he was ''surprised and shocked'' at Mr Pyne's comments. ''This isn't so much of a funding issue. It's more of an ideology,'' he told Triple J's Hack program.
''While it might be philosophically important for those city unis to not have compulsory unionism, compulsory student fees, out here in the bush things are different. Students are different. There are different needs and wants,'' Mr McCormack said.
''It's something which I don't think necessarily has been totally thought through and certainly I'll be voicing my concerns about it
when next we hold meetings with the Coalition.''
The Howard government scrapped the fees in 2005 but only after securing the vote of Family First senator Steve Fielding to compensate for the loss of Senator Joyce's vote.
Nationals and even some rural Liberals believe the fees are crucial to the provision of services such as sporting clubs and equipment, especially in less wealthy regional campuses.
Mr Joyce, now a lower house member and the Agriculture Minister, said he could not see himself crossing the floor on the voluntary student unionism issue this time as it would mean sacrificing his cabinet position.
''I think people in the electorate would be pretty annoyed if I did [have to leave the ministry],'' he told Prime News.
In 2011 Labor reintroduced a partial version of the fees. Universities could charge students up to $273 a year to subsidise services such as legal assistance, sporting facilities, childcare and student advocacy. In an interview with Fairfax Media on Tuesday, Mr Pyne said: ''We opposed the student amenities fee when it was introduced by Labor; it was compulsory student unionism by the back door and we will move at an appropriate time to abolish the student amenities fee.''
In a separate interview that day he went further by suggesting the move to scrap the fees might be included in the government's first budget in May.
The issue threatened to ignite an internal row down party lines even before the government had gathered for its first parliamentary sitting.