The crashing and burning of the government’s higher education deregulation reforms is a study in this government’s ineptitude — a set of profound flaws that the government not only shows no sign of fixing, but shows no evidence of even being aware of them.

From 2010 to 2013 Australia had a minority government that couldn’t even be assured of getting its legislation through the House of Representatives, let alone the Senate. It was, we were told at the outset, a recipe for dysfunction, uncertainty and chaos. There was plenty of that, due to Kevin Rudd’s psychopathy, but Julia Gillard managed to negotiate a raft of controversial, bitterly contested reforms into law. Now that the “adults” are in charge, suddenly legislating has become nearly impossible.

One of the criticisms often correctly levelled at Labor in government was its inability to explain the rationale for its reforms, springing solutions on voters for problems they weren’t aware existed. But in that regard, the Abbott government makes its predecessors look positively Keating-like. To the extent that voters understand why the government wants to allow universities to increase their fees, it’s to address the shortfall the government itself has created by slashing funding by 20%. At no stage has the government articulated a coherent case to voters as to the need for its reforms.

And that’s despite many universities being onside with the reforms, at least broadly. The Coalition in opposition and in government has repeatedly demanded that industry make the case for difficult or unpopular reforms. Well, that’s what Education Minister Christopher Pyne had for his deregulation package (because what industry is going to object to having limitations on its ability to charge customers removed?) And he still screwed it up. Pyne’s failure sends a strong signal to the entire business community — get on board with unpopular reforms and there’s a strong chance all you’ll get is defeat in the Senate and the opprobrium of voters.

“Labor, the Greens and Lambie, however, will be delighted the government wants to keep deregulation on the books, even if only for budget reasons.”

Then there was Pyne’s inept tactics in negotiating with the crossbench. In the face of likely defeat, he waited until 3.30 yesterday afternoon to put forward an additional set of measures beyond the compromises he’d already agreed with supportive senators like Bob Day. Worse, the new measures were an implicit acknowledgement of the unfairness of the overall package, with a $100 million “transition fund” for universities with higher numbers of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds and new scholarships (from existing funding) for rural and regional students. Pyne also said the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission would be directed to monitor fees in the sector. All this from a minister whose department didn’t bother doing any modelling on what the impact of deregulation on fees would be. In an era when dodgy modelling is used by everyone from the Minerals Council to alcohol prohibitionists to sell or oppose reform, it never occurred to Pyne’s office that some numbers might help?

Meanwhile Pyne himself had been barraging Glenn Lazarus with texts, perhaps under the misapprehension that the key to building successful relationships with crossbenchers is to hassle them so much they get annoyed to the point of publicly criticising you.

Then, the aftermath. The moment his bill went down, Pyne declared he would be introducing a new one the following day. “The Senate will have the Christmas holiday period to consider this new reform bill,” he said, seemingly viewing recalcitrant crossbenchers as kids being ordered to detention to reflect on why they shouldn’t disrupt class. It’s unlikely Jacqui Lambie, who savaged the bill as an instrument of class warfare by the Liberals, will be giving the bill much consideration, or for that matter Glenn Lazarus, who called it a “bad to the core” “sinister budget cutting measure”.

In any event, no additional consideration is required anyway, because it it won’t be a new bill at all, as Pyne readily admitted to journalists this morning. It will merely be the existing bill with the additional amendments agreed with other crossbenchers relating to indexation of debt, plus the last-minute compromises Pyne rolled out at 3.30 yesterday. There won’t be anything actually new in it compared to the package the Senate knew it was defeating yesterday, beyond, said Pyne “time and persuasion”. Oh, and perhaps a government advertising campaign that the government is considering to address Labor’s “scare campaign” on fees, which Pyne also flagged.

Labor, the Greens and Lambie, however, will be delighted the government wants to keep deregulation on the books, even if only for budget reasons. They all know this is a profoundly unpopular package with the electorate: some 56% of people oppose deregulation, compared with only 23% who support it, Essential found yesterday, and the 20% cut is even less popular, with 65% opposed to 20% in support. Labor and the Greens have ensured the package is synonymous with $100,000 degrees (which Pyne tried to dispute this morning, but seemed to end up endorsing). It’s quite possible that much of the electorate sees the package exactly as Lambie sees it, as a Liberal plan to stop working-class kids from accessing higher education. And its opponents will keep using it against the government as long as it gives them the chance to.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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