Should the ayes have it? Rex Patrick asks the question on the Tehan Bill

The Senate committee reviewing the student-place funding legislation heard at length yesterday what is wrong with the legislation – it may not matter

Early in the day Uni Tasmania VC Rufus Black explained why the bill was good for his university and state – his reasons did not impress Labor senators Kim Carr and Deborah O’Neill or Mehreen Faruqi, from The Greens.

It set the tone for proceedings. Vice Chancellors who support the bill, albeit with qualifications, were critically questioned by Labor senators and Senator Faruqi. As were Deborah Terry and Catriona Jackson from Universities Australia who faced particularly critical questions from Senator Carr and Senator Faruqi.

Students and the National Tertiary Education Union however, had opportunities to explain the legislation’s inequities.

And policy experts who are across the detail of the legislation were asked to to explain its failings, at length.

Matt O’Sullivan (LP, WA) briefly up-ended the agree-a-thon, asking Uni Sydney VC Michael Spence, a fierce critic of the bill, about his university’s budgeting – which did not add anything to anybody’s understanding of the bill.

Kim Carr responded to this by asking Dr Spence what he thought of attacks on universities in general and his in particular.  “Australia has one of the best higher education systems in the world … for anybody in parliament our outside parliament to denigrate our universities is a great mistake,” he replied.

The only cross bencher participating, Rex Patrick (Independent-SA) asked witnesses for actual information about the bill and its context and put one of the two questions of the day to Universities Australia – if the bill is not amended should he vote for it or against it.

Ms Jackson replied passage will provide the certainty universities need. But how he voted was a matter for him. So, Senator Patrick asked the question again. To which Professor Terry responded UA had asked for amendments, some of which the government had adopted but while it wants more changes, “certainty for the sector into the future is critically important.”

The other question was not actually asked yesterday but it shaped everything that was said– does the government already have the numbers?

If Queensland senators Pauline Hanson and Malcolm Roberts vote with the government the bill needs only more backer. There are three it could be, Senator Patrick, another South Australian, Stirling Griff or Tasmanian independent Jacqui Lambie.

This may be why Rufus Black got a hard time.

The Committee hears evidence again on Thursday with its report due Friday week.