THE federal opposition has accused the government of trying to avoid scrutiny after it reassigned tertiary education to the Senate estimates committee which oversees economics.
But the government says the change is standard procedure following any ministerial reshuffle.
The kerfuffle follows Wednesday’s vote to allocate tertiary education and skills to the Senate economics legislation committee, which already had coverage of science and research.
The change aligned government Senate leader Chris Evans’s new portfolio responsibilities under a single committee, after he lost workplace relations and picked up science and research in last December’s reshuffle
But Coalition regional education spokeswoman Fiona Nash said the decision was “bizarre” and would slash the time allocated to senators to scrutinise tertiary education expenditure at next Wednesday’s committee hearings.
“This move shows that the government views tertiary and vocational education as a financial issue, which is extraordinary – the economics committee is not the place for education,” Senator Nash said.
“It means only an hour and three-quarters will be allowed for questions on tertiary and vocational education due to the economics committee’s already large agenda.”
Senator Nash said the education, employment and workplace relations committee, “where these portfolios properly belong”, had allocated more than four hours to tertiary education.
Deputy opposition Senate leader George Brandis told parliament that the change reflected the Gillard Government’s “notorious” lack of interest in education. Liberal colleague Mitch Fifield said this had been illustrated following the 2010 election when the Prime Minister “forgot to appoint an education minister”.
“I served for five years as the chair of the Senate economics committee, and I know better than most just how heavy the work of the economics committee is,” Senator Brandis added.
Universities and research spokesman Brett Mason said estimates was “perhaps the most important modern justification for the Senate”, informing governments about their own failures as well as enabling oppositions to score points.
“To compromise the capacity of Senate estimates to do their job is a very bad thing. It sets a very bad precedent when the opposition is unable to address really critical issues.”
But the manager of government business in the Senate, Mark Arbib, said the change was procedural and didn’t warrant the hour and three-quarters opposition senators had just spent criticising it.
“I hope the chamber will recognise the logic of aligning portfolios with committees,” Senator Arbib said.
He said extra time had been allocated for the economics committee hearing next Friday. “But committees are able to take extra time if they think they need it,” he added.
The change will have little impact on who asks the questions, as all senators are entitled to attend any estimate hearing. Senators Mason and Nash aren’t full members of either the economics or education committee.
A spokesman for Senator Evans said it was ridiculous to accuse the government of lacking interest in tertiary education, saying it would spend $3 billion more on universities this year than would have been the case under a continuation of Howard Government funding trends.