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Election 1999:: Two Weeks Down Seven To Go

If there was ever any doubt that tertiary education was shaping up to be one of the key election issues, then week two of the election campaign has put those doubts to rest.

Week two has seen two groups of students occupying their Registry buildings at Canterbury and Victoria Universities and fee-setting for tertiary institutions is now under way. Canterbury University have increased fees by a massive 33 per cent - up from $3200 this year to over $4000 next year. This increase was lower than the 45 per cent hike that many expected, but students are, quite rightly, far from happy.

The current focus on tertiary education may well be bad news for National who, unlike Labour, have not named it as one of their key issues to campaign on in the coming election. National have offered nothing new for tertiary education and this could be a costly error. Between now and the election, fee setting will occur at most of this country’s tertiary institutions and Canterbury University looks to have set the precedent that most others will follow.

Come November 27 there looks certain to be tens of thousands of upset students and many more concerned parents heading to the polls. Now more than ever the claim from students’ associations that education is becoming a commodity only for the rich is beginning to hit a nerve. It is clear that the rate at which university fees continue to rise is as unsustainable as the student debt which recently climbed past $3 billion. And the government is not doing itself any favours in the way it deals with this very concerned and suspicious sector.

Canterbury University says it had no choice but to put the fees up by the level it did as their reserves are bare and government underfunding leaves them a shortfall to make up. Other vice chancellors have repeatedly claimed that government underfunding is pushing the price of education up, a claim Tertiary Education Minister Max Bradford flatly rejected this week. He said the rising fees were nothing to do with him or his government but rather had everything to do with the relationship between universities and their students. He was also quick to point out that "only half" of all students had taken out student loans and he has lately been fond to note that participation in tertiary education continues to rise.

Bradford is correct when he says participation is rising, but a look at the tertiary education system which National has built shows just how much it helps to have wealthy parents. The half of all students that have borrowed from the loan scheme are set to begin their working lives owing money to the government - many with debts around $20,000 and many owing a great deal more. Those who borrow from the loan scheme are more often those who cannot receive sufficient parental assistance to cover the costs. Those whose parents can meet the costs start work debt free and this perpetuates a cycle. Kids of rich parents get richer, kids of poor parents get rich a whole lot slower, if at all.

It is indisputable that National have created an education system that favours the rich and they are going to have to defend this system over the next seven weeks against what will be vigorous and sustained attacks from Labour and the Alliance. This is going to be very hard work for National and doing so is likely to earn them few votes anyhow. National is unpopular within the public tertiary sector and is unlikely to receive the votes of the education oriented voter. However, in perhaps the most cynical and self-serving move in the election campaign to date, National announced on Thursday that the amendments they had planned for the loan scheme, on areas such as interest and repayments, may be brought forward a year to, you guessed it, right now. Before the election. This move is blatant patch-up electioneering by National and reports from students suggest it is being seen for exactly what it is.

National have decided to leave education out of their focus in favour of issues such as taxation and the Employment Contracts Act. Their credibility may benefit through sticking to this plan rather than engaging in undignified and transparent electioneering so late in the piece.

This week the Alliance launched their Housing policy which promises to build 1000 new state houses each year, phase in income related rents (down to 25 per cent of income in three years) and introduce financial assistance for first home buyers. Alliance leader Jim Anderton said in some cases more than 60 per cent of peoples weekly income was going on market rents and this was causing poverty and health related problems for many low income New Zealanders.

Following the hyped launch of ACTs Treaty of Waitangi policy - on the top of One Tree Hill no less - ACT MPs are now off on a ‘Heartland Tour’ of provincial New Zealand. This is a smart move from ACT who have accurately identified their primary support base and the issues of concern to rural voters. ACTs policy of abolishing the Treaty, placing a cut-off date on all Treaty claims and insisting that all settlements are full and final will probably have considerable appeal to rural New Zealand. ACT see that the rural vote is disillusioned with National and their attentions in this sector may well be welcomed.

ACT were also singled out in Sir Douglas Graham’s valedictory speech on Thursday over their treatment of Maori grievances, the settlement process and the Treaty. ACT wished him well in his retirement but rejected his comments. Their tertiary policy which was also launched this week promises to abolish Maori quotas for entrance to study and party, they oppose the Maori seats in parliament and leader Richard Prebble appeared on the Holmes Show as the logical opposition to Tau Henare’s statement that all public servants should learn compulsory Maori. What looks sure to be a primary plank of the ACT campaign has been revealed.

The Greens launched a detailed Conservation Policy early in the week, promising to increase the funding for the Department of Conservation, move towards making 20 per cent of our exclusive economic zone marine reserve, funding and supporting adequate pest and border control and trying to save the Kiwi and the Hectors Dolphin. Obviously this policy is a key component of the Green campaign and Labour leader Helen Clark seemed remarkably relaxed with it, saying Labour was strong on conservation and that they could work with the Green policy.

The fishing industry is outraged by the policy, however given that this week they announced their biggest ever export total of $1.3 billion this is hardly surprising. Winston Peters has said his party will not support the marine reserve quota of the Greens and will instead support the fishing industry.

Also this week the government announced another Treaty Settlement - the $5 million dollar Ngati Turangitukua settlement - before veteran Minister Sir Douglas Graham retires at the election. The Ngati Turangitukua Claims Settlement Bill was passed successfully through the House in its last week before the election. The legislation puts into effect the $5 million dollar settlement reached last year. It deals with the grievances which arose from Crown breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi in the 1960s during the construction of the Turangi township, built to support the Tongariro power scheme.

The government also looks set to move on another embarrassment - the low wages of our peacekeeping forces in East Timor. After it was revealed that troops in the Australian military earn four times as much as our soldiers, a Cabinet paper is being prepared for discussion on Monday. It looks almost certain that our troops will be getting a significant pay rise for a Christmas present - a move which will likely be supported by most New Zealanders.

Of less good news for the government, and the parties of the right generally, was the release of the New Zealand Values study by Massey University which found that most people were prepared to pay more for an increase in social spending. This is great news for Labour and the Alliance who have said this all along, however National and ACT may now feel slightly unsettled in their ability to accurately read the mood of the electorate.

The House will now rise until the election and the next seven weeks will, consequently, be characterised by more intense electioneering than ever. Week two of this election campaign was, like the first, dominated by the disgruntled tertiary education sector.

Finally it seems as though tertiary education looks set to dominate a general election. Students and the various institutions will be keeping the pressure up for the next seven weeks. This is not good news for National.

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