Gerry Brownlee, left and Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.Gerry Brownlee, left, with Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop (Photo: Supplied)
Benedict Collins, Political Reporter
Gerry Brownlee has been blasted for his first overseas outing as Foreign Minister, with critics accusing him of rolling over and adopting the Australian government’s position on its controversial education changes.
In a pre-budget announcement, the Australian government said this week it would stop subsidising New Zealanders’ tertiary education from next year – more than tripling the costs for many students.
A large portion were expected to have costs rise from $7000 a year to more than $25,000 a year.
Mr Brownlee, who took over the role of Foreign Minister from Murray McCully this week, met with his Australian counterpart, Julie Bishop, today in Sydney.
The New Zealand government had no idea the change was coming, but Mr Brownlee said he now understood why.
“I appreciate it’s very difficult if you’re putting together a Budget that you can’t necessarily go off and having international bilateral negotiations about what’s going to be in that Budget.
“So I think this is a bit of a one-off,” Mr Brownlee said.
Ms Bishop said Australia’s higher education reforms would benefit New Zealanders because they would get access to Australian student loans.
“New Zealanders across the board will have greater access to what is a very generous higher education loans programme so my expectation is that more New Zealanders will be seeking to obtain degrees from an Australian university.”
Mr Brownlee, who apparently also mistook Ms Bishop for the Australian Prime Minister, agreed.
“As people become more familiar with how that scheme is going to work in the future I think Prime Minister Bishop is probably going to be right.”
Mr Brownlee’s comments infuriated lobby group Oz Kiwi’s chairman, Timothy Gassin, who said the tertiary education changes were the biggest slap in the face to New Zealanders in 15 years.
“This is by far the most substantial change that’s happened since 2001 and the New Zealand government’s response is to roll over,” Mr Gassin said.
“And not just roll over on it and accept it, but actually go out there as Brownlee was today, and essentially take the Australian government’s talking points and say ‘oh well, hell, this isn’t too bad because actually it will encourage more Kiwis to go and study in Australia because of their generous student loan scheme’.
“It’s frankly a load of nonsense.”
Labour education spokesperson Chris Hipkins felt the same way.
“I think New Zealanders will be disappointed by that. Gerry Brownlee clearly seems to have just rolled over and let Julie Bishop tickle his tummy.
“I think that New Zealanders would want to see that Gerry was sticking up for them, and obviously that’s not the case.”
The New Zealand government said Australians studying here would continue to pay the same fees as New Zealanders.
More than 12,000 New Zealanders study at tertiary institutes in Australia, while last year 4600 Australians were studying at universities here.
For New Zealanders living in Australia, the education changes are just the latest blow.
Depending on when they arrived in Australia, many New Zealanders cannot access social welfare benefits or the National Disability Insurance Scheme, despite paying taxes.
Australians in New Zealand, in the spirit of the traditional approach both countries used to take, mostly have the same rights as New Zealanders.
More than 1000 Australians claimed about $180,000 in benefits here in a single week last December – amounting to a yearly cost to New Zealand taxpayers of more than $9 million.
[Read the Radio NZ article].