Education Minister Christopher Pyne has hired a “fixer” to talk to crossbench senators as the government prepares to bring its higher education reforms back before parliament.
The Australian has learnt that ex-bureaucrat-turned-consultant Robert Griew, a former associate secretary in the Department of Education, has been holding meetings about the twice-rejected legislation with a number of politicians and university groups at the personal direction of the minister.
Mr Pyne, who last year bragged he had solved a funding dispute by saying “I’ve fixed it. I’m a fixer”, has employed Mr Griew to “test the broad range of ideas” being put forward by various stakeholders, including senators and members in opposition parties.
“Mr Griew will provide advice to the government (and) be engaged until early September,” a spokesman for Mr Pyne said.
One source close to the talks said Mr Pyne was “looking for a way out and possibly saving face”.
The legislation would have deregulated university fees, indexed student loans to the consumer price index and established a scholarship fund for low-socio-economic students.
Mr Pyne had also moved to split the bill and defer voting on a 20 per cent cut to course subsidies.
A spokesman for the Education Minister confirmed the bill would be brought back to the upper house in the spring sitting, which resumes next week.
Mr Pyne is open to “constructive ideas” but has said deregulation must stay as part of the overhaul.
Liberal Democrat senator David Leyonhjelm said Mr Griew was attempting to find out the crossbenchers’ “motivations” and “priorities”.
“(Mr Pyne’s) got him talking to the crossbench to try and find a way through the maze,” Senator Leyonhjelm told The Australian.
“I think he’s going about it in a very sensible fashion.”
Senator Leyonhjelm said he had not received a different proposal to the previous bill but added: “There isn’t an expectation it would be identical legislation either. I had thought that was the case.”
The legislation has widely been seen as a potential trigger for a double-dissolution election but the government would need the bill to be rejected again in its current form before that option became available.
Palmer United Party senator Zhenya Wang welcomed the talks and said Mr Pyne had the right “intent”. “Part of this exercise is probably to prepare their policy going forward for the coming election,” he said.
Independent senator Jacqui Lambie, who is against fee deregulation, has declined the offer to meet Mr Griew.
Her spokesman said she did not “have the time to give to time- wasters; and Pyne is just (an) annoying time-waster”.
Senator Wang and independent senator Glenn Lazarus also told The Australian their opposition to the bill had not changed.
If Labor and the Greens remain opposed to the reforms, Mr Pyne needs to win over six of the eight crossbenchers to see his legislation pass through the Senate.
Only three voted for the bill at a second reading debate when it was last rejected in March.