By Tanya Plibersek

18 May 2021



TUESDAY, 18 MAY 2021 

SUBJECTS: Melbourne visit; The Liberals’ commuter carparks broken promise; Vaccine rollout chaos; Remote learning; The Labor Party; Teacher shortages; Hotel quarantine; Climate action; Women in politics; Sexual assault and violence against women.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN, HOST: Tanya Plibersek is in Melbourne, alongside Anthony Albanese and a whole lot of other federal Labor people. Great to have you in the studio, thank you.

TANYA PLIBERSEK, SHADOW MINISTER FOR EDUCATION, SHADOW MINISTER FOR WOMEN: It's always a pleasure to see you face to face. Instead of down the phone line.

EPSTEIN: It's much easier. Just so people know what a politician does, can you just rattle off, where have you been today? Where are you going tomorrow? Like, who are you talking to?

PLIBERSEK: I did a fantastic Community Forum with Peter Khalil in Brunswick today, so that was just open to all comers. They could come and talk to me about education policy or anything they're interested in. And then I went to visit the Lighthouse Foundation, which is a fantastic not-for-profit organisation that houses young people, young parents in particular, very vulnerable people. They do, almost all of their work is funded through philanthropic donations, so if you've got a spare dollar in your pocket and you can help out a young homeless person, they're a great organisation. Tomorrow I'm going to see my colleague Peta Murphy and we're going to have a round table with Principals first thing in the morning. I'm going to visit the Monash University, Peninsula campus, and then I'm going to Karingal Heights Primary School where I'm going to be reading with the primary school kids.

EPSTEIN: Right, okay. Just good to know what people actually do in their day jobs. They don't just talk about the things that are in the media. Why don't I what I start with the carparks, actually, because I think is it Peta Murphy's seat that had a few? It might be her seat that had a few of these carparks. But essentially places like Mitchum's a good one because we were speaking about that, in Michael Sukkar's seat of Deakin. The money's not going anywhere. So sure it's not being delivered, there's one down the road at Ringwood station which is a 10 minute drive away, it can make it easier to get a seat on the train. They're still building something. They're still using the money, aren't they? 

PLIBERSEK: Well, first of all, I'm not sure whether they're in Peta Murphy's electorate of Dunkley but I did notice that 25 out of 30 of the ones that were promised were in Liberal seats. That's one of those Deidre Chambers moments. Isn't it? Deidre Chambers. What a surprise, fancy seeing you here, commuter carparks in Liberal seats.

EPSTEIN: Well yes pretty sure Kananook and Seaford, they are in Peta Murphy’s electorate of Dunkley. So they're in marginals, they're all often in marginal seats because marginal seats need resources. Infrastructure. 

PLIBERSEK: Yeah, and the point of these is you shouldn't make a promise that you're not going to keep. They shouldn't have said it before the election, if they weren't going to build them after the election.

EPSTEIN: They're keeping them in a way, they're going to spend the money elsewhere. Money hasn’t been taken away.

PLIBERSEK: That's very generous of you. It's a very generous interpretation. I think if you were promised a commuter carpark at your local railway station and now you're not getting it, it probably wouldn't be an enormous comfort to know that there was somewhere else, some other commuter carpark being built. Shouldn't make promises you're not intending to keep.

EPSTEIN: Let's go to Cheryl who’s in Kew East. What do you want to say, Cheryl?

CHERYL, CALLER: Actually, I didn't want to ask Tanya a question. I rang about another issue, it's about the rollout of the vaccine in disability.

EPSTEIN: In Tony Jones’ immortal words, you can make a comment and not a question and then we'll see if Tanya wants to say something, what did you want to address?

PLIBERSEK: Cheryl, the way to do it is to make your statement and then afterwards you say to me, do you agree? And suddenly it's a question.

CALLER: Okay, well anyway love your work Tanya, but I just wanted to say that, I'm disappointed, outraged, offended by Greg Hunt’s comments that they prioritised the residents in Aged Care facilities ahead of disability group home residents, I mean, they put them in the same category, 1A, because they're vulnerable but then they say they prioritise them. I mean people with a disability have a lower life expectancy, they very, very often have multiple health issues and to say they're not as vulnerable... please. Comment, please Tanya.

PLIBERSEK: Thanks Cheryl, you are absolutely a hundred percent right. Lots of people in disability group homes or in other facilities, have multiple health problems. It's not usually one health problem, there's multiple health problems and you're right, their in group 1A and I can't, for the life of me explain to you why they haven't been prioritised. I think we're talking about a thousand people vaccinated out of a population of 26,000. It is absolutely appalling. And the whole vaccine rollout, I think from beginning to end, we're supposed to have about 6 million people vaccinated. Now, we've got about 3 million vaccinated. We can't...

EPSTEIN: Well, first dose. 

PLIBERSEK: Yeah, exactly and not even fully vaccinated.

EPSTEIN: We're not sure. It's 3.1 million jabs, we don't know what that means.

PLIBERSEK: And it's not clear whether people will be vaccinated by the end of the year, or they won't. We've had all sorts of different messages. We can't get life back to anything like normal until we've got a much greater share of the Australian population vaccinated than we have now.

EPSTEIN: Just on the disability homes, one of the things that's coming out in the Royal Commission today, they clearly looked at what happened in Victoria, there were very many deaths in Aged Care. There weren't any deaths and disability care. Wasn't that a good reason to prioritise Aged Care residents over people who live in disability care?

PLIBERSEK: Yeah, it's May. We should have both aged care and disability care residents, and staff vaccinated by now. We should have a much greater share of the population vaccinated by now.

EPSTEIN: Vaccine passports? Do you think we're going to have them?

PLIBERSEK: Look, I don't know, I think the best thing to focus on is encouraging people that this is a safe and effective vaccination to have and we do that by encouraging rather than threatening to punish in the first instance. 

EPSTEIN: The Prime Minister was talking about vaccine passports, I suspect as an incentive. There is clear hesitancy, especially around AstraZeneca. I am queuing up to get it as soon as I am eligible. 

PLIBERSEK: I'm booked in. 

EPSTEIN: Happy to put that on the table, but there's clearly a huge number of people are like, no thanks. I'm going to wait until I get an mRNA vaccine, how do we fix that? 

PLIBERSEK: Well, we should encourage people by continuing to talk about the science and I've booked in, I'm queued up for mine and I assume I'll be getting the AstraZeneca vaccine. It would be helpful if we had mRNA capacity to manufacture here in Australia. And you know, we've obviously said, Labor said, that we would like to have that capacity. We think we should be building that capacity here.

EPSTEIN: Very complicated capacity that, the Pfizer type vaccine. I think they get components from dozens of countries. Not a simple thing.

PLIBERSEK: I know it's not a simple thing, but we're not a simple country. I mean, we've got brilliant researchers here. We've got you know, we were the country that sequenced the COVID-19 genome.

EPSTEIN: Here in Melbourne

PLIBERSEK: We have great people here, right in Melbourne that’s right Raf. And I just, it absolutely can't be beyond us. 

EPSTEIN: Tanya Plibersek is with us. She's Shadow Minister for Education, also Shadow Minister for Women. She is part of Anthony Albanese's team. Melissa's got a question from Williamstown, I think. What is it Melissa? 

MELISSA, CALLER: First of all Tanya, thank you for everything that you're doing for women in politics. I'm just so thrilled to be able to speak to you this afternoon. I have a son who is in first year of uni after a really hard year 12 of being online. He's now facing another year of online, with first year of uni. He finds it really hard to engage with it and he's extremely socially isolated, and I was wondering what pressure, if any, you're able to put on universities to open up just like the rest of everywhere else is?

PLIBERSEK: Yeah, I absolutely agree with you because, of course, getting an education when you go to university is really important, being work-ready, really important, but the social connections we make at university, the friendships we form, the new interests we take up, the hobbies, clubs. All of that's a really important part of the university experience and young people have missed out on that this year, and last year. They have really struggled. The kids who went to online learning in their final year of high school and then went into a university world where they couldn't establish those new friendships because they were talking to each other across Zoom from bedrooms kilometres apart.

EPSTEIN: Can you can you Zoom in to people like Margaret Gardner and Monash and say “hey, please have more students on campus”, do they listen to you?

PLIBERSEK: Well I have been saying to the Vice Chancellors that I meet that I think it's important to resume face-to-face learning. It's important for all sorts of reasons to do it. I would say the university budgets have been phenomenally hard-hit by COVID-19. It's worth remembering that very profitable companies got JobKeeper, our casinos got JobKeeper, but our universities didn't. Our private sector higher education providers got support from the Government. Our public sector ones didn't.

EPSTEIN: They kept the funding for all the domestic places, though didn't they? Federal Government gave every dollar for the domestic places still?

PLIBERSEK: They kept funding for domestic places. We've missed out, I think the last estimate I saw was $9 billion of income last year from international students. That's a huge hit, and this Budget actually cuts funding to universities and shows that the cost of a degree has gone up for students. Student debt will rise because the cost of degrees have gone up, an ordinary sort of three-year bachelor degree with an honours year, say a four year Arts course, will now cost a young person $60,000 on graduation. So they've got a lower quality of education, or at least less face-to-face education, and a debt that is just terrifying.

EPSTEIN: 18 minutes past 4. There's a tonne of texts on this line. I'll read David's because it's the more entertaining version: 'I'd love to have a beer with Albo, however, there is zero chance of an electoral win. Is Tanya Plibersek going to sit by and gift the Morrison Government a second term? Tanya Plibersek for PM.' There's a whole lot of people asking why you are not Labor leader.

PLIBERSEK: Because I'm absolutely focused on making sure we win the next election with Anthony Albanese as our leader and I can't wait to be an Education Minister in an Albanese Labor Government.

EPSTEIN: Not interested in being Leader? Don't want to do it. 

PLIBERSEK: No, I'm focused on us winning the next election with Anthony as Leader.

EPSTEIN: Do you get that a lot? Because there's a, quite a few texts of people who are happy to vote for Labor, but not happy with your leader?

PLIBERSEK: I think he's doing a great job in very difficult circumstances.

EPSTEIN: Could you do more to cut through? 

PLIBERSEK: I think it's important that all of us as a team keep reminding every Australian that we've got a vision for a stronger economy and a fairer society that Scott Morrison, you know, he's great at grabbing the headlines, but he's not so great at delivery, and that the key areas: aged-care, vaccine rollout, our borders, the tracing app have actually been utter failures. 

EPSTEIN: What works in Opposition because Michael O'Brien here, the state opposition leader has, I mean he wants everyone to resign: the people who run hotel quarantine, the Premier, they want Royal Commissions, they've tried being noisy and angry. I'm not actually sure that that made any significant headway or got him name recognition to Anthony Albanese has tried something very different. He's running quite quiet. There aren't too many policies out there. What works best during a pandemic?

PLIBERSEK: Well, this is the two year anniversary of an election we lost so...

EPSTEIN: Today, is it really? 

PLIBERSEK: Yeah, yeah it is. So if I had if I had a rolled gold answer on that perhaps you know we'd be having a different conversation...

EPSTEIN: Genuine conversation though of a political participant, what works?

PLIBERSEK: Can I tell you what I really think, I really think good policy is good politics. And you can't you can't skate across the surface. You actually have to have real answers about where we're going as a country. We really have to. So the world has changed - 

EPSTEIN: Does Anthony Albanese have enough of those answers? 

PLIBERSEK: Yeah. He's been around a long time. He made a decision early on that we put out too much policy at the last campaign. He's kept his powder dry. People are going to see a lot more between now and the next election.

EPSTEIN: Tanya Plibersek's the Shadow Education Minister, Shadow Minister for Women. Polygraph, we try to get you a chance to put your questions to our politicians. Sometimes it's a Monday, sometimes it's on a Tuesday. It really depends on when people have time to get into the studio. Ian is in Whittlesea, Ian what you want to ask? 

CALLER: G'Day, thanks Raf for having us on and thank you Tanya for taking our questions. I was just curious, I'm a trade school teacher as well as a secondary school teacher. I teach metal work and trade subjects. There seems to be a bit of a shortage of qualified teachers to be able to go into the secondary department. I'm just sort of wondering what Labor's take on that is and what they might be able to do in the future? 

PLIBERSEK: That is such a great question and we do have a teacher shortage across the board looming in the next few years. But there are particular areas where those shortages are really acute. And I think a lot of the trades teachers, they're in hot demand. Because we've got shortages in the economy for all of those qualifications. So you're tossing up, you know, whether to keep working in your chosen trade, or actually take a pay cut in most instances to go and teach the next generation. A lot of the teachers I meet are doing it because they are actually passionately committed to giving the next generation the same sort of opportunity they had of a secure job with a trade. What do we do about it? Well, we have to continue to raise the status of teaching as a profession, and let teachers do what they do best, which is teach the next generation. We need to make sure initial teacher education is attracting the best and brightest to teaching. And then really importantly, we need to keep our skilled teachers in the classroom. We have really high attrition, a lot of people leave after a few years. And most of them tell me they leave because it's more paperwork than teaching.

EPSTEIN: Dennis is in Oakleigh. What's your query, Dennis? 

CALLER: Thanks Raf. Thank you for making yourself available Tanya. Quarantine centres, what's Labor's take? How many should we have? How large should they be? And how important do you see them for our future in the Covid world? 

EPSTEIN: You mean away from hotels? Presumably Dennis? 

CALLER: Yes of course. Hotels are a waste of time. 

PLIBERSEK: Well, Dennis the Federal Government got advice more than a year ago from Jane Halton, who was the head of the Health Department when I was the Minister for Health. A very respected, senior public servant, who said yes the Federal Government should be running quarantine. Larger, more remote quarantine facilities.

EPSTEIN: Well they're running one.

PLIBERSEK: Well yeah - 

EPSTEIN: Well they are, she didn't say how many. She said, run some.

PLIBERSEK: Great. Well, I don't think anybody is really convinced that one is doing the job though. And we did see some money for expanding that in the Federal Budget but we could be doing much, much more. Look, hotels aren't hospitals and it's been, as an initial response, very necessary. But if we are going to be in this world for a while, where we're going to require quarantine facilities for who knows how long, it absolutely makes sense to have purpose-built facilities. It makes sense to me not to have them located in our central business districts and I think it's a terrible shame that the Federal Government haven't stepped up to the plate, to play a role here. 

EPSTEIN: We have a group of doctors who meet all the time, the Australian Health Principle Practitioners Committee? I hope I've got the AHPPC right? So that's all the Chief Health Officers and Chief Medical Officers. They have standards and principles that they lay down for hotel quarantine. We still don't have a standard around N95 masks for red zones. We still don't have a national standard around, just auditing the airflow in every hotel room. So, we don't actually have decent standards for the quarantine we do have. How do we fix that? 

PLIBERSEK: I think purpose-built facilities would go some of the way to doing that. I think it is hard to retrofit air flow for example.

EPSTEIN: WA and Victoria have- they've gone around to every room, and you know they do these little smoke tests. The shove a little hose under the door and they see if the air comes out and all those - you can do it just takes a bit of effort. If we're not going to build quarantine centres for however long, how do we get national standards that we can all stick to? 

PLIBERSEK: I think you should be asking the experts how we do that. I think purpose-building is actually part of the solution. 

EPSTEIN: Yep- are you going to do more on climate change than the Government? Will you set yourself a more ambitious target?

PLIBERSEK: Will we do more than the Government that has stuck its head in the sand, turned its back on the huge opportunity that renewable energy presents to Australia? Yeah we'll be doing more than that. I mean seriously solar electricity is now the cheapest form of electricity in history. And why we wouldn't be rebuilding our economy using cheaper energy to support our businesses, support our manufacturing industries, support our other businesses that are large consumers of electricity, I cannot tell you. We've got so many opportunities - 

EPSTEIN: All of those things are incredibly important but numbers matter. 


EPSTEIN: Because numbers and targets are the overall framework. Labor went to the last election with a higher ambition when it came to emissions targets. Labor at the moment, doesn't want to answer a question about, will you have a higher target than the Government? If you're so critical of the Government on climate change, isn't that obvious answer yes, we'll always have a higher emissions target than the Government?

PLIBERSEK: We've already we've committed to zero net emissions. The Government says that they're interested in doing that perhaps sometime in the future if it suits them. 

EPSTEIN: Preferably by I think is their phrase, preferably by 2050. 

PLIBERSEK: I know, that fills you full of confidence doesn't it? When you get a railway commuter carpark promised to you and not delivered two years later. So, you know, I hope their long-term targets are a bit better than their commuter carpark targets. Yes, we said in Anthony's Budget reply for example, that we want to commit to making sure that we've got the apprentices and the skilled trades people we need to build the renewable energy network that we're going to need. We have made announcements about electric vehicles. We will continue to make announcements between now and the next election, because we understand that this is a great opportunity for Australia. That this is a jobs, employment opportunity for Australia.

EPSTEIN: Can I read some of the texts? You are Shadow Minister for Women so if I can just address, there's a lot of texts along this line as well. So Tanya as a female, how do you do it? You've been a fantastic role model, but in this day and age with the various issues that have more recently arisen in Parliament, how do you keep going?

PLIBERSEK: I keep going because I know what a difference Labor government's make. I drive in from the airport and I drive past the Common Ground buildings that we built when I was Housing Minister that are homes for people who were rough sleepers before that. I do it because I care passionately about making this a better country. And the suggestion in the question is because it's a very hostile environment for women - the way I do it is, bring more women in, make sure that there's a critical mass of women. Like when I started, I think the Labor caucus was about 26 per cent female, we're at 48 per cent now. We're almost half and I can tell you, it feels different. It feels different and better than it was when I first came into Parliament. So the best way to make it a better environment for women is to get that critical mass and it's my job to make it a less hostile environment for the next generation of women MPs coming in. 

EPSTEIN: Are we better off for the conversation we had at the start of the year or, you know- Brittany Higgins, Grace Tame we're in a better place?

PLIBERSEK: Yes. I think this has been a really difficult year for a lot of Australians. For a lot of women my age, it's been hard because we wanted to pass on something better to our daughters and we feel like we let them down because we haven't achieved that completely yet. But I don't think this is a conversation we would have had when I was in my 20s. Having these inspiring young women like Grace Tame, like Brittany Higgins, like Saxon Mullins in New South Wales who is doing such great work advocating for legal reforms. I hope at the very least that we've made a space for these young women to find their voice and to demand change. And they really are leading a social movement that I think is impossible to put back in the bottle. 

EPSTEIN: I can see that's affected you a lot more than a tonne of other issues. I've interviewed you quite a few times - that was hard this year, wasn't it? 

PLIBERSEK: I think almost every conversation, private conversation I had someone disclosed to me a sexual assault of themselves or someone close to them, for weeks there. And it is hard because it just sometimes feels overwhelmingly large in scale. This cancer in our society. So many, so many people have experienced sexual assault, domestic violence, sexual harassment - almost everyone I spoke to. And I really think we could do so much better as a nation, we haven't got there yet. I find it frustrating and sad.

EPSTEIN: Oh well, that's a low note to end on but let's just hope he gets better and better. Thanks for coming in. 

PLIBERSEK: Thanks Raf.