By Tanya Plibersek

09 June 2020




SUBJECTS: Liberals’ Childcare scheme; JobKeeper; Universities; HomeBuilder; Indigenous Australians.

RAF EPSTEIN, HOST: Let's find out what's going on inside one of the top minds in the Labor Party. Tanya Plibersek is the ALP member for the seat of Sydney and she is the Shadow Minister for Education and Training in Anthony Albanese's Shadow Cabinet. Tanya Plibersek, thanks for joining us.


EPSTEIN: I am well. Appreciate your time on a long weekend. Can I start with childcare? Those changes. Labor's accusing the Government of a broken promise. The Government says you're going to have either the same number of people actually working in childcare or even more, isn't it just a simple and good pragmatic change?

PLIBERSEK: Well, it was only last week that they were saying that JobKeeper was going to be until September, I think it is. Look, we're happy to look at the new proposal that the Government has made about the types of subsidies they'll pay, but anything that looks like going straight back to the old system for families is going to be a real problem at a time like this, Raf, because childcare was, it was unaffordable in February. We've now got people who've got possibly fewer hours of work. They might not have work at all, but they're searching for work. They can't go back to the old unaffordable system.

EPSTEIN: But it is customising assistance to a sector's needs, that's a good thing isn't it? Don't we want the federal government to look at every different workplace and say "Okay one size doesn't fit all so we need to adjust". That's a good thing, isn't it?

PLIBERSEK: Well, we are yet to hear about that in any detail from any childcare centres. We are spending a bit of time to look at the detail of how this will affect individual child care centres. It might be better for some services, it might be much worse for some services. We're just waiting to get that feedback from the sector. When it comes to parents though, what matters for parents is the quality - they want their kids to go to a quality service. Availability - they want the place to be there when they need it. And affordability, and if this goes back to the old unaffordable system where we saw a 7.2 per cent increase in the cost of childcare in the last year that we've got data for, then that's not going to be good for families and it's particularly bad for families at the moment because, of course, lots of people are struggling with fewer hours of work or no work at all.

EPSTEIN: I mentioned JobKeeper for childcare workers, The Greens are attacking you for wanting to take the JobKeeper payment away from people who are effectively earning more money than they were before the pandemic. Why would you want to take money away from somebody who, maybe they're getting bit more money, but they're getting the maybe the assistance they now need?

PLIBERSEK: Well when it comes to JobKeeper, you've actually got the really bizarre example of a uni student who might have been working as shift a week in a bakery and earning 100, 120 bucks a week, getting $750 a week, but their university tutor or the full cafeteria worker at the university who would have been paying a mortgage and raising a few kids on their wage, completely ineligible for JobKeeper. So I think it's right to point out the anomalies here. We've got a government that says that they can't afford to give JobKeeper to casuals who have been with their employer for less than a year. They can't afford to give JobKeeper to workers in companies like dnata, which is the old Qantas catering, because they've been sold to an overseas company. They don't get it. University staff, as I just said, aren't eligible. So there's all these people who aren't eligible at the same time as people who would were working for essentially a bit of pocket money are getting 750 bucks a week. Now -

EPSTEIN: But you're happy to take money off? I just want to clarify the Labor's position. You say that there's discrepancies. Would you fix the discrepancy by taking some of the money away from the uni student and giving it to the uni tutor?

PLIBERSEK: Well, we've said all along that casuals, workers at companies like dnata, universities, a whole range of people have been deliberately left out. People in the arts, I mean, honestly you look at the poor people who work in the arts sector have got very little access to JobKeeper, very few of them have had access to JobKeeper - they're the anomalies we want to see fixed and we haven't focused at all on taking money away from people. What we've said is it's not fair and we've used these examples of where it's not fair to point out that the Government could afford to give money to catering workers at the airport, or casuals who've been with their employer for less than a year, or people are working in arts and entertainment if they wanted to. I mean, that's even before we knew that they had a $60 billion black hole when it came to JobKeeper, the biggest mistake of its kind in Australian history by a long shot. When you've got an example though, like the person who's been earning 100 bucks a week and using it, perfectly legitimately using it to have a nice time but not relying on that money, it shows just how mismanaged the JobKeeper payment has been. This is a very good idea. We supported wages subsidies, we think it's exactly the right thing to do to keep workers attached to their employer so that when the economy picks up again that those people are there, they're in place, they can pick up the hours again. It’s the right idea but has been very poorly implemented.

EPSTEIN: On universities, what do you think they will actually do, the Federal Government? I know you've been keen for more people who work at universities to get access to something like the JobKeeper, but in what way should the Federal Government direct more money to universities? There's already a lot of Federal Government money that goes to them. What's the solution?

PLIBERSEK: Well, the federal money that goes to universities is to educate Australian students and most of those students are still at uni. They've transitioned to online learning and there's been a lot of work getting those students online. What universities have lost is the revenue from their overseas students and that's a big hit we're talking about, well it looks like $5 billion this year, something like $19 billion next year and that money actually is what's been paying for most of the research that's done in our universities. So we are desperate for our brilliant university researchers to be working on finding a vaccine for COVID-19. But we're not prepared to pay for it.

EPSTEIN: Were they over-reliant on foreign students, the universities?

PLIBERSEK: Look, I think universities have been increasing the number of overseas students for many years. In fact, this is our fourth biggest export earner now. We're talking about a $40 billion a year industry in Australia. But the universities have been doing it because we've asked them to, essentially. As a country we've said to them we're not going to fund the amount of research that we'd like to do in Australia so what other revenue sources can we come up with?

EPSTEIN: So you don't think they had a choice? They surely have choices about where they earn their money and where they spend their money?

PLIBERSEK: Well, they have a choice about whether they earn enough money to do the sort of research and teaching that they want to do as a university. Look I think universities have been aware of the fact that it's unwise to focus too narrowly on students from any one country because our, the economy in any country can change almost overnight. I don't think anybody was expecting quite the experience we've had of Australia having to close its borders in the way that we have so that - I mean, it's pretty hard to predict something like the impact of COVID-19. But if if we want to do that research, if we want to if we want to get that revenue, there's two ways or there's three ways to do it. You can charge Australian students more, you can use your taxes, or you can use the revenue from overseas students and we've, as a country, settled on that third approach.

EPSTEIN: Tanya Plibersek is with us. She's the Shadow Minister for Education and Training. Labor, Tanya Plibersek, has been pretty critical of the HomeBuilder Scheme. But in principle, you might have other things you want the money spent on like social housing that I've spoken about a lot on the program, but in principle giving money to taxpayers so that they then spend 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 dollars of their own money in the construction industry. It's a good program in and of itself isn't it?

PLIBERSEK: Look I think if you have a lazy $150,000 that you're about to spend on a renovation you were probably going to do the renovation anyway. I think the problem with the design of the scheme is when you're trying to support extra spending in a sector, if you're trying to stimulate or bring forward spending in that sector, you don't just want to subsidise the stuff that was going to happen anyway. So I'd say that there is a concern that what we're doing is just paying for people who were going to have renovations anyway, to get those renovations done.

EPSTEIN: Do you think they should get rid of it?

PLIBERSEK: No, I think it's important to support the construction sector at this time and we absolutely support the construction sector. I just think it's, again, the design of the program is probably not the best design. Social housing, absolutely. During the global financial crisis, we built 21,600 new social housing dwellings, we renovated about 70,000, we did 50,000 National Rental Affordability Scheme programs. We spent $550 million dollars extra on homelessness programs. Like, Raf, you've seen the papers in Victoria today, the increased numbers of women and children experiencing domestic violence -

EPSTEIN: Absolutely.

PLIBERSEK: So there's all this great stuff we got to do.

EPSTEIN: The school halls and the pink bats sort of took attention away from what we're very successful programs around social housing. In part that's an own goal, isn't it?

PLIBERSEK: Well, I think our social housing programs were fantastic. But we also supported first home buyers with the First Home Buyer Grant, you don't have to do everything in the public sector you can also stimulate construction in the private sector. I would say it's a good idea to do both. I just think the specific design of this program means it's unlikely to add to what would have been happening anyway, and that's really a problem. It's not really stimulus, it's just it's just a straight out subsidy for existing activity in that case.

EPSTEIN: Do you think that Black Lives Matters, the Black Lives Matters protests over the weekend. Do you think they will make a difference? Do you think they'll lead to any change?

PLIBERSEK: I think it's really good that people stand up and say that we still have a problem in this country. The disparity between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians is unacceptable. I think it's, you know one of the best days of my life was walking across the Sydney Harbour Bridge with hundreds of thousands of other Australians when we were marching for reconciliation. I think it's important to say that it's not right that Aboriginal Australians make up 3 per cent of our population and 29 per cent of our jail population, but there are lots of ways of saying that. I'm not sure that a mass gathering at a time like this is the most sensible way of making this point and I'm really afraid that we end up debating should we protest, shouldn't we protest, instead of debating what we should be talking about which is - it is unacceptable that we still have these justice gaps in Australia and that in the face of these justice gaps we are actually reducing support for Indigenous-led and Indigenous-controlled legal services and family violence prevention legal services.

EPSTEIN: Why do you think it's getting worse? You mentioned the Bridge Walk that, I mean, I felt very invigorated by that but it's gotten worse. You were in government for six years. Why does it get worse and not better?

PLIBERSEK: I think it's a mixed story. I don't think any government has ever got this right and I think it's important to acknowledge where we've still got a lot of work to do. We should set justice targets. We should have targets that we can be held to account on for incarceration rates for example, we need to properly fund legal services and so on. But I think it's also important, Raf, to acknowledge where progress has been made and things like the Bridge Walk, the Voice from the Heart, the support you see in the community for that. The fact that we had a National Apology that all Australians, well almost all Australians, felt in their hearts was an important and right thing to do. The fact that we've seen, when we were in government, $5.5 billion on improving remote indigenous housing. We saw improvements in schooling for young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders during our time in government, from massively increased rates of preschool education right through to almost doubling the the proportion of Aboriginal young people going to university - we saw an 89 per cent increase in university attendance of indigenous Australians during our time in government. And the reason I say this is not because we can sit back and go "Oh everything's great. We don't need to worry anymore." The reason I say it is because if people get the feeling that everything is hopeless, it doesn't matter what we do, I think that is poison for change. I think if you are committed to change you have to be clear-eyed about what the challenges are, but also celebrate progress. It's that celebration of progress that gives you the impetus to fight for further change.

EPSTEIN: Thank you for your time today. I appreciate it.

PLIBERSEK: Always a pleasure. Thank you.