By Tanya Plibersek

11 June 2020



SUBJECTS: Racism claims by Chinese government; University sector; JobKeeper; Effects of COVID-19 on women; Government cuts to skills and training.

FRAN KELLY, HOST: Universities around the country have rejected accusations that their campuses are unsafe for international students, as the sector finds itself caught smack bang in the middle of the latest dispute between the Australian Government and China. This week, the Chinese Education Ministry warned its students to be cautious before choosing to study in Australia pointing to incidents of anti-Asian discrimination, which universities say are demonstrably untrue. This row comes as the Government fends off criticism from Labor that its cornerstone JobKeeper program has left behind university staff as well as workers in the childcare sector and the arts. Tanya Plibersek is Labor's Shadow Minister for Education and Training. Tanya Plibersek, welcome back to Breakfast.


KELLY: China's Ministry of Education issued this statement pointing to what it calls quote "multiple discriminatory incidents against Asians in Australia". It also says COVID-19 has not been effectively controlled here, which is blatantly untrue. Is this just a complete political attack in your view from China?

PLIBERSEK: Look I think both of those statements are obviously wrong. Australia is a safe country for international students. It's a safe country for them to study in. It's a one of the safest countries in fact, if you were a Chinese parent thinking that you want to send your child overseas for an English language education and you're worried about their health. Would you look at the US, would you look at the UK or would you look at Australia? Of course, you would look at Australia. The question of whether there's racism in Australia - I don't think there's any country in the world that can say that there's never any racism. And of course one incident of racism is too many and all of us have a responsibility to stamp it out. But in terms of Australia being a safe destination it absolutely is and the best advertisement for that is the Chinese students themselves. I think there were some on the ABC this morning talking about the great educational experience that they've had. We've had millions of students have studied in Australia at different times go back to their home countries. They have fondness for Australia for the time they had here - they're our best advertisement. And I'd say it was a shame when the Prime Minister said recently that overseas students should just go home and these queues of overseas students hoping for a meal, I think that's not a good advertisement for Australia. But overall our education is one of the best in the world and students, of course, it's safe to come here and we look forward to welcoming them back as soon as it's safe to do.

KELLY: Overall though, do we also need to look at statistics here, not suggesting China isn't over-egging this completely, and you know a number of people including former Foreign Minister and now Chancellor of ANU Julie Bishop. She said "We celebrate the fact our campus is a diverse community and it's safe and welcoming." And that is the attitude of the universities and the Australian community more generally, but we aren't perfect as you said. Both the Human Rights Commission and the New South Wales Anti Discrimination Commission have recorded a spike in complaints of anti-Asian racism during this pandemic. Do we need to be looking clear-eyed at what is happening in our community too? I know you've got a number of unis in your electorate, have you heard anything from students or people in your electorate about, you know, feeling uncomfortable on the streets?

PLIBERSEK: Look even one complaint of racism is too many, we shouldn't be complacent about any of it and it's really important for political leaders like me, for the universities themselves to call out racism and be very clear that it's unacceptable on our streets, in our universities and our shops - wherever it might happen. But Fran I'd also say Australia is not unique, there's probably no country in the world that you could say doesn't have incidents of racism. We have to take it seriously, but this is not a reason for students from any country to decide not to study in Australia. It is a safe destination and a welcoming destination with a very high quality education that will take you throughout life, help you get a great job. And I think, very importantly, those relationships, the relationships that students form while they're here become business relationships, they remain as lifelong friendships, and they're very important in our soft diplomacy. The relationships last a lifetime and they're very valuable to us.

KELLY: The stakes are higher though. I mean our unis depend on Chinese students for billions of dollars of income, I think it's our third biggest export. Is it time for universities to diversify their supply chains? Just like our other industries have been forced to consider during this pandemic. Admit that they’re too reliant on these students for revenue. What role does Federal Government have to play here as well?

PLIBERSEK: Yeah, I think that's a very important question. The university sector supports about 240,000 Australian jobs. It's actually now our fourth largest export earner, but we're talking about around 40 billion dollars a year, so a very very substantial contribution to our economy. We do need to make sure that we are seeking students from around the world to come to Australia, but universities are very aware of that. They have sought to invite students from a range of different countries. The simple fact is that Chinese students, Indian students make up a very large part of our student overseas student population because they are large countries with growing middle class numbers that have the financial wherewithal to come to a country like Australia to study.

KELLY: Okay, but is the danger that is going to be interrupted? I mean we've got reports in the Sydney Morning Herald today quoting several Chinese education agents saying they're going to recommend to Chinese students not to come to Australia at the moment, that it's not safe. It’s a major problem.

PLIBERSEK: Well that's a very short-sighted position from those people because plainly it is a safe country with a top quality education. But Fran you asked, you know, should the Government be doing more and I think it is important to say, right now, we're facing the loss of 21,000 jobs in the sector. We're looking at a 19 billion dollar drop in overseas student revenue. That money that overseas students bring to Australia is spent on research in our universities, it’s spent on teaching and learning for all students, including Australian students not just overseas students. You take 19 billion dollars out of the sector - that means jobs will go. The universities themselves have estimated 21,000. We've seen hundreds of jobs lost already and there's basically three ways of funding university education in Australia: you can ask students, Australian students to pay more; you can invite overseas students to study here; or the Australian taxpayer can make a contribution. And in recent years we've seen very substantial cuts to tax payers' contribution to Australian universities. Now that universities are in crisis it beggars belief that the Australian government has turned its back on the thousands of Australian jobs that are likely to be lost if this sector continues on the path that it's on.

KELLY: You're listening to RN Breakfast. Our guest is the Shadow Education Minister Tanya Plibersek. On another issue, Treasury has confirmed that women and young people are disproportionately losing their jobs because of this pandemic. Yesterday on Breakfast, we cited a new study from the Australian Institute that has found that for every $1 million spent on the construction industry, and we just did have a big stimulus package there, just one woman gets a job - which compares to 10.6 women if the money goes to an industry like education. Are you concerned about where stimulus funding is going and should the government be focused on this and gender equity issues when it's looking at stimulus funding?

PLIBERSEK: Well, in April more women than men lost their jobs. More women have lost more hours than men. Women are doing much more domestic labour at the same time. We've seen the impact, even in research papers, women publishing fewer research papers. Fewer women running for local government election in Victoria. Superannuation - we know that women already have lower superannuation balances than men, but if you take $20,000 out during the COVID period as you're allowed to do that can translate to a $120,000 less in retirement. We've seen rates of domestic violence increase. Yes, women are bearing the result of this COVID-19 economic turmoil, in some cases more acutely than men - 120,000 childcare workers thrown off JobKeeper, childcare costs set to go up again. So, how can we fix it? Yes, we should be investing more in professions that are traditionally female dominated. Not at the expense of construction - we absolutely need stimulus in the housing sector in broader construction, infrastructure-type construction. But we know that if you invest in female-dominated, caring professions - teaching, nursing, childcare, aged care, disability workforce - you create more jobs, not just for women, but also for men across the economy. So the government doesn't need to reduce investment in construction jobs. What it needs to do is increase investment in traditionally female dominated caring professions and see that multiplier across the economy employing more women and also more men.

KELLY: But do you think the government needs to have a program within the stimulus spending department to target women particularly? I mean, we know there's going to be spending on education and skills because the government and the universities and the business communities agree that that needs to be a key driver as Australia tries to reposition itself after this pandemic. Should there be a particular focus there we funding attached to women?

PLIBERSEK: Well, do you know what Fran? We've heard the government say that skills are a priority but we've seen 140,000 apprentices and trainees lost before COVID-19, and now we're losing apprentices at the rate of 2,000 a week. 100,000 we expect to lose this year. So you'll forgive me if the fact that the government has said they're interested in skills and training doesn't convince me that they are interested in skills and training. But yeah, they need an approach that says we care about jobs in construction and we also are going to invest in jobs like aged care, desperately needed. We've still got, you know, I think from memory, well over a 100,000 people on the waiting list for home and community care packages that they have been assessed as needing. So they're not they're not being determined right now do it do they need help at home? Do they not? No, they need help at home, we agree they need help at home, but we're not funding that help at home.

KELLY: Okay, but in terms of funding, I mean, this is a time for priorities, no doubt about it. The government's shelled out about, I think it's $260 billion to stimulate Australia, to keep us where we are, afloat basically during this recession and the OECD figures today come out and basically congratulate Australia on its position, I think we're fourth on the ladder in terms of how we're managing during this pandemic. But there is a limit to the money as the Prime Minister keeps telling us, the Treasurer has now said the next election will be a battle between the spenders and the enablers, basically they want to enable government to do things for themselves-

PLIBERSEK: Is it lifters and leaners again, Fran, Lifters and leaners?

KELLY: Well-

PLIBERSEK: It's a slogan. It's another slogan. It's, honestly, the OECD has also said that we need to keep up this investment if we are not to slip further back into recession. It is it is beyond belief that they've, you know, just days after saying that no one's going to be kicked off JobKeeper any time soon, 120,000 childcare workers, 96 per cent of whom are women, have lost access to JobKeeper. There's an additional 200,000 women that we think should have access to JobKeeper because they're short-term casuals or they work in a sector that's not covered. Again, missing out on JobKeeper. Those women who have missed out on JobKeeper are suffering themselves, but their communities, their local economies are also suffering because those people don't have the ability to spend in their local community. We know that by continuing to keep people attached to their employer through payments like JobKeeper they've got a much better chance of not becoming long-term unemployed. It doesn't make make any sense to be cutting the support now that will not just, that support helps individuals, but that's what will help us come out of recession better. The OECD's said so itself and then the government's starting to talk about snap back - snap back to high childcare fees, snap back to the same inequitable economy that we had before this with marginalised workers struggling.

KELLY: Tanya Plibersek, thank you very much for joining us.

PLIBERSEK: Thank you Fran.