By Tanya Plibersek

01 October 2020


SUBJECTS: Liberals’ plan for uni cuts and fee hikes; Energy; Gas; Renewables.
HAMISH MACDONALD, HOST: As we've heard the Federal government's higher education reforms now hang by a thread and Labor will attempt to kick them over the edge today, ramping up attacks on the laws and accusing the government of cheering on job losses in the sector. Yesterday, Education Minister Dan Tehan told us that $326 million would be provided to help another 12,000 students go to university next year. 
MACDONALD: That's the Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan speaking to us yesterday morning, the government still hoping to woo the sector and secure a final vote on the Senate crossbench. Tanya Plibersek is Labor Shadow Minister for Education and Training. Good morning to you. 
MACDONALD: You're accusing the government of a culture war on universities, treating the sector with contempt. How do you square that with an additional $300 million for - plus, in fact - for additional places?
PLIBERSEK: Well any announcement yesterday is a confession that this package is bad for universities. It's bad for students and it's bad for university staff. It's bad for research in universities. This legislation takes a billion dollars a year of government funding out of universities and to say "Oh we're going to put a bit back". Well, that's just not good enough. They should abandon the legislation that makes it harder and more expensive for kids to get a university education.
MACDONALD: Do you welcome the money announced yesterday or not? 
PLIBERSEK: Well, is it real? Who knows? We can't get any detail from the government about where this money is from. Is it additional? Is it reprofiling? Are they just moving money from year to year? Who knows? And this government, you get a great headline one day and all the nasty detail the next day, so until I've had a chance to look at the nasty detail, I won't be welcoming anything. This is a government that is openly hostile to Australian universities. If any other sector of our economy had already suffered 12,000 job losses with tens of thousands more likely, they would get some help from the government. 
MACDONALD: What do you mean by openly hostile though? Because Dan Tehan says "Look, we are we are sitting down and talking to the universities. There is a consultation in place. We are listening to their concerns. We speak to the Group of Eight which does have some criticisms but is committed to a process of working through this with the government".
PLIBERSEK: This government changed JobKeeper legislation three times to stop universities, public universities, getting access to it, although I note that New York University, that's got a campus in Sydney and presumably others, have - private universities - have managed to get hold of JobKeeper. Our public universities have lost thousands of our brightest researchers, academics, ground staff, cafeteria workers, admin assistants, thousands of job losses already, hundreds in regional communities where if you take those jobs out, the knock-on impact on the regional community is severe. So it's been terrible for staff, but think about the students.
MACDONALD: But is that openly hostile or is that just a government -
MACDONALD: - having to choose their priorities in the midst of a very difficult situation. 
PLIBERSEK: Yeah. They actually want to, they want to engender this idea in the public that universities are elitist institutions and that it's an indulgence to fund them. They want people to feel embarrassed, like they're a tosser, for wanting an education at a university or a university education for their kids, and my view is the exact opposite. We should be democratising our universities, making it possible for anybody who's clever enough and willing to put the work in to get a university education. My dad was a plumber, my mum worked in a shoe factory. There were three of us that went to university, kids, the first in our family ever to get that opportunity and I think about all the families who are out there now thinking about can their child afford a $58,000 debt for a four-year Arts degree, a $58,000 debt for a four year Arts degree before they ever think about saving a deposit for a home of their own or going into a job where, you know, in the next few years during this recession, there aren't going to be a lot of high paying jobs out there for university graduates. Why would we make it harder for kids to get an education when the alternative is being on the dole queue?
MACDONALD: You mentioned the Arts degree. On principle, do you agree with the idea that government is advancing that you actually need to reshape the tertiary sector so that individuals are directed into areas that where they're more likely to get a job?
PLIBERSEK: Seriously, does the government think that people are idiots? If you've got good information about where the job prospects are, you will go into an area that reflects your interests and reflects your abilities, but where you have the chance of a job. So by all means, let's give students and their parents great information about where the jobs of the future are likely to be. Of course, a hundred per cent agree with that. But if you're telling a kid who in Year 12 has done Modern History, Ancient History, Advanced English "I want you to go and do Engineering at university next year because it's going to be cheaper". That's just nonsense.
MACDONALD: But to be fair to Dan Tehan, that's not the argument that he makes. He says what we want is for a young person that is the like the one you describe, that ends up doing an Arts degree, to actually select a couple of courses within their degree that are likely to  get, make them more ready for a job and those will be made cheaper to incentivise them to do that. It's not tell them to go and do Engineering instead of Arts.
PLIBERSEK: Do you know what? Every time we have tried to use price measures to direct people to study something or other it has not worked. Julie Bishop, who is now the chancellor of Australian National University said "I tried it when I was Education Minister. It didn't work". If I want more young people to be studying science, technology, engineering, maths-type subjects as well, that starts in high school, in fact it probably starts in primary school with more specialist science teachers passing on their passion to young people so that they get that spark when they're at school and they pursue those subjects later in university. 
MACDONALD: This legislation will come down to Stirling Griff from the Centre Alliance, by the looks of things. We spoke to her Jacqui Lambie a short time ago. This is what she had to say about the detail of the deal. 
MACDONALD: Does the government now need to produce some of the detail on this? 
PLIBERSEK: Oh, it's, it is phenomenal that they have asked the Parliament including Senators to vote on legislation where they will not provide details of how it affects individual universities. It is unprecedented that they're not prepared to do this. Universities are guessing at what the impact will be on individual universities and I think Jacqui is telling it how it is. She said yesterday in her statement that this legislation will hit poor kids hardest. Poor kids will miss out on their dream jobs because this government is making it more expensive to get an education during a recession when the alternative is being on the dole queue. 
MACDONALD: I want to put some questions here about the Narrabri gas project, we've been discussing that this morning. We spoke to the Shooters and Fishers Party who hold the state seat in that part of the country, also to the CEO of Santos. The Environment Minister Susan Ley is out this morning sounding pretty positive about the project which might indicate the that it will get the final Federal approval. Where do you stand on a project like this? Because Joel Fitzgibbon, on the one hand, is saying this is great news. Mark Butler, your energy spokesperson, seems more cautious about it. Where do you sit? 
PLIBERSEK: I think it's up to the New South Wales government and the Commonwealth government now to show that any project can meet all of the environmental approvals necessary and can meet the community concerns that have been raised and look, it's plain that gas will be an important part of our energy mix for the foreseeable future. That doesn't give us the excuse ignore investment in renewables, because everything we know about our energy mix now tells us that solar and wind, with storage like batteries, like pumped hydro, is getting cheaper all the time. We had German interest earlier this week, end of last week in green hydrogen. This is a potentially  huge export industry for Australia and cheap, clean power for manufacturing. We need to be investing in and investigating our natural advantages in renewable energy. 
MACDONALD: But on this particular project, do you, do you support it going ahead?
PLIBERSEK: I support every project being treated properly on its merits and if it jumps the environmental -
MACDONALD: But it has so far passed the environmental tests, according to New South Wales planning authorities. 
PLIBERSEK: Yeah, and if it passes the environmental tests, and if the local community can be reassured about its impact in the local community then it goes ahead. This is up to the New South Wales government and the Commonwealth government now to ensure that it can meet those environmental standards and the community expectations. 
MACDONALD: But if, as you say, gas will be part of the mix in Australia for the foreseeable future, how much? To what extent? Should we be -
PLIBERSEK: Are you asking me to pick a percentage? I mean that, it doesn't work like that. Of course manufacturing and households in Australia need gas and for a long time, Labor has been critical of the fact that we're selling our gas overseas cheaper than you can buy it in Australia, and of course that has an impact on households and manufacturing here. Of course, we need to bring down the price of gas. When we were talking about domestic gas reserves, the government were telling us that we were economic vandals for even considering it. So yes, gas has a place in Australia -
MACDONALD: But a gas-lead recovery, gas pipelines - are these are the sorts of things you would support. 
PLIBERSEK: I think the problem is we've got a government that is ideologically wedded to particular energy - coal is the most obvious example - and we need to take - 
MACDONALD: But your own Party is divided on this question?
PLIBERSEK: We are having a discussion and that's a healthy thing in a democracy. We need to be clear-eyed about the fact that the cheapest new energy is coming from renewables and we have a world-leading advantage, not just in our unlimited amount of solar and wind but also in our brilliant researchers who are leading the world in things like photovoltaic cells. Why wouldn't we make the most out of that advantage? And why wouldn't we respond to this fantastic offer from Germany saying "We're up to buy as much green hydrogen as you can produce". Why wouldn't we respond to that by saying "Yes, another natural advantage for Australia. Let's make the most of it".
MACDONALD: Tanya Plibersek, thank you. 
PLIBERSEK: Thank you. 
MACDONALD: Tanya Plibersek is Labor's Shadow Minister for Education and Training.