By Tanya Plibersek

25 September 2020


SUBJECT: The Liberals’ uni cuts and fee hikes; International students; Renewable Energy.

HAMISH MACDONALD, HOST: The Shadow Education Minister Tanya Plibersek is with me this morning. Good morning to you. 
MACDONALD: Very well thank you. I hope you're doing well also. These proposed changes to research funding would bring forward about $700 million in research funding from the '24-'25 year to next year. No overall increase though. But the universities might lose out as we understand it, in four years’ time. Should they sign up to this?
PLIBERSEK: Look I think they're desperate for anything that will keep our excellent researchers employed at a time like this. We've already lost 11,000 staff from universities at least. That's the kind of full-time permanent ones we know about, it's not the failure to renew casual or sessional staff. So they are desperate and of course there was about a $385 million cut in 2018 to university research funding. So this comes on top of no international students, which traditionally cross-subsidize university research, comes on top of a cut. So they're desperate for any help. But it does - it gives you pause for thought what's going to happen in future years. 
MACDONALD: So you would understand why in the position that they're in, they wouldn't be wanting to say no to this $700 million that's being brought forward?
PLIBERSEK: No, they wouldn't want to say no, but this is crisis time in university Hamish. They've lost international students, that's 3-4 billion dollars a year. They've been denied JobKeeper, 11,000 jobs lost. The Government's got legislation before the Senate at the moment that will cut another billion dollars a year from universities and make it harder and more expensive for students to get an education at a time of recession - when you’d think we want people to be studying and upgrading their skills and education, so they're more competitive in this very difficult jobs market that they're entering. All of that is this perfect storm of pressure on university budgets. It means that fewer people will get an education and less of our top quality research will get done.
MACDONALD: Professor Andrew Norton from the ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods has described to the Nine Papers, do various carrots being dangled in front of the uni chiefs, I think that's what you're talking about with the research funding, but essentially to prevent them from making noises about the broader changes to university funding, keeping them quiet. His quote, "They don't want to ruin their chances". Do you believe that's what's happening? 
PLIBERSEK: Oh a hundred per cent. In fact the legislation that's before the Senate at the moment gives the Minister extraordinary powers to decide which universities get extra places. It even seems to suggest that the Minister could intervene to decide pay rates at universities. It is an extraordinary grasping of power. One of the things that universities are supposed to be in our society is bastions of freedom that encourage free debate. You hear that all the time from the Coalition, until it's about criticizing Government policy, when the Government is trying to rip another billion dollars a year out of the universities and then they want our universities to be meek and quiet. The thing that's disappointing of course is that so many Vice-Chancellors have been meek and quiet. I understand that they're under pressure, but you really would think for a million bucks a year, you could stand up for the students that are missing out and the staff that are losing their jobs. 
MACDONALD: It sounds like you're saying you believe the university Vice-Chancellors need to be much louder on this? 
PLIBERSEK: Well, I can't imagine a school principal that would cop a cut that hurt their students in the way that these cuts are hurting university students. I can't imagine a school principal that wouldn't stand up against that. They do need to be more school principal and less CEO when it comes to the Government's continued attack on their students and on their staff. 
MACDONALD: The Government obviously needs a support of crossbenchers to get these changes through. What has Labor been doing to convince the crossbenchers otherwise?
PLIBERSEK: Well, we've just been laying out the logic that the middle of a recession is not a good time to make it harder and more expensive to get an education. I mean, seriously, there are 13 Australians competing for every job that's available. Isn't it better for young people to be going to uni, going to TAFE than sitting on the dole queue? That's the alternative this Government's giving them. They're making it more than twice as expensive to do some degrees. Humanities degrees will more than double in cost. They will increase by a 113 per cent. So you're talking about, say you're doing a four year degree, a $58,000 debt before you ever start in the workplace, before you ever start thinking about starting a family, saving a deposit for your first home. These young adults are going to go into a labour market that is deeply scarred during this recession and we're going to double the cost of doing an ordinary degree? For thousands of them. It's just not fair. 
MACDONALD: These are without doubt huge changes to the funding arrangements for universities, has huge impact on students. Have you run a strong enough campaign against this, given what you say the impact will be?
PLIBERSEK: Well, I can tell you we've been campaigning very hard with students and with staff. 
MACDONALD: It's really not about convincing them is it? It's about convincing the broader public.
PLIBERSEK: All I can say Hamish is that I'm getting an extraordinary number of emails and phone calls, particularly from parents who've seen their kids go through the year from hell with remote learning, their final year of school massively disrupted, who are saying, what a kick in the teeth this is for their kids. Kids who, in many cases, two-three-four years ago set their heart on a particular degree, this year being told that degree will more than double in price. It's been a terrible kick in the guts and that's what parents are telling me.
MACDONALD: Do you think the Federal Government should be putting on chartered flights to bring international students into Australia in the same way that Canada and the UK are planning to do, given the funding shortfall?
PLIBERSEK: I absolutely look forward to welcoming international students back as soon as we've got a safe pathway to do that. Of course, the priority has to be Australians that are stuck overseas. But honestly this Government, they've made all sorts of noises about getting Australians home. I haven't seen any real success in upping the number of people coming through. We've seen a bit of movement recently from the states. We need to get those Australians home as a priority and then, of course, the next thing we should be looking at are these international students that make such a huge contribution to the Australian economy. We're talking about a $39 billion export industry, our fourth largest export, our largest services export employing hundreds of thousands of Australians across the country including in our regional communities. Of course, we have to get it back on its feet. 
MACDONALD: In other news this morning, no doubt you will have seen that the Australian Workers Union boss, Daniel Walton has taken a pretty big spray at the Labor Party over its position on energy. He's demanding the party must, in his words 'wholeheartedly embrace gas'. He's written his piece for the Nine Papers. He hits out at inner city environmentalists, within the party, saying 'I don't see too many urban greenies planning to stop using their shiny aluminium MacBooks or their steel bikes'. What is Labor's position on gas?
PLIBERSEK: We've said all along that gas will be part of the energy mix for the foreseeable future, but the problem's not Labor's policy. The problem is the Government that's been in government for seven years and had 22 different energy policies, that have seen emissions go up and energy prices go up. The simple fact is that renewables are getting cheaper all the time. The two and a half million Australians who've got solar panels on their roofs aren't idiots. They're doing it because it's cheaper, cleaner electricity.
MACDONALD: Just to be clear though, are you denying that there is a split within Labor over energy policy?
PLIBERSEK: I'm saying there's a healthy discussion and that's what should happen in a democracy. We should have a healthy discussion that listens to all views. But there’s a lot of science that shows -
MACDONALD: One of your colleagues has described Mark Butler your Energy spokesperson is as 'useless as a vegan in a butcher shop'. Is that a healthy discussion? 
PLIBERSEK: I think that's a colourful line, if it's true. I've never heard that, I don't know if it's true. 
MACDONALD: It's in the newspapers this morning. 
PLIBERSEK: Well, it must be true then (laughs). The simple fact is that we're having a healthy discussion, but honestly, we've got a government that's been the government for 7 years that hasn't yet landed an energy policy. We've got enormous resources here in Australia of sun and wind and pumped hydro, and we know that those technologies are becoming cheaper all the time. We could have a massive superpower style manufacturing boost if we were prepared to invest in the cheapest cleanest energy with firming.
MACDONALD: But how does Labor resolve the differences within its party before the next election? We could be voting next year on a future government. How do you resolve these issues before then? Because these are not new within your party either with respect.
PLIBERSEK: We'll continue to have these healthy discussions and we'll come to a position together and that will be the Labor position. That's how it works. We have internal party democracy, we land on a position and then we back it.
MACDONALD: Why then does someone like Joel Fitzgibbon continue to argue beyond that position even though he is in the Shadow Cabinet?
PLIBERSEK: You know what Hamish, what I'd like is a single policy from the Government that we can all get behind. We've written to the Government in the past and said we'll work with you. We won't get everything we want but let's just settle this once and for all for the nation. The problem here is for seven years we've had drift. We've had people who want to invest in renewable energy, transmission, the investments that would make our energy sector cleaner and cheaper - they're not investing. There's an investment freeze. There's a jobs cliff coming because this Government won't give them any security. We've got Scott Morrison, a Prime Minister whose anti renewables and if you're anti renewables you're anti jobs in this country. 
MACDONALD: Well, I'm going to leave it there Tanya Plibersek. Thanks very much for your time this morning.
PLIBERSEK: Great to talk to you. Thank you.