By Tanya Plibersek

28 June 2020


SUNDAY, 28 JUNE 2020

SUBJECTS: Increase to Newstart; JobKeeper report; Integrity in politics; COVID-19; The Liberals’ universities plan. 

KIERAN GILBERT, HOST: Let's bring in the Shadow Minister for Education and Training, Tanya Plibersek. Tanya Plibersek, thanks for your time. On Newstart, what do you think the increase should be?
TANYA PLIBERSEK, SHADOW MINISTER FOR EDUCATION: Well, I don't think we should just pluck a number out of the air but it's obvious, from not just reports of welfare groups but also from the Australian business community, that there is widespread agreement that Newstart is not adequate, or was not adequate even before COVID-19 hit. We now have hundreds of thousands of extra people joining the dole queue, people who have been working full time until very recently who would very much struggle if what's now called JobSeeker went back to the old Newstart rate. And I was pretty disappointed really, when I woke up this morning to a front page saying that the Government was going to put the rate up by 75 bucks, I thought "Oh, that's good". It didn't last through breakfast. It is an inadequate payment. It doesn't allow people to live with dignity and at a time like this Kieran, actually you need to think about what happens if we increase Newstart that means in every community, right through Australia, people have more money to spend in their local economy. So we know that people on low incomes will spend that low income, but they will be providing jobs for other Australians when they do it and that's why we've seen so many government MPs particularly from regional communities adding their voice to the call for an increase in Newstart.
GILBERT: Given we're in such an unusual time though, can you understand why the Government is still looking at temporary rearrangements when, for example, this statement's being made by the Treasurer in July, they're obviously still dealing with a very fast-moving economic situation. Isn't it better to be making these temporary, targeted, as they put it, arrangements as opposed to making any permanent shifts in the face of the crisis?
PLIBERSEK: Well during the Global Financial Crisis we introduced temporary and targeted measures as well. It makes sense. We were told to go hard, go early and go households and that's what we did and that's how we stopped the Australian economy going into recession during the Global Financial Crisis when so many similar economies did go into recession. What we learned from that time though was that if you want to inject confidence into the economy, if you want to support consumer demand, if you want to support business, then the best way to do it is to provide more income security to people on lower incomes because they'll go out and spend the money and create jobs for other people. On the issue of looking at payments, reviewing payments, I think one of the things that we should be asking the Government is what's going to happen with JobKeeper payments because we know that they've got a report now that makes recommendations about withdrawing JobKeeper from different people or different industries and they're not going to release that report before the Eden-Monaro by-election. I think it is actually important that the Government is upfront with Australians, including before the by-election, about their plans for JobKeeper payment.
GILBERT: Let's look at the issue of the ASIO raids on a Labor MP in Sydney, Shaoquett Moselmane. The point that Andrew made a bit earlier, that some within Labor are wondering why would the Victorian Branch be suspended but the New South Wales Branch not be, given the track record when it comes to this particular issue.
PLIBERSEK: Look, obviously, we never comment on investigations when they're underway so I'm not going to make specific comments about that. I don't know any details other than what I've read in the newspaper, but I would say, I'd say to anyone at any time if anyone has done the wrong thing in the Labor Party, they should be dealt with, they should face the full force of the law, proper investigations. Because you know Kieran, it is actually heartbreaking for all the good people who join any political party for the right reasons. People join the Labor Party because they want a strong economy. They want good jobs with decent pay for all Australians. They want a good strong health system and education system. They want action on climate change or homelessness. Whatever it is that they are passionate about, they join together with people of like mind to fight for those changes and when they see any reports of anybody doing the wrong thing it is heartbreaking and demoralising, and I think it drives good people away from politics. So I am all for proper investigation. I think we need to have the highest standards of integrity and we need the institutions that support those high standards of integrity. I've been a supporter of a Federal Integrity Commission for many years and I'm disappointed that we haven't yet got legislation for that. I've been a supporter of greater transparency in our electoral funding, you know, real-time disclosures and spending caps in our election for a long time. I'm disappointed we still don't see that and I think it's worth saying that Labor banned receipt of foreign donations years before the Liberals were prepared to do so. We need to have integrity in our political parties and in our public life, and we need the institutions that support that because our democracy is really too precious to allow it to be the plaything of anyone.
GILBERT: Yeah, absolutely and no one would disagree, or certainly very hard to see how anyone would disagree with that assertion, but should Labor be undertaking your own inquiry now as to the level of foreign interference or attempts to interfere within your party given the Dastyari matter, we've seen other matters with Jamie Clements as well and then now this one. Should your party not just rely on the authorities like ASIO to do this?
PLIBERSEK: I think actually relying on external investigations at a time like this is actually more proper. I think people will have more confidence in an independent investigation by external authorities. If there's any question of wrongdoing, I think that the appropriate level of police or investigation is much better than doing an internal investigation and I have to say Kieran, you know, it's not just the Labor Party that has been subject to these questions about people seeking to influence politics through donations and so on. We took action much earlier than the Liberal Party, for example in banning foreign donations. It's the proper thing to do. We have been warned - everyone in politics has been warned by our security agencies that there are greater attempts at foreign interference today than there have been for many, many decades. It's important that we are all vigilant. But one of the best things that we can do is make sure that the arms race for political spending for election campaigns is brought under control and I think examining things like spending caps is very important. Labor of course supports much lower disclosure thresholds at the Federal level than the Liberals do. We had changed that when we were in government to make electoral funding more transparent; the Liberals changed it back to make electoral funding less transparent. So you do need to have, not just investigations if things are, you know, one or two, pointing to one or two incidents, I think you need to have a whole system that supports transparency and that includes reforming our disclosures.
GILBERT: When you make the point about members and I understand they'd be frustrated to see these sorts of controversies, obviously when they get into political parties for the right reasons and that sort of thing. It's also awkward though, isn't it, for senior figures in the party like Mr Albanese having images put up with this individual under investigation, Bob Carr as well, other senior figures who might have had dealings with this gentleman?
PLIBERSEK: Well, I don't know Kieran, I bet when you go to a function, every second person wants their photo taken with you because you're on TV. We go to a lot of functions as Members of Parliament. We get our photos taken with a lot of people and we don't do a background check every time someone says "Can I get a selfie?". That's just public life these days in the Instagram generation. I think it's, you know, just about every function you go to there's a queue of people who want to get their photo taken with the leader of a political party. That's no surprise. 
GILBERT: The Victoria outbreak is obviously a major worry right now. Should the authorities be shutting down the suburbs affected?
PLIBERSEK: Look, I'm not going to actually second guess the advice of the health authorities in Victoria. The Andrews Government has been doing an incredible job of managing the initial outbreak and this upswing in infection rates. I think it shows all of us how important it is not to be complacent. I think people were getting a little bit complacent, you know, reducing their sort of focus on keeping their social distance and so on. So I think it is a very important reminder. We can't take anything for granted. It's no surprise that as we begin to ease restrictions, there will be outbreaks of Covid-19 and what's really important is that we jump on those quickly, that we do the contact tracing and the testing to keep those outbreaks contained.
GILBERT: On the universities funding changes, obviously this is your area of focus and so I do want to spend a bit of time on this. Dan Tehan, the Minister, says it's about ensuring students have the requisite skills for the recovery. Isn't that the right approach to be taking to ensure that, to encourage students to be taking those sorts of topics and undertaking those sorts of degrees?
PLIBERSEK: Well, I agree that we should be encouraging people to have the right skills for the recovery. This university package does the exact opposite. So what the Government is now doing, Kieran, is making it harder to get a place in uni and more expensive if you manage to do that. And they've tried to say "But we want more people going to TAFE" - they've also cut TAFE and training, cut TAFE and training by $3 billion and underspent by another billion. So we've got a 140,000 fewer apprentices today than when they came to government and we're losing apprentices and trainees at the rate of 2,000 a week at the moment. We had 100,000 young people, just young people, 100,000 young people join the dole queue in the last month and this government says about the uni package "Oh well it will be an extra 39,000 places between now and 2023". It doesn't do what it says it's going to do. What it does is make it harder to get a place at university and more expensive if you do. They've said they want more people to study maths, science, technology, engineering and so on. The universities themselves say that the way the funding has been redesigned makes it less likely that those courses will be taught at Australian universities. The Government says that they want people to get a job when they finish uni. Well, that's great but then why would you make it more expensive, for example, to become a child protection worker? When you look around the states and territories they're crying out for child protection workers, but the Government's made it more expensive to become, get a social work qualification and become a child protection worker. The Government said, the Government itself said one of the reasons for the changes was because there wasn't enough counsellors after the bushfires, but to do a clinical psychology degree will cost you $25,000 more than it used to under these proposed changes. It's just a dog's breakfast and there's, you know, the universities are beside themselves. They can't work out why the Government's gone down this path because it's doing the exact opposite of what they've said that want to do. But nobody supports it, business doesn't support it, the students don't support it.
GILBERT: On the student numbers though, you know, the Minister's already moved to try and put in an integrity unit to ensure that there's not some flood of students away from where he wants them to be, where the Government wants them to be focussed.
PLIBERSEK: Okay. So how nuts is this? You change the system to make it more likely that people will be channelled into humanities and then you set up an integrity unit to stop that happening. Like why not get the system right in the first place? What a nutty approach to change the system, to put an incentive into the system so universities over-enrol in a course, and then you bring in an integrity unit to stop the thing that your changes have incentivised. Like it's just crazy isn't it? And do you know, the thing about humanities that's really interesting is that the Government says we don't want too many people studying Humanities because they don't get jobs. Actually the employment rates of humanities graduates are higher than the employment rates of science graduates and their and their pay is generally higher as well. Like we're encouraging people to study science at the same time as the government's cutting jobs at the CSIRO and cutting their funding and I -
GILBERT:  So how would you do it? How would you get more people into STEM right now?
PLIBERSEK: Well, I'll tell you what, I'll tell you what we would do. You can look at our record on what we would do. When we were in government we almost doubled university funding from $8 billion dollars to $14 billion. You open the doors of universities so that for everyone who is prepared to work hard and study hard there will be a place for them and they can afford to study. At the moment this government is on its way to $100,000 university degrees for undergraduate students. You can judge us by our record. We saw increased enrolment from regional communities, from indigenous, disabled, first in family, and we saw investment in our universities to make sure that they were investing in the research that will drive students to take up an interest in science. There's no point in saying to students “we want you to study science, but we're going to cut research funding so there be no jobs for you at the end of it.”
GILBERT: Shadow Education Minister Tanya Plibersek, thanks. 
PLIBERSEK: Thank you.