23 August 2019




SUBJECTS: Passing of Tim Fischer; Foreign interference in universities; International students; Strait of Hormuz mission; Iran nuclear deal; Decriminalisation of abortion in New South Wales; Barnaby Joyce.

PATRICIA KARVELAS, PRESENTER:Tanya Plibersek is a very senior frontbencher in the Opposition. Welcome to the program.


KARVELAS: Very well. Before we get to that issue, which is a very huge one, I want to ask you about your reflections on the death of the former Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals leader, Tim Fischer, who was a larger than life figure and I know very much respected across the political aisle.

PLIBERSEK: Oh yes, I liked him a great deal too. I think he was a very good bloke, and I think he often said that one of his proudest achievements was supporting John Howard on gun control. I think that was an incredibly brave thing to do and, knowing his constituency, I think he has every right to be proud of that. I really am thinking about his family and his colleagues and former colleagues today, I'm sure they'll be missing him a great deal. He really was, I think, a gentleman in the old-school National Party tradition. When he left Parliament he told people that it was for family reasons, because one of his sons had been diagnosed with autism, and I think one of the really important things about Tim Fischer is he reflected at that time that he may well have been on the autism spectrum himself. He looked back on his childhood and the way that he behaved as a child and said that, and I think that probably gave a lot of hope and comfort to the parents of kids on the autism spectrum. And certainly taking time out to care for his own family, I think that sent a very good message too.

KARVELAS: If I can turn to your education portfolio now. Universities have been meeting with security agencies to address concerns about the potential for foreign interference through joint research programs. Do you see this as a significant concern and issue?

PLIBERSEK: Look I think it's important to be alert to issues like this but my impression is that universities are very alert to issues of potential foreign influence or foreign interference. I think there's a lot of indication that they value academic freedoms, freedom of speech on campuses, and because our international education sector is such an important one for our economy, universities understand that protecting the quality of that education is very important.

KARVELAS: So when we talk about specific research programs, are you comfortable with Australian universities conducting joint research programs with China? Does that present potential risks from a national security perspective?

PLIBERSEK:I think joint research projects are fantastic. With China, of course, we've got many joint research projects with European nations, with the United States, a lot of international collaborations now occur across several universities, even in some instances dozens of institutions. That's good for our scientists to have the opportunity of doing that and, you know, other academic areas as well. When you're talking about high tech things that might have a national security element to them then it's important that universities are careful.

KARVELAS: Okay, you say they need to be careful, so the obvious question is are they being careful enough?

PLIBERSEK: Well I think getting briefings from our security agencies is an important thing to do but I don't see any evidence that universities are cavalier about these issues. I see a lot of evidence that they are very keen to ensure that both the student experience of international students coming to Australia is protected by ensuring academic freedom, open discussion, even contestation and argument on our campuses, they see that as valuable and I don't doubt for a moment that they're taking a similarly robust approach in research projects.

KARVELAS: So does there need to be new guidelines? A change in this approach or are you suggesting it's working?

PLIBERSEK: Look, I think ever- all of the evidence at the moment is that universities are taking this issue seriously and dealing with it appropriately.

KARVELAS: Are you concerned by reports that students at Australian universities who have been critical of the Chinese government have been targeted by pro-China students and online trolls? Does that represent a threat to freedom of speech?

PLIBERSEK: I think one of the best reasons for studying overseas is to understand the history and culture and way of life and politics of the country that you're visiting, and that's a great benefit to Australian students when they study in our region. It's also a huge benefit for students from our region, including China, when they come to Australia to study. I think Chinese students benefit greatly by seeing that we can have healthy debate about strongly-held views in Australia and do it in a respectful way. I'd be very concerned if there was any indication that people were disrespecting that.

KARVELAS: There's been at least one report of a student who was approached by Chinese authorities after attending a pro-Hong Kong demonstration. The student said their family in China was also visited so it's a pretty disturbing report. Is there more universities could do to protect these students?

PLIBERSEK: Look I'm not going to respond to individual anecdotes. What I would say is that it is very important that students from other countries when they come to Australia, respect and abide by Australian laws and also learn to use the benefits of our democratic conversations here in Australia, learn that you can have strongly differing views and debate those, emphatically if you want to, but without any risk to your safety- or to any suggestion that you would be penalised for expressing those views.

KARVELAS: You describe them as anecdotes, but really, I mean, they are obviously very concerning for the people experiencing them. Are you saying this is just one-off activity? Or are you worried that this is maybe a bit more systemic?

PLIBERSEK: No I am not discounting at all the seriousness of whats been suggested. I just don't have particular evidence of what has actually happened, so any suggestion that students or their families would be criticised or threatened for expressing their views while in Australia, of course would be very concerning indeed. But, like I say, what I am dealing with is things I read in the newspaper, things that you are putting to me on television, rather than any hard facts.

KARVELAS: A report out this week has warned that some universities are too dependent on the money they make from international students and could struggle to cope if part of that market contracted. Do universities need to broaden the list of countries they market to because there is concern that they are just too dependent, for instance, on Chinese students?

PLIBERSEK: I think universities have said themselves, including Peter Varghese saying last year, that it's important to have a diverse range of countries from which we draw our students. International education is a really important sector of our economy now. It's about our third largest export. Were talking about a $33 billion industry. Of course, if we are relying on one particular market, the danger is that the economy of that country might suffer a set back and students might not be able to afford to come to Australia, there might be political reasons that they are discouraged from coming here, or if you're talking about China you see massive investment from the Chinese Government in building up their own institutions, it might be that Chinese students prefer to stay in China for their education in the future. So it is good for Australia to have a diverse range of countries from which we draw students. I saw in fact just today discussion about seeing more students coming from Vietnam as we improve our economic ties with Vietnam. That just makes sense.It's also about the student experience. When students come to Australia one of the things we hope they go home with a positive memory of their Australian friends and the Australian way of life. Well that's harder if all the people you socialise with are from your home country. That's a danger in the student experience. When we send Australian students overseas we want them to really understand the culture, the way of life of the countries that they are visiting, and we hope that students get that when they come to Australia. That's hard if you've got a very large proportion of students in your course, in your classroom, from the country that you call home.

KARVELAS: Labor is supporting the Morrison Governments decision to send a war ship and a surveillance plane to help protect international shipping through the Strait of Hormuz. Why do you think that's an important thing to do?

PLIBERSEK: Look we've said that its very important for Australia as an island trading nation to make it clear that we support freedom of navigation for commercial shipping in the region through the Strait of Hormuz and the region more generally. Australia has been, in fact, participating for decades in naval exercises that include protecting commercial shipping from piracy for example, in that same region. So I think it is, as long as what we are doing is specifically targeted at making sure that commercial vessels are able to peacefully pass through international waters, that is a right and proper thing to do. What I would say in addition, is that the Government has said this is about de-escalating tensions in the area and one of the things we could do I think quite constructively to further de-escalate tensions would be to encourage our very good friend and ally, the United States to come back to the table on the Iran nuclear deal. This Iran nuclear deal was a very, very important step forward in restricting or preventing Iran from getting the technology to build a nuclear weapon. If we really do want to reduce the likelihood of other nations proceeding with nuclear weapons, research and building,then international agreements like this will be very important, and once the agreement is made that fact that the agreement should be respected and should last beyond the life of any one government, that's very important too.

KARVELAS: So are you suggesting that the Prime Minister should have made this perhaps a condition of us being involved in this mission? That we bring the US back to the negotiating table in relation to the Iran deal?

PLIBERSEK: I don't think international diplomacy works best through television interviews like this Patricia, but I think it is important to recognise that Australia does have a role, an important role, in protecting free navigation for commercial vessels through international waters. We've got an important role in supporting that in our own region and through the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf area more generally. We also, as a good friend and ally of the United States could constructively urge our friend and ally back to the table on the Iran nuclear deal because that would substantially contribute to greater security and stability in the region.

KARVELAS: Just finally, we are also having a big discussion in New South Wales, but of course the country is watching, in relation to abortion laws, and the New South Wales Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, is really facing a very strong opposition from within her own Party to a bill that would remove abortion from the Crimes Act. What do you make of the criticism of the way she has handled that bill? Is the Premier doing to right thing?

PLIBERSEK: Look I just say to begin with, I am disappointed that the vote has been put off for a month because I think we have been debating removing abortion from the Crimes Act in New South Wales, not just for the time of this bill but for many, many years. This is a reform that is well overdue. But on the other hand, I think Gladys Berejiklian should be congratulated because she has been brave to put this on the agenda. She knew that she would face opposition from people within her own Party, and while I hope this delay is not an excuse to get the bill off the table, or to engage in wholesale writing of unnecessary amendments to the bill, I think when we take a step back we see that this reform is overdue and the Premier should be congratulated for letting it come forward.

KARVELAS: What do you make of Barnaby Joyce's intervention? I know there was even a report by Phillip Coorey in The Australian Financial Review that Nationals in New South Wales are concerned about the way that he's been conducting himself.

PLIBERSEK: I really don't understand why Barnaby Joyce thinks he has the right to lecture others in this way. This is- it's a very serious issue. I understand that people have strongly-held views on abortion, but what we are saying, the people who support this legislation, is that this legislation does not belong in the Crimes Act in New South Wales. Access to women's reproductive health should be covered by health legislation. We are the only state in Australia where we now see this really archaic approach to abortion and people who live in country areas suffer even more greatly than women who live in city areas when it comes to a lack of access to termination of pregnancy. I think if Barnaby Joyce were genuinely listening to the women who live in his electorate, or the people who live in his electorate, they would say to him that he should butt out of other people's private health business and leave this to the New South Wales Parliament to determine.

KARVELAS: Thank you so much for joining us Tanya Plibersek.

PLIBERSEK: Thanks Patricia.