SUBJECTS: Barnaby Joyce; Adani mine, Batman by-election; University funding cuts; Wayne Swan; Lilley pre-selection.

BARRIE CASSIDY, PRESENTER: Tanya Plibersek, good morning, welcome


CASSIDY: Has Barnaby Joyce been accountable to your satisfaction?

PLIBERSEK: Well I don’t think he needs to account for his personal behaviour, his relationships, to the public, and in fact I think less discussion of this would probably save his wife and daughters from the terrible experience that they’re going through. The only area in which there is a genuine public interest is in the area of the expenditure of taxpayers funds and there have been questions over the last couple of days about jobs that have been created for Vicky Campion, the expenditure of taxpayer funds on travel. I think those are areas where the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister ought to be fully transparent.

CASSIDY: But the National Party has said in a statement the Prime Minister had nothing to do with staffing arrangements.

PLIBERSEK: That may be the case and then it’s up to the Prime Minister to state that very clearly. It does appear that these jobs were created in addition to the jobs that already existed in these offices, and they were at quite high rates of pay. I think that is something that either the Prime Minister who has ultimate responsibility for signing off on these things or the Deputy Prime Minister ought to answer questions about.

CASSIDY: One report suggested that the first job in Senator Canavan’s office carried a salary of $190,000. Is that about par for the course?

PLIBERSEK: Look I couldn’t answer. I know that there are some jobs that are well paid jobs and I can’t answer about the suitability of the applicant for the job or anything like that. I think the thing that is to be asked in this situation is: was this job necessary? Was there work to be done at this skill level?  What was the case made for having to hire someone additional into those offices? I mean normally if you were creating an extra position like this it’s fine to transfer internally if someone has the skills but normally you would have a proper process where other applicants who might be interested also might get a chance to apply.

CASSIDY: Are you satisfied there’s something to see here, to the point where you’ll pursue it against the background of a story that you’re obviously uncomfortable with?

PLIBERSEK: Not his personal life. Look this would be an awful time for his family, for Barnaby Joyce’s family and we absolutely don’t want to add to their distress. The only interest that we have and we will keep asking questions about it is in this area of how taxpayers’ funds have been expended, and it might be that there is no case to answer here but the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister should be prepared to answer questions about taxpayers’ money.

CASSIDY: But you keep bringing Malcolm Turnbull back into it and they insist that staffing arrangements are for the National Party and nothing to do with the Prime Minister.

PLIBERSEK:  Well it’s my understanding that normally the Prime Minister’s office would sign off on this sort of thing. If that’s not the case that’s fine, the Prime Minister can say that.

CASSIDY: There’s been a fair bit of comment too around double standards on this. The point has been made that if this involved a woman in a position of leadership then it would have been given much bigger treatment than it has already. What do you say to that?

PLIBERSEK:  I remember the sort of horrible things that a lot of people in the Liberal and National Parties said about Julia Gillard’s personal life and going all the way back to Cheryl Kernot and others. I think perhaps they ought to reflect on how they behaved in that period and think about how they want people to behave now. I hope it causes a little bit of self-reflection from some of those people.

CASSIDY: I want to ask you about the Adani mine and the impact that that’s likely to have on the Batman by-election. What’s your position? Are you opposed to this outright or are you part of those who say you’re prepared to see it go if it stacks up?

PLIBERSEK: Well I've always been sceptical about whether this stacks up economically or environmentally and I’ve said that for a long time. I mean we’ve seen just in recent days reports that the company has falsified test results from a serious spill; right back to whether this stacks up economically we’ve seen inflated jobs numbers. We’ve seen the company itself say we don’t need a dollar of taxpayers funds for this to proceed and then sticking their hand out the next minute for a billion dollars of taxpayers funding. We’ve got the beautiful Great Barrier Reef, just an exquisite natural, beautiful piece of Australian nature that supports tens of thousands of jobs. Why would we put that at risk with a project like this? There are a lot of questions to answer. But we need to be thoughtful and serious and responsible in the way we proceed in making these decisions.

Can I just say Barrie, this has been posed as, if this mine doesn’t go ahead we’re not going to have jobs for central and northern Queensland. I think the really important thing to say to the people of northern Queensland and central Queensland is these jobs numbers from the company have been over-inflated. We want to support real jobs in central and northern Queensland. That’s why we made the announcement about Rookwood weir and the road in Gladstone to the port. We do need to answer questions about jobs in central and northern Queensland but we also need to make sensible decisions about this project and really answer whether it stacks up environmentally and economically.

CASSIDY: But the executive of Adani, the Chief Executive, has said it goes further than that. He says that Bill Shorten’s decision on this or at least casting doubt on it that also casts doubt on Australia’s ability to continue to be an investment attractive destination, so it’s a signal that it sends to the rest of the world.

PLIBERSEK: I don’t think that’s true at all I think we’ve got every right as a nation to say we’ll make decisions in our own best interests, in the best interests of our economy and our environment, and it is a bit rich for a company that originally said that they didn’t need taxpayers support for this project to go ahead and then five minutes later stuck their hand out for a billion dollar concessional loan to be talking about whether we’re an attractive investment destination.

CASSIDY: The suggestion that’s been made within the Labor Party itself in Queensland but also among trade unions that support the Labor Party that this position has now been adopted to help you out in the seat of Batman where you’re up against the Greens, when in fact they’re saying up there, well it will cost regional seats in Queensland.

PLIBERSEK: That’s certainly not the case. We’ve been examining the project for some time. Just this last week we’ve got new information saying it looks like company has falsified results after an environmental spill and these additional bits of information as they come to light are very significant. They should cause us to continue to examine the project and see whether it is in the national interest.

CASSIDY: Is Batman a seat that Labor should win?

PLIBERSEK: It’s a very tough seat for us to win. You know the demographic  trends of the inner city of Melbourne have been helping the Greens in recent years. Their candidate is running for the fifth time I think. But we’ve got a brilliant candidate in Ged Kearney. She was a nurse for 20 years before she went into the union movement. She was a leading fighter against Work Choices. We could not have a better candidate and I think we’re running an excellent campaign down there but it’s a tough seat.

CASSIDY: Yeah Anthony Albanese said it’s a seat you should win.

PLIBERSEK: Well look we’ve all got our opinions on these different contests as we go into them. We’ve got an excellent candidate and if the quality of our candidate is the final decider then we’ll win.

CASSIDY: I want to ask you a question about your portfolio around education, and on Friday you said that 10,000 Year 12 students could miss out on university places this year. Where does that figure come from?

PLIBERSEK: From the universities themselves. We’ve already had universities saying that they’ll have fewer students this year because of the $2.2 billion of cuts that the Government announced just before Christmas. We have Charles Sturt University, Australian Catholic University, Southern Cross University, particularly the regional universities saying that they will take fewer students because they can’t afford to educate as many young people as they’d like to because of these cuts. Essentially what the Government has said is we are freezing funding in an environment where costs are going up. Universities are responding to that by taking fewer students. It’s the only way they can respond . And it’s particularly unfair Barrie, there’s been young people studying their guts out last year doing the HSC who will miss out on a university place this year because of these cuts.

CASSIDY: Wayne Swan who was Treasurer for six years announced yesterday that he will be leaving politics at the next election. What do you think his legacy will be?

PLIBERSEK: Well I think probably the most important thing Wayne did was keep 200,000 Australians working during the Global Financial Crisis. He managed the best response in the world to the GFC. He kept the Australian economy growing, kept creating jobs, while other countries were going into deep recession. But he managed the economy well in order to do good things for working class and middle class Australians. We reduced the inequality gap while we were in Government. Biggest increase in the aged pension, introduction of paid parental leave. In my own portfolios he backed our homelessness strategy that had thousands of new homes built for homeless Australians, the kids dental scheme, and there’s so much for Wayne to be proud of. He wasn’t just a fantastic manager of the economy. He did it in the interests of ordinary Australians and I’ll miss him a great deal personally as well.

CASSIDY: He did say he thought he should be replaced by an energetic woman, I presume he has somebody in mind. But Peter Dutton made a pre-emptive political strike on this, and he said that, he Tweeted that “Wayne Swan had anointed a left-wing lawyer, Annika Wells, do we need another ambulance-chasing Labor lawyer in Parliament”?

PLIBERSEK: Well I think Peter Dutton’s definition of left-wing might be a bit different to the ordinary Australians’ definition of left wing. I think it says everything about Wayne that he would support a young woman to take over from him and I don’t think Peter Dutton’s ever going to be accused of promoting women into politics, so it tells you all you need to know about the difference between those two men.

CASSIDY: Thanks for your time this morning.

PLIBERSEK: Thanks Barrie.