SUBJECTS: University funding cuts, Schools funding cuts, gas crisis, Tony Abbott statement on Macklemore, marriage equality, possible New England by-election.

TANYA PLIBERSEK, ACTING LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: It's fantastic to be here at the University of New England talking to students about the effect of the Government's proposals for higher education. In the last parliamentary sitting week, Liberal and National members in the House of Representatives voted for $3.8 billion of cuts to higher education. For the University of New England, that means a $33 and a half million dollar cut over the next few years. It is impossible in a regional community like this to cut $33 million from one of the major employers in town and not see a knock-on effect on employment in the area. We're also very worried about the quality of education that students will get right across Australia if these cuts go ahead. What the Government is proposing is that universities should have their funding cut but students should pay more for the education that they're getting and they should repay their student debts sooner. Those things together lead to a poorer quality education at a higher expense and a debt that needs to be repaid sooner.

We also know that National Members of Parliament have voted for cuts to education at a school level. This electorate, New England, will see a $13 million cut from schools over the next two years alone because of the much lower funding provided in the Liberals' new funding arrangement for schools. How is it that National Party members. like the Deputy Prime Minister. just stand by while regional communities have university funding cuts and school funding cuts imposed on their students and imposed on their local communities?

I also just wanted to say a few words about the gas arrangement that the Prime Minister allegedly came to with the gas companies yesterday. Until the Prime Minister gets a signed commitment from gas companies that they will be delivering cheaper gas to Australian homes and businesses next year, he is really just wagging his finger. The Prime Minister talks a big game but just as he calls the banks to Canberra, wags his fingers and the banks just go out and do whatever they want; that's what is happening now with the gas companies. The Prime Minister has the authority to trigger gas reservations for Australia next year; to protect Australia from shortages and from extraordinary price hikes next year and he is refusing to use that official power. The gas companies are saying 'just trust us' and he is saying 'yeah sure, no problem'. And this is a government, don't forget, that said power bills would drop by $550 under them and Australians have only seen their power bills go up and up and up. And now the Prime Minister has called the gas companies to Canberra, wagged his finger and let them go out and continue doing what they were always going to do.

One third and final issue: I notice today that there's a storm in a tea cup about the Macklemore performance at the football on the weekend. I mean, honestly, Tony Abbott wants make the marriage equality debate about anything other than marriage equality, he's now making it about football. It is a ridiculous thing to have people complaining, when the opponents of marriage equality demand a postal survey and then they demand that the YES campaign don't campaign. And then when you have terrific performers like Macklemore come to Australia - he's great, I really enjoy the music - and Tony Abbott's complaining about that. I mean honestly, where does this stop, instead of just debating the issue - should all Australians be treated equally before the law? Allowed to marry the person they love? The former Prime Minister Tony Abbott is making it about free speech, freedom of religion and now freedom to perform at the Football Grand Final. I mean - ridiculous.

JOURNALIST: Do you feel Australia has a problem with separation between church and state?

PLIBERSEK: No I wouldn't say that, I actually think if you look at the polling of people who have religious faith in Australia the majority of people with a religious faith support marriage equality.  I note as a raised Catholic, that that is particularly true of Catholics. I think that a lot of people understand that this is about a legal question - should all Australians be treated equally before the law - and that the religious sacrament of marriage won't change, because no religion will be forced to marry two people of the same sex if they don't want to. This is about people's rights to go to a civil celebrant, to go to the registry office, to be married in a church that wishes to marry them. It's not about forcing religions to do anything that is against their religious beliefs.

JOURNALIST: Definitely, and just back to your visit to UNE today, you had a conversation with some of the students here, did they share any concerns with you about education reform? 

PLIBERSEK: They are very happy, I should say, with the education they are getting here and the experience of studying at UNE. And they were telling me how great it was to have moved from all over Australia and to have found a group of friends here, so they are very positive about the education they are getting here. But as we discussed the changes that the government is trying to introduce, charging students more, funding universities less and making students repay their debt sooner, of course they are concerned about that. And they are not just concerned about their own education; having to repay higher debts sooner. They are worried about other students who might be turned off pursuing an education because of these higher costs. One of the cruellest parts of this new funding proposal from the government is that they want to charge, for the first time, for enabling courses. So pathways into universities for students who haven't necessarily done well at high school or are somewhere in the middle of their career and want to retrain for another type of work. Those enabling courses are a pathway into university, you don't end up with a qualification at the end of it; you're just deciding, is this for me, can I write an essay, can I do the research necessary? Those courses have been free up until now and the Liberals and Nationals want to start charging students about $3,200 to do a course that doesn't have a qualification at the end of it. UNE gets a lot of its students through these enabling courses and we know that a lot of them would be turned off, they actually wouldn't pursue a university education if you told them that they had to pay $3,000 for it, to start with. 

JOURNALIST: Do you think that Chancellors and Vice Chancellors could afford to take a pay cut to afford to loosen up some of the slack on the students?

PLIBERSEK: Look, this is the great diversion of the Liberal and National argument. There's nothing in this package that touches Vice Chancellor's salaries, there's nothing in this package that lowers Vice Chancellor's salaries by a single dollar. But the Liberals and Nationals are proposing to give Vice Chancellors a big fat tax cut. So at the same time, they're saying that people on $700,000 a year are overpaid, they're proposing to give that person a tax cut of thousands of dollars every year. The other furphy that they bring into this debate is that universities spend money on advertising. Well, this is a $22 billion export industry, we want universities to be advertising particular internationally. But again, this is the Government finding all sorts of reasons to impose funding cuts on universities but this package doesn't actually deal with any of the issues they're raising, they are just diversions.

JOURNALIST: And what funding model would you propose for universities to keep the education system viable? 

PLIBERSEK: Well I think the funding model we've got now could- of course always you need to make sure that every dollar is well spent, we've got one of the best performing university systems in the world and we're actually now threatened with sliding in the international rankings if these funding cuts go ahead. We've been [INAUDIABLE] but countries like China are investing a lot more in their universities and that if Australia pursues this policy of multi-billion dollar cuts we're likely to see our rankings slip further behind our competitor nations. So, we're doing okay in Australia but we can't take that for granted, the idea that university funding is somehow rising too quickly, in fact, the most recent figures show us that university funding rose by 2.6 percent in the last year that we've got numbers for, the last year we've got figures for. That's about the same rate as inflation, this is not a problem that needs to be dealt with, with multi-billion dollar cuts. 

JOURNALIST: And these education reforms were proposed quite a while ago, does this visit have anything to do with the potential for a by-election?

PLIBERSEK: Look, I'm always happy to come to Armidale, I was here about this time last year as well and there's no particular reason to visit at this time other than this is an excellent institution in a beautiful town and I'm always happy to be here. I would say just about the by-election; I don't think people should wait until there's a by-election if there's a by-election to ask Barnaby Joyce what have you done for our local kids. He's stood by and allowed $13 million of cuts to schools in his electorate over the next two years alone and now he's standing by and allowing $33 and a half million of cuts to the university that employs so many of his constituents, that is the university that so many kids, locally will go to when they go to university. What kind of Member of Parliament stands by when those multimillion dollar cuts happen in their own backyard and says nothing and does nothing?