SUBJECTS: Liberals' $100,000 degrees; North Korea; Metadata laws. 

TANYA PLIBERSEK, DEPUTY LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: Reports this morning confirm that we’re looking at a ‘back to the future’ budget. We’re returning to a 2014 budget of higher fees for university students. We’re going back to Tony Abbott’s plan of $100 000 university degrees. It’s shocking, really, that this government thinks that university students should pay for the $50 billion of big business tax cuts that this government has rashly committed to. University students in Australia are already amongst the highest contributors to their own education, when you look at similar countries. In fact, Australian students are the sixth highest contributors to the cost of their own university education across the OECD. So we are very concerned when we hear reports that university degrees will increase in cost by at least 25 per cent. We know that cost is already a barrier for some students, and the idea that Australia wouldn’t be investing in its young people because university students are too frightened to incur this debt, is really a tragedy not just for those individual students, but for us as a nation. Of course there’s an individual benefit in getting a university degree for most students, but there’s also a national benefit. For us to be a clever country, competitive in the 21st century, we need to invest in our young people from preschool, through school, TAFE and university, to make sure that we have a high-skill, high-productivity workforce, prepared for the future. Young people are incurring these debts, these $100 000 debts at the same time as they’re looking to establish a family, to buy a home of their own. So given that Scott Morrison has started to talk about good debt and bad debt, the question for the Treasurer is, is $100 000 university debt a good debt, or a bad debt? I think the government should reconsider - reconsider making uni students pay for their $50 billion big business tax giveaway. Any questions?


JOURNALIST: University debt is obviously not the biggest issue in the country and it surely is not. I have not been to university and there are people who are struggling day-to-day to even buy the essentials. Why is this your issue?


PLIBERSEK: Well of course this is not the only issue that Labor is campaigning on. We are deeply concerned about the fact that unemployment is as high as it was during the peak of the Global Financial Crisis. We are deeply concerned about the 1.1 million Australians who are underemployed. We have been campaigning against the wages cuts that this government supports which have seen the lowest wages growth on record, the attack on penalty rates. We have been campaigning against the cuts to the pension and family tax benefits. This government is all about the big end of town and every opportunity they’ve had to support ordinary working Australians, they have turned their backs on those people. University matters. Labor had a program called the HEPP program, which this government has cut and cut and cut again, which was designed to help more people, first in family from low socio-economic backgrounds get to university. And it has been working. We’ve seen a 26 per cent increase in the number of Indigenous students at university, a 30 per cent increase in students from rural and regional areas, 36 000 extra students from low socio-economic backgrounds, because we know that the economy of the future will require most people to have post-secondary school qualifications. We’ve seen TAFE gutted by this Federal government, and there’s another $500 million of cuts every year slated in this Budget when it comes to TAFE. We’ve been campaigning on TAFE, the fact that there are 130 000 fewer apprentices today that there was when the Liberals came to government. University debt is an issue because we want young Australians to get the best possible education they can get. For themselves, for their own future, but also for the future of this nation. But that applies right across the education spectrum. It means that cuts to preschool that this government is planning for this budget are absolutely wrong, it means the $30 billion of cuts to our schools over the next decade is something that Labor will fight, it means the cuts to TAFE - $500 million a year on top of the $2.5 billion already cut - is something that Labor will fight. And yes, we’ll fight the cuts to universities too.


JOURNALIST: The government says that it’s still working on its higher education plan, is this not just speculation?


PLIBERSEK: Well of course it is speculation, but it sounds like speculation that’s actually been released by the government in a pre-Budget softening-up exercise. We know that the universities have been called to meet with the Education Minister in Canberra on Monday and from my experience this looks very much like a story placed by the Government in order to prepare people for a very bad news story on Budget night.


JOURNALIST: With tensions increasing between the US and North Korea, should Australia be looking at beefing up our security?


PLIBERSEK: Well I think it’s very important that Australia and countries right across the region take the threat of North Korea nuclear weapons upgrades very seriously indeed, and I know that Australia and countries across the region have been watching very closely what happens on the Korean peninsula. It’s important not to speculate in a loose sort of way about what might happen on the North Korean peninsula but I would say the best chance we have of a peaceful resolution of the increased tensions on the Korean peninsula is for China to continue to play an ever-increasing role in reigning in North Korea.


JOURNALIST:  The government has been quite forthcoming with China though and they’ve been pushing for them to stand against North Korea, do you support that?


PLIBERSEK: Absolutely. I think it is very important that the global community continue to ask China to continue to play a strong role in reigning in North Korea, and I think there’s been very positive signs of the Chinese having an influence in reducing tensions on the Korean peninsula. That has to continue and of course that pressure from China is the most useful pressure on North Korea.


JOURNALIST: There’s been revelations of the Australian Federal Police accessing a journalist’s phone calls. What’s your comment on this and also do you think in light of this metadata laws should be reformed?


PLIBERSEK: Well we’ve asked for a full briefing from the Australian Federal Police and I’m sure that after we’ve had that briefing our leader, Bill Shorten, will have more to say. What I would say is there is a reason for these special provisions in the metadata legislation that give protection to journalists. Journalism plays a vital role in our democracy, in protecting our democracy and ensuring there is proper scrutiny on government and on institutions. The protections for journalists are absolutely critical and we believe that the Attorney-General and the Police Minister have to answer questions about how the government will ensure that these protections are respected.


JOURNALIST: Do you think there is an argument though that the cost of university funding does need to be addressed given it’s gone up about 71 per cent or something since 2009? Are you happy for that trajectory to continue or does it need to be addressed?


PLIBERSEK: We saw very large increases in the number of students attending university when Labor uncapped university places. And that’s a good thing. We actually know that many of the jobs that will be created in the future will require a university education. But those numbers have plateaued in more recent times. If you look at the cost in funding growth over the last year alone it’s about the same rate as inflation, so we are not concerned about the increase in the number of students going to university, we don’t believe that number needs to be reined in, and we certainly don’t think that university students should be made to pay for this government’s big business tax giveaway. Remember, that this government has committed to giving away $50 billion to big business over the next decade, and now they’re saying that we can’t afford preschools, we can’t afford schools, we can’t afford TAFE, we can’t afford university. It just doesn’t make sense. Any economist will tell you that an investment in education is better for our national productivity than a big business tax giveaway that mostly benefits foreign shareholders and the four big banks.