SUBJECTS: Universities (speech to Universities Australia conference); Cuts to penalty rates; TAFE; Buffet rule.

SABRA LANE, PRESENTER: Good morning and welcome to AM.


LANE: Your speech today will highlight the nature of changing work, but one of the big changes in labour in the past week has been the cut to penalty rates decision by the Fair Work Commission. Liberal Eric Abetz says this morning that no current workers should be worse off, that the change should apply to only new workers. What do you think about that?

PLIBERSEK: Well about a fifth of the Australian workforce changes jobs each year, so I’m not sure how long that would actually protect workers for. Particularly in areas like retail, hospitality, the industries that are affected by this award cut, you’ve got quite high turnover of staff, so that’s not an adequate solution.

LANE: Isn’t it? I mean, if you’ve got new –

PLIBERSEK: No, it’s not.

LANE: – you’ve got new people coming in who haven’t had jobs, these are the new rules.

PLIBERSEK: Or you’ve got one person moving from one franchise store to another franchise store and because they’ve moved five kilometres up the road they take a $77 a week pay cut, that’s not fair is it? They’re doing the same work for less money.

LANE: But it’s the independent umpire that Labor put in place, before the election Labor said it would honour the finding that came down from Fair Work Australia, and now you’re saying you won’t.

PLIBERSEK: Well the independent umpire has had a history of standing up for low paid workers, we believe that the independent umpire generally does a good job. But the umpire relies on the rules that are set for the game –

LANE: Set by Labor.

PLIBERSEK: We think that the umpire, in this instance, has made the wrong judgement. Anything that takes money away, out of the pockets of some of the lowest paid workers in Australia, is not fair.

LANE: In your speech today, you’re issuing a challenge to the sandstone institutions to come up with answers.

PLIBERSEK: Well to all universities. We know that the economy is changing faster than it ever has, you talked about legacy industries a moment ago. There are some estimates that say that within 10 to 15 years 40 per cent of the jobs that people are doing today won’t exist anymore, and I’m saying to universities they have to be part of, not just training their students for the jobs that will emerge, but also making sure we have the industries that will support high quality, well paid jobs for those students to participate in. I’m also saying to universities that I’d like to see more collaboration when it comes to research with business, Australia does actually very badly in this area of government collaboration with –

LANE: – The Government’s trying to encourage that through its innovation package.

PLIBERSEK: Indeed, and they have made some modest changes that we support. But it is an area where that needs to see more focus. And the third thing I’ll be talking about is better collaboration with TAFE. TAFE is –

LANE: We’ll get to that in just a moment.

PLIBERSEK: Alright, great.

LANE: Have universities been too slow to adapt?

PLIBERSEK: No, I think universities generally are doing a terrific job, and, you know, they turn out some of the best graduates in the world. Australian universities –

LANE: But you’re giving them a little gee up.

PLIBERSEK: Yes, I think it’s important to say when we invest so many taxpayers’ dollars in educating young Australians, and Australians throughout their careers, that we get value for money, and that means making sure that the skills and knowledge that universities are developing in our people are relevant, for, not just for today, but for 10 years’ time or 20 years’ time, and that people become life-long learners.

LANE: You’re also calling for the sector to be more collaborative with the TAFE sector, and recognise previous work experience and technical skills that people have, are these traits undervalued now in universities?

PLIBERSEK: Yes I think they are. I think a lot of universities have doubts about the quality of a TAFE education. TAFE has been a really central foundational part of the Australian education system for a long time. It’s come under a great deal of pressure over recent years. Over the last decade we’ve seen about a four per cent decline in real terms in TAFE funding. And we’ve seen, around the states, different states, have very substantially put up TAFE fees, really shrunk the opportunities, the variety of courses at TAFE. But I think really looking at the TAFE system, making sure that it’s a top quality education provider, and then saying to universities, your students will need some academic skills, they’ll need, perhaps, to work in a laboratory in the university to develop their scientific skills, but they’ll need some technical skills too, and there are times when TAFE is the best place to get those technical skills.

LANE: The former Treasurer, Wayne Swan, says the Labor party should adopt a Buffett-style tax, where the highest income earners in Australia are forced to pay a mandated minimum rate of tax. Do you agree?

PLIBERSEK: Well, I think it’s fantastic that Wayne has been doing so much to raise the issue of inequality, not just in Australia, but globally. He is a global leading thinker in this area, and I think what he’s saying in the speech is that we should at least look at the Buffet rule.

LANE: Do you think so?

PLIBERSEK: I think we absolutely need to look at high income earners and companies that are not paying their fair share of tax. I think the Buffett rule is a slightly blunt instrument for doing that. What we did before the last election is restrict access, to say we would restrict access to negative gearing and capital gains tax to people who are buying new homes. One of the biggest tax deductions that the highest income earners use is negative gearing and capital gains tax deductions. Same with superannuation, we took a proposal to restrict the availability of tax deductibility of superannuation contributions for very high earners. We’ve tried to look at each area where very high income earners and companies are avoiding paying the tax that they should pay, and address each of those areas systematically. I think that’s a very important approach for us to continue to take - we can’t allow very high income earners and big multinational companies not to pay their fair share.

LANE: Tanya Plibersek, thank you for taking to AM this morning.

PLIBERSEK: It’s a pleasure.