21 October 2019




SUBJECTS: The Economy; Education Funding; Free Trade Agreements; Press Freedom.

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: My first guest today, who is the Shadow Education Minister, Tanya Plibersek. Tanya Plibersek, welcome.


KARVELAS: I'm well. The Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg says the Government's focus on infrastructure deregulation and industrial relations reform will boost economic growth. What sort of stimulus do you think they should instead be engaging in?

PLIBERSEK: Well, we'd agree that they should be actually be focusing on things like infrastructure but instead you've got a Government that makes big promises and then pushes the spending off into the never-never. I think the Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund, whats that - a five billion dollar fund and I think they have spent about $50 million dollars from that. Or, the Urban Congestion Fund that they trumpeted so much, well last year they spent $17 million dollars on advertising from that fund but not a single dollar actually building anything. So yes, by all means, let's actually bring forward some of that infrastructure investment, particularly in our regional communities that are doing it so tough. You said also industrial relations - well I think, we are very happy to see reforms that would deliver higher wages for Australian workers because in fact, part of the problem is we've got historic low wages growth in this country. That's bad for individual families, it means their living standards are going backwards but its also really bad for aggregate demand in our economy. It means people are spending less, they are creating fewer jobs for their fellow Australians.


PLIBERSEK: So we've got a Finance Minister that actually said that keeping wages low is part of this Government's economic plan.

KARVELAS: Sure, but the Business Council says that a surplus is not a book-keeping exercise. They actually say that a surplus is quite key here. What is your response to that?

PLIBERSEK: Well, we've got a government that has doubled our national debt during it's time in office and so, of course, we want to see responsible paying down of that huge debt that this Government has doubled net debt, we've got gross debt at more than half a trillion dollars now for the first time in Australia's history. We can't allow that to go indefinitely. But, right now, we see our growth write-downs from the IMF, the OECD, the Reserve Bank is very concerned about low levels of growth in Australia. We've got the Business Council of Australia, the Australian Industry Group saying that they want to see more action and a real plan from the Government to drive economic growth in this country. It is important to talk about what this means on an economy wide level but we also have to look beneath that Patricia, to what this is doing to individual families. We're seeing the quality of life, the standard of living going backwards for Australians.


PLIBERSEK: Were seeing young people more likely to be unemployed, fewer apprenticeships and traineeships, growing youth unemployment. We see more than five people competing for every entry level job in Australia and almost 2 million Australians unemployed or underemployed. These economic headlines are actually causing real pain in our Australian community.

KARVELAS: Sure, but some economists say a lack of business and consumer confidence is a big part of the slowdown were seeing. Are you potentially doing more damage by talking down the economy? We heard the Treasurer saying that Labor is trying to compare our economy to Greece's. But if you look at the other indicators, we are nothing like Greece.

PLIBERSEK: Well, I think we are actually growing slower than Greece.

KARVELAS: Sure, but our unemployment rate is nothing like Greece? I mean, it's not. It is not comparable, is it?

PLIBERSEK: We've actually got communities in Australia, take Coffs Harbour - about one in four young people are without a job. We've got regional communities throughout Australia were one in four, one in five young people are not working. That is a serious problem. We've got almost 2 million Australians that want more hours at work, or are unemployed. We've got the highest rate of underemployment in our nation's history. So let's not be...

KARVELAS: But, we have just seen the unemployment rate actually go down, Tanya Plibersek.

PLIBERSEK: So let's not be complacent here. We are at almost two million Australians who want work or want more work. Let's not be complacent here. And part of the story is the incredibly low wages growth we have seen. It means living standards are going backwards and it means Australian's aren't confident to spend.


PLIBERSEK: While ever they are in that frame of mind, it is difficult to see where economic growth will come from and I think, it is a sign that this Government has to do more. People are not confident that there is a plan to take us out of this period of very low growth.

KARVELAS: It's been reported that you oppose the decision to support re-purposing the Education Infrastructure Fund to disaster relief. Why do you think its a bad idea?

PLIBERSEK: Well I never talk about what's discussed in Caucus or Shadow Cabinet or Cabinet for that matter, and I'm not going to start now. But what I would say is, throughout this debate Labor has been saying it was not necessary to take money from education spending and use that money for disaster relief. Of course, we have always supported better action on disaster relief; and prevention and mitigation by this Government. The Education Investment Fund was $3.9 billion set aside to invest in our TAFEs and universities and research facilities, this Government had not sent a single dollar of that money in the last 6 years. So while our TAFE campuses around Australia are falling apart, we've got a government sitting on a $3.9 billion fund and not spending a cent of it. At least we've got $50 million.

KARVELAS: OK, given it wasn't spending a cent of it and you were arguing that it shouldn't be repurposed, why did you think it should maintain its existence as an education fund? Why do you think that was a good principle for Labor?

PLIBERSEK: Well, we made an agreement with the Government that they would spend $50 million of Commonwealth funds upgrading TAFE facilities, and that's an improvement on the zero dollars they've been currently spending. But I would say as a matter of principle this is a government that has tried at every opportunity to get rid of this fund and there was no reason for the Government to give this ultimatum to the Parliament.

KARVELAS: As a concession, as you mentioned, the Government has agreed to an additional $50 million in funding for TAFE. Jacqui Lambie described it as "pathetic", should Labor have held out for more? I mean $50 million in the scheme of things isn't a large sum of money is it?

PLIBERSEK: Well, these are always judgements that you make in the Parliament at the time and $50 million is quite a bit of money. And it's better than the big fat zero that this Government was actually spending on upgrading TAFE facilities from the Education Investment Fund. Would I have liked it to be $3.9 billion? Yeah, I would. But after six years of not a dollar being spent I think $50 million is better than a big fat zero.

KARVELAS: Sure, but Labor established this fund and you've blocked efforts to abolish it in the past. Does this blunt your criticism of the Government's record on education funding, to kind of flip on this issue? Well, its significant because this is very much a new position for Labor, you have opposed this over a long period of time.

PLIBERSEK: And I would still argue that it would have been the right thing to do, to invest this $3.9 billion in upgrading our TAFEs, our universities and our research facilities. But I've also been watching this government for 6 years not spend a dollar of this money on any of those facilities - on TAFE or universities or research. It also comes on top of re-capping university places, it comes on top of cutting apprenticeship and traineeship funding, it comes on top of ending or reducing programs to help disadvantaged people get a university education. It comes on top of more than $14 billion cut from our public schools. So I think there's plenty

KARVELAS: But do you except that it makes the argument you make on education harder now, Tanya Plibersek?

PLIBERSEK: I think there is plenty of examples of where this government is reducing or eliminating education funding. Look, just look at the outcomes. We have Australian kids in our schools going backwards on all of the major international tests. We've got areas around the country where kids are going backwards on NAPLAN tests. We've got 150 thousand fewer apprentices and trainees. We're going to have 200,000 fewer Australians get a chance to go to universities. We've got no commitment to pre-school for 4 year olds beyond the next year.

KARVELAS: Sure, but that's a shopping list, but on this one issue Labor back-flipped.

PLIBERSEK: It's more than a shopping list, Patricia.

KARVELAS: But Labor back-flipped on this key issue.

PLIBERSEK: It's an indicator of how little this Government cares about educating young Australians. And at a time when the economies changing so quickly, we should be investing more to keep up with our neighbours, with countries in our region and around the world that are overtaking us in all the international measures of how well our kids are doing. We're being left behind because this Government has cut funding


PLIBERSEK: - year in, year out.

KARVELAS: Labor says you're satisfied with the concessions the Government has offered in relation to these trade deals with Indonesia, Peru and Hong Kong. But they don't guarantee labour market testing and the ISDS clause hasn't been scrapped so you didn't actually get your demands at all, did you?

PLIBERSEK: Well in fact we got all of the demands that we wrote to the Government with, the only thing that they haven't clearly agreed to is that trade agreements should have independent economic modelling attached to future trade agreements and it's beyond me why this Government won't agree to independent economic modelling if they believe that agreements are in Australia's national interest.

KARVELAS: So why support it if you don't have that commitment and that modelling?

PLIBERSEK: Well because, the first thing to say is Labor will always vote in the interest of jobs and wages for Australian workers. If you look at just the Indonesian Trade Agreement for example, the extra access that our steel makers will have to the Indonesian market, the fact that Indonesia will be the fourth largest economy in the world by 2050. We've got hundreds of millions of consumers on our doorstep that we do very little trade with. I mean, these are all great opportunities but we want to make sure that they are in the national interest, so we've said that we want to see provisions for example to make sure that working holiday visa holders aren't exploited and that they hold appropriate qualifications to do the work that they will be doing in Australia. We've asked for assurances that none of the provisions in this agreement will force privatisation...

KARVELAS: And the union movement says you've sold workers out, have you sold workers out?

PLIBERSEK: Well, these agreements are not exactly the agreements that Labor would have negotiated if we were the government but we are not the government. We are not negotiating the agreements. We've achieved a number of very significant concessions from the Government, agreement to ensure that we have higher protections for Australian workers and for those working...

KARVELAS: Do you understand the concerns of the union movement, they say that you've sold workers out and you're not supporting working class Australians.

PLIBERSEK: I just don't think that's a fair analysis. I understand their concerns, of course I do, and they don't have a lot of trust for this Government and, like I say, they're not exactly the agreements that we would have negotiated if we were the government. But we're not and we have to put the interests of generating jobs and supporting jobs in Australia above other considerations.

KARVELAS: Under Anthony Albanese Labor has adopted a strategy of voting for Government Bills even when you don't fully support them. The Education Bill we were talking about is a really good example of that. Is that damaging morale within the party?

PLIBERSEK: I don't think so. We are in a situation where we are, very sadly, we're not the government, we lost the last election, it's disappointing for everyone, it's very disappointing for me personally but we have to move on. We have to deal with the hand that we're dealt and what we're trying to do, and I think successfully, is make a difference to Government legislation where we can, and to continue to pursue our policy development processes so that at the next election we are ready to govern.

KARVELAS: Just finally, the media is running a press freedom campaign this week. The Prime Minister said today that no one is above the law including journalists. Do you agree?

PLIBERSEK: Well, of course, no one's above the law but the Government makes the laws and I thought it was pretty surprising in Question Time today when the Prime Minister was saying that politicians shouldn't interfere in this stuff and no one's above the law. Well the Government makes the law and the Attorney General has given himself the right to make very significant decisions in relations to whether journalists will face prosecution or not. Of course, Labor supports press freedom. We think that a strong, vibrant, diverse media is absolutely critical to a well-functioning democracy.

KARVELAS: And do you think Labor has made mistakes in the past supporting national security legislation that has essentially restrained the ability of journalists to hold governments to account on these issues?

PLIBERSEK: Well we've achieved more than 330 changes, amendments to government legislation since we've been the Opposition. In many cases, the Joint Standing Committee on Security and Intelligence Matters has made bipartisan recommendations, most of them have been accepted by the Government. Those bipartisan recommendations suggested by Labor, accepted by the Coalition members of that committee, accepted by the Government. But I am very concerned that in a number of occasions those bipartisan recommendations were not accepted by the Government...

KARVELAS: But then you voted for the legislation anyway.

PLIBERSEK: Well we have to balance keeping Australians safe.

KARVELAS: Do you regret that? I mean that's at the heart of my question.

PLIBERSEK: I will never regret putting the safety of Australians first, above politics...

KARVELAS: Even when it's restricted journalists ability to hold powerful people to account?

PLIBERSEK: I don't think we need to trade off the two. I believe that we can keep Australians safe and also protect the democratic values, the freedoms that we've been fighting for. And I think the Government should be more flexible in accepting Labor's recommendations and make sure that they do, also, prioritise media diversity and freedom in the Australian context.

KARVELAS: Tanya Plibersek, thanks for joining us this afternoon.

PLIBERSEK: Thank you Patricia.