MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: The shadow education minister, Tanya Plibersek, will outline Labor’s plan for the higher education sector in a speech in Melbourne later today.
She’ll argue removing inequality in education is the key to economic prosperity and job security.
This comes at the same time Labor is embroiled in a row with the Government over the granting of 457 visas for foreign workers.
Labor wants to crackdown on the visas as part of an Australia first strategy.
The shadow education minister and Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek joins me now from our Sydney studio.
Tanya Plibersek, good morning.
TANYA PLIBERSEK: Good morning.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: You’re outlining Labor’s principles for higher education today, as I said, including extra funding for universities, helping students from disadvantaged backgrounds get into uni, more support for students to finish their degrees.
Isn’t this basically the same plan you took to the last election?
TANYA PLIBERSEK: Well, we are reinforcing what we said at the time of the last election which is Labor will never support $100,000 university degrees and that universities are not just a benefit for the individual student who is more likely to go out and get a better paid job in the long run if they do post-secondary qualifications, but it’s also an investment in our national prosperity.
We know that investment in education is a driver of economic growth and one of the commitments that Labor has always had is to make sure that we’re not just offering a university education to kids who have got wealthy parents but that a university education is available to anyone who is prepared to work hard enough, to take on the responsibility of going to university, without ending up with a $100,000 debt at the same time as they’re trying to start a family and buy a home.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: And you’ve been education minister now since the election. Have you consulted with, sorry…
TANYA PLIBERSEK: Well, I wish I had been. (Laughter)
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: … shadow education minister, sorry about that.
TANYA PLIBERSEK: Things would be running so much more smoothly if I had been.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Have you consulted with the universities and TAFE colleges about what they want?
TANYA PLIBERSEK: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve been visiting university campuses, meeting with university chancellors and vice-chancellors, staff and students.
And I guess one of the things that I’ll be talking about today as well is making sure that our university or post-secondary school education system is much more fit for purpose for a rapidly changing economy.
One of the things that we’ve talked about for many years is lifelong learning but we’re not really doing a lot of that.
We need to make sure that our university sector and our vocational sector are working much more closely together so people can get the sort of theoretical knowledge and practical skills that they need to keep up with the changing workplace.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: You say in your speech today that one of the lessons from Donald Trump’s election win in the US is that if people need to feel the benefits from economic growth and one way to ensure that happens is by providing an education for everybody, but the world has already changed, hasn’t it?
TANYA PLIBERSEK: Well, the point I’m making is that university is both a driver of economic growth – we know that the research that happens in universities is really important to our national prosperity – but it’s also a benefit of economic growth.
Being able to share the benefits by investing in our people, making sure that we’re not leaving anyone behind, making sure that a university education is available to people irrespective of their parents’ income – that is one of the benefits of a strongly growing economy.
We need to make sure that we are investing in education both as a driver of growth and as a shared benefit of our prosperity.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: And one of the reasons clearly for Donald Trump’s victory was the feeling by a lot of people that they’d been left behind, that they had no, they didn’t have proper jobs, that they didn’t have the sort of future that they might have hoped for.
Is that one of the lessons that you’ve taken from the Trump victory and is that behind this 457 visa crackdown?
TANYA PLIBERSEK: Well, the fact that people need to feel that they are the beneficiaries of the economic policies that government pursue, that’s no secret. We’ve been saying that for a long time.
Wayne Swan has done a lot of good work on this even while he was treasurer but since he’s been treasurer as well on the international stage saying that we need to share our prosperity better across our community so that people feel that they have a stake in the economic policies that governments are facing.
I mean, right now in Australia we’ve got inequality at 75 year highs, we’ve got the three richest Australians who own as much as the million poorest Australians, and yet even with those very high rates of inequality in Australia, we’re still doing better than they are in the United States.
What we say is we don’t want to follow a path like they have in the United States where real wages have fallen over the last 20 years, where the middle-class has shrunk over the last 20 years.
We need to share our prosperity. We all benefit from greater equality in our nation.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: It is politically opportunistic, though isn’t it, to be talking about it in those terms at this point, just after the Trump victory?
TANYA PLIBERSEK: Well, we’ve been talking about it in these terms for many years now. Actually the only time we’ve seen the wealth gap shrinking in Australia is during the Rudd-Gillard years so it has been a focus of ours for some time.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: But you were big backers of 457 visas too. We know that.
TANYA PLIBERSEK: Yeah, well, our immigration system has to respond to the economic circumstances of the time.
We’ve seen 100,000 full-time jobs lost since the beginning of this year.
And I’ll just say this about temporary skilled migration: Yes, it’s important not to hold up business development because you’ve got a temporary shortage of a particular skill.
But we shouldn’t be easily providing these visas for low skilled jobs that could be filled by Australians when we’ve got, we’ve lost 100,000 full-time jobs, we’re worried about rising unemployment, we’re particularly worried about youth unemployment.
We do need to be training Australian workers. We’ve seen 130,000 fewer apprentices today than when we left office.
We’ve seen $2.75 billion cut from vocational education and apprenticeships.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Yeah sure.
TANYA PLIBERSEK: We need to continue to invest to make sure that our young Australians feel like they’ve got a stake in our future.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: This is not just vocation, this is not just cooks and car mechanics and nurses though, is it?
This is also 457s, a lot of 457 visas go to tech engineers and software specialists. These are drivers of the new economy, part of our commitment to an open competitive economy.
TANYA PLIBERSEK: Yeah, of course, and no-one’s, no-one’s suggesting that we will never have temporary skilled migration.
What we’re saying is we can’t have a large program of temporary skilled migration which at the moment is weighted to low skilled jobs, and at the same time cutting the guts out of the programs that would train young Australians to undertake those jobs themselves.
We need to do proper labour market testing and if the jobs can be filled by Australians, that’s our first stop.
If we’ve got shortages of particular skills, we should be making sure that we’re training people to fill those shortages.
Of course, temporary skilled migration will always be a part of our immigration program. It can’t be a substitute for training young Australians.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Labor is also this morning talking about the implications for Trump on the region, sending a clear signal that you want to take a more considered view of the US relationship.
I note Penny Wong writing today that we’re at a change point, that Australia needs to consider a broader range of scenarios than was previously within contemplation. What does that mean?
TANYA PLIBERSEK: Well, the US alliance has always been a very important part of Australia’s foreign policy but there have been times when we’ve made mistakes because of the alliance.
We shouldn’t have, we shouldn’t have supported the invasion of Iraq in the early 2000s, we shouldn’t have. We shouldn’t have been part of that.
And it is absolutely important that we make a decision case-by-case on what’s in Australia’s national interests and the global interest.
The foreign policy that President-elect Trump has described has a lot of, well, some lack of clarity about his intention particularly in our region, so I think it is very wise for us to take a cautious approach and decide on a case-by-case basis what is in our national interest.
And I think that’s just, I think that’s what Australians expect of us.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Sure, we’re also seeing potentially a significant military expansion in the Pacific under Donald Trump according to reports that are coming out already from his administration.
Would a more hawkish administration, more focussed on checking Chinese ambition, will that change things for us? Would that be one of the things we’d be looking at?
TANYA PLIBERSEK: Look, this is all hypothetical because we haven’t had a clear articulation that that’s the US position.
We’ve got a US that seems to be getting closer to Russia. I don’t know, is that official policy or is that something that President Trump has just said in interviews? Will that be part of their foreign policy?
They’ve talked about a trade war with China with tariffs up to 45 per cent, but they haven’t talked about China’s territorial ambitions and certainly the change in the Philippines position on the South China Sea.
I mean there are so many unanswered questions, Michael, that it is, I think, just very wise for us to take a little bit of time to actually examine what becomes US official policy when the president-elect in inaugurated and make our decisions then, always with the prime consideration of what is in our national interest and of course, what’s in the interest of global peace and prosperity.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Okay, Tanya Plibersek, thanks for joining us.
TANYA PLIBERSEK: Thank you.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Deputy Opposition Leader, Tanya Plibersek.