Bill's Transcripts

Press Conference: Rockhampton






SUBJECT/S: Abbott Government’s unfair higher education changes; Renewable energy; ADF pay cut; Dutch PM’s visit; Ebola crisis.


BILL SHORTEN, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: It’s great to be in Rockhampton visiting CQU, seeing the marvellous opportunities in the Allied Health Centre to train up tomorrow’s allied health professionals. I’m here today visiting CQU Rockhampton with Senator Chris Ketter, who is the Labor Senator for this part of Queensland.


What I see at CQU Rockhampton though underlines the damage that Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey and Christopher Pyne are doing with their unfair Budget to higher education for students in regions right across Australia. CQU won’t be able to do all of the things that some of the bigger, richer universities are doing. They’ve got a lot of students who come from poorer backgrounds. They’ve got a lot of women who are retraining, a lot of mature-age Australians who are getting an opportunity to go back and retrain in higher education. All of this is at jeopardy because of the Abbott Government’s unfair changes to higher education.


The Abbott Government is doing a trifecta of unfairness to higher education. They want to deregulate university fees completely, going down the American path of a two-class university system. They want to create degrees which will double and triple in cost. That’s the first bad thing they’re doing. They’re also cutting 20 per cent of funding to Australia’s universities. No nation ever dumbed it’s way to greatness. Taking money away from universities will only increase the pressure on universities to increase fees, and a lot of ordinary people miss out. And thirdly, what the Government’s proposing to do, is to increase the interest rate on the HECS payments. Or put another way, what they’re doing is, the debts which students have created by studying and working hard, the interest rate on the debt is going to be doubled because of this Abbott Government’s unfair, out of touch higher education policies.


Once upon a time in Australia, or at least certainly in the last 40 years since the great Gough Whitlam introduced free education, the standard of higher education in Australia was that access to higher education depended on how hard you worked and how good your marks were. Now Tony Abbott wants it to depend upon your credit card, your postcode and how rich your parents are. That is not a great idea for Australians and it’s not a great idea for Australia’s economy. Labor will keep campaigning on this.


I might ask my colleague Senator Ketter in a moment just to talk about the impact of higher education changes in regional Queensland, but before I do, the unemployment numbers have come out. Yet again we see an unemployment number with a six in front of it. The Abbott Government promised that when they got elected things would get better. Unemployment’s gotten worse since the Abbott Government got elected. Tony Abbott, where is your jobs plan for Australia? You promised it, you’ve now been in power for longer than a year, and all we’ve seen is unemployment numbers go up, not down. I might ask Senator Ketter to talk briefly about regional Queensland and higher education.


SENATOR CHRIS KETTER: We’re here in Rockhampton today because we’re so concerned about the impact of Tony Abbott’s Budget cuts on regional Queensland. At this university alone there’s $57 million being taken out, across Queensland $840 million from the education budget. So what has Tony Abbott got against regional Australia? This campaign is so important for the future.


SHORTEN: Thanks Chris. Are there any questions?


REPORTER: The Vice-Chancellor of this university says he actually supports the deregulation of student fees. Is he wrong in that view?


SHORTEN: What I’m interested in is what is in the best interests of the higher educational opportunities for young Australians. There will be kids in secondary school now weighing up do they do to university, there’ll be parents having conversations with their children about do they go to university. There’ll be mature-age Australians, mature-age people from central Queensland weighing up how they retrain in the future. The Abbott Government is sending them a message: under the Abbott Government, fees go up and up and up. That’s it. This is discouraging higher education. The Abbott Government is cutting $1 in every $5 to universities – taking it away, gone. Universities will have to fill that vacuum just to keep pace with where they’re at. How will they do that? By putting upward pressure on university fees.


They’re also going to increase the interest rates on debts. There’s nearly a million Australians who have HECS payments right now. Imagine if in Australia an incoming government said that they were going to double the interest rate on people’s home loans that they’d signed onto before the election. People would be really upset, they’d be very angry. Yet that is effectively what Tony Abbott and Christopher Pyne are doing by doubling the interest rate on HECS fees, they’re doubling the interest rate on people’s debt. For a Government who loves to talk about debt, this is a Government who is putting a lot of debt onto households in the future. It’s going to discourage mature-age students, it’s going to discourage people returning and retraining, it’s going to discourage women because they have longer periods of broken service and they’ll have longer debts. And of course in regional Australia it’s going to make it harder for regional universities to compete with some of the city universities. So we think these are bad changes.


REPORTER: Have you been able to express those views or opinions over the phone to the Vice-Chancellor here, or in person?


SHORTEN: To be fair to the Vice-Chancellor, he was unavailable today. He was happy to meet so we’ll make another time to meet.


REPORTER: PM Tony Abbott and his Dutch counterpart Mark Rutte will discuss finalising the MH17 disaster when they meet today. Do you have any concerns with the progress of the investigation so far?


SHORTEN: I’m pleased that the Dutch Prime Minister is in Australia, and I acknowledge that he flew out on a Malaysian Airlines jet, I think that showed real class and support also for Malaysia, because of course it wasn’t just Australian citizens and Dutch citizens who perished in this disaster. I’m meeting the Dutch Prime Minister tomorrow. I think the Dutch have done an excellent job. They are on the other side of the world, they’re not a large nation, but the attention which they’ve paid to the recovery of the victims’ remains, to the work they’ve done with Australian officials, I think there has certainly been a strong friendship forged between the Netherlands and Australia.


In terms of the progress, I think the missing link of course in the progress is what the Russian know. I note that the Prime Minister has walked away from his fairly bellicose or aggressive language about “shirt-fronting” Putin. But what I do believe, it’s important that the Prime Minister – and this is the test for him – the families and Australians don’t necessarily want angry words or big statements, what they want is information. What do the Russians know about this, what does Putin know about it, what was the role of the Russians working with Ukranians separatists or terrorists which have shot down this plane? But I have only got praise for the Dutch and Australian officials’ work in terms of trying to get to the bottom of this terrible, terrible disaster.


REPORTER: Mark Butler was on ABC radio yesterday, where he agreed that the coal industry should essentially be phased out. What do you think of those comments?


SHORTEN: I don’t believe that Mark said that there’s no place for coal at all in Australia. Coal is part of our energy mix, but it’s also important that we do taken genuine and real action on climate change. The rest of the world is going in one direction on climate change, trying to make us more sustainable in the future. Tony Abbott has slammed Australia into reverse gear and we’re now out of step with the rest of the world, going backwards. The rest of the world is taking real action. What we’re doing is giving billions of dollars, billions of taxpayers’ money to big polluters. That’s not a scheme, that’s just a money-go-round for big polluters.


So our energy mix is important, coal plays an important part of that. So does renewable energy. I think it’s disgraceful that this Government has successfully been sabotaging a multi-billion renewable energy industry in Australia, multi-billion dollar renewable energy industry, employing thousands of people. Climate change is real and it’s about time Tony Abbott and his group got their head out of the sand and realised that the rest of the world’s acting and Australians want long-term action. Because if you don’t deal with this problem today, Tony Abbott’s passing on an environmental problem which our children and grandchildren will have to pay a lot more for in the future to fix up.


REPORTER: Should coal be phased out in the long-term though?


SHORTEN: No, coal’s still got an ongoing role in Australia.


REPORTER: So you think it will – should always be part of the energy market?


SHORTEN: Are you asking me something should always be the case forever? I’m not in the position to use a crystal ball, let’s go to I think the real sense of the issue. Coal is part of our energy mix, as is renewable energy. What worries me is that the Abbott Government is ignoring climate change and is ignoring the renewable energy industry, and putting all their eggs in one basket. Australians, I think, are smart enough to know that just as we have gas and coal, we also need to have solar power, wind power. There’s over a million Australian families who have got solar power on their roofs. What I don’t understand is why this Government hates renewable energy so much.


REPORTER: What are your thoughts on the Defence Force pay issue?


SHORTEN: It is outrageous that the Abbott Government has used the 1.5 per cent pay proposition to the Defence Forces as a stalking horse to cut every other public servant’s pay and offer them nothing. But the pay proposition which the Abbott Government has advanced to the Australian Defence Forces is lower than inflation, so what it means is that a digger’s family in the next 12 months will have less money in real terms than they had in the last 12 months, while cost of living goes up and up and up.


This is an Abbott Government who on hand is going to increase the price of petrol for everyone in regional Australia, going to increase the living costs for every Australian Defence Family, and on the other hand is actually effectively cutting their real take home pay, because if it increases less than inflation, you’ve got a problem. This is also the Abbott Government who has proposed taking away leave entitlements for Australian Service personnel representing Australia overseas. This Government is out of touch with the Defence Forces, and the real, I think, shame of what they’ve done, the real nasty sting in the tail, is what they’re going to do is by making a sub-standard offer to the military, they’re going to make an even lower offer to all other public servants and say ‘well we’ve only given the military a sub-standard offer, so we’re not going to do any different to that’. So what they’ve done is use the military to run a back-door pay cut to hundreds of thousands of Australians. It is not the right use of Australia’s military and the Government should hang its head in shame.


REPORTER: Mr Shorten, just wondering, have you had any thoughts on the accusations from our local Federal MP Michelle Landry that the union was threatening her family?


SHORTEN: I don’t know anything about it. She should take any matter she has to the Federal Police in terms of the safety of politicians. It’s not easy being a politician, no one should be making threats to anyone in politics, full stop.


REPORTER: Tony Abbott could be meeting with Vladimir Putin as early as this weekend. Would you discourage him from shirt-fronting the Russian leader and what would you like to see happen at this meeting?


SHORTEN: I think we all know that Tony Abbott didn’t know what shirt-fronting meant when he said it. I don’t think he has any intention of physically confronting Vladimir Putin. I’m happy to come with Tony Abbott to any meeting with Putin to sort out what has happened here. What I do know is that the Russian President should assist international inquiries without reservation. The Russian Federation is closer to Ukrainian separatists-slash-terrorists than most other governments are, so I think he’s in a position to help provide closure about what happened and why it happened. What families want is they want to know why their families were plucked out of the sky and killed.


REPORTER: Health workers are demanding more clarity about the number of Australian volunteers who will be involved in the ebola treatment centre Australia is funding in Sierra Leone. Does the Federal Opposition have all the information needed and does the Government have questions to answer?


SHORTEN: The ebola crisis is killing thousands of people in West Africa, it’s a deadly, dangerous disease. The spread of ebola is of great concern to citizens of the world, wherever we live. Labor has taken the principled position that you’re far better off dealing with a deadly, dangerous disease closer to the source of the outbreak than waiting til it comes to our shores. Labor has said that we should have volunteers, provided that they can be safely supported, encouraged to go and work on this disease if they want to. I think in the last two weeks the news that the European Union has offered evacuation procedures for our volunteers and the Government is still dragging its feet is disappointing.


Yesterday’s announcement by the Government, to be fair, is a good step. This money will go to help maintaining a hospital in Sierra Leone, and Aspen Medical will do that work and that is a good step. But we know that there are hundreds of Australian volunteers willing to step into the breach courageously, where the need is greatest, that is the lack of skilled personnel in West Africa, I do not understand why the Government has been so slow to act on this international crisis. And it really does – it’s long overdue for the Government to work with our volunteers, the AMA, the medical experts and provide the need that is greatest, skilled Aussies helping where the need is greatest.


REPORTER: The European Union statements says medical evacuation agreements have been in place for all international aid workers in West Africa since October 20, despite the Government saying it had no iron-clad agreements. What’s your response?


SHORTEN: I do not understand why the Abbott Government has been so slow to help in this international crisis. If the argument’s been about the safety of Australians, that evacuation announcement by the EU just makes a lie of the Government’s slowness. It is now time for Government to work with Australian volunteers and medical experts, if they want to go and help. It is always going to be in the interests of Australians and citizens everywhere of the world to deal with this deadly disease closer to the outbreak rather than sitting on our hands until the outbreak is far worse than it currently is.


Thanks everyone, it’s great to be here in Rockhampton.