BREAKING POLITICS - Uni fee deregulation, D-Day and the PM's partisanship on display

In my usual Monday slot with Breaking Politics host, Chris Hammer, today's topics included another gaffe by the Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, and concern this Governent does not understand its own budget and the budget's ripple effects.



SUBJECT / S: Higher education changes; Crippling cuts to CSIRO and other science organisations; D-Day commemorations and the Prime Minister’s partisanship; Welfare payment changes and drug testing recipients.

CHRIS HAMMER: Joining us now is  Andrew Leigh the shadow assistant treasurer and Labor member for Fraser.


HAMMER: Good Morning. Now Christopher Pyne says that the new university system, the new university fees won't kick in til June 2016. So what’s the problem, people have plenty of warning of what’s coming?

LEIGH: Well the question that Minister Pyne was asked yesterday Chris, was when the changes to the indexation of HECS debts would start. He erroneously said that would begin applying only to new enrolees. In fact it applies to students currently enrolled, and even students who have graduated, a measure which smells a whole lot like retrospective taxation to me, although I suspect that its constitutionally possible to get it through. It means that a student that graduated maybe even a decade ago is now going to see their HECS debt balloon if they don't begin paying it off rapidly. It was an approach that was never envisaged from the start when HECS was put in place.


HAMMER: So someone now, say a woman who has taken time to have children, who isn't in the workforce, that sort of ticking over compound interest.

LEIGH: Ticking over hugely, so let’s take the case of someone like Janette Howard who went to teachers college, but then was largely out of the workforce for ensuing decades. Had she not paid off that debt, it would had continued to grow and grow and could well have been hundreds of thousands of dollars at this stage. That’s an approach the founders of HECS never envisaged. The deal with HECS was always that your debt increased with prices, not with a real interest rate.

HAMMER: Now, if you go and do a vocational degree like law or medicine that leaves to a highly paid profession. You leave university, you might start in that profession. What about people who want to do higher degrees like PhDs? Is this is a disincentive to people who are then going to spend much more time in some discipline, PhD post-doc etc.? 

LEIGH: It's a good point Chris and one that no one has raised in the debate. If you've got a debt that's growing at the real interest rate then the real temptation is to get out there and start paying it off. So, it will deter people investing in their own education. It will deter people working in the community sector, for example. People will feel the need to rush and get the best paying corporate job, rather than to make the right investments to them or to choose a job which gives more back to the community.

HAMMER: Now, as an individual that might be fine. I might say, I want to do this degree because I want to get the best return on it. Australia as a whole, does this mean we're going to get a distorted outcome of production of graduates, there will be some expertise that we're lacking as a country?

LEIGH: I think it will lead to a dumbing down and certainly if you've got vice chancellors that say there's about a 20 per cent cut in student support coming as a result of this budget. That's on top of a government that doesn't have a science minister, that's cutting a thousand staff out of the CSIRO, that doesn't seem to believe in climate change and is axing expert panels like the Climate Change Authority. I don't understand this frankly Chris. If they are conservatives then they ought to believe in science, the value of expertise and the importance of investing in knowledge and human capital.

HAMMER: You're an interesting case in point because you have multiple university degrees but also you've taught at universities, you've been a Professor of Economics before entering politics. Christopher Pyne has raised this issue that maybe some universities shouldn't do any research at all and that should be left to the G8 universities or whatever. Does that make sense to disengage research from teaching?

LEIGH: It hasn't met much support from vice chancellors I have to say Chris. When I look at the response that has come back from the VCs, overwhelmingly they want their institutions to be teaching and research. There's not much appetitive for Christopher Pyne's latest thought bubble there.

HAMMER: But why? What's wrong with a smaller regional university that, let's face it, is going to be under pressure, as far as fees go, if they can drop the research, then maybe they can dedicate more time to teaching.

LEIGH: The argument that is typically made on this is, it's one thing to be taught by a good teacher, it's another thing to get taught by somebody who themselves wrote the text book. There's some synergies between teaching and research which naturally lead almost all universities in the world to combine the two. People point to liberal arts institutions in the United States, but even those institutions do significant amounts of research. They are not teaching only.

HAMMER: Now, in his budget speech, Joe Hockey said that Australia should have a university ranked in the top 20 in the world, given that research plays such a vital part in university rankings. Is there anything in the government's reforms in deregulation that will increase the chance of Australia having a top 20 university or is it the contrary?

LEIGH: It's difficult to see it. There's red ink as far as the eye can see when you look at the higher education proposals of this government. And, the cuts and attacks on science are in some sense a devaluation of important institutions. The attacks and cuts on the Australian Research Council are also going to debilitate our ability to improve our research output. If the Medical Research Fund was to be funded, it might make a difference, but it's to be funded by the GP tax, which is pretty clear not to pass the Parliament. And without that source of revenue, it's unlikely I think that the Government is going to fund its Medical Research Fund.

HAMMER: Okay, changing topics now. On the weekend the Prime Minister released a video on social media, on You Tube. He's done it again this weekend. He's accused of conflating D-Day commemorations, which he will be attending, to trade negotiations and trade talks with the U.S. and other countries. I mean what's the problem with that? He is going to do both those things on his overseas trip.

LEIGH: The Prime Minister's statement effectively used D-Day in order to talk about his own partisan agenda, of going backwards on climate change. The error was recognised by the Prime Minister's office which has pulled the statement down from the PM's website. It does again reflect a government which is far more focussed on politics than on substance. When you've got Minister Andrews at war with the Prime Minister over drug testing of welfare recipients, when you've got Christopher Pyne unable to get across the basic details of his own policy, when you've got Joe Hockey railing against debt and deficits but bringing down a budget which raises the deficit, then you've really got to wonder whether the government has its act together. And this D-Day statement brought that back to many Australians.

HAMMER: But all sorts of organisations conflate Australia's military past with say sporting events. You had Steve Waugh taking the Australian cricket team to Gallipoli, to psyche them up for The Ashes. You have the annual ANZAC Day football matches. Surely the Prime Minister who is attending D-Day ceremonies, is allowed to tell the people about them?

LEIGH: Absolutely. The Prime Minister is right to be attending the D-Day commemorations, but he's not right to be using D-Day as a platform for his partisan agenda. In the same spirit, parliamentarians don't hold partisan press conferences on the steps on the War Memorial. This was a statement which affectively did that.

HAMMER: Random drug testing, you brought it up. Why is it not a good idea?

LEIGH: This is something the Government has floated and then pulled down. This is a government arguing amidst itself. Kevin Andrews clearly has very radical ideas for welfare which involve harsh measures on welfare recipients, even harsher still than we've seen in this budget, which takes away Newstart for six months from 20-somethings. He's been slapped down by Mr Abbott who, I think, has recognised that even Kevin Andrews can be sometimes too radical.

HAMMER: Let's flip it over though. There's a mother who's unemployed on welfare, they have a drug problem. Maybe we should be finding out what the issues are, instead of putting them in a corner with a little bit of welfare, this can actually help them?

LEIGH: I entirely agree with helping people with multiple disadvantage Chris. When you look at the really point end of disadvantage in my electorate, you've got the overlap of mental illness, long-term substance abuse, sometimes crime, housing problems and family breakdown. Sometimes these are adults who were abused as a child. Put all those together and you've got a very complex form of disadvantage, but you don't deal with that by punitively cutting off welfare, in the way that this government seems to want to do.

HAMMER: What about the suggestion that senior public servants and indeed politicians should be subject to random drug tests?

LEIGH: I'm very happy to be drug tested Chris, but I'm not sure that tests are the best use of taxpayer money.

HAMMER: Okay, Andrew Leigh, thanks for your time this morning.

LEIGH: Thanks Chris.



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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.