SUBJECT/S: Confusion and chaos over Abbott Government’s economic and Budget strategy; Tony Abbott’s failure to negotiate with the Senate; $100,000 degrees; Data retention; Ashley Johnston




CHRIS HAMMER: Michelle Rowland is the Labor MP for Greenway in Western Sydney. She’s also the Shadow Minister for Citizenship and Multiculturalism and the Shadow Assistant Minister for Communications. Good morning.


HAMMER: Now the Prime Minister says the Budget can be back in surplus in five years. Do you believe him?

ROWLAND: I don’t know if his own party room believe him, and I think Joe Hockey is probably quite concerned by this commitment that the Prime Minister has made. Chris, on one hand this Government has actually increased the deficit since it came into government despite all its rhetoric about tackling debt and deficit. We also have commodity prices coming off, and this is despite the government saying what we have in Australia is not a revenue problem but a spending problem. And then when we get to the spending we see an announcement that this Budget is going to contain a lot of different packages, everything from families to small business. One wonders how these are going to be funded.

HAMMER: So five years, is it a couple of soft Budgets and if all the Government is re-elected another tough one?

ROWLAND: One wonders whether it will be the current Treasurer delivering the next one. I think the extraordinary thing Chris is that we are one full sitting week away from Budget week now and we’re still picking over the entrails of the last one, and the appalling sales job that even the Liberal Party’s own caucus room said they did trying to convince voters that this was a good Budget.

HAMMER: What do you make of the Prime Minister describing the Senate as ‘feral’?

ROWLAND: I think for a start this ignores the reality of what he has to deal with. This is an adult government? I mean, in the last Parliament we had a hung parliament essentially in the Lower House and yet we still managed to get big reforms through. This is a government that doesn’t seem to understand negotiation. It doesn’t seem to understand that when you take to the election certain policies then to prosecute them in the Parliament, and with the public that’s something that people end up respecting. They don’t respect having policies shoved at them after an election which have surprised everyone and then turn around and say, “I can’t understand why we can’t convince the Senate to support it.” This was supposed to be an adult government, they sure aren’t behaving like it.

HAMMER: Okay. Now the Higher Education changes have been defeated in the Senate, but a lot of the side issues of being knocked off, some of them quite significant ones like changes of indexation for HECS repayments, significantly the cuts in funding to universities, the central issue is around deregulation of universities. Is it time for Labor to engage on that issue or is it simply not possible?

ROWLAND: I think for a start Labor has always been engaged on the issue about university funding, and in contrast to the government’s assertions that university funding decreased under Labor, actual funding increased under the period of Labor’s last term in government. Successive Budgets budgeted for the increases in students that we had, everything from initial increases of 5 per cent and then a tapering out to around 2 or 3 per cent. All these things were budgeted for. And I can see the Government making arguments about this is about sustainability, well we always had sustainability under Labor.

HAMMER: So the Intergenerational Report is indicating there’s a number of areas of government spending that are going to grow in years ahead. You’re saying that education funding, spending in higher education, is totally sustainable over future decades?

ROWLAND: We even had, I believe, the head of Universities Australia come out and say we don’t have a funding crisis in universities at the moment.

HAMMER: Then why are the major universities in Australia, almost all universities in Australia saying we want deregulation?

ROWLAND: I think one of the reasons for this is the arguments that the government has put forward themselves that you can actually increase – these are universities that will take the opportunity if they’re given it - to increase fees for courses. But I tell you what, Chris, it is simply an ideological argument that is being pushed by this government now.

HAMMER: Is it an ideological argument that is being pushed by the Vice Chancellors?

ROWLAND: I think that the Vice Chancellors appear to be the only people that have been consulted by this Government, and you see references that the Minister makes continuously, he talks about Vice Chancellors. I never hear him talk about students, I never hear him talk about prospective students, I never hear him talk about the first generation migrant families that came to Australia on the contract that if I work hard, my child with good marks is going to be able to get into higher education.

HAMMER: Okay now you’re the Shadow Assistant Minister for Communications. On metadata retention legislation, big issue in Parliament this week. Why is Labor being so quick to support that legislation given that the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security hasn’t even handed down its report yet. A committee with a track record of rather constructive bipartisanship.

ROWLAND: The first thing I would say Chris is that it has been a long process to date. We had this original Bill introduced to the Parliament in October last year and it was not a Bill that Labor was prepared to support. It was a Bill that clearly had issues with proportionality, clearly had issues with non-definitions about things like metadata, one of the central issues in it, and one of the sponsoring Ministers who couldn’t even explain what this was. So I would not characterise this as a fast moving feast. The other point I would make is the advisory report that came out of the Joint Committee, the fact that we had so many substantive recommendations in that I think speaks volumes for the work that was obviously done on a bipartisan basis, it was a bipartisan report. But Labor did take the Government to places where it clearly didn’t want to go in the first instance. The other point that I’ll make, Chris, is that this is a balancing exercise. I’ve been very outspoken on this issue, not only as a Member of Parliament but even when I was a practitioner in this area, and several years ago I warned against and foresaw as we increased the amount of data that was collected how are matters such as privacy, how are matters such as oversight going to be balanced? They are incredibly vexed questions. But the last point I’ll make is that a lot of this will come down to how implementation and how it operates in practice. Of course, we don’t know how that is going to operate yet. Things like costs, especially to smaller operators, is something that clearly needs to be worked out and it’s one of the central themes that I will have when I make a contribution later today.

HAMMER: One of the greatest concerns is about protections for whistle blowers. There’s some protections there for journalists that are actually it’s their metadata, authorities would need a court warrant, but no so for say Members of Parliament. Whistle blowers often give Members of Parliament information, not for whistle blowers themselves. So we see that the spectre of the police or the intelligence agencies hunting down public servants which is an example of we’re trying to do the right thing and release information that they otherwise can’t.

ROWLAND: I acknowledge those concerns. I also acknowledge the concerns that are being raised about journalists being taken as a special case that are being looked at and citizens have said to me well why are they a special case. I fully acknowledge those concerns. I think again it comes down to how this is going to be implemented and how it ends up operating in practice. I think we need to ensure that there is -

HAMMER: Don’t you need to get the legislation right, not just pass it and then see how the authorities, I mean, how do we know what ASIO is doing with it?

ROWLAND: Absolutely. We don’t know. We don’t have a crystal ball to see how this will end up operating in the future.

HAMMER: So is it sensible to say let’s see how it works in practice or it depends on how it’s implemented in practice?

ROWLAND: I think there’s two things we can do. Firstly, we can ensure that there is adequate oversight. Secondly we can ensure that the methodology and the actual process for obtaining this information is done in the most robust way possible. That is how I think you guard against those instances.

HAMMER: A final question, you’re also the Shadow Minister for Citizenship and Multiculturalism. We have the case of this Australian man whose been fighting against Islamic State alongside Kurds in the Middle East has been killed and his body is being repatriated. The Government is concerned that he’ll be held up as a martyr, that he may be used to encourage others to go and fight against Islamic State. On the other hand his family wants to honour him and bury him. Is the way the Government is dealing with this appropriate?

ROWLAND: I don’t think there’s an easy answer to this. I don’t think there is a right answer for the Government to be pursuing and there’s two reasons for that. Firstly having not an enormous - but a significant - Kurdish population in my area who have spoken to me about these matters in the past including their own struggles, this is a vexed issue for them. They have watched Kobane be on the news. For them this is one of the key tenants of this whole IS conflict that is taking place at the moment so it is obviously something that they hold very dearly. But the second point of course is absolutely, if you have these people being repatriated, what message does it send for other people? And we have had a consistent bipartisan message of “do not go”. Do not go even if you think you are doing something that is for the good of humanity because it is anti-IS. It is an extremely difficult question. I don’t think there’s any easy answer here for the Government at all.

HAMMER: Why say that given there are Australian soldiers there helping train Kurdish forces? We’re putting our own military and our resources there to help exactly the same group of fighters, why say no?

ROWLAND: Perfectly valid point, but I think the difference of course is that the Australian forces are there at invitation, whereas we don’t want to have a situation where people seek to take matters into their own hands thinking that they’re doing the right thing.

HAMMER: Okay, Michelle Rowland. Thanks for that.

ROWLAND: My pleasure.