SUBJECT/S: $100,000 degrees; Liberal cuts to science funding; illegal firearms




KIERAN GILBERT: Thanks very much for your company this morning. With me now, Liberal frontbencher, the Assistant Education Minister Senator Simon Birmingham, and the Shadow Minister for Citizenship and Multiculturalism Michelle Rowland. Good to see you both. Michelle Rowland, in terms of the Higher Education reforms, the Minister will – we’ll get to the Assistant Minister in a moment – but Labor’s position, you’re not going to budge one bit despite the urgings of the Vice Chancellors and others.


MICHELLE ROWLAND, SHADOW MINISTER FOR CITIZENSHIP AND MULTICULTURALISM, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS:  We are not because we believe that this is an issue of equality for all Australians to have the opportunity, if they so choose, to have a higher education.

GILBERT: Even if that’s a diminishing education?

ROWLAND: Well we know that it will diminish immediately if you have people locked out because they can’t afford these degrees. And it will be diminished also for the country as a whole if we are held to ransom in the way that Minister Pyne is proposing and we have science funding linked to this. This will mean, 1700 scientists having their funding cut off. This is no way to run policy in this country.

GILBERT: Why did the Minister do that and issue that ultimatum? Is that the right thing to do?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Kieran, there’s not an ultimatum. This is just a fact of the Budget situation that the Labor Party left this science program, this research program, unfunded from the 30th of June this year. Whereas you know, as Michelle well knows, Budgets in this country are rolled out over a four year cycle, and when we came to office funding for this science and research program finished 30 July this year. So it was funded for less than half of the forward estimates of the Budget. But we had to find money to fund that program. We think it’s of value. We have found the funding to do it. That funding to do so is contained within the Higher Education reforms. If it’s not found from there, savings will have to be found somewhere else.

GILBERT: So why not find them elsewhere if it’s that much of a priority?

BIRMINGHAM: Kieran, we have found them. They are found in the Higher Education reforms and those reforms are before the Parliament, and that is the way we think it is best to provide security to this program but most importantly to achieve a significant reform to how higher education works in this country.

GILBERT: It’s an ultimatum though, isn’t it? It is an ultimatum.

BIRMINGHAM: It’s not an ultimatum.

GILBERT: Because if the Minister says to the crossbench “if you don’t back it, 1700 jobs are gone”.

BIRMINGHAM: Kieran, this package is far bigger than that. Far bigger than that. Yes, the NCRIS Program, the science and research program is important, but the overall Higher Education package is far, far bigger than one program. As Minister Pyne made very clear, he will happily negotiate with anybody, the Labor Party included, on any aspect of this except of course the core element of it being the deregulation at universities.

GILBERT: They’re not going to buy it. The crossbench isn’t going to buy it.

BIRMINGHAM: But Kieran that means everything else is on the table, even around…

GILBERT: Is there any prospect of that deal being done? You’re the Assistant Minister.

BIRMINGHAM: Well Kieran, let’s actually just deal with the policy here and the value of the policy and let me quote – not Christopher Pyne, not Tony Abbott, but Peter Beattie the former Labor Premier writing today in the Australian: “without funding reform, Australia’s universities will inevitably slip towards mediocrity and the quality of Australian graduates will decline in relation to our international competitors.” That’s what’s at stake here.

GILBERT: Okay, let’s get Michelle Rowland on that then. Because I guess in underpinning that at the core of this debate is the fact that we have a situation in higher education where under the former Labor Government, one arm or one half of higher education was deregulated in that the number of students going in has been uncapped, essentially deregulated, whereas the prices haven’t, therefore more students, the price is fixed, the quality is diminished as Peter Beattie says.

ROWLAND: Firstly, Peter Beattie can have his own views on this matter but our view is very clear.

BIRMINGHAM: And John Dawkins and Maxine McKew.

ROWLAND: We’re not going to wear a situation where we are basically locking people out of university. Locking people out, people in Western Sydney being locked out of university.

BIRMINGHAM: This is an outrageous scare campaign. Nobody pays a cent upfront, Michelle.

ROWLAND: The fact is Kieran, this is purely ideologically driven. Purely ideologically driven, because you wouldn’t have the Government attempting to link this science funding to this issue if it was so critical to their Budget bottom line and so critical to their reforms. The reality is, they have kicked an own goal. They are backpedalling a hundred miles an hour since they floated this idea of having science funding linked to this issue. The crossbench have rebelled against it.

BIRMINGHAM: Floated the idea? It’s a Budget decision.

ROWLAND: Crossbenchers have rebelled against it, and go ahead and kick your own goals. This Government is willing to take this to an election – go for your life. Go for your life. You want to make this an issue for the next election? Be my guest.

GILBERT: Just on the prospect of this passing because listening to all of the crossbench except for Senator Day from South Australia every other crossbencher has concerns raising from mild concerns to outright hostility to this set of laws. I don’t see how it’s going to have any chance of passing.

BIRMINGHAM: Kieran, we will keep working as hard as we possibly can before the final vote is cast, and we are open to discussion with absolutely everybody because this is a fundamental reform. It builds on what I would say are proud Labor reforms. It builds on the HECS scheme built by the Hawke Government. It builds on the HECS scheme because not one student has to pay upfront, so it’s a complete scare campaign of Michelle’s to be saying it locks students out. In fact, quite the opposite. The Labor Party’s policy – the so called compacts that Kim Carr wants to introduce. That will put caps in place for universities intake. That will determine what causes universities can run. This is what locks students out. Ours will give the universities the capacity to have the freedom to excel, to run themselves and it is doing exactly what senior Labor figures like Peter Beattie, like former Education Minister John Dawkins, like Maxine McKew, like Bruce Chapman the architect of HECS, all of them endorse reform along with 40 of 41 Vice Chancellors.

GILBERT: I want to ask about the gun laws. This idea that mandatory sentencing for those that traffic illegal firearms, five year mandatory sentence. Will Labor consider that?

ROWLAND: We have to see firstly what legislation is going to be. I see the Prime Minister saying this is going to be reintroduced, I’d like to see in what form it is. But can I just remind you that Labor wanted very serious sentences for trafficking. They appear to be watered down and we introduced those laws in 2012 and they lapsed with the change of the Parliament. But it isn’t some flight of fancy to say that mandatory sentences actually don’t have the desired effect. You only have to look at some of the people who will sit in the Senator’s corner here sometimes - the Institute of Public Affairs has even pointed it out - this isn’t a left wing issue. This has serious implications for judicial discretion, it has serious implications for defendants who will seek to strongly contest mandatory sentencing, and also what sort of deterrent effect it has. Now if there’s evidence that shows that this in fact isn’t the case then I’d be very willing to see it and consider it. But all the evidence shows that this won’t work. But I will say though Kieran, Labor is absolutely committed to making sure that we have a bipartisan approach to issues of national security, but on issues of mandatory sentencing you have to look at the policies that work and you have to look at the evidence.

GILBERT: Let’s hear Senator Birmingham and his response to the concerns as outlined by Michelle Rowland.

I can’t quite work out from Michelle’s answer whether they are open to supporting the legislation or not, Kieran. We are bringing back to the Parliament legislation that will put in place a form of mandatory sentencing. There are more than 250,000 illegal firearms estimated to be in circulation in Australia. The Labor Party when they were in government cut back the level of screening that was happening at our Customs borders. They cut back the level of potential for intervention. We’ve put $88 million back into identification and screening and making sure that our Customs are going to be able to pick up these weapons on the way through, but we want to ratchet up deterrent as well. That is exactly what this legislation is about. The Labor Party can’t have it both ways. They’re either for tougher penalties in this space, getting on board with the Government and making sure we stop these illegal firearms from entering Australia, or they’re not.

GILBERT: Okay. We’re out of time. Assistant Education Minister Simon Birmingham and Labor frontbencher Michelle Rowland. Thanks so much for this morning. A quick break and back in just a moment.