SUBJECT/S: Arrium Steel Administration; Higher Education Loan Funding; Labor's 'Your Kids. Our Future' policy. 

KATE ELLIS, SHADOW MINISTER FOR EDUCATION: It’s fantastic to be here with Labor’s wonderful candidate for Boothby, Mark Ward, but also our Shadow Finance Minister, Tony Burke. We’ve come here to Brighton High, an example of a fantastic public school in Australia. I want to make some more remarks about the importance of public education and of strong education funding policies. But just before doing that, I just wanted to make some remarks about this morning’s news from Whyalla.

Today, we have heard the devastating news for the workers of Arrium in Whyalla, but indeed for the whole state of South Australia. Our thoughts absolutely go out to the employees and to their families, who will be no doubt having a very very tough day today and face an uncertain future. Today is not the day for us engaging in party politics about Whyalla, but what we would say is we need to see State and Federal Governments working together to ensure every support is put in place for each and every one of those workers and also to see we have a sound programme in place to ensure this State’s economic future and strong employment levels. Again, we know this will have a devastating impact, not just on those individual workers, but on the entire town in Whyalla and of the broader South Australian economy. So I wanted to send my thoughts to those staff members.

Here at Brighton High today, we’ve had a chance to see first-hand what a great quality public school looks like. The Labor Party has been very clear that we believe every student at every school across Australia should have the chance to receive a world-class education. But unfortunately, the facts are pretty stark when it comes to the Australian schooling system. What we know is that we are slipping backwards in terms of our international competitiveness, and we also know the gap between poor-performing schools and students and high-performing schools and students is wider than the OECD average and it continues to grow. Now this is not right – it is not right for every one of those individual students and their families – and it is also short-sighted and not in the best long-term economic interests of this nation. That’s why we are so proud we have announced a fully-costed, fully-funded $37 billion investment in our nation’s future schools through the ‘Your Child. Our Future’ policy.

Unfortunately, what we have seen from the Government is not just an announcement they would strip $30 billion from our nation’s schools, which would be the biggest cut to Australian school education in the nation’s history, but also we’ve seen in the last week the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, actually took to Cabinet a proposal for the Federal Government to walk away from public education in this country, altogether. That is extraordinary and it is reckless. We stand here today to make very clear that we will fight this proposal each and every day, and we will make sure every teacher, every student, and every parent is very clear when it comes to the next election just how reckless Malcolm Turnbull’s plan is, and that we will not give the Liberal Party the chance to lie to the Australian public like they did at the last election.

I’m going to hand over to Tony Burke to make some remarks.

TONY BURKE, MANAGER OF OPPOSITION BUSINESS AND SHADOW FINANCE MINISTER: Thanks very much Kate. Great to be here at Brighton, great to be here at a school that is providing excellence in learning. When I first organised, a while ago, that we might get to be here today, it never occurred to me by the time we got here, we would be in a country where the Prime Minister of Australia had a preference that government schools receive no Federal funding. Now to have the sort of transformative policies Labor has, about making sure we have a needs-based focus on children with education funding, requires responsible management and responsible financial decisions.

Labor has already put forward more than $100 billion worth of improvements to the Budget bottom line, more than $100 billion worth of improvements. We’ve been willing to make hard decisions the Government hasn’t been willing to make: on negative gearing, on capital gains tax concessions, on high-end superannuation concessions, on making sure multinational companies pay their fair share of tax. When you’re willing to make those hard decisions, which the Government hasn’t been willing to make, you end up in a situation where you can also properly fund the education of students no matter which system of education they’re going through and you can have a needs-based model.

Overnight the Government, we now discover, is also being financially irresponsible in the higher-education sector. A report that has come out overnight from the Parliamentary Budget Office has made it clear that the main cause of the blowout, in the order of $11 billion over the next ten years in debt, is because of their policy to deregulate university and have $100,000 degrees. That puts students in an impossible situation; it also puts the Budget in a dreadful situation. I’ve got to say, what sort of Government thinks that now is the time to actually deskill the population? That now is a time of transition in our economy, and we would invest less in education, less in our universities and nothing in our government schools?

It’s an extraordinary position and it’s one of the reasons why, when we get back to Parliament, we need to have full week of work. Malcolm Turnbull needs to understand, it’s not a part-time job: he can’t be a part-time Prime Minister. Around a hundred and fifty people and their staff are going to be flown to Canberra and Malcolm Turnbull is so arrogant to think they should perform a stunt for him so he can have an early election, and not do a week of work. Every day, beginning the Monday, Malcolm Turnbull should be there being accountable to the Australian people through the Australian Parliament. It’s his job, it’s a full-time job, every other Member of Parliament is going to be there, he should be willing to turn up to work and turn up every day.

REPORTER: Tony Burke, you call it, or you label it, a stunt. But he might argue they’re in this position because of some of the stunts and games the crossbenchers and the Labor Party have been playing in the Senate. What would you say to that?

BURKE: In terms of straight procedure of legislation, they’re in this position because they didn’t reintroduce the bill at the end of last year because Malcolm Turnbull, at that point, was reluctant to reintroduce Tony Abbott legislation. In the months that have followed, one after another, he’s started to sign-up to every one of Tony Abbott’s policies, including his cuts to schools. That’s why they’re in the position with the legislation at the moment. That’s why they’ve had to upend the entire Parliamentary programme – which don’t forget, the Parliamentary programme was put in place by them – they chose the dates when Parliament would sit, they then decided they needed to revert to more of Tony Abbott’s agenda, they then needed to manufacture a crisis.

Well, they can do all that under the Constitution, we’ll turn up, but once they’re there, they can’t pretend they haven’t started Parliament. When the House of Representatives is there we are meant to have Question Time. We’re meant to do a full working week. Yes, through their own chaotic mismanagement, we’re in an unusual, unprecedented situation, but at the very least, Malcolm Turnbull can turn up for work every day and treat this as a full-time job, and not be a part-time Prime Minister.

REPORTER: Tony just on Arrium, one of your State colleague, Tom Koutsantonis, yesterday said that if Arrium went into administration, it was because the banks pushed them there. He also said the banks should act in the national interest, consider the national interest in their social licence. Do you agree with that?

BURKE: There are many issues around Australia at the moment with respect to the banks, many issues. They are in a particular situation in the Australian economy and there are a series of concerns about them playing their role responsibly. Now, on the specifics of that to Arrium, I’m not going to go to that today, other Members of the Labor Opposition will be making further comments about Arrium during the course of today. I certainly agree with everything Kate has said. This is a devastating situation for thousands of people, not just those working directly, but for the economy in Whyalla. People are watching their lives change today, and our thoughts are with them.

REPORTER: Just coming back to education, I was hoping to bring Kate Ellis back in. On the ATAR and the university entrance system, do you have any concerns about the ability of students to complete these courses under the current demand-driven system?

ELLIS: Certainly we want to see that our university entry procedures are sound, and we want to make sure students are taking on study which will lead to increased knowledge and increasing employment opportunities. We don’t want to be churning students through our university system.

There are some particular areas of university entry where we intend to have more to say in the coming weeks ahead of the election. I can’t give you a scoop on that now, but I will say, for example, we know when it comes to our schools, we want to make sure the people at the front of our classrooms are the people who are passionate about education, not just people who couldn’t get into other degrees. We need to make sure we have sound entry procedures and our universities are accepting the right people into the right courses, otherwise it is not just wasting those individuals’ time, but it is wasting taxpayer dollars.

REPORTER: The current Budget figures show student loans are set to blow out by 560% in a decade. Do you admit this shows a need for major changes and cuts to higher education?

BURKE: That’s directly from the Parliamentary Budget Office, and the main driver of that is the deregulation of the university system by this Government. We’ve opposed that deregulation; we’re opposed to the $100,000 degrees that go with it. That is the main driver of those figures. It’s extraordinary that the Government has managed to come up with a policy that wrecks people’s education, saddles people with massive debt and increases the debt of the Australian Government, all at once.

REPORTER: The Government is looking to make such changes, so are you saying Labor can’t be bipartisan on that, given the major cost to the Budget?

BURKE: We’re absolutely not bipartisan on the $100,000 degrees and the deregulation of the tertiary sector. We’ve been opposing that all of this term. Might I add, you can add it to the list of things this Government didn’t tell us they would do before the election that they decided to do straight after. I think a lot of people are now watching the different idea Malcolm Turnbull floats: whether it’s the GST on food and up to 15%, whether it’s cutting all funding to government education, whether it’s allowing the States to introduce their own income tax. We know what he believes, and we also know the difference between what that side of politics says now and what they would plan to do if they were successful in winning the next election.

REPORTER: But with this current situation with university debt, isn’t Labor partly to blame because of the botched expansion of the VET FEE-HELP system Labor helped support expand?

BURKE: There are three different issues covered in the Parliamentary report and, in rough terms, less than a quarter of the impact is the expansion of places that happened under Labor. Certainly, the expansion of places is an investment in the future of the country at a time of transition, and yes, it costs more but it was the right thing to do.

On VET, there were policy changes made under Labor this Government has turned a blind eye to, and they’ve been in office for nearly three years now. We, under Sharon Bird and Kim Carr, have already put forward policies to curtail that, including putting limits on the fees that VET organisations were able to charge, and putting a limit on total amount of debt. But the main driver of those figures – more than half – the main driver referred to in that report is the impact of university deregulation, which we have opposed in its entirety.

REPORTER: Do you admit though, that Labor played a part in these soaring costs?

BURKE: If you have more students getting a tertiary education, it will cost more. That was a deliberate decision from Labor. In terms of the rate of expansion, that’s started to plateau now to reach a natural level anyway. But more people getting tertiary education? That’s a good thing. Labor is proud to take responsibility for more people getting a better level of education. 

On the VET issue, some rorts did start to occur during the course of this Government following a decision made when we were in office. We have moved to act on it with policies we’ve announced, and the Government would rather just play a political game, saying ‘oh it happened under Labor, blame them’ rather than fix it. They always choose the political game ahead of governing. They’re in Government, they’ve got a job to do, they should do it. But the final thing they have to acknowledge: the main part of this Budget blowout is their attempt to deregulate the university sector and charge $100,000 degrees.

REPORTER: Kate, can I just ask you, as a senior South Australian MP, about Whyalla. Do you agree with Christopher Pyne that, basically, the issues that Arrium has been experiencing are unable to be addressed by further regulatory interventions by government, State or Federal?

ELLIS: This is the very early days. We’ve seen an announcement this morning, at about 8.30am, and I expect that we will have more information and more analysis come out about the situation at Arrium. My purpose is not to try and give false hope to the workers, but it is also to make sure we carefully analyse each and every move that governments, whether they be local, State or Federal, can make to assist this workforce. We know this is a major international issue when it comes to the price of steel. We also know there are some national issues around procurement and purchasing decisions that have been made. And we know there are some local issues. We need to analyse each and all of these. But really, what we need is, we don’t need me standing up here today arguing with Christopher Pyne or the like. We need all South Australians and all Members of Parliament sparing every thought we have for this workforce and pledging to do everything we can to support them. That’s what I’ll be doing.

REPORTER: Good thoughts won’t save the steel industry though. Do you think the steel industry has a future in Australia?

ELLIS: We know that we’ve seen in recent days, the Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, wrote to the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull requesting a number of actions. Actions around the purchasing of local steel, actions around procurement policies, actions around support for the workforce. We know we need to be doing everything we can. This is something that has been a challenge not just in Australia, but internationally. Internationally, we’ve seen strong responses in terms of procurement and in terms of anti-dumping. In the longer term, then certainly Australia needs to be looking to put in place every possible protection we can for Australian jobs.

REPORTER: The State Government has talked about providing some funding for the Whyalla steelworks. Do you expect that will make a difference at this point?

ELLIS: I don’t want to speculate at this point. What we do know, is we know the magnitude of the debt we’re talking about there. I don’t expect a State Government alone could turn around the situation there. What we do need to be looking at is: what is the long-term future for these workers? If it is not with Arrium, if post-voluntary administration there is not an employment solution found for them, then we need to be making sure we are offering every support, we are offering any retraining that might be required and we are doing everything we can to create jobs and employment opportunities. We say today, to the people of Whyalla, and specifically to the families of those in the Arrium workforce, we will not leave you to stand alone during this very trying time.

Tony Burke