SUBJECT: Higher education reforms.
COMPERE: Mark Butler is the Labor MP for Port Adelaide. He's the Opposition climate change spokesman. Mark Butler, welcome to the studio.
MARK BUTLER: Thank you very much. Good to be back. Happy New Year.
COMPERE: Good to have you back. He's threatening to go surfing in his wetsuit today in south eastern South Australia. Christopher Pyne, Liberal MP for Sturt, Education Minister. Welcome, Christopher Pyne.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Good morning, gentlemen. Happy New Year to everybody and I don't know if he should be wanting to do that because my wife's got me into a wetsuit this year which is quite a sight, I might tell you.
COMPERE: Mmm. What - is it - what colour is it? What colour has she gone for? Have you gone for the traditional black or are you into a [indistinct]…?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Yeah, no, it's black and light blue, but it's very slimming I have to say.
COMPERE: Does it help you…?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: [Indistinct] [laughs] sort of makes you look a lot slimmer than you would otherwise.
COMPERE: Does it help you float?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: It is a bit of a flotation device. It is.
COMPERE: [Laughs] Have you got water wings?
COMPERE: Can you…[Laughter]
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: I'd be quite surprised [indistinct]…
COMPERE: Can you send us a photo, Christopher Pyne?
COMPERE: Yes, please.
MARK BUTLER: Oh, please don't.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: I think that would be a dangerous move.
COMPERE: No, no, no, no, no.
COMPERE: Oh, no, no, no, no.
COMPERE: We'll just keep it to ourselves. We won't tweet it to anyone.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: You won't share it with a soul.
COMPERE: Are you really going - are you really surfing?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well, I'm a boogie boarder and a bodysurfer [indistinct]…
COMPERE: Ah, okay. A boogie boarder.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: We're in the cold. My children are all surfing on boards this year but because we're in the cold south eastern South Australia waters, I'd be - I'm the only sort of middle aged man who seems to be getting out there with just a pair of board shorts on, so Carolyn has repaired that failure.
COMPERE: Sound like you've got a cold, actually.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: I know. I just suddenly [indistinct]…
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: …a swig of tea and it's kind of gone down the wrong way, but I'm very happy to be with you, gentlemen.
COMPERE: Good, good.
COMPERE: Chris Pyne, are you trying to keep your university reforms afloat, and is it correct, as The Australian reports this morning, that the Abbott Government is now preparing to sacrifice up to $2 billion in budget savings to get your higher education deregulation of the university fees through?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well, we are very committed to this [indistinct] economic reform because we know that it'll be good for students and good for universities, that it will massively increase the number of students who get to go to university by at least 80,000. Students know that the Higher Education Contribution Scheme stays and because of our amendments last year - late last year - the CPI will continue to be the interest rate, rather than the 10-year government bond rate [indistinct].
COMPERE: [Interrupts] Are you going to answer the question anytime soon?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Yeah, I'm getting to it…
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: …it's just an important - it's an important question, so I'm giving it a due consideration. So obviously we are very committed to these reforms. We believe that they are better for the university sector than what's currently there and we will negotiate with the crossbenchers and do whatever needs to be done to ensure that our universities are the best they can be and our students have the best opportunities that they could have to go to university.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Now, whether - what that final negotiation looks like is not something that I'm going to parade through the airwaves of 891, but I am - it'll become quite apparent of course when we return to Parliament, because this is the first draft of [indistinct]…
COMPERE: [Interrupts] Okay. So with the argy-bargy of the negotiations, the latest point that we've reached that you are prepared to talk about publicly is that you've agreed you won't cut funding to universities as planned but, in return for that, you expect the deregulation of fees to go ahead?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well, it's very important that we get more revenue to universities. It's very important that more students get the opportunity to go to university and that our universities are as high quality as they can be. Labor cut $6.6 billion from universities.
COMPERE: Yeah, but - but…
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: We are reforming universities in order to repair the damage that they did to it.
COMPERE: …if you're going to go back on the cuts that you planned for the universities, is there anything of your budget that's actually left intact?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well, of course, and we haven't said that we will necessarily not go ahead with the savings measures in higher education, but they are part of the negotiation with the crossbenchers because the deregulation is vitally important. The fact that…
COMPERE: Okay, we finally got that. We've - now, Mark Butler, the - is - are you warming to this, then? Would the Labor Party warm to this? Because Maxine McKew, former federal Labor MP, has said, look, really Labor Party has got to take this seriously. There is - reform is needed in the higher education sector. So is this going to make you embrace that reform?
MARK BUTLER: Well, no. Maxine's not a member of the caucus and I can tell you that the caucus is still overwhelmingly and completely opposed to Christopher's package - his package of funding cuts to universities and fee hikes for university students.
COMPERE: But what if you take the funding cuts out?
MARK BUTLER: Well, that still leaves the deregulation of university fees which is polite language for fee hikes for university students. Now, this is the big problem the package has. Christopher might have got rid of the bond rate as the indexation rate for university fees in December, and that was a very big problem in the package. He might even be toying with the idea of getting rid of the 20 per cent funding cut as is reported in The Australian newspaper this morning, but he still has a fundamental problem with the fee hikes, the deregulation, and the most important problem is he can't get it through the Senate.
COMPERE: But is your problem that [indistinct]…
MARK BUTLER: [Indistinct] will not get it through the Senate.
COMPERE: You've got a big grin on your face as you say that. You're really enjoying this, aren't you?
MARK BUTLER: No, I'm not enjoying it. I just wish he would accept that - I just wish he would accept that this is a dead duck of a policy. It is a dead duck…
COMPERE: But do you accept that the…
MARK BUTLER: …and he should just hoist up the white flag and start again because it's [indistinct]…
COMPERE: Why does every vice-chancellor support this?
MARK BUTLER: Well, surprise, surprise, university managers might want to embrace the idea of charging higher fees. That doesn't mean it's in the interest of university students or in the national interest and it is not a policy that will get support in the Senate. If you read the newspapers this morning, not just The Australian, but the Fin Review, the SMH, the Sydney Morning Herald as well, it's quite clear that fee hikes, deregulation, even with the 20 per cent funding cut taken off the table will not get through the Senate. Notwithstanding that, Christopher's still going to spend millions of taxpayers' dollars trying to support this policy, which is not going to become law with taxpayer-funded advertising.
COMPERE: But Christopher Pyne, isn't there an even more fundamental issue here and it's costing individuals tens of thousands of dollars, it's costing the country hundreds of millions of dollars and that is that we have tens of thousands of students going off to university to get degrees that don't get them jobs?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well that's one of the fundamental reasons why we need the deregulation. The reason why students are being pushed into degrees that don't lead to jobs is because every university gets paid exactly the same by the Commonwealth taxpayer regardless of which course they do…
COMPERE: [Interrupts] So you're saying that under your changes…
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: [Indistinct].
COMPERE: …that there would be a rationalisation, that you'd shake up the system so that kids wouldn't be encouraged to - by universities who are making a motza out of them. You've really got to wonder about the ethics of the universities that they're charging kids money to - on the promise that they'll get jobs and they know full well that they won't get jobs.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well there will be two major changes to the behaviour of students in universities. There'd be a more discerning consumer because the consumer would recognise that they needed to be very certain about the courses they were doing…
COMPERE: Because it's going to cost them even more.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Because it might cost them in some cases more; it might cost them, in other cases, less. But also universities would be able to charge a value for the courses that they know that the university offers that are the best in Australia and the world.
COMPERE: But how about the Government taking a stick to the universities and saying how dare you take on hundreds of people for a course knowing that only a handful of them will actually get a job?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well Labor introduced the demand-driven system for undergraduate degrees and we supported that because it's half of the market. But the problem with what Labor did was they didn't put a price signal in the market and a market can't work without a price signal.
COMPERE: Chris Pyne, what…?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: I'll just say two other quick things. Maxine McKew is right. Labor has its head in the sand but students also know that the Government is right because the enrolments for students this year in spite of Labor's scare campaign are actually either the same or up on last year [indistinct]…
COMPERE: Well that confidence not going to – they’re as confident as Mark Butler told us [indistinct] get through the Senate…
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: No…
MARK BUTLER: They know it's a dead duck. You're the only one who doesn't know that this is dead duck.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well that's wishful thinking on your part, Mark. I think what students know is that because the Higher Education Contributions Scheme stays, they will actually still be able to borrow every single dollar up front and pay it back at the CPI rate of interest which is a very, very good deal.
COMPERE: Chris Pyne, would you like to see one of the reforms in the university sector to free up cash - what some see as the obscene amounts of salaries paid to senior management and vice-chancellors where some of them are pulling salaries of well over a million dollars for doing [indistinct].
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: I think some of the - some of the salaries are very high but that's really a [indistinct]…
COMPERE: [Interrupts] Are they obscenely high?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well, that is not a red herring that I intend to pursue in this interview.
COMPERE: No it's - well if you're talking about an efficient sector and you're talking about costs and being able to offer cheaper degrees and all that sort of thing, surely you should look at what some would regard as obscene salaries. Should you not?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well that's not the Government's role to set salaries. I mean the Government gave up [indistinct]…
COMPERE: You just set fees really or…
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: The Government gave up setting salaries and prices decades ago and quite rightly they should. That's not the role of government to set prices and to set salaries and we're not going to start that now.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: But of course university councils, university senates, university management need to be very hesitant about increasing salaries exorbitantly - of course they should, but that's not the purpose of this reform. The purpose of this reform is to expand opportunity to more students and bring about the highest quality universities that can compete domestically and internationally.
COMPERE: Tess has called 891 Mornings. Hello Tess.
CALLER TESS: Good morning. I just had a - I guess it was a question for Christopher and good morning Christopher. You know you talk about the state that people are going to now – they’ll have to be more discerning when it comes to doing a university degree because it's actually going to cost them more, most likely. I guess I'm just wondering, you know, when you finish school at 17 years of age, sometimes 18 years of age, how many kids do you know who have gone to uni and done one degree and ended up actually doing that for the rest of their life? Because I'm a 32-year-old woman, I've certainly had a number of career changes already. A lot of my family members and friends have done a number of degrees in their time or they've changed degrees part way through. So I guess I'm just wondering how does that really work out for your argument?
COMPERE: Christopher Pyne.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: I think Tess makes a good point and I think what she's saying is that there is a very flexible labour market these days and people do move from one career to another and I think that's to be encouraged if that's what people want to do. Now, one of the great things about the Government's reform is that we introduce - we intend to introduce a think called QUILT – Quality Indicators of Learning and Teaching – on the internet to ensure that students, would-be students, can access that website and see which courses lead to jobs, the satisfaction of students, of academics and of employers about particular courses so that they can make a discerning choice as a consumer about a course that would be good for them into the future.
COMPERE: You are listening to 891 Breakfast. In the studio Mark Butler, on the phone Chris Pyne, and it's 13 minutes to nine. Chris Pyne were you one of the ministers in Cabinet who were pleading with Tony Abbott not to make it more expensive to go to the doctor? A policy that he ended up abandoning?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well I don't – you know I can't really discuss matters that go on in Cabinet and Mark Butler, as a former Cabinet minister, and hopefully will remain a former Cabinet minister for years into the future - he knows that I can't discuss that as well.
COMPERE: Well let's put it like this: was this a prime minister's call, though? Was this a captain's call by Tony Abbott to push ahead with this and were people very, very worried about it, including yourself, but more particularly Liberal MPs in marginal seats?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well the Prime Minister made an announcement before Christmas about changes to the GP co-payment and that's been addressed in the last week by Sussan Ley, the new Minister for Health. I think that is a forward step to be consulting over the next few months with the medical profession about the GP co-payment…
COMPERE: So you won't answer that?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: …and I can't really…
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: …reveal what I say in Cabinet but…
COMPERE: [Interrupts] Do you think the penny has dropped a bit belatedly for the South Australian Liberal Party? Because they must rue the fact that now you're trying to get your act together after they've lost Fisher and they've lost the state election?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well, I think our act is very much together in fact. I think the difficulty with politics in Australia is not that the Government hasn't got its act together, it's that the Opposition has $40.5 billion of new spending measures and savings that they are trying to stop in the Senate and they have no plans themselves for how to get the budget back in repair and the country back on track. They are just a complaints box rather than a policy zone.
COMPERE: Mark Butler, do you concede you're going to have to start addressing budget fundamentals? You may be ahead in the polls at the moment but you are still two years away from an election.
MARK BUTLER: Well before I come to that point can I just respond to Christopher's point about Cabinet and I admire his discretion about internal Cabinet debates. Unfortunately not all of his colleagues are abiding by the same discipline because there was an extraordinary leak here earlier this week…
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: I'm an old-school guy.
MARK BUTLER: …an extraordinary leak. Well I gave you some good admiration, some good praise there in spite of your hex on my future career prospects, Christopher, but not all of his colleagues are doing the same - an extraordinary leak earlier this week from Joe Hockey or Peter Dutton or their supporters, we don't know which, about a very serious fight between the Prime Minister, the Treasurer and the Health Minister about the most important element of health policy - that is Medicare. So it really is a very worrying sign for this government in a new year to have that level of division.
COMPERE: Okay you might now want to just quickly answer the question about whether - you, yes, yes oh that, that funny thing. Whether the Labor Party will have to get serious though about tackling a budget.
COMPERE: Because all you've done so far is wreck it.
MARK BUTLER: Chris Bowen addressed - no, no, the wreckers of the budget are sitting on the Government benches. The wreckers of the budget are the people who told the Australian electorate they wouldn't cut pension, they wouldn't cut health…
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Answer the question.
MARK BUTLER: …and then unleashed the most extraordinary budget on them.
COMPERE: You can see politically you need to have…
MARK BUTLER: Chris Bowen said yesterday in a very wide ranging interview in The Australian newspaper that we understand the need for budget repair, we understand the need for any major party that wants to govern this country to have a plan to get this budget back to surplus in the medium-term and that we would have to take to the Australian people in a frank way a plan to do that. Now we're not going to do that this week, we're going to do that in due course. We're going through a…
COMPERE: But you will block this elected government, this democratically elected government from doing what you say needs to be done. That is repair the budget.
MARK BUTLER: The democratically elected government that said they wouldn't make cuts to health trying to cut Medicare, yes we will block that.
COMPERE: They did say they would bring the budget…
MARK BUTLER: Who wouldn't make cuts to education trying to do what Christopher's trying to do with university…
COMPERE: They did promise to fix the budget though and you're trying to stop them from doing that.
MARK BUTLER: Yes we will block that. We will block that.
COMPERE: Okay, okay. Mark Butler, thank you. Labor MP for Port Adelaide and Opposition environment and climate change spokesman. And Chris Pyne, Education Minister, Liberal MP for Sturt. Safe swimming in the south east today, Christopher Pyne.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Thank you I'll definitely be staying away from any danger - dangerous situations.