SUBJECTS: Student protesters; 2014 Budget; education funding.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: I called this press conference because I do want to comment on the extraordinary, disgraceful behaviour of the students yesterday at Sydney University directed at the Australian Foreign Minister. No one complains about the expression of opinion in Australia, we are a democracy, everyone is entitled to have a view, whether they like the Government, whether they don’t like the Government. Whether they like or dislike particular policy. But the behaviour of the students yesterday at Sydney University was assault, they assaulted the Foreign Minister, they jostled her, they abused her, they touched her person. They behaved in the most unacceptable fashion.
It is incomprehensible that in Australia today students would think that that would be a reasonable way to behave, especially when the Government is introducing measures that expands equity so that more students will have the capacity to go to university. The Government, through me, thoroughly condemns the behaviour of the students yesterday at Sydney University. We condemn it, it has no place in Australia today, and those students should learn from this behaviour and allow members of the Government to put our view in the same way as we would allow them to put their views.
Yesterday they tried to drown me out at Adelaide University, they failed, they tried to close down the Q&A programme on the ABC and they failed. They tried to stop the Foreign Minister yesterday from giving her speech on the New Colombo plan, and they failed. And Bill Shorten as Leader of the Opposition has to be very clearly today, join in the Government from condemning the students’ behaviour. There is no room for Bill Shorten to have a muted response to this unacceptable, un-Australian and anti-democratic behaviour. I call on Bill Shorten…
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: I might be allowed to finish my line, actually, if you don’t mind.
QUESTION: You said something about Bill Shorten, regardless of…
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: I will finish my comment, if you don’t mind. So I am calling on Bill Shorten today to come out and make it very clear that he does not endorse in any way the students’ behaviour and that he condemns it in the exact same terms that I have condemned it on behalf of the Government.
QUESTION: Now regardless of whether they were appropriate actions to take… [inaudible] … does it not show the passion that these students have because of the fact that they believe that their ability to have an education will be threatened by these changes?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: I think you’ll find that a lot of these students have been waiting to protest against a Coalition Government for six years. And let’s talk about the reforms that the Government is introducing. We are extending the demand-driven system, through extending the Commonwealth Grants Scheme to non-university higher education providers. So the biggest Commonwealth Grants Scheme in Australian history, the Australian Government is going to give at least 80,000 more Australians from low socio-economic status backgrounds the capacity and opportunity to get a university education that will allow them to earn 75 per cent more than Australians without a university qualification. At the moment, the taxpayers of Australia pay 60 per cent of the tuition fees of a student and yet less than 40 per cent of Australians have a higher education qualification. These students will be able to borrow every single dollar from those self-same taxpayers and pay it back at the lowest rates of interest for a loan that they will ever have in their lives. It is a great deal. What these students are saying is that they want less students like them to have the opportunity to go to university. So we are the party that is actually expanding equity and opportunity for students and those students saying no we want to shut the door behind us and not let more students to come and get the qualifications we are getting.
QUESTION: Minister, having looked at the tape with Julie Bishop at the University, she seemed to take it very much in her stride and she wasn’t particularly phased by it. And of course you know uni demonstrations are sort of rite of passage for just about anybody at university, is it really more than you are making it out to be?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Look, no politician would want to allow those students to get to them. Of course they wouldn’t. That would mean that the students who were protesting would be winning. So of course a politician would shrug off that kind of unacceptable behaviour. That doesn’t make it right. The threshold of good behaviour is not what we are prepared to put up with, Chris. It is what is acceptable behaviour. And assaulting and jostling the Australian Foreign Minister by a group of students who are getting 60 per cent of their tuition fees paid for them by less than 60 per cent of the population that go to university is unacceptable behaviour, in whatever way you look at it.
And Bill Shorten needs to come out and condemn it. Now if it was a Labor female politician, if it was a Labor female Foreign Minister, who was being jostled by far-right students at a university, we would expect that the Leader of the Opposition if it was a conservative or Liberal would apologise or not apologise for their behaviour but certainly support the condemnation of that behaviour by those students. And what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Bill Shorten has been talking about wicked budgets and unconscionable behaviour and trying to whip up a storm in the community, if he thinks this is an outcome of his behaviour, what he has said, then he needs to come out and condemn it and put that beyond doubt otherwise the question is, does Bill Shorten condone this kind of behaviour from the students?
QUESTION: Can you detail perhaps then what you mean by assault? This is a new element of what has been raised…
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: No, the legal definition of assault is if you feel that you are under threat. You are not required to be punched to be assaulted, you don’t even have to require to be touched to be assaulted. You can be abused, verbally abused and be assaulted. Now the behaviour of the students yesterday wasn’t just verbal abuse; they pushed, jostled and hit the Foreign Minister, and that’s unacceptable. That is assault.
QUESTION: Your parliamentary secretary was less strident about what happened today. In fact he was a bit more casual to be honest, Scott Ryan. How do you balance of those two views?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well I haven’t seen his comments and the reality is politicians don’t want to let the students think that they are winning but that doesn’t make their behaviour acceptable. And Bill Shorten needs to join me in condemning it.
QUESTION: If you’re facing much higher fees, it is going to be an ordinary response to protest as loudly as soon as you see a politician, especially on campus?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well this is where the media are trying to now excuse the assaulting of the Foreign Minister by student protesters. Possibly because a lot of the media like me went to university and think that a rite of passage demonstrations are all a bit of fun. But the reality is that the students are getting the best deal of any university student in the OECD. They can borrow all of their tuition fees from the taxpayer, pay them back when they are earning over $50,000 a year, pay them back at the lowest interest rates imaginable. They would not get those as a commercial interest rate. And they only have to pay two per cent of their income back to start with in the lowest threshold. They get a university education over their lifetime, they’ll earn 75 per cent more than people who don’t go to university, more than a million dollars more than people who don’t go to university and they are protesting against that. And the Government’s policy is that we are going to expand university education to more low SES young people to give them the opportunity to have the same thing. So those students at Sydney University, which of course is one of the premier universities in Australia, are really being extraordinarily self-indulgent.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: I think Bill Shorten has been trying to whip up, this week since the budget, by talking about things like the wickedness of the budget, the unconscionableness of the budget, trying to whip up a storm. Now if this is the outcome that he wanted to achieve, then he stands condemned for that. Now if he wants to make sure that nobody has that interpretation, then he will come out today and slam the students’ behaviour in the same terms as I have.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well in education their funding is not being cut. In 2017, which is the fourth year of the forward estimates, we are spending more money on schools and higher education than Labor would have if they had been re-elected. In 2017, $18.1 billion dollars, which if Labor had been re-elected it would have been $18 billion. I would also say that because of our expanding the demand-driven system, across sub-bachelor courses like diplomas and so on, and because of the Commonwealth Grant Scheme expanding to non-university higher education providers like TAFE, we will actually be giving quite a lot more to States. What the State Governments are going to do was try and blame the Commonwealth for every decision that they are otherwise going to make. And I think the public will see through that, we are giving the states more money. Beyond the forward estimates, there will be more money spent on schools and higher education. So the States will have to make their own decisions on priorities but they won’t be able to blame the Commonwealth for everything that they would like to.
QUESTION: Have you considered changing the GST?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: The GST can’t be changed by the Commonwealth. The State and Territories have to request the Commonwealth to do that. And I don’t see any requests coming from States.
QUESTION: Are you not [inaudible] the states into that proposition?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: No, I don’t believe so. We are making sure we are cutting our costs to suit our circumstances. We have to end this delusion that can exist in Australia that somehow we can keep borrowing from overseas forever and that the chickens will never come home to roost. The reality is that Bill shorten wants to be the champion of the status quo. Bill Shorten wants to be the champion of Australian complacency. He wants to be the champion of borrowing money to pay for a standard of living beyond which we can no longer afford. He is like a dad that takes his children to Disneyland and puts every expense on the credit card and then comes home to Australia and says goodness how on earth am I going to pay for that and then goes back to borrow money to pay for his credit card. Now we as a Government were elected in September to get this spending under control and that’s exactly what we are going to do.
QUESTION: What is your reaction to Cate Blanchett’s comments about budget cuts to the arts?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: I haven’t seen Cate Blanchett’s comments.
QUESTION: She has called it short sighted.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well nobody in Australia wants to tighten their belts and obviously Cate Blanchett doesn’t want to either. But the reality is that the Australian public elected our Government to hand down our budget that showed that we got it. That you can’t just keep spending money that you don’t have. That you can’t just keep borrowing money. Now Labor had got our debt going to $667 billion. And $123 billion worth of deficits that were in the next four years projected. And we were elected to fix that problem, to fix it we will. I’m sorry that Cate Blanchett thinks that the arts shouldn’t be carved up from those spending measures, but I don’t think the general public would think that the arts should be treated as a special circumstances.
QUESTION: Can I just clarify about your GST comments… [inaudible]
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well the GST is a State and Territory tax. If the States and Territories want the GST to change, they would need to request the Commonwealth to do that. We have absolutely no intention in changing the GST and I haven’t heard one State or Territory treasurer ask.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: I haven’t heard of that being proposed as a potential measure.
QUESTION: Just one more if you wouldn’t mind.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Only because we went to the same school.
QUESTION: The World Heritage Committee has taken advice not to delist 74,000 hectares of forests in Tasmania, will the Australian Government persist with that measure?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: I think you will need to ask Greg Hunt that as Minister for the Environment. I am not aware of that breaking news.