SUBJECTS: Government, Budget, education reform
TOM TILLEY: Let's see what Christopher Pyne's got to say. He joins us on the phone, we'll talk to him about the wave of criticism that the Prime Minister's facing. Of course, we'll also talk university reform, so if you have a question for Christopher Pyne, call now. Christopher Pyne, great to have you back on Hack on the first week of the show. Thank you so much for joining us.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Tom, it's always a pleasure to join you and firstly, can I say, happy birthday for January and I understand you put in quite a performance at the Tudor Arms Hotel in Redfern last night in Redfern [indistinct]…
TOM TILLEY: [Laughs] Thank you very much.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: …for your birthday, so well done.
TOM TILLEY: I had a very good time and I believe you had a great time being taught how to surf by your kids over the break?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: [Laughs] This is true, my wife coaxed me into a wetsuit and once I was in it, they couldn't get me out of it, I must say, it was a complete eye-opener. I had no idea that wetsuits gave you such buoyancy in the surf.
TOM TILLEY: They can make you look even better as well and I'll give you a quick tip - they're a bit of a fashion statement as well. Some people wear them out to parties.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: [Laughs] That's right, well you won't be catching me doing that I'm afraid, Tom.
TOM TILLEY: Alright, let's get down to business. We'd love to talk university reforms, of course, but we have to address this wave of criticism for Tony Abbott and his chief of staff, Peta Credlin - particularly around the decision to knight Prince Philip. If Tony Abbott had consulted you about this decision to knight Prince Philip, what advice would you have given him?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well Tom, I'm a republican, so I'm not a great advocate for knights and dames in the first place and this was a decision that Tony Abbott made 12 months ago and he didn't actually ask the Cabinet at that time and that's fine, that's his call as the Prime Minister, to make a captain's call, as he called it. And he's also made a captain's pick of Prince Philip. So, if I'd been consulted, of course, I would have said, well I'm not a great advocate for knights and dames in the first place. But I don't think it's the most important decision that the Government has made or is facing, quite frankly. We're dealing with the big issues, like debt and deficit and jobs and families and making sure we're building the roads of the 21st century. They're the things that we are keeping ourselves busy with, rather than these distractions.
TOM TILLEY: Well his ability to consult with colleagues, his ability to read the electorate are being called into question. They are core capabilities of a prime minister. Why do you think key people who are often supporters of the Prime Minister, Rupert Murdoch, Alan Jones, Andrew Bolt, Miranda Devine, Greg Sheridan - why are these people turning on the Prime Minister on this decision? Have those people got it wrong?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well we don't always expect the entire media pack to agree and support the Government. Some people are obviously routine critics. Some people are more often supporters of the Government's policies and the Prime Minister. But friends are allowed to disagree with each other and when they do, friends tell friends what they're doing wrong. And if those commentators believe we got that wrong, they're perfectly within their rights to tell us that.
TOM TILLEY: Okay, and you say there are more important issues, but a lot of people say this is symbolic of the way the Prime Minister operates and they point to the Medicare backflip, a stalled policy agenda and a series of broken promises that have damaged trust with the electorate. Why aren't these problems going away? What is the deeper problem here?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well of course, we did have to hand down a Budget in May last year which conveyed to the Australian public that the Labor Party's approach, which was that you could have every chocolate you wanted in the chocolate shop, just doesn't work. That we have to actually live within our means, we've got to pay back our debt, we've got to reduce our deficit, build confidence, create jobs and you can't do that if you just keep pretending you can borrow as much money as you want. Now, a lot of the Australian public know that's true, but when you make decisions that take away things that they have been relying on or wanting over a period of time, they're not going to like it.
So, of course it was never going to be the kind of budget for which we were given many bouquets, but it was a necessary budget and it's having the effect it was supposed to have. Retail trade is returning to more confident levels, the economy is turning around. I think that's the core competency - to use the words that you used - that the Australian public are looking for. A strong economic message from the Coalition, which has had a reputation for being good economic managers for decades.
TOM TILLEY: Well there are lots of elements of that Budget that haven't gotten through though, like the Medicare co-payment, your university reform, so far, changes to welfare and getting back to work. I mean, what is going on here? Obviously you have a tough task in managing the crossbenchers in the Senate, but is there problems with the Prime Minister's Office, and what about the calls to sack Peta Credlin?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well, Peta Credlin is one of the key reasons why the Coalition is in government. She made an enormous difference to honing our political message and our policies, so the idea that we would abandon Peta Credlin is completely ludicrous and we will not be doing that. I have a lot of respect for Rupert Murdoch; I think he's one of the great Australians of the last 100 years. Anybody who can go from Adelaide News, which was the newspaper in Adelaide, to one of the greatest media moguls in the world, in terms of influence, is obviously a very significant Australian.
TOM TILLEY: Yeah, clearly you respect his judgement, so why do you think he's made this call?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well I do respect Rupert Murdoch's judgement, but he's not necessarily right about everything and I think he needs to take another look at Peta Credlin, because she is a vital part of good government in this country.
TOM TILLEY: And Tony Abbott said yesterday, said he was taking the criticism on the chin. That he should have consulted more widely. But he's said that before. Do you think he will actually start consulting?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Yes, I do, and I think he realises that if he'd perhaps asked a wider circle of people he might've got different opinions about his most recent appointment. But I would repeat, Tom, this is not the most important issue that the Government is facing, and I think the Australian public know that.
TOM TILLEY: All right. You are listening to Christopher Pyne, who is Education Minister. We've been talking about the pressure and the criticism launched at his leader, Tony Abbott, from all corners of the media, particularly people who are normally his allies. But let's move on to education policy - now, Christopher Pyne, you're trying to get these proposals through the Senate, it's been a tough fight, you announced them in last year's Budget, and I think no one would take away from you how much energy and enthusiasm you have to drive these reforms. But yesterday, it sounded like you were on the verge of giving up. Let's have a listen what you said yesterday.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: [Laughs.]
[Start of excerpt]
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: We want to get his reform through in February or March this year. But we will not so adulterate the reforms that they're now meaningless. And if that's the situation in Australia, if the crossbenchers are not up to [indistinct] reform because they don't want to be unpopular with any organisation in Australia or any particular individual - well, the Government will accept the decision of the Senate.
[End of excerpt]
TOM TILLEY: Christopher Pyne, that's the first time I've heard you sound like you might back down and give up on these reforms.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well, I had inexhaustible wellsprings of energy for this reform, Tom, I can tell you that I am not backing away from these reforms one iota. And I think most of the Australian public would at least give me the credit for having the courage of my convictions and putting them to the vote in the Senate, and returning the next day with - certainly an amended bill, a bill I think the cross-benchers will support. But what I'm saying of course is that the Parliament rises at the end of March and then we don't go back to the Budget. So I'd like these reforms to be passed before the end of this Parliamentary session. I think we've given ourselves enough time to do that. And I wanted them passed last year. But I'm obviously bringing them back a second time, and I believe very fervently that they are going to be good for universities and good for students, and spread equity to a lot more Australians who want a higher education degree. And John Dawkins agrees with me, the former Labor Treasurer. Father of the Higher Education Contribution Scheme. He thinks Labor should be part of this conversation. He thinks these bills should be passed. So I'm going to keep pushing for it, and I hope the cross-benchers will support it. We had four votes last year, we need six. And I will keep working until these bills are passed. That said, it can't go on forever.
TOM TILLEY: Yeah.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Obviously we have to be able to make a decision one way or the other.
TOM TILLEY: Okay, so what happens in March, if they don't pass these will you wait till the next election, and get the mandate that Nick Xenophon and Ricky Muir say you need to get this legislation through the Parliament?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well, number one we have a mandate. We won the last election, and we have quite a…
TOM TILLEY: But you didn't take this to the election, this policy.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: We have an ample majority and certainly a much larger majority than many of the people in the Senate who are opposing this legislation. But I won't jump the gun. I'm not going to talk about what we're going to do if the bill is defeated because I want the bills to be passed, and I'm going to keep working on them being passed, and I'm not going to have a disconsolate approach.
TOM TILLEY: Okay, let's talk about the bill and its eventual shape if it does get passed in February or March. You said, and we heard some of that there, that you won't adulterate the reforms to the point where they're meaningless. Now, I know you don't want to play all your negotiating cards here on Triple J's Hack program, but are you essentially saying that the core of this policy is deregulation, that that's the only key non-negotiable?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well, Triple J Hack is one of my favourite programs.
TOM TILLEY: I know, I know.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: But I'm still not going to negotiate with the cross-benchers through the radio waves. The core of this reform is deregulation of the universities so that they can make the decisions about putting a value on the courses that they offer. They can offer with that extra revenue, better research, better teaching, better quality outcomes. That is the core of it. Now, there are lots of other aspects of it. And I'm prepared to negotiate all of those. But if we get to the point where the deregulation is not going to be supported, you can't negotiate a way to [indistinct]. That's the point that I was making yesterday.
TOM TILLEY: Okay, well - yeah, that's interesting because talking about the Senators you've got to win over, and you need six of the eight. Two of the people that you might have thought you could count on to continue voting your way were Senators Leyonhjelm and Day, and they say that if you cut the funding - or sorry, you scrap your plan to cut funding, then they're not going to support your reforms anymore. That must have been tough news for you to tame.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: [Laughs] No. Senator Leyonhjelm and Senator Day are quite right. They are saying that the university deregulation is a very important microeconomic reform, and they think the Senate and the country is up for it. I agree with them. Deregulation is vitally important. And I don't believe for one moment that they are off the cart for supporting the Government's reforms.
TOM TILLEY: But they want you to continue and push ahead with your plans to cut 20 per cent of the Government's contribution to student fees, though. And if you negotiate that away and just stick with the regulation, it sounds like they may not vote for it anymore and you lose two crucial votes that you were relying on.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well, I haven't said at any point that we are negotiating away the reductions of Commonwealth Grants Scheme. There's been speculation in the front page of The Australian newspaper, but that story didn't come from me. I don't know where it came from, and I haven't said that. And I think what Senator Leyonhjelm and Senator Day are saying – and I think it's perfectly acceptable – is that they have two votes as well and they need to be considered. And I'm very happy to consider them and to talk with them as a [audio cut].
TOM TILLEY: Oh, sorry. I've just pressed the wrong button and taken Christopher Pyne off the line there. Let’s go to Lee in South Australia, sorry about that. Lee, you wanted to make a point from the University of South Australia to Christopher Pyne?
CALLER LEE: Yep, so I study at Uni SA campus – that’s only a couple of [inaudible] away from Christopher Pyne’s office and I don’t know what he thinks, but from all the students – they all fear what this legislation could do. They don’t know what’s going to happen and the ones that do have siblings that are starting don’t know what they’re paying for. So my question to Christopher Pyne is why are you still going through with this when the student voice is so much against it?
TOM TILLEY: All right, I’ll go back to Christopher Pyne, who joins us on the line. Sorry about that, Christopher Pyne.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: That’s all right Tom, I heard you cut me off you were so unhappy with my answers.
TOM TILLEY: Without the news this time.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: That’s right, I’d forgotten about that last time – thank you for reminding me. The point that I’ll make to your listener – I only heard the last part of it…
TOM TILLEY: It was about not consulting students, who seem really afraid of your ideas here. The student fees might go up dramatically.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well, the thing about the fees that students pay now and that they’ll pay in the future is that every single dollar can be borrowed from the taxpayer under the Higher Education Contribution Scheme and paid back at the lowest interest rate they’ll ever get – the Consumer Price Index. And only after they start earning $50,000 a year, and then only at two per cent of their income. It is a fantastic scheme…
TOM TILLEY: Okay, we’ve been hearing that for a long time…
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: That’s true.
TOM TILLEY: But what about this point about consulting with students? So many of them don’t buy your explanation. They’ve heard you make that explanation you just made many times but they still don’t support your reforms – not all of them, of course.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: The students didn’t support the administration charge in 1987, they didn’t support the Higher Education Contribution Scheme in 1988 because I can understand that students would rather not pay anything at all for their university degrees. At the moment, we’re asking them to pay less than 50 per cent, on average, of the cost of their education and they get the best private benefits of anybody in the community – 75 per cent higher income, on average, longer life expectancy, better health outcomes and the lowest unemployment rate. Now, I think asking them to pay 50-50 with the taxpayer is a very fair proposition.
TOM TILLEY: All right, Christopher Pyne, we’ve only got time for one more quick question. We spoke to Nick Xenophon, independent Senator for South Australia yesterday, and a former teacher of yours, he liked to remind us. Will you go ahead with his idea – an idea for a review, another review?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: There have been 33 reviews of the university systems since 1957, which is the year that he mentioned as being the kind of review he wanted done, but there have been 33 reviews of universities. The most recent one was the Kemp-Norton Report, which I commissioned when we got elected, but I will of course talk to Nick – I’ll talk to Nick about what he believes we can do to get these reforms passed, and I will negotiate with him but not through the hallowed halls of the Triple J Hack program. But I would just point out to him that the sector has been reviewed root and branch many times.
TOM TILLEY: All right, well I’ll be interested to hear how your meeting goes tomorrow when you meet face-to-face. Christopher Pyne, thanks for joining us on Hack.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: It’s always a pleasure.