Press Conference – Canberra – Monday 6 May 2024

ANTHONY ALBANESE MP
PRIME MINISTER OF AUSTRALIA

JASON CLARE MP
MINISTER FOR EDUCATION

YVETTE BERRY MLA
DEPUTY CHIEF MINISTER OF THE AUSTRALIAN CAPITAL TERRITORY
ACT MINISTER FOR EDUCATION AND EARLY CHILDHOOD DEVELOPMENT

E&OE TRANSCRIPT
PRESS CONFERENCE 
CANBERRA
MONDAY, 6 MAY 2024 


SUBJECTS: Making HECS-HELP fairer; Commonwealth Paid Prac; Universities Accord; Willetton Incident; Hamas-Israel Conflict; High-Court Decision. 

YVETTE BERRY, DEPUTY CHIEF MINISTER OF THE ACT: Good morning everyone, and welcome to Alfred Deakin High School, one of our wonderful public high schools here in the ACT, the nation’s capital. I want to acknowledge that this very important announcement today is happening on the land of the Ngunnawal people, and we pay our respects to their elders, past, present and emerging. And we acknowledge the significant contribution that they make to the life of this city and this region. Today was not a usual Monday start to school for Alfred Deakin High School, and I want to acknowledge the disruption that this has caused to have a very important guest with us here today, Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese and Federal Education Minister, Jason Clare. It’s a very exciting day for this school and we thank the Prime Minister and the Education Minister for choosing Alfred Deakin to make this important announcement today. I’d like to also acknowledge some beginning teachers or second year teachers that we have with us today, Sam and Catherine, who will be available for a chat later on, as well as the students that welcomed us into this school today. And now it’s my very great pleasure and privilege to invite Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese.
 
ANTHONY ALBANESE, PRIME MINISTER: Well thanks very much, Yvette, and it’s great to be here at Alfred Deakin High School. And thank you so much to the staff and students for the very warm welcome that myself, Yvette and Jason Clare, the Education Minister, have received here this morning. A great start to the week, the week before Budget. And our Budget will be focused on three things – cost of living support and giving support where we can, but doing it in a way as well to affirm our second priority, which is putting that downward pressure on inflation. So looking at measures that will make a difference without adding to inflation. Making sure that fiscal policy works with monetary policy. And the third priority of course, is our national interest, a future made in Australia. Making sure that we learn the lessons of the pandemic, that we’re a more resilient economy, that we take advantage of the opportunities that are there to grow into the future. Today we have a really important announcement. It follows the $3 billion commitment that we made yesterday for changing the way that HECS operates, so that the lower figure of either the average wage or indeed the inflation rate will apply. And what that will do is reduce student debt by $3 billion. So that for the average HECS payments that are required, a figure of $26,000, that means a saving of $1200. Making an enormous difference to students. And yesterday I had a number of people come up to me spontaneously and just thank the Government for this important change.

The second change that we’re announcing today is consistent with that. Making sure that we address cost of living, making sure that we continue to listen to the feedback that we’ve had. And we know that for many courses, university or TAFE, students have to take time out to go and do some prac work. And particularly in areas of skills shortage, that can be a disincentive for people to become a teacher, a nurse, a midwife, a social worker. So what we’re doing here is making sure that students can be paid during that period when they’re off getting that practical work, to remove that disincentive which is there to undertake these courses. This is a practical initiative that will be included in next Tuesday’s Budget. It is consistent as well with the work that Jason Clare has presided over, the important work of how do we make our higher education system work better for students, work better for the national interest, work better for our national economy. And that’s why we want to encourage students to go into teaching. We want to encourage them to go into nursing and midwifery. We want to encourage them to undertake these courses. No one, I don’t think, becomes a teacher because they look forward to getting a gigantic salary. What they do is they do that out of their commitment to help their fellow Australians, particularly young Australians, achieve the opportunity that comes with education. I said on election night I wanted to widen the doors of opportunity. That’s what Labor governments do and that’s what my government is doing. And Jason Clare, as the Education Minister, is front and centre of that agenda, front and centre of widening the opportunity, front and centre of encouraging people to do important courses that are very satisfying, and that’s a good thing. But we should also make sure that people who want to do a course, want to become a teacher, want to become a nurse. Don’t go, ‘oh, I’d really like to do that, but I just can’t afford to do so’. And that’s why this measure is practical and so important. Jason.
 
JASON CLARE, MINISTER FOR EDUCATION: Well thanks, Prime Minister. Yesterday we announced some important changes to make HECS fairer. And today we’re announcing that for the first time ever, the Commonwealth government is going to provide financial support to teaching students, and nursing students and social work students, to help them while they’re doing their prac and to help them to complete their degree. These are people who’ve signed up to do some of the most important jobs in this country. People who educate our kids, who look after us when we’re sick or when we’re old, who help provide support for women in domestic violence refuges. And time after time, when I’ve spoken to students who are teaching students and nursing students and social work students as well, they’ve told me that often they’ve got to give up their part time job in order to do their prac. Placement poverty is a real thing. So many students have told me that it’s forced them to either drop out of their course or delay completing their degree. And this is practical help to help people to do the practical part of their degree. This is on top of the announcement we made yesterday to make the HECS system fairer, part of the first stage of our respective to the Universities Accord. And we will outline the full first stage of our response to the Universities Accord on Budget night in eight days’ time.
 
PRIME MINISTER: Happy to take questions.
 
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, I was talking to Bruce Chapman yesterday and he was describing the HECS system, where humanities graduates pay more than medical specialists, as really bad economics. When are you going to fix this one?
 
MINISTER CLARE: Want me to jump in here? First, can I thank Bruce for his help in all of the work that the Universities Accord team have done. Bruce is the architect of HECS, and HECS is a good system that’s helped to blow the doors of universities open. When I was a little kid, only five per cent of Australians had a uni degree, now it’s about 26 per cent. And HECS has helped to build the system, widen the system, open those doors of opportunity that, Prime Minister, you talked about a moment ago. But Bruce has also been at the forefront of arguing that we do need to reform HECS and make it fairer. And what we announced yesterday is one of those changes. As I said we will set out the full first stage of our response to the Accord on Budget night. Can I also say this though, the Accord is more than just about HECS. The Accord is about reforming the higher education system for the next decade and beyond. What the Accord says is that by the middle of this century, we need eighty per cent of the workforce to have a uni degree or a TAFE qualification. And that we’ve got to break down the artificial barrier between TAFE and uni to make it easier for people to move between the two. And we’ve also got to break down the invisible barrier that stops a lot of kids from places like where I grew up, from going to university in the first place, to open those doors of opportunity. And you’ll see some of that in the Budget on Budget night. What we announced yesterday is about the cost of degrees, reducing the cost of degrees. What we’re talking about today is about the cost of living, providing financial support for teaching students, and nursing students, and social work students. What you’ll see more of on Budget night is the cost of kids missing out on going to university in the first place.
 
JOURNALIST: The cost differential though between these courses, some of these kids that you’ve walked past today, they’re not going to become engineers because their brains aren’t geared that way. Why should they have to pay more?
 
MINISTER CLARE: What the Accord said is that the Job Ready Graduate Scheme had failed. If the intention was to get fewer people to get arts degrees or to enrol in arts degrees, then that’s failed because last time I looked, there’s more people doing arts degrees now than there were when it was originally introduced. But let me underline, Andrew, that point I made a moment ago. This is a big report, 47 recommendations. It’s bigger than one Budget. What you’ll see on Budget night is not me saying or the Government saying ‘this is what we’ll do and this is what we won’t do’. What you’ll see is what we’re saying we will do first.
 
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, can get your response to concerns over WA –
 
PRIME MINISTER: Can we have, just this first and then I’ll come to you, Anna. Is there any more questions on this?  
 
JOURNALIST: Child care students are left out of this. Can you explain why?
 
MINISTER CLARE: They’re not. So if you’re an early educator doing a teaching degree, then you’re covered by this as well. And if you check out last year’s Budget, there’s funding there to provide support for early educators doing a TAFE or vocational qualification as part of their prac.
 
JOURNALIST: But there are other students who aren’t included in this. So veterinary students, there’s a lot of professional courses that need that for accreditation, at what point will these students be included?
 
MINISTER CLARE: What the Accord said is this is where we go first. My reckoning is having a look at the report, they said look at teaching, early education, nursing, midwifery as well as social work. So that’s where we’re focused first.
 
JOURNALIST: They’re all very female dominated professions. Just an observation.
 
MINISTER CLARE: And I guess another observation is about 60 per cent of students at uni are women. And these are such important jobs, they’re jobs where not everybody who starts the degree finishes it. We’re in a school today, only one in two people who start a teaching degree finish it. You know, part of the reason for that is the course, I’m reforming the course. Part of the reason is the challenges of paying the bills while you’re doing the prac.
 
PRIME MINISTER: Can I make this point on the gender issues as well. We make no apologies for focusing on gender equity. Just as the budget here is one element, what we’re talking about here, the other element of course, is wages. We have the aged care wage increase that’s been substantial. We’re looking of course, at early educators as well. In addition to that, a central part of our cost of living measures next week is of course, a tax cut for every taxpayer. And whilst 84 per cent of taxpayers will be better off as a result of our changes that we made, compared with the Morrison Government’s tax cuts, that figure is far higher for women. And that’s simply because feminised industries by and large have been, if you look as a whole, haven’t kept up. There is a direct link. Because your teachers and your nurses and midwives, social workers, are feminised industries, there’s a structural issue there as well. Which is one of the reasons why we changed the Fair Work Act to have gender equity as one of the objectives of the Act. That’s playing through. So this is a whole of government response to what is a whole of society issue. We should make sure that gender equity is a priority of everything that we do.
 
JOURNALIST: Just to clarify, you just mentioned the Universities Accord said the Jobs Ready Graduates Package was not working and had failed. Does that mean your government is committed to unwinding that package, whether it be in this budget or the next?
 
MINISTER CLARE: Well, what I said is there is about 47 recommendations, that’s one of them. We’ll announce the first stage of our response to that report in the Budget. But this is bigger than one budget. This is a plan for the next decade and beyond. What we’ll set out in the Budget are our top priorities about what we need to get started on right now. So we’re not ruling things in or out. What we’re saying is these are the things we need to get started on now.
 
PRIME MINISTER: Thanks, Anna?
 
JOURNALIST: Thank you. The police have stopped short of calling what unfolded yesterday terrorism at this point in time. Is this the right time to revise our definition to be politically rather than religiously motivated? Due to the fact in this case it was the WA Muslim community who informed the police, they are now facing and Islamophobic backlash. So, is it terrorism as you understand it now? And does the definition need to be altered?
 
PRIME MINISTER: It’s the right time to back our police. It’s the right time to back in the processes that they undertake. My first thoughts are with the victim, of course, of this incident. But also to applaud the very swift action of WA police in acting here. To also acknowledge the very important work that the Muslim community did to alert police to the messages that had been sent out by this young man. We allow, our police will go through their processes and that is important that that be backed up. My job is to back up our security agencies and our police in the important work that they do. Paul?
 
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, the UN General Assembly, will vote on the 10th of May on whether to support upgrading Palestine status to full member status at the UN. Is your Government prepared to support this move? And why or why not?
 
PRIME MINISTER: Well, you’re pre-empting a bit there, mate. You’re talking about something on the 10th of –
 
JOURNALIST: It’s sooner than the Budget, though. 
 
PRIME MINISTER: Well, we’ll address issues when we address them, and we’ll announce them when we’ve made decisions, when we’ve seen the texts of any resolutions. If you’ve got it, I’d be happy to see it.
 
JOURNALIST: But in principle though –
 
PRIME MINISTER: It has not been, this is not an issue in which you talk in vague terms –
 
JOURNALIST: But it’s binary, they are either a member or they are not. Do you support it in principle? It’s a fair question.
 
PRIME MINISTER: You’ve attempted to ask your question and I’ve answered it appropriately. The Government considers things when they’re put forward in a considered way, and then we have a response.
 
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, in light of the protests occurring at Universities across Australia and across the world, what is your response to concerns from the Jewish community that, “from the river to the sea,” is an anti-Semitic slogan?
 
PRIME MINISTER: Well, it is a slogan that calls for opposition to a two state solution. My position is very clear, and the Government’s position is clear, and it’s been a bipartisan position for a long period of time. The Middle East is a complex issue. A complex issue, which is why you don’t make comments about things, whether you’re supporting motions that you haven’t seen, that haven’t actually been distributed yet. These are complex and require important considered response. The Government’s position is very clear, which is the long term solution in the Middle East requires a two state solution. The right of Israel to continue to exist within secure borders, but the right of Palestinians to have justice as well, to have self-determination, and also to be able to live in security, peace and prosperity. The Government’s position is that, it’s that consistently and we’ll continue to put that forward as well. And I think that the slogan that you refer to dismisses that which is not in the interests of Israelis, but is also not in the interests of Palestinians.
 
JOURNALIST: PM, you spoke with Rabbis on Friday. You’ve been criticised though for not taking a strong enough stance on anti-Semitism, not calling out religiously motivated violence, and this is –
 
PRIME MINISTER: That’s not what happened at all.
 
JOURNALIST: No, I’m just saying that’s what people are saying –
 
PRIME MINISTER: That’s not what happened.
 
JOURNALIST: I’m not saying it’s what the Rabbis said or anything either, I’m just saying is that the criticism, what I’m saying –
 
PRIME MINISTER: From the Opposition, not from anyone, not from anyone who was there.
 
JOURNALIST: I understand that, this is your chance to response. What do you say, though, that about Australia’s social cohesion at the moment? Is it under threat? Is it being frayed at the moment?
 
PRIME MINISTER: Social cohesion is being frayed at the moment. I’m very concerned at what we’ve seen. That’s something that I’ve said at every opportunity. There has been a rise in anti-Semitism. There has been a rise in Islamophobia. We need to make sure that people in positions of authority use that authority to not promote division, but to promote social cohesion. Now from time to time what that will mean is that people will say that you aren’t being clear enough. These are sophisticated issues. These are complex issues that go back for a long period of time, for generations. They require people in Australia to always have in mind a couple of things. One is that our multicultural society is one of our great strengths. It is something that is very significant for us. But things that are important need to be nurtured. They need to be valued. They need to be cared for. They can’t be taken for granted. And that is what my Government has been determined to do, will continue to do so. We’ll continue to work with communities. I have visited synagogues and mosques and churches. I have also engaged with community leaders and faith leaders across the board. One of the tragedies of this current disputes that’s occurring is that I’ve had a range of interfaith meetings where people around the table have such a common interest, where there’s constructive dialogue, that gives me enormous heart. That occurred in the lead up to the referendum last year, with faith leaders all being on one position across the board. It occurred recently, I held a roundtable as well about religious discrimination. It is really important also that people don’t seek to bring conflict which is there here, in Australia. I think overwhelmingly Australians don’t want that.
 
JOURNALIST: Just, it might be related, just back to the incident in WA. How concerned are you about the radicalisation of teenagers online? And is there more that the Commonwealth Government can do specifically to boost support to particular programs, work with the states, work with state police?
 
PRIME MINISTER: You know, one of the themes of a range of issues lately involves these things. Social media, where people can be pushed through the use of algorithms of what occurs towards more extreme positions is, of course, a concern. It’s one I expressed in a vision statement I gave as Labor Leader, when opposition leaders had policies, back in 2019. The second one that I gave focused on that. It’s a dynamic that isn’t just an issue for government, it’s an issue for our entire society, whether it be violent extremism, misogyny and violence against women. It is an issue that of course I’m concerned about. It’s something that authorities are concerned about. But it’s something that parents are concerned about as well. In schools and on the sidelines of footy games or netball games or whatever sports played on the weekend, I’d be surprised if there was a sporting event with young people over this weekend where there wasn’t a discussion between two parents about how do we get our kids to spend more time on ovals and courts and other activity than they do reading their phones, and concern about what they have access to online. This is something that we need to have a full and proper discussion of.
 
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, regarding the 43 year old immigration detainee in Perth that was allegedly involved in that home invasion. You said it was the wrong decision by the Community Protection Board to have that ankle bracelet removed. Do you accept, though, that the board is only there to provide advice to the government, and the ultimate decision is one for the Minister?
 
PRIME MINISTER: No, the processes that are in place are to ensure that decisions when it comes to these things have integrity, and are at arm’s length, I think I was asked my opinion of what I would do, I stated my opinion. I stand by that. I stand by that.
 
JOURNALIST: So it’s not up to the Minister to make the final decision?
 
PRIME MINISTER: I stand by that. People have delegates across a range of areas, that is the way that government works across a range of ways. That is the way that government works. Now if you want everything to not have integrity and to have those processes objectively, then you can argue that that’s the case. But in a range of areas and particularly bearing in mind the legal cases, including the High Court case. What did the High Court case say? They said that politicians shouldn’t be able to make decisions which are punitive. That is what began this process that was ignored by the former government. That is what the basis of this is.
 
JOURNALIST: But in the end though, just to clarify, is it the Ministers –
 
PRIME MINISTER: No, I’ve answered your question.
 
JOURNALIST: I think there’s confusion over who is responsible in the end.
 
PRIME MINISTER: I have answered the question. I’d encourage you to go back and consider, read your own newspapers’ reporting of what occurred with the NZYQ case, what occurred with the High Court, why the High Court is saying that it is courts that can make decisions, expressing concern about politicians making decisions. Which is why the process has been established to ensure that there is as much legal protection as possible to deal with a situation which is not one that the Government sought. The Government opposed the NZYQ case. If it was up to the Government, then people would not have been released.
 
JOURNALIST: Have you at least ask your Minister to get a hurry on with the preventative detention regime, five months after it was announced?
 
PRIME MINISTER: Well, it’s a lot quicker than what occurred under the former government –
 
JOURNALIST: Have you asked your Minister to get a hurry on?
 
PRIME MINISTER: You don’t get a different answer by yelling it louder. But what we have done is a process which will be quicker then, of course, the Minister has said himself that he would like this to happen as soon as possible. But what has occurred here is the legislation is based upon the former government’s legislation, which I remind you took longer than the current period has.
 
JOURNALIST: There’s quite a big difference between how quickly New South Wales police declared the stabbing in Wakeley a terror attack compared to what’s happening in WA. Do you know what the delay is? Will it be declared terror? It doesn’t make much of a difference anyway.
 
PRIME MINISTER: Yeah look, it’s not up to me here in Canberra to explain a question that is before the WA Police. WA Police are going through their processes, they’re going through it in a considered way. Thanks very much.