Labor MPs Tanya Plibersek and Peter Khalil spoke in Brunswick, Melbourne this afternoon.

Tanya Plibersek, the Shadow Minister for Education, used a Q&A event in Melbourne this afternoon to lash the federal government on the economy and education, while hinting at new Labor policies to make higher education more affordable.

The Q&A in Brunswick, attended by approximately a hundred locals, was hosted by local MP Peter Khalil, who faces the task of defending his seat, Wills, from the Greens at the next federal election.

A bleak forecast for the economy

Plibersek and Khalil struck a pessimistic tone on the future of the economy, attacking the federal government’s recent budget.

“Unless we actually do something about wage stagnation, particularly in the caring sector of the economy, we are stuffed, we really are,” Plibersek warned. “Our industrial relations system is broken […] strong unions mean a stronger economy, because we see wages grow.”

Khalil claimed the 2021 budget “lacked vision and courage” and began to criticise the government for suddenly “spending big” on aged care and mental health. “Modestly, they’re spending modestly,” Plibersek interrupted.

Plibersek claimed “there’s not many entry level jobs out there” as she offered a gloomy outlook on the state of the economy, praising the influence of unions.

Labor set to unveil new higher education policies

Higher education was a key subject of the Q&A, and Tanya Plibersek did not hold back.

Plibersek described the lack of funding for higher education as a “disaster”. She later added, “there is no question that this is an ideological decision that education doesn’t matter, and in fact, probably it’s not a very good thing for people to be too educated.”

“I don’t really understand why you would give a casino JobKeeper, but not a university. I don’t really understand why companies that have had record profits actually got JobKeeper, but universities didn’t,” Plibersek admitted.

“I don’t understand why the government would say we want more people taking on STEM careers,” she added, mentioning a lack of government funding for scientific research. Plibersek expressed outrage over the growing cost of humanities degrees and the impact of this on working-class students, although she neglected to mention that low-income citizens are not required to repay student debts. In the 2020-2021 financial year, only those with an income of $46,620 or more are required to repay HELP debt.

Last year, the federal government announced that it would lower the cost of degrees in nursing, psychology, teaching, agriculture, mathematics, science, health, environmental science, architecture and languages. At the same time, however, other degrees would see fees increased.

Later in the event, an audience member asked Plibersek why Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese made little mention of universities in his budget reply speech. “The simple truth about a budget reply speech is it’s not an alternative budget,” Plibersek responded. “You cannot do that in half an hour, mention everything you’d like to do as an alternative government, but I know that Anthony’s very committed to properly funding our universities, and making it possible for every Australian who wants to go to university to be able to go to university. He’s said that to me and we’ll be announcing further policies between now and the next election.”

Plibersek used Labor policies of the 1970s to defend the party’s current position. “You can judge us on our record on this, like, it was the Whitlam government who probably made it possible for you to go to university, at a guess, and a lot of people in this room.” Although she could not refer to any current Labor policies on the matter, Plibersek’s response indicated that Labor would have a policy by the next election.

An unequivocal stance on industrial relations

On industrial relations, Plibersek was unambiguous.

Asked about protecting victims of workplace bullying and sexual harassment, Plibersek responded that implementing the 55 recommendations of the Respect@Work Report would be “a really good first step” to keep workers safe. “Why don’t we follow the evidence of what works to really change behaviour instead of stupid ads about tacos and milkshakes?”

Plibersek was later asked how Labor would address wage theft if the party were to form government. “We are going to criminalise wage theft,” was her pithy reply. “It’s just flat out theft.” Her promise echoed an identical one made by Labor leader Anthony Albanese during his budget reply speech to “make wage theft a crime” as part of Labor’s plan for secure jobs.

Stuart Robert, the current Employment Minister, recently claimed that the government agrees that “it should be illegal for wages not to be paid legitimately and lawfully to Australians,” but the parliament has failed to legislate accordingly.

Labor promises reform on borders

Australia’s borders were also discussed during the Q&A, particularly in relation to international students, overseas travel, immigration and refugees.

Khalil criticised the rise in temporary skill migration under Morrison government, before Plibersek accused the government of using short-term migration to fill gaps in the workforce. Plibersek also indicated that the government should not bow to pressure to prematurely reopen borders for international travel.

“We have committed to doubling the refugee intake, we’ve committed to ending indefinite detention,” Khalil said on the issue of refugees and asylum seekers. Indefinite detention was introduced under Paul Keating’s Labor government in the 1990s, and has faced severe criticism in the years since. Refugee advocates have suggested that Australia should go much further than simply doubling its meagre refugee intake.

Overall, the 70-minute discussion did little to clarify Labor’s plans to address key issues. Amongst an abundance of uncontroversial platitudes, negative rhetoric and criticism of the government, detailed explanation of Labor policy was minimal.

But the parochial audience, which consisted almost entirely of white baby boomers, seemed overwhelmingly impressed. The most raucous applause of the afternoon came when Plibersek, toward the end of the event, explained her motivation for pursuing politics. “I really don’t want to let the bastards win.”

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