The day before the federal budget for 2017 is handed down, Q&A got stuck into how the Government proposes to change education, support for Australian veterans — and debt.
When the panel was asked how Australia planned to repay debt forecast to exceed half a trillion dollars, Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Defence Personnel Dan Tehan said the first thing to do was get the budget back into surplus.
“Until you can get your balance sheet right, you won’t be able to [address debt],” he said.
“As we’ve seen previously, it’s always been a Coalition Government which is able to balance the budget and repay the debt.”
This claim was immediately attacked by Tasmanian Labor senator Lisa Singh, who called it “rubbish”.
“This furphy that the Liberal Party are good economic managers is just the biggest furphy if you look at the current deficit at the moment and how it’s blown out,” she said.
“Labor would tax multinational companies that are getting away scot-free.”
Senator Singh returned to the theme of company taxation several times during the evening.
When comedian Dave Hughes asked how Mr Tehan thought building and running the second Sydney airport would go, Senator Singh accused the Government of funding it by “attacking those who can least afford it”.
“You don’t want the Western Sydney Airport built?” Mr Tehan asked her.
Can Gonski 2.0 be a go-ski?
The Government had more support when the panel was asked if it will be possible for the Parliament to grasp the opportunity for real change in school funding represented by Gonski 2.0.
“I hope, really, really do hope so. It’s time to put all the politics aside on this,” Mr Tehan said.
“David Gonski has said this is a good model going forward. I hope the Senate will support it and I hope we get the outcome.
Other panellists agreed the Gonski 2.0 model was promising, with tax expert Mark Leibler calling it fair and equitable, but warning that the entire argument was very, very, very confusing.
“This is a very, very complex formula. I believe that the Government should carry this through,” he said.
Ms Singh criticised the Government’s proposal as being $22 billion short, but said the Government had “finally caught up to the importance of needs-based funding”.
“Needs-based funding is about every child in every school getting every opportunity for the best education,” she said.
“Education should be an investment. An investment not just in this current generation, but in our nation and where we see our nation in the world. That is why it should be properly funded.
“Because if it’s not properly funded, then it’s not going to achieve every child in every school getting every opportunity for the best education.”
Vendetta against young people?
Tertiary education, and the idea of education as an investment, also came under scrutiny when an audience member drew applause for asking if the Government’s proposed reductions in university funding and ongoing support for negative gearing indicated a vendetta against young people.
“The bottom line is the universities are an export industry valued at $22 billion. The bottom line is when it comes to universities, the value of the knowledge [they create] is worth more than the mining sector.”
Mr Leibler referred to Deloitte Access Economics figures suggesting the value of knowledge generated by universities added 8.5 per cent to GDP, and said the proposed changes to university funding “will destroy value in terms of Australia overall”.
Mr Tehan said the Government would spend $28 billion on the higher education sector over the next four years.
“We’re keeping the system demand-driven, we’re making sure that degrees will remain affordable.”
Mr Leibler disagreed, saying “the bottom line is you’re introducing and making the students repay their loans more quickly. You’re making them pay more.
“This applies to students who are at university now. For some of them it will make it very difficult.”
“To eat, in fact,” Hughes interjected.
Mr Tehan said the Government had to make choices, and also had to think about “the carpenters, the plumbers, the farm hands and others who won’t get a degree”.
He said the Government thought it had the balance right on higher education funding.
‘What we need is veterans supported, not a memorial’
Mr Tehan came under pressure when he was asked about a $100 million memorial in Villers-Bretonneux in France and why the Government was not spending money on today’s veterans instead.
The minister said $350 million was being invested in veterans, and highlighted that anyone who had ever served a day in the military could seek free treatment for any mental health condition.
However, host Virginia Trioli and Hughes continued to press him on whether that sum could be increased if the memorial was not being built.
When Mr Tehan said the French were still grateful for Australia’s contribution to World War I, Hughes drew applause for asking why they were not paying for the monument.
“I don’t think Dan Tehan is going to win this argument in front of this audience,” panellist and Victorian CEO of the Urban Development Institute of Australia Danni Addison said.
Mark Leibler said the memorial funding was a bit over the top, but not the worst thing the Government spent money on.
Senator Singh said what Australia needed was not a memorial but quickly and timely processing of claims for support by veterans suffering post traumatic stress and other mental health problems.
“That’s what your package I understand is addressing, and something that I actually commend the Government on as long as it is properly funded,” she said.