BY ALEC SMART
Tanya Plibersek is a seasoned and highly capable MP.
She was a member of the House of Representatives since 1998, Deputy Leader of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) since 2013, and a Minister in the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd revolving-door governments (Minister for Health her last portfolio until the ALP’s defeat at the 2013 general election).
As Minister for the Status of Women, Plibersek initiated policies such as convening the National Council to reduce violence against women and their children.
She then released the Government’s White Paper on Homelessness, The Road Home, which set a goal of halving homelessness by 2020, and also campaigned for the end of discriminatory legislation against same-sex de facto couples to enable them to marry.
However, the contest for the seat of Sydney, for which she has been re-elected seven times since 1998, is hotting up with the Greens and Liberal Party fielding viable candidates.
Residents add life to the city
In the 20 years Plibersek has held her seat, what does she feel are some of the most significant changes, for better or worse, to her electorate?
“I like a lot of the changes,” she states. “Having more residents in the CBD and inner-city areas, for example. I remember 20-30 years ago you could walk through Sydney on a Sunday afternoon and it felt very dead. I like the liveliness of having more residents.
“[However] I do worry that some parts of our city haven’t kept up with the infrastructure you need when you have more residents close together in a highly urban environment… I don’t think our public transport has kept pace and consequently getting around the city is harder and more stressful than it used to be.
Other matters concern her too, such as education and health.
“Our schools are creaking at the seams; even schools that used to be quite small are really struggling to accommodate all the students that they’d like to fit in,” she says.
“We see it with health as well; our local hospitals are brilliant, world-class facilities, but you can see the pressures on them with increasing waiting times in Emergency and for elective surgery. With some GPs it’s hard to get an appointment…
Transport is a big issue for Ms Plibersek.
“I’m very concerned that the Metro Rail the NSW State Government is building at the moment should have at least one stop between Waterloo and Sydenham. South from Waterloo we’re going through some very fast-growing in-fill areas and Green Square Station is already struggling… The suburbs used to be either single houses on quarter-acre blocks, or factories, but that light-industrial neighbourhood has now changed to high-density urban living and it needs public transport to reflect that.”
Plibersek is very critical of the (ALP-endorsed) WestConnex construction, a 33-kilometre (primarily underground) toll road currently under construction, which links the M4 and M5 motorways and is projected to blow out to more than $45 billion in costs.
“I think WestConnex is going to be an absolute nightmare for traffic in my electorate and I’ve been making that point for some time,” she says, “particularly the area around Alexandria where traffic will be coming out of the Sydney Park end of WestConnex tunnel going onto streets in Alexandria, Zetland, Rosebery and Beaconsfield. On Gardeners Road they’re expecting 60,000 extra cars a day.”
“The State Government hasn’t listened to that,” she says, “they’re just taking traffic jams from Western Sydney and moving them into our suburban streets.”
ALP support for TAFE
What are her thoughts on encouraging youth into learning and training beyond high school?
The ALP has an admirable record of investing in further education, including introducing the Higher Education Participation and Pathways Program (HEPPP), which encouraged under-represented groups, such as indigenous communities, to aspire to a university education, but TAFE colleges nationwide are threatened with closure.
“We are lifting the aspiration for post-high school study,” she confirms, “whether it’s TAFE or university, because nine out of ten jobs created in the next five years will require a TAFE or a university qualification. Targeting the most disadvantaged students to get into education is part of our plan.
“Our first policy is that two out of every three dollars of public funding will go to public TAFE,” she says, “though where there are high-quality private operators that have a proven track record and provide niche educational experience, we’re happy for them to receive public funding.
“What we saw though, in recent years, was the setup of a whole load of dodgy operators that ripped off students and signed them up in very aggressive ways and then people finished with a debt and no qualification. We really want to make sure that we’re supporting high quality education and that the bulk of our support goes to public TAFE.”
She says the ALP plans for 100,000 fee-free TAFE places and apprenticeship programs that will specifically target older workers who are retraining.
Perfect storm of under-investment
“We’ve also got apprenticeship programs that specifically target younger people who aren’t sure what they want to do – TAFE ‘taster’ courses… like six weeks electrical, six weeks plumbing, six weeks building.
“On the weekend we announced a wage subsidy program for employers targeting people under the age of 25 and over the age of 55, and also carers taking time out of the workforce, to give wage subsidies to employers to give them a chance.
“One in ten jobs on Commonwealth-funded jobs will have to be apprentices. It makes no sense that we’ve got very high youth unemployment, yet we’ve got 1.6 million people in the country who have temporary work permits, and employers in many cases are exploiting that workforce… We’ve got unemployed young people but we’re not training them. It’s a perfect storm of under-investment in the skills of our unemployed and marginally-employed people.”
Ms Plibersek has her work cut out for her if her party wins government.