Doorstop, Parliament House, Canberra

Minister Billson: Good morning. What’s very clear is that only the Abbott Coalition Government actually has a plan to fix the budget, to deal with debt and deficit that Labor has left our nation and this parliament. We’ve seen this again reinforced yesterday where the Opposition Leader Bill Shorten was talking out both sides of his mouth when it came to the high income debt levy. That’s an important measure, part of our Economic Action Strategy to restore the budget and to build the conditions to make sure we have a strong and prosperous economy for a safe and secure nation.

All we’ve heard from the opposition is whinging and whining. Bill Shorten has set himself up as Captain Complaint and we’ve seen no plan, no alternative strategy. It is only the Government that has a credible and considered strategy to restore the budget, to get the economic conditions right and to get our nation back on track for secure safety nets into the future and improved opportunities for work and education.

We need to secure that prosperity, that great promise that our nation offers because we have solid foundations and an economic strategy that supports our strengths and carries our nation forward into the future.

Journalist: Minister why is Malcolm Turnbull having dinner with Clive Palmer and taking the Treasury Secretary along?

Minister Billson: I’m not sure who Malcolm’s dinner mates are. I was pleased to be at a function last night talking about the need to activate small and medium enterprises using ICT technologies to boost their capability into the future. My dining arrangements aren’t quite as interesting as that and I’m not sure why they were dining but I hope they had a lovely evening.

Journalist: So he wasn’t there on behalf of the Government?

Minister Billson: I’m not aware of the arrangements for that dining experience last night but I hope it was satisfying for all.

Journalist: Do you think it’s appropriate that Malcolm Turnbull is taking the Treasury Secretary to dinner with Clive Palmer?

Minister Billson: Again, the circumstances of those dining arrangements aren’t known to me. What I was aware of was very important work that we were doing to build the entrepreneurial ecosystem, an important body of work that Microsoft has developed and I was happy to be a part of the launch. It looked at how we can grow our economy and support our small and medium sized enterprises who frankly after six years of Labor and while that debt and deficit was being built, 412,000 jobs were lost in small business. Now we need to turn that around and see that engine room of our economy is creating the employment opportunities, wealth and prosperity we need for the country. That was my focus last night and that’s my focus every day.

Journalist: Is Malcolm Turnbull the official spokesperson or liaison between the Government and the Palmer United Party?

Minister Billson: We’ve got some very clear arrangements in discussing in an adult, mature and sensible way with minor parties what their ideas might be. What is absolutely clear though, there is only one plan on the table. The plan enables us to deal with the debt and deficit to get our budget back on track and we are happy to talk with any of the minor parties or cross benchers that might have something to contribute.

What’s abundantly clear though is that Labor has nothing to contribute. Captain Complaint, the Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, all he is doing is whinging and whining. He has no alternative plan and we need to get on with implementing the Economic Action Strategy that the Government has outlined.

Journalist: Are there plans to change the debt recovery arrangements for deceased people?

Minister Billson: No there are no plans to change the debt arrangements under the HECS and Fee-Help scheme. What currently happens is that where earnings are above in excess of $50,000 a contribution is made by the student towards the cost of their education. That education continues to be very heavily subsidised by other tax payers, but provides a good opportunity for that student to make the best of their lives and to achieve their full potential.

What’s important in this budget though is that the Fee-Help structure is being extended beyond its current higher education reach to include diplomas and sub-bachelor degrees. The Trade Support Loans are also another example of where we are partnering with individuals so they can reach their potential, build our economy and our strengths into the future.

Journalist: So chasing that debt after the person has died, that is not going to happen?

Minister Billson: We have no plans to change those debt recovery arrangements.

Journalist: Can you rule it out in the future?

Minister Billson: We have no plans to change those arrangements…

Journalist: But what the problem is Minister, is that you had no plans to introduce a co-payment and then you turned around and introduced a co-payment. So you can understand why we are questioning it.

Minister Billson: I appreciate the excitement around this but as you know, in the Budget there was a comprehensive higher education reform package. Our focus is on implementing that. Secondly, about 18 per cent of the outstanding HECS debt is currently what is not recovered. We are in discussions with the UK for example on how we might interact with overseas governments, where students from Australia with an Australian HECS debt who may be living in another country, how we can put in place arrangements to reduce that 18 per cent which is currently the un-recovered amount.

Journalist: Wouldn’t that be changing arrangements for debt recovery?

Minister Billson: No, because the debt recovery question you asked me about was when a student was deceased. This is an arrangement that currently exists where once a certain income level is met; a contribution is required from the student who has benefited significantly from the joint investment in their education through HECS and now Fee-Help schemes. What we are saying is where that student travels overseas and there is a debt liability and they are earning, we are exploring arrangements with overseas governments about how we could recover that HECS investment or Fee-Help investment in that individual.

Journalist: What did you make of the video of Joe Hockey from his student days?

Minister Billson: I haven’t seen the video but I imagine he was fetchingly handsome and I haven’t spoken to him about that, but that would probably be his advice.

But it’s important to recognise the change in time and circumstance. At that stage there was a requirement for students to pay upfront and that’s not the case today. At that time there was no HECS or Fee-Help arrangement – that’s not the case today. Today, any student who wants to invest in their future has the opportunity to pursue that educational pathway. I’m a firm believer that your postcode doesn’t determine your potential and that we should put in place the support systems to make sure everyone can fulfil their full potential. That is the arrangement that is in place. No student, regardless of their background or economic circumstances, needs to pay upfront to pursue that investment in themselves, one that is co-funded by other taxpayers.

That’s good for the student, that’s good for the nation and that’s why there is a joint funding arrangement. It’s entirely different times from what was the case when there were those photographs of Joe.

Journalist: Minister who is the official liaison with Clive Palmer?

Minister Billson: Well I work through our Leader of Government Business if I’ve got any conversations, but as you know, I’m quite low maintenance and if someone wants to have a discussion with me, I’m more than happy to have it.

Journalist: It’s just that you said there was a framework that exists to talk with the minor parties so I’m just asking you to explain that.

Minister Billson: We have senior officials that manage the transaction of business through the parliament. My understanding is that you are referring to that and those arrangements are well known and you also know who that individual is. In the House of Representatives, it’s the irrepressible Mr Pyne.

Journalist: Just on the HECS debt. Joe Hockey said this morning that it should [inaudible]

Minister Billson: There are no plans to change the HECS debt recovery arrangements for students that are deceased.