Prime Minister Tony Abbott has cancelled a visit to Deakin University’s Geelong campus with Victorian Premier Denis Napthine on Wednesday, an event protesters were targeting.
A collection of different community groups had planned to protest against Mr Abbott and his first budget that has cut billions from the state budget and made dramatic changes to cost-of-living.
Extra security had been arranged for the event at the Waurn Ponds campus in the wake of a series of anti-government protests and backlash against the budget in the city.
Mr Abbott’s office on Tuesday afternoon cancelled the event with Deakin University that was to celebrate the work of Carbon Nexus, which had received some federal funds in the past.
The event had been confirmed by the Prime Minister’s office earlier in the day.
A federal source said the decision to cancel the visit to Geelong had nothing to do with what has been an at-times frosty relationship between Mr Abbott and Dr Napthine in recent months.
Education Minister Christopher Pyne said on Tuesday night that the event was cancelled on the advice of the Australian Federal Police, who said that ''they were concerned about the safety particularly of innocent bystanders''.
''So the Prime Minister made the decision, and his office, that it would be wiser to not go and create that tumult at Deakin University so students can get on with their studies unmolested by the Socialist Alternative, which seems quite intent on shutting down democracy in Australia,'' he told ABC TV's Lateline program.
But National Union of Students president Deanna Taylor said on Wednesday that Mr Abbott must explain why he was worried about facing students and answering their questions.
''I think the Prime Minister and his ministers are being a bit cowardly and trying to portray students as though they’re violent rabble-rousers who are out to cause trouble, which isn’t the case at all,'' she said.
''They’re trying to make us sound like spoiled little brats who don't know how good we've got it. They have a very clear agenda.''
Dr Napthine said on Wednesday that it was a sad day for democracy when the Prime Minister had to cancel his appearance at an event because of protesters.
''I think it's a sad day for Australian democracy that the Prime Minister can't attend important events in our country because of the threatening behaviours of a small minority.
''People are free to protest in Victoria and Australia, we are a democracy, but they must behave, act within the law and allow others to go about their lawful business, including the Prime Minister of the country.''
Dr Napthine is still expected to attend the university event.
Students at universities across Australia have targeted prominent Liberal figures who have appeared on campus since the federal budget was handed down last week and will hold a national day of action on Wednesday against the changes to higher education.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was attacked at Sydney University on Friday and heckled later that day at an event at the University of Technology, Sydney.
Former frontbencher Sophie Mirabella was also shouted down during a lecture at the University of Melbourne on Monday.
But Ms Taylor says students are so incensed by the proposed changes they are doing what they can to get their point across.
''Not all students have access to the corridors of power and can't go and lobby politicians,'' she said. ''For a lot of students who are disenfranchised, protesting and demonstrating is really their only way of voicing their discontent.''
Ms Taylor said an expected 2000-strong rally in Melbourne would be the nation's biggest, but thousands more would rally across the country in all capital cities except Darwin.
She said government plans to deregulate fees would burden students with debt for 30-40 years and hinder them from buying a house or car.
''We shouldn't basically be penalising people for getting a higher education,'' she said.
Despite the cancellation of the Deakin University event, it is understood Mr Abbott and Dr Napthine are still scheduled to see each other on Wednesday night in Melbourne.
Dr Napthine has been critical of the federal budget and has called for an urgent meeting of all government leaders.
Victoria is facing up to a $20 billion cut to health and education funding over the next 10 years with changes to national partnership funding set to impacting Victoria from July 1.
Dr Napthine has been angered by Canberra’s decision to allow Holden and Toyota to pull out of manufacturing operations in Australia, as well as at the refusal to assist fruit processor SPC.
Mr Abbott will still attend an event in Victoria on Wednesday as he continues to sell what has been a horror first budget for the Coalition, delivering a big hit in the Prime Minister's popularity in Victoria in the Fairfax Nielsen polls.
Mr Abbott last week conceded "there was some things in the Budget that the premiers liked – there were other things in the Budget that the premiers would prefer weren’t there" but has stressed the federal government would still look to work constructively with the states.
However, Mr Abbott refused to meet with state premiers collectively over the weekend in Sydney to discuss the fall out from the budget.
With Mr Abbott’s popularity in Victoria the lowest in the country, Monday's Age/Nielsen poll showed the Coalition trailing 61-39 in the state, questions have also been raised about whether it is good for Dr Napthine to be seen with Mr Abbott, especially in a marginal seat, ahead of the November state poll.
Geelong Trades Hall secretary Tim Gooden said a community protest had been organised, including representatives from unions, students, the Greens, ALP, people from Men’s Sheds, pensioners and disability groups.
Earlier the university would not comment on whether there would be a strong security presence at the Waurn Ponds campus, but Victoria police are aware of protests and said there would be ‘‘adequate police’’ there to ensure safety.
On Tuesday, Dr Napthine said he did not back a broadening or increase to the GST. He also said he had received a letter from the PM conceding that there were budget impacts that would affect Victoria from July 1, with the state up to $200 million worse.
In Sydney, students will march from the University of Sydney to Town Hall on Wednesday afternoon.
The university's SRC education officer Ridah Hassan said the federal budget represents "the worst attacks on students in decades".
Vice-President and Deputy Vice-Chancellor of The University of NSW, Professor Iain Martin, said the most important thing right now was that Australian universities maintained their reputations.
"We need to look at the balance between government and private contributions," he told AAP.
"We fully understand that this is a time of a lot of change and it's going to be of concern to students but I would argue - both for our current and future students - it would be a much bigger concern if our universities were no longer able to perform as truly competitive peers of the best in the world.
"They do at the moment. It is really important we keep them there."
- with AAP