29 August 2019




SUBJECTS: NAPLAN results; Universities; NSW ICAC.

JONATHAN GREEN, PRESENTER: Tanya Plibersek is Shadow Minister for Education and Training. She joins us now. Tanya, welcome.


GREEN: That test, is it fit for purpose?

PLIBERSEK: Well there's a couple things I'd say. I'll talk about the test in a minute. I just want to take issue with the first thing you said, that it's not about funding. It's not only about funding, but of course funding matters. There's a reason that parents spend their weekends doing sausage sizzles and cake stalls and chocolate drives and walk-a-thons and Book Week fundraising and all the rest of it. Of course money matters, and we've spent billions of dollars less than has been recommended in the needs-based funding models, and we've seen billions less than the state governments were promised. So funding does matter. Teachers are being asked to do more with less all the time. But what also matters is that we take what we're doing in our best classrooms, the ones that are picking kids up early if they're struggling and investing in them and helping them get up to speed, that we spread that right across our system. We use the evidence of what works and we use it everywhere. And the other thing that is important is that we attract the best and brightest into teaching as a career. We've seen entry marks for teaching courses continue to slide under this Government. We need to take our teachers from the top 30 per cent of academic achievers and we need to keep those fantastic teachers in our classrooms, not drive them away with excess bureaucracy and a lack of support. So all of that matters ...

GREEN: There's a few things there.

PLIBERSEK: And as for NAPLAN - we could talk about this all afternoon. You can tell I'm very- but I will answer your question about NAPLAN because I don't want people to think that this isn't a part of the equation. It's not just NAPLAN that shows that we are sliding in the basics. Other tests, international tests that we take part in - PISA and TIMSS - they all show that we've failed to address the decline in standards. So it is important that we have that information. Can we be testing differently? Maybe. Should we be testing different things? Perhaps. Should we be reporting on those tests differently? That's an open issue for discussion. Of course we should look at NAPLAN after 10 years of operation and say 'is it still fit for purpose?' but my very strong view is we need to make sure that our schools and our school systems are not letting our kids down.

GREEN: Well to take up one of your earlier points and this relates to NAPLAN, I mean, we have a certain kind of information from that testing, but the point you make about seeing what works, seeing what sort of work within schools, teaching or environments, whatever it is, creates a result. Do we have a structure that interrogates that, that feeds that information through to us?

PLIBERSEK: Well we don't have a strong enough structure to do that and that's why going in to the last election Labor promised a $280 million evidence institute for schools that would work with teachers and principals to take the best available research of what works and take it from best practice to common practice. Give teachers and principals the opportunity of applying state of the art information in their classrooms, to make sure that we're getting the basics right. Unless kids can read and write and do maths and science and know how a computer works - unless they've got all those basic skills, we can't give them the rich and exciting educational opportunities we want to give them as they progress through their schooling. We need to get the basics right, and we've got a lot of information about, for example, how to teach reading in the best way. We are not standardly applying it in every classroom all the time, and the way we can do that is give teachers in their initial teacher education better information as they'redoing their first training, but throughout their professional careers. Teachers need the time to reflect and improve on their own practice. They need to watch highly experienced teachers in their field. They need to get mentoring in the classroom as they are applying what they've learnt. Teaching is an incredibly complex and responsible task and we're asking, you know when we're talking about doctors and other professionals, they're constantly updating their skills. We need to give teachers the time in the classroom and out of the classroom to do that too.

GREEN: Which, it astounds me that you wouldn't have processes of mentoring or professional development, of the sort of things of which you speak as being absolutely bottom line in our teaching services.

PLIBERSEK: Look I'm not saying that it doesn't happen at all. It doesn't happen with enough scale and regularity as we would like to see, and you know, we go back to the conversation we had a few minutes ago about funding. This is what extra funding allows us to do. It allows teachers to have more individual one-on-one time, identifying kids who are struggling and helping them catch up. It allows new teachers to go and watch highly experienced teachers and to learn from that. It allows highly experienced teachers time out of the classroom to go and mentor the new teachers to make sure that they know how to deal with situations in that classroom with the group of kids that they're teaching. All of this takes funding, on top of obviously the resources that you want in a school to give kids a rich and varied schooling experience. If you don't have the basics, if the, you know the toilet blocks are leaking-

GREEN: You sound like an exasperated parent Tanya Plibersek.

PLIBERSEK: Well, you know, I do my fair share of baking for the cake sales but I've got to say, it is one of my great sadnesses about losing the last election campaign because I visit schools that are rightly proud of the fact that the parent community has raised $5,000 or $10,000, and I think well this school would have been $300,000 or $600,000 better off under us over the next three years. So yes, I'm a bit sad.

GREEN: That $20 billion over the decade, I mean, is that not being, it's supposed to be needs-based. But is it not being effectively distributed between the private and public sectors? Is there an unfair division of that money?

PLIBERSEK: Look, I'm never in the business of turning one sector against the other. I'm absolutely in favour of parental choice, but there is no real choice if your local public school is underfunded, and the last thing we saw Scott Morrison do on school education funding is give extra funding to Catholic and independent schools, replacing the billions that had been ripped out, but not touching public school funding, leaving public schools billions of dollars worse off than they had been promised.

GREEN: Tanya Plibersek, Shadow Minister for Education and Training. Dan Tehan, your opposite number, Tanya, spoke today and the thrust of his speech was around a taskforce looking at foreign interference in the university sector. This is focusing primarily though on intellectual property and cyber security. Is that emphasis right?

PLIBERSEK: I think it is important that universities work with our security agencies to make sure that their cyber security is robust, that their intellectual property is well protected. I don't see this as a partisan issue. If there are things that we should be doing to improve security on our campuses, that's fine, it goes to free speech on our campuses and academic freedoms as well.

GREEN: How does that task force get to things like free speech? For example at the moment, we have protests in Hong Kong, we have signs on campuses in Mandarin threatening death for wrong thinking over the Hong Kong protests, a real sign of an attempt to intimidate the Chinese student diaspora. How do we get at that kind of influence?

PLIBERSEK: I don't know what the intentions are really for this task force. We haven't received a briefing from the Government and I am certainly happy to receive a more detailed briefing, but it is important to have robust discussions on our university campuses and no student should feel intimidated about expressing a view. In fact, one of the best things about getting an education in an Australian university is the implicit promise we make to students from all over the world that they will have the opportunity of intellectual exploration and the ability to debate - to debate very passionately held views in a way that is safe and respectful.

GREEN: It seems fraught currently, but that sort of Chinese influence, of course, extends beyond education. We're hearing in the ICAC in New South Wales of a $100,000 donation made to the New South Wales Labor Party by Chinese businessmen. Are you shocked by that?

PLIBERSEK: Well, I am not going to comment on the individual case before the ICAC at the moment but-

GREEN: No, I am just wondering if you are shocked by it?

PLIBERSEK: Well, I'll say a few things. It is very important for our disclosure laws to be much more robust than they are and I support a much lower disclosure threshold for political donations and much faster reporting of political donations. I also think it is vital to have an institution like the New South Wales ICAC, to have it in New South Wales, I am a very strong supporter of it, but also to have something similar at a federal level because so far, what has been proposed by the Government, at a federal level, is quite a toothless watchdog. As for am I surprised that people try to make political donations to parties? Well, I am not surprised-

GREEN: 100,000 grand in a shopping bag.

PLIBERSEK: Well, look, I can't comment on allegations that are currently the subject of an inquiry and I think it would be unfair for me to do that. This is currently before the ICAC. It has to take its course.

GREEN: Is there any way of curing this? I mean, we will see a succession of New South Wales ALP Secretaries and so forth, you know, fall on their swords but can we do anything about this if we keep political donations of that magnitude?

PLIBERSEK: I have to make the point. No one is above the law. No political party is above the law. If people do the wrong thing...

GREEN: Aren't donations the problem though?

PLIBERSEK: whether they are in our party, we saw - I can't remember, in New South Wales I think it was nine Liberals who had to leave Parliament or sit on the crossbench. This is not something that is confined to one political party.

GREEN: Let's get rid of donations.

PLIBERSEK: Well, if we get rid of donations we need to have a different source of electoral funding, so if we propose to the taxpayers of Australia that they'll be funding election campaigns, I am not sure they are going to be delighted by that proposition.

GREEN: They'd rather just have institutionalised corruption?

PLIBERSEK: No, I am not saying that at all and it is not fair of you to characterise what I am saying as that. I'd say it is very important to have robust, real-time disclosure and I have, in the past, also said we should have spending caps on our campaigns. Part of the problem is the arms race in political campaign spending, and when you see someone like Clive Palmer who owes his workers $60 million that he can't find but he manages to find - well I think the last count was $80 million for political advertising - you do have to question the role of political advertising in our democracy. I think it is very important that we investigate this advertising arms race and my strong view has always been that spending caps are a good idea.

GREEN: Tanya Plibersek, thanks for your time.

PLIBERSEK: Thank you, Jonathan.