By Tanya Plibersek

15 December 2021




SUBJECTS: Scott Morrison's failure to lead; Debt and deficit; Labor's plan to make childcare more affordable; Support for schoolkids; Federal Election; Gender pay gap; COVID-19 restrictions; China; Literacy and numeracy testing results in schools. 

ALAN JONES, HOST: The Shadow Education Minister, Tanya Plibersek joins me from Sydney. Tanya thank you for your time. Our website, I should tell you, went down the first night because there were over 350,000 people wanting to access the program. So there's a big audience out there. Now, there are always two aspects aren't there to an election campaign? What a government has or hasn't done, and what an opposition promises to do. Given that you're a very prominent opposition spokesperson, and we'll be talking to both sides, how would you rate the Morrison Government and its leadership?
TANYA PLIBERSEK, SHADOW MINISTER FOR EDUCATION AND SHADOW MINISTER FOR WOMEN: Well, what leadership Alan? I mean, you've got a Prime Minister that's never there when you need him. He's loose with the truth. He's made all sorts of commitments that he hasn't kept, promised all sorts of things that he hasn't delivered. He's always there to take credit, he's never there to take responsibility.
JONES: You were in government, talking about responsibility, during the Global Financial Crisis, and Labor was smashed for its profligacy - people still recall pink batts, cash for clunkers, and the debt ceiling being raised. What will Labor's strategy be re: the response to the Coronavirus where fewer than one percent of Australians contracted the virus, 0.008 percent have died, and we're heading towards a trillion dollars worth of debt? Do you build on that debt? Or do you attempt to retire it?
PLIBERSEK: We absolutely have to responsibly pay down that debt over time Alan, but don't forget this government had already doubled debt and doubled the deficit before Coronavirus hit, long before Coronavirus had hit. And then on top of the fact that already doubled the debt and double the deficit, they got rid of the debt ceiling. They did deal with the Greens to get rid of the debt ceiling. And then with the COVID-19 response you see the fact that they've done things like paid 20 billion dollars to companies that actually saw their profits increase during COVID-19, the dodgy land deal - they paid 10 times more for the land and they should have. The sports rorts, the car park rorts. And just today we see an analysis that shows that they've paid about four times more in grants to Coalition seats than to Labor seats. I mean, this is taxpayers’ money Alan, it's not Scott Morrison's re-election fund. This is taxpayers money that they pay so that every Australian gets a good school, a good hospital, roads to drive on - the things they need for this to be a strong country and have a good quality of life. It's not an election campaigning fund for Scott Morrison, the taxes that you pay. Labor will always be more responsible with spending taxpayers money.
JONES: We'll come back to retiring the debt. Am I right in arguing that you will lift the maximum Child Care Subsidy rate to 90%, and that'll be for every family earning less than $530,000? Now, does that mean that 90% of childcare costs will be rebated or is this rebate scaled down as the income goes up?
PLIBERSEK: It does scale down as income increases Alan, but a million families will be better off under Labor's policy. 97 per cent of families that are receiving child care subsidies at the moment will be better off under our policy, and we know that this is not just a great investment to get women back into the workforce. Everywhere I go, I'm travelling a lot, as you say we've got the campaign sort of underway, I travel to regional communities Alan, they tell me they are desperate for skilled staff. They can't find the skilled staff they need. We want those mothers back in the workforce, not saying, oh I can't do day four, day five this week because my child care subsidy runs out. So it's good for mums. And we also know that it's good for children to get that before-school education that helps them be school ready when they actually start kindergarten. 
JONES: But Tanya isn't a reality though that when the rebates increase child care costs go up. Now how do you stop that?
PLIBERSEK: Well we will be very careful No. No, you quite right Alan to identify this as a problem. Any subsidy that you put into a system can sometimes just be a straight subsidy to the person providing the good or service. You have to be very careful, and that's why we would ask the productivity commission to look at the whole Child Care Subsidy system, to design a strong system that sees any extra money that government's putting in going into the pockets of parents and making sure that child care is good quality and more affordable, not just subsidising the profits of private child care providers. 
JONES: But to be credible shouldn't this program be fully costed before an election?
PLIBERSEK: Yeah it is – 
JONES: I read your policy and I wasn't costed.
PLIBERSEK: The Parliamentary Budget Office has costed this policy. It comes in at about $6.2 billion dollars over the forward estimates. The Parliamentary Budget Office is independent. It's doing the work for us and they would do the same work if it was the Liberals in opposition, and they work it out with all of the information from the government departments. So these are the most credible, most robust costings that we can provide.
JONES: I've spoken to you before and we both are passionate about this, about the inevitable consequences on children of children being kept out of education during the pandemic. Didn't the Government set aside, because I get parents writing to me about this, set aside $25 million to help children? Has that money been spent? Where is that money as I speak to you today? 
PLIBERSEK: I think it's sitting in a treasury vault somewhere Alan. I don't think any of that has made it into classrooms yet. It is so disappointing because we know that kids, particularly in Victoria and New South Wales, have really missed out. It really sucks. And they’ve missed out on a lot of learning -
JONES: Where will $25 million go? $25 million? Where will that go? 
PLIBERSEK: Well, it's not much money is it? When you think about the need that kids have, the social and emotional well-being as much as anything else. A lot of them have fallen behind in their learning, but they've also missed out on so much. We've talked about what they've missed out on with their mates - school camps, and excursions, and school formals, and just playing sport in the playground or playing around before and after school. They need to re-establish those relationships and what it's like to be a kid. And it's such a shame that the Government, first of all committed this puny amount of money, and hasn't even managed to spend that.
JONES: Let's come back to this, you're now, you've spent more years in the federal Parliament, 23 years, than any other female MP, the bulk of those years have been in opposition. Why have the public consistently rejected Labor?
PLIBERSEK: So you're really rubbing it in tonight aren't you Alan? (Laughs)
JONES: No you're very young!
PLIBERSEK: I think we need to do a better job at reminding people of the values that Labor has - that if you work hard, you get decent pay, you work harder, you get paid better. You've got a secure job, a good school for your kids, TAFE and University when your kids get a bit older. A good hospital system, aged care that treats people with dignity so that they can retire with dignity and respect. Our values, I think, are consistent. But we haven't always communicated that as well as we should. 
JONES: No. You've talked about equality, and women being treated equally. I must say many men would hope that they were treated equally and that they differentiate. But when you say treated equally, does it mean paid equally which, are they not? Are there instances where a woman is doing identical work to that of a man and getting paid less?
PLIBERSEK: Yeah Alan, Australian women don't want special treatment. They just want equality and sadly there are still instances where women are being paid less than men for doing the same work, particularly in the private sector. If you look at an industry like finance, that's where the gender pay gap is biggest. And I think it's no coincidence that that's where the industry that makes the most use of pay secrecy clauses as well, so you can have two people in executive levels doing basically the same work that are paid differently. But it's also across industries, like if you look at a job like early childhood education and care that is responsible, difficult, long hours, physically draining, intellectually challenging - I really don't think if this was more equally men and women that people would be getting paid 22 bucks an hour to do this work. It is hard work.
JONES: A very valid point. They're very, very, very important. They're very valid points. Does it though, does it minister to the dignity of a woman if she gains preferment before because she's a woman rather than on ability. I mean, you won that pre-selection for the seat of Sydney against the red hot field when you were about 28, you were chosen by pre-selectors on merit. How do you achieve a gender balance in Parliament? Because I think it is important we hear the views of women, but how do you achieve that?
PLIBERSEK: Alan look, the simple truth is, if all these decisions were simply made on merit the Parliament would be a different place already. I think if merit was the deciding factor, it would already be half female because we know that half the brains and half the talent, half the capacity for hard work, is in half the community, which is female. So I think this argument about talent or capacity being the deciding factor, I agree with that. I think there are so many talented women that get discouraged because of the environment, because of the high level of conflict. They perceive it as a workplace that is perceived as, you know, a frankly awful workplace. I think we need to change that to make it a more appealing place for women and men, to make it healthier and a better example, a better example. 
JONES: Your parents came here in the 50s. They were refugees after the second world war. They would have thought, like many refugees, this was a magnificent place. But now many of the freedoms that they were so excited to see, which were denied to them until they came here in this marvellous country, many of those freedoms are being taken away. Do you think people today as I'm speaking to you, feel free in this modern Australia? Free to speak, free to be participants in a civilised debate and discussion. Do you think the denial of all these freedoms during Coronavirus was an appropriate government response? 
PLIBERSEK: Alan, you're right about my parents. They were grateful every single day, every single day for the freedoms that they were given in Australia that they didn't have in Yugoslavia. But I think it is really drawing a longbow to say that some of the sacrifices that people have made during COVID-19 is the same as communist Yugoslavia you know? Yes it's been a really tough time and Australians have done so well in getting themselves vaccinated and following the rules, and they've done it for one another. They haven't just thought how does this affect me? They thought I want to get vaccinated, I'm not worried about being sick, I'm worried about my grandma catching COVID from me and what it would do to her if she got sick. So I think, as always, we need to balance freedom and responsibility. Of course, we should have freedoms, but those freedoms come with responsibilities to our fellow Australians.
JONES: Yeah. I mean we're talking about education, just a quick one. I mean, even the Prime Minister said the children should be in school. If you were the leader of government would you be taking children out of school? This has never happened in the war, didn't happen in the Spanish flu, didn't ever happen, and the price, we won't know the consequences of this for years to come.
PLIBERSEK: I think remote learning was very hard on kids, Alan, but I would always take the advice of the medical experts about what's necessary. I think the shortest possible time out of school is really important. Having kids back playing with each other and learning together as soon as possible is always preferable. But if the medical advice had been we're going to have a bigger spread of COVID if we don't do this, I would have followed that advice.
JONES: You were once Labor's Foreign Affairs spokesperson, a role now held by Penny Wong. When you look at Australia in this part of the world, and see an expansion of China threats to Hong Kong and Taiwan, the possibility that sea routes could be blocked if China chose to do so, and our oil supplies would dry up. How should we be responding to the China challenge? 
PLIBERSEK: Alan, I think about Teddy Roosevelt saying that diplomacy is about talking softly and carrying a big stick. I think the big problem at the moment is we talk loudly and don't have much of stick at all. It is really important that we, of course, put Australia's interests first, that we are able to defend ourselves that we assert our values. But we also need to be looking for ways of improving our relationships with our region, our ASEAN neighbours in particular, people that we share common interests with right across the Indo-Pacific and our traditional allies like Europe, the UK, the United States, of course. When it comes to China, I think what we ought to be doing is asserting our values, staying true to our philosophy, but also looking for areas where we can cooperate to try and normalise relationships as much as possible. It's not in Australia's long-term economic interests to have our coal ships sitting off Chinese ports, to the wine ban, our seafood band. We do need to re-establish connections here.
JONES: Just finally, because we'll be able to talk about this in more detail during the course of the campaign. You're the Shadow Education Minister, we've touched on that. But only today we learned, according to new data from tests for the National Assessment Program, literacy and numeracy - that one in five teenage boys is semi-literate in high school, that boys are twice as likely as girls to struggle with reading and writing at the age of 15, that one in 10 girls and one in five boys had failed to reach the minimum standard for writing after nine years of education, and that in writing 21 per cent of boys and ten per cent of girls fell below the national standard meaning they couldn't punctuate sentences, spell simple and common words or write a story in paragraphs. When are we going to prioritise what is happening in education and recognise that we're way behind the rest of the world?
PLIBERSEK: Well Alan, this is one of the reasons that I chose the Education portfolio. I want every Australian child to get a great education no matter where they live, no matter their family background. And we're just not doing that, when Labor was last in government we set aside extra funding for schools but we also insisted that every school had a plan for school improvement. We set targets, we were prepared to be held accountable. The extra funding and those reforms were dispensed with by the Liberal Government. And the result is we've got the worst results for kids since international testing began. We've gone backwards. Our 15 year olds more than a year behind 15 year olds of a few years ago, they’re slipping against their international peers. We, of course, need to make sure that our funding if fair, but that we've got the policies right. That would improve teaching in every classroom in every part of the nation. 
JONES: Well I'll tell you something, down the track as the election gets closer I just want to talk to you about this because I think this is the most critical issue. The leaders of tomorrow are currently in our classrooms. If we're not preparing them adequately, we all fail. So look, thank you for your time tonight. Happy Christmas to you and the family. Thank you for your cooperation during the course of the year. Lovely to talk and we will talk again. There she is. There's Tanya Plibersek, the former Deputy Leader. She does frighten people on the conservative side. It's an impressive and articulate performance isn't it?