By Tanya Plibersek

25 January 2022



SUBJECTS: Labor's plan to help kids bounce back from COVID; Aboriginal Flag.
PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Tanya Plibersek is the Shadow Education Minister and my guest this morning. Tanya welcome.
KARVELAS: Schools return from next week and many parents are clearly worried, or a little anxious about the whole thing. How is this schools upgrade fund going to help in the longer term?
PLIBERSEK: Well, our $440 million plan is an effort to help kids bounce back after COVID. And the first part of it, as you said, is making sure that our schools are physically safer for our kids and staff. So, it means upgrades to classrooms, better ventilation, air quality filters, upgrading air conditioning units. Just, in some cases, you see the windows have been painted shut for the last 30 years - reopening those windows, letting the fresh air in. Moving kids to outdoor learning where that's practical. So, this is a modest effort that would work in partnership with the efforts of the states and territories and with schools, to make sure that our classrooms are safer for kids to go back to. The other element of this, as you said, is about the wellbeing of students. Ask any parent, and they are really worried about the kids. They're worried about the learning they've missed out on in the last couple of years, but they're also worried about the social and emotional stuff that they have been through. The growing up that they've missed out on. The sleepovers and playground friendships and school sports and 16th birthday parties and school formals - all of those milestones that we look back on with such fondness. The times that we made the friendships that have lasted us a lifetime, a lot of our kids have missed out on a lot of that. So, around $200 million is there for things like school counsellors, school psychologists. But also, extra sports camps to help the kids reconnect and get back into the classroom. Those things that will make school a happier and more successful learning environment.
KARVELAS: The Government has worked out that this is only $46,000 for each school. What's that going to realistically get them?
PLIBERSEK: Well, isn't it ironic that Scott Morrison who is doing nothing, is criticising Labor for doing too little. I mean, of course this funding is in partnership with schools and with state and territory governments. It's to meet any of the gaps that we see. It's also going to focus more on the schools that have suffered the most, and the areas that have experienced the longest lockdowns and the biggest disruptions to kids. I'm really a bit surprised that Scott Morrison's out there saying that Labor is not proposing enough though, when he's failed with the paediatric vaccine rollout, he's failed to secure enough rapid antigen tests for parents to feel good about kids going back into the classroom - he's always pointing the finger at the states and territories not doing enough.
KARVELAS: Well, the acting Education Minister Stuart Robert says National Cabinet has actually already agreed to a process to reopen schools safely and that includes checks on ventilation. He says that Labor is trying to peddle fear through a cheap political stunt, that actually there is a national agreement. That the states are taking responsibility for the ventilation. So, are you trying to do something that's already being done?
PLIBERSEK: The states and territories are going their own way. As with everything, Scott Morrison talks big game and then leaves the actual responsibility to the states and territories. Labor is saying we want to work in partnership with states and territories, with schools and school systems, and most importantly with parents to make sure that they are reassured about air quality in classrooms, that we're doing what we can to make it safer for kids and school staff to go back into classrooms. Also, to pick up the slack when it comes to the hard time, the kids have suffered, that have been disconnected from their friends, kept at home, remote learning. All of the stuff that’s really taken a toll. You honestly only have to talk to any parent, they’re worried about the missed learning that's happened over the last two years, but they are also worried about kids going safely back into the classroom. If Scott Morrison had got the vaccine rollout done more efficiently, I think parents should be a bit more reassured now.
KARVELAS: There’s also the wellbeing component to your announcement today to pay for counsellors and psychologists; and a range of activities, the camps, the excursions, social activities. I know you have school age children, as do I - do we really understand yet the mental health toll COVID has had on young people? And what is your analysis of how much work we might need to be putting in to rebuild these young people who've missed all these key steps as you say?
PLIBERSEK: Yeah, I think Patricia you're right. You talk to basically any parent, and they'll tell you that they've been worried. Sometimes more for one kid in their family than another, it depends a lot on the age of the children and how they've been going with remote learning. But, kids have missed out on establishing those friendships, kicking the ball around at lunchtime, sleepovers, 16th birthday parties, school formals, all of these things that connect them to other kids. That help them grow up. help their social and emotional wellbeing. So, the money is there for school counsellors, for school psychologists and other proven wellbeing measures. We know that a lot of schools, for example, use camps particularly in say Year 7 to help the kids get to know each other because those friendships help them in the classroom. They help them learn. So we're saying that schools would have a lot of say over how they spend this extra money, making sure that it works for their school community. School sports is another really good example. School, of course, focuses on learning to read and write and do maths, but those opportunities of learning a new skill, learning a new sport, developing your gross motor skills. These are all really important elements of learning as well that kids particularly in areas with long lockdowns have really missed out on. And when you look at the surveys of parents, about sixty per cent of families are saying that the mental health of their family has gone backwards during COVID. They want their kids to have these opportunities to reconnect and be happy to go back to school, happy to get into the classroom and establish those relationships that we hope last them a lifetime, that the same sort of things that you and I look back on with fondness about our school years. These kids have missed out on.
KARVELAS: Some parents and teachers are planning a legal action against the New South Wales Department of Education and they want to be able to keep kids at home if they're worried about COVID. Is the department breaching its duty of care by declaring that the pandemic is not a valid reason to keep students out of school?
PLIBERSEK: I think it's very important to take the best medical and scientific advice at the moment, and it is important to acknowledge that keeping kids home does take a toll on them as well. It is a balance, getting them back into the classroom is important, we don't want kids to continue to miss out on learning and miss out on the social connection that comes with school as well, but I understand why parents are worried. Particularly those parents who booked to have their kids vaccinated and then were phoned by their GPs and told ‘sorry the paediatric vaccines haven't arrived in our surgeries, we're going to have to delay the vaccinations’. And this sort of stuff is really contributing to the stress that families are under. The stress that comes on top of weeks of remote learning and real concerns for their kids’ wellbeing.
KARVELAS: Schools are back from next week, and at this stage just 29 per cent of five to eleven year olds have had their first vaccination. Does that trouble you, or should parents be reassured that young children by and large, if you listen to the experts, don't suffer serious illness with COVID-19?
PLIBERSEK: I think it is important to listen to that medical advice, but obviously it would have been better if Scott Morrison had managed the paediatric vaccine rollout better. It would have been better if he'd managed the adult vaccine rollout better. These are obvious failings of the federal government.
KARVELAS: Anthony Albanese said on the weekend, that the Prime Minister should give a guarantee that every child should have access to at least one shot before they go back to school. How much would that delay the return to the classroom for hundreds of thousands of primary school pupils?
PLIBERSEK: What Anthony's pointing out is the Government's failure to rollout the paediatric vaccine in a safe and speedy and effective way. He's not proposing that people should keep their kids home because of that. He's saying that Scott Morrison should have got this right, as he should have got the adult vaccine rollout right, and that the delays have been really serious. I mean the adult vaccine delay meant that we had the second lockdown. The delay in kids vaccinations means that parents are a lot more worried now than they otherwise would be.
KARVELAS: Just finally, the flag has been freed, the Aboriginal flag and Labor Senator Malarndirri McCarthy tweeted this morning asking whether the Government would support this motion to fly the Aboriginal flag. I put to Ken Wyatt whether the Aboriginal flag should be flown behind the Prime Minister at every instance. He said, he'd like it to be used a whole lot more and pointed to the fact that sometimes the Prime Minister was using it, but it's not all the time. Do you think it should be used all the time?
PLIBERSEK: Oh, look, I think it's a national symbol that we should all be proud of and it should be used whenever it's appropriate. Certainly, I'd like to see it used more often. I am a very proud Australian, and one of the things that makes me proud of this when I see the Aboriginal flag flying side by side with the Australian flag. We see it on top of the Harbour Bridge sometimes, in official functions. I think it's a really good step forward that this flag will now receive the same respect and the same protections as the others, the Australian flag, and the state flags, and other symbols.
KARVELAS: Tanya Plibersek, many thanks for your time this morning.
PLIBERSEK: It's a pleasure. Nice to talk to you Patricia.