01 September 2019




SUBJECTS: NSW ICAC; Religious Discrimination Act; NAPLAN results; International Students at Australian Universities.

FRAN KELLY, PRESENTER: Tanya Plibersek welcome to Insiders.


KELLY: I'm well thank you. Tanya Plibersek, a shopping bag full of $100,000 cash plonked on the desk in the offices of the New South Wales Labor Party in Sydney and no one apparently blinks an eye. What kind of show are they running there, is Labor running there in Sydney?

PLIBERSEK: Yeah, well it's completely unacceptable behaviour, it's absolutely clear that at the very least every person in every political party should be obeying the law. You know, very early days in the ICAC hearing so we need to see what emerges over the next few weeks but there is a very strong case for culture change in an environment where you see that sort of response to very large political donations.

KELLY: Do you expect more will emerge of the coming few weeks?

PLIBERSEK: Look I don't know, I'll just say we're in very early days and I think it's important absolutely to take responsibility as a Labor Party member, we need to see culture change in head office but we also need to look at the broader case, what else needs to change in our political system. I've always been a very strong supporter of a New South Wales ICAC and a Federal ICAC with real teeth because people need to have faith in our democracy that money isn't influencing the outcomes in our democracy. We should have lower disclosure thresholds at the federal level, not $14,000 as it is now but $1,000, we should have faster, real time disclosure, we should also look at spending caps I think. While there is an arms race, whenever there's an arms race on raising funds to do more political advertising, more direct voter contact you're going to have this pressure to raise money and while you've got people like Clive Palmer able to put in you know $60, $70, $80 million dollars, whatever it was in the end to profoundly influence the outcome of elections we've got a problem with our democracy and

KELLY: So what are you saying, are you agreeing with Sam Dastyari, an end to private donations?

PLIBERSEK: Look, I'm not really sure that I would handle it that way. I think the more important discussion to have is around minutes on what we spend in advertising or during campaigning because that's where the pressure comes, there's an arms race to raise more money. I mean you saw the sort of spending from Clive Palmer in the last election campaign. While you've got pressure to combat that sort or advertising spend you'll have pressure to raise money. We need better disclosure and the Federal ICAC is the other element Fran, a Federal ICAC with real teeth not this half hearted, limp thing that the Coalition have proposed.

KELLY: Well I think most voters would agree with that because there's a scene in New South Wales, even when you have the rules the rules can and are being broken. In terms of the culture problem for Labor in New South Wales, three former General Secretaries implicated in this evidence so far, we're only at week one of a week six hearing, so when you talk about culture change, what are you talking about, is national Federal intervention the answer here, from the national executive?

PLIBERSEK: Look, we're still very early on and I think it's wrong to predict what else this hearing will go to over the coming weeks. I think it's important when we make these changes that we are thorough, thoughtful, reflective, that we make changes that really serve us well in the long run. So I don't want to preempt that but what I would say is yes the focus is quite rightly on Labor at the moment, I'm not running away from that in any way, but it's not so long ago that I think it was ten Liberals went to the cross bench or had to resign from parliament in New South Wales because of donations. We see this emerging as a problem right across our political culture and we need to yes, make changes in the Labor Party to encourage transparency and accountability but also to look at our settings for all political parties so that people can have faith in our democracy itself.

KELLY: Just finally on this Sam Dastyari heard about this donation back in 2016 apparently. When did you first hear about it?

PLIBERSEK: In the news last week. I meant honestly it is, it's disappointing in the extreme to many, many people in the Labor Party, me included, our ordinary branch members to think that there's a kind of whatever it takes mentality, in some of our people and at the very least we expect everybody to obey the law. But like I say Fran this is not, it's not quarantined to the Labor Party.

KELLY: No, sure.

PLIBERSEK: We need broader systemic change so that we can have faith in our political processes.

KELLY: Can I ask you about the Tamil family, the governments deporting two Sri Lanka, or trying to. Their case has been, their case for protection has been all the way to the High Court, the High Court said no. The government is not of a mind to intervene, it would seem that. Do you think they should be allowed to stay and if so what about all the others who have a similar case? What about precedent?

PLIBERSEK: Yeah, well a couple of things. Yes they should be allowed to stay and I know that our leader Anthony Albanese asked Mr Morrison on their trip to East Timor to intervene, to allow this family to stay. I think think there is a difference, well first of all it's a bit rich for Mr Dutton to talk about precedent when hes prepared to use his ministerial powers to allow au pairs to enter the country

KELLY: Sure, that was temporary, this is a different order of thing

PLIBERSEK: Sure but the point is hes not afraid of creating a precedent in that instance and he is prepared to use his ministerial discretion. Ministerial discretion is in our immigration laws for a reason, it's so that common sense can apply and when there are strong compassionate circumstances, you can apply that common sense. This is a family that is working, volunteering, raising their children in a regional community. We've got a government crying out for migrants to move to regional communities. They are well integrated, they are well supported in that community, their living peacefully paying their taxes, raising their kids, it is without question one of those examples where common sense and compassion would say use your ministerial discretion, let's just let this family stay. Of course we are up for strong boarder protection but that doesn't make us incapable of using our common sense when there is a family that has been here for so long and is so well integrated.

KELLY: Okay, can I ask you about the draft Religious Discrimination Act that was released by the Attorney General this week. LGBT groups and other groups say the bill punches holes in the anti- discrimination laws of the states. Will Labor every support provisions that undermine or diminish state anti-discrimination laws?

PLIBERSEK: Well the first thing to say is we want to work with the government co-operatively on protecting religious freedoms, we are absolutely supporters of religious freedoms and the ability to live your faith and to profess your faith. This legislation, we've only had it for a few days, and there are some problems already emerging with it. Those problems are being pointed out pretty vocally by members of the Liberal Party so we're not sure what further changes the Liberals will make so first of all well consult broadly with churches and the gay and lesbian community and others who are affected, we will see what the government finally comes back with.

KELLY: Whats your instinct though, generally, on weakening our anti-discrimination laws that the states already have in place?

PLIBERSEK: Well I think that would be a real problem with this legislation. I think it's something that Christian Porter promised he wouldn't do, interfere with state laws. And I'm sure that the overriding of state laws in this instance is probably driven by Eric Abetz and some of the extreme right because they've got problems with the Tasmanian laws. That is something that I think we would find very difficult to support but we have to go through our proper processes on this. I'd also say that the provisions that affect the business community, businesses are already saying how is this going to work for us? We're going to have to prove economic loss? Whats the process?

KELLY: This is the so called Israel Folau clause?

PLIBERSEK: Yeah ,so I think there are obviously issues with this. It's legislation that's been drafted to try and settle down all of the Liberal Party internals, it hasn't done that they're exploding already so we've got a long way to go.

KELLY: Okay, can I go now to some matters in your portfolio this week, the NAPLAN results again show little or no improvement, student scores barely improved over a decade of testing. In some groups reading, writing and maths have gone backwards, there's plenty of critique from the states that the tests are too hard or too soft or too boring. But whats happening? I mean our kids are no dumber than kids in other countries and they're not learning the three Rs to a required level. The problem is not the test, is it? The problem is the teaching, the kids aren't learning.

PLIBERSEK: Yeah, so I think it's time to have a look at the test. It's been there for ten years and you know it's absolutely right to have a look at it with fresh eyes. But it's not fundamentally the test that's the problem it's three things. It's the decline in funding that we've seen in recent years, it's the

KELLY: Let's stop there because I can hear government members all around the country saying we haven't declined the funding, it's gone up $20 billion in the last several years that's a lot of money.

PLIBERSEK: We've got more students and we've got inflation

KELLY: So it hasn't actually declined, it's gone up by overall when you take all of that into account, about $2 billion.

PLIBERSEK: Well and billions less than was promised to schools.

KELLY: Sure.

PLIBERSEK: Under the needs based funding formula. But the point is Fran, if you don't have adequate funding for our schools you cant give kids one on one attention. You cant pick up the kids who are struggling and give them the help they need to catch up. You cant extend your gifted and talented kids. You cant enrich the program with things like music, musical instruments and it means that teachers don't get the professional development they need. They don't have the time to observe highly experienced teachers, you cant have those experience teachers mentoring others.

KELLY: I understand all that.

PLIBERSEK: There is a reason Fran that parents are this weekend doing sausage sizzles and cake stalls and fundraisers for their schools. Money matters and you saw improvements in the early years of needs based funding, that has now stalled

KELLY: Okay but we've been talking I think I've probably had this conversation with you over several years now and still, not just on NAPLAN but internationally, you know we're behind Russia and Ireland on maths, we're behind Estonia and Poland in our reading. Somethings are working, what we've learned from NAPLAN is some things are working in some states and some schools. When are we ever going to learn the simply thing of that's working let's roll that our across the country?

PLIBERSEK: Good question Fran and that's why we had a $280 million evidence institute planned if we were elected so that we would take best practice, whats really improving results, making sure that kids have the basics and spread that best practice to every school so best practice because common practice, we absolutely need to do that. We don't use evidence in education in the way that we use it in our health system. And the third thing Fran, is teaching. We need to attract and retain the best and brightest into teaching. In schools systems that are successful it's the top 30 per cent that go into teaching degrees, now there will always be exceptions to that rule, you might have struggled in Year 12 but have the capacity to be a great teacher. But what we're seeing now is universities continuing to drop their entry marks for teaching degrees and that is a serious problem

KELLY: Can I just ask you, we're almost our of time, you mentioned universities, I want to go to that sector now. I spoke to one VC Vice Chancellor this week who said that unis are being shamed unfairly because of the numbers of international and particularly Chinese students they've enrolled. That's how they're feeling, shamed, should our universities be ashamed of the number of foreign students they have on campus or is this issue being caught up in something bigger?

PLIBERSEK: Well they certainly shouldn't be shamed, I mean universities are targeting foreign students because they've seen budget cuts that mean also an extra 200,000 Australian students will miss out on universities. But international education is unequivocally a good thing for Australia, it's a $33 billion industry and it means that our students are exposed to students from around the world, they learn from those students and those students, international students so home with a great impression of Australia and friendship for Australia. But it has to be a good quality education, you cant allow standards to slip because you're chasing those international students. So we have to have high standards of English, and a great student experience for those international students.

KELLY: And just on that, finally, do you think the unis are delivering this? I mean some of the unis are RMIT have over 40 per cent foreign students, do you think standards are being allowed to slip, I'm not saying at RMIT and the unis have the balance right, the numbers right, just briefly?

PLIBERSEK: Look, I think there are examples you can point to where universities could be doing better on things like English language and student experience. But over all our international education system is excellent and in fact has overtaken the UK as a student destination and because we offer excellent education there's always room for caution, there's always room for improvement but I'd say to any student considering an education in Australia come, we can give you a great education and a great experience in Australian life.

KELLY: Tanya Plibersek, thanks for joining us on Insiders.

PLIBERSEK: Thank you.