28 August 2019




SUBJECTS: NAPLAN results; Universities; Yang Hengjun; NSW ICAC.

JANE NORMAN, PRESENTER: Well to get Federal Labor's perspective. I'm joined from our Sydney Studio by the Shadow Education Minister Tanya Plibersek. Thank you for joining me today.


NORMAN:So, what do you make of this criticism of the NAPLAN test? It should be said it's been around for years now, but opponents are calling for the test itself to be either scrapped or redesigned. Do you think that that's a fair call?

PLIBERSEK: Well look Labor does support reviewing the NAPLAN tests, after 10 years it's appropriate to see whether it's still as good as it should be. Whether we're testing the right things, whether we're reporting the results in the right way and looking at issues like the online test delivery and the problems with the online delivery of the test in recent years. We do need to make sure that this test continues to be fit for purpose. But we do also say that it is very important to have transparency, to make sure that across our school system our students are getting the education they deserve. And the worrying thing about these most recent results is that the Federal government has done nothing to reverse the decline in education standards across Australia. It's not just NAPLAN that's suggesting that we're not keeping up with other nations around the world. Its other international tests that our students sit like PISA and TIMSS. All of these are showing a worrying trend that we are failing to reverse the declines in education we've seen. And what's really vital about these tests is that they're testing the basics. If kids can't read and write, if they can't do maths, then all of the other rich and diverse educational experiences we want to offer them, they just don't work as well. We need to make sure that kids have the basics under their belts before they go on to do the more complex learning that we want for them as they get older.

NORMAN: What do you make of some of the ideas that have been thrown up by your Victorian counterpart? He suggested that we shouldn't be testing Year Nines because, according to the Victorian Education Minister, they are the most sort of disengaged year of students. And he's also suggested putting up jobs certificates so that once the students of Year Nine finish their NAPLAN tests those results can then be shown to future employers. Would these kind of ideas help?

PLIBERSEK: Look, I think we should be open to all new ideas when we're talking about NAPLAN. We need to retain the ability to make sure that our systems aren't letting kids down. So we do need this sort of testing, but we should be open to reforming it. I'm sort of smiling because I've got a Year Nine son at home, so I kind of sympathise with what James Merlino's saying about Year Nine and I remember myself being horrible in Year Nine. So I think it is an age where kids are very focused on their peer group rather than focused on their school work. But what we need are really robust time-series data that show across big systems are we getting this right? Are we using the evidence of what works in our classroom? We know that there are some schools and some systems that are doing really well. They're identifying kids who are falling behind early and they're investing in those kids and they're getting them up to speed. We need to make sure that that's happening in every classroom, that those examples of excellence become widespread across our system. We need to make sure we're investing appropriately. We keep asking our hard-working teachers to do more with less funding. And we need to make sure that we're attracting the best and brightest into teaching as a career. We've seen under this Government a continued slide in entry standards for teaching degrees at university as well. Top performing systems around the world take their teachers from the top 30 per cent of academic achievers, and we're not doing that. And we're also not keeping our best teachers in the classroom. We're making the job more and more bureaucratic, and many experienced teachers are throwing their hands up in despair. So we've got a big job of reform to do nationally. It would be terrific if our Federal Education Minister today had answered some of these questions, but of course he hasn't.

NORMAN: Well, Dan Tehan, the Education Minister, was at the Press Club today and the sort of headline of his speech was announcing this new task force for universities to work with our national security agencies and bureaucrats to counter foreign interference on their campuses. Do you think that this is an overdue measure?

PLIBERSEK: Look I've seen what the universities have had to say about this over some time and they do take advice from national security agencies about making sure, for example, that their computer systems are robust, that they are countering any efforts of foreign interference, that they're protecting their intellectual property and freedom of speech and academic debate on campuses. But it's not, I don't see this as a partisan issue. If the Government has further suggestions that they want to make to the universities to strengthen the efforts universities are making, then by all means universities should cooperate with our security agencies and certainly, you know, there's no party political issue with this, Labor's happy to work with the Government on any provisions that they might take to strengthen these protections on universities. It's not something that is standardly raised with me by universities. It's certainly not something that's commonly raised by academics or students or parents at universities. But like I say, if the Government's got measures that they want to take we are happy to have a look at them.

NORMAN: Well the Australian National University here in Canberra was recently targeted by a massive cyber security breach. The personal details of something like 200,000 current and former staff and students was stolen. Now, there are reports that was China but nobody has attributed this attack. In the interests of transparency for these people whose information has been accessed, do you think that we need to be naming the culprit in these cases?

PLIBERSEK: Look I'm not sure of the details of that case. I don't know whether I could fairly comment on individual cases like that. What I would say is it is important to have robust systems - any large organisation that deals with people's personal information including identifying information like birthdays and addresses and so on - should have robust cyber security measures in place. And if there is further advice that our security agencies can give our universities about the robustness of their cyber security, by all means that should happen.

NORMAN: We've recently seen in light of the Hong Kong protests some tensions really on display on university campuses with some protests that have been happening, pro-democracy demonstrators targeted by pro-Chinese activists and as I mentioned a bit earlier in the show at the UTS, there were posters put up around campus in Mandarin, which when translated said "Take back your Hong Kong independence speech if you don't want to die". So these are some pretty menacing statements being made. If you were the Education Minister, how would you handle these kind of overt signs of influence?

PLIBERSEK: Well, I think the first thing we should be clear about is one of the great benefits of an Australian university education is the example that we can set students from around the world and around our region of polite disagreement. It's perfectly proper for people in universities to have robust debates. In fact, you're really missing out on something if you don't have some of these passionate arguments at University - about foreign policy, about social policy, about politics, about economics - whatever it's about, of course universities are a place where people should be able to disagree. But we need to disagree better, and in our own Australian community we've seen a lot of polarised debate in recent times, a lot of extreme language. What we can offer university students from around our region and around the world,I hope, is an example of robust but healthy disagreement on our campuses and I think it's important that we have an environment where people can feel safe to frankly state their case, to be heard, to be disagreed with, and then to know that their views are respected.

NORMAN: Is the difference here though, Tanya Plibersek, that of course universities should be a place for robust debate, that the allegations here that it's a foreign government, and in this case China, being accused of influencing the debates that are happening here in Australia via their diaspora?

PLIBERSEK: Look again, I don't want to make individual comments about individual universities or countries because I simply don't have that evidence available to me. A lot of people have made a lot of suggestions about this. I can only speak in the general and say in the general, that no other government should be seeking to influence debate or policy or academic research or freedom or speech on our Australian university campuses.

NORMAN: All right well just sticking and with foreign affairs for a moment, Australian author/academic Yang Hengjun has been arrested in our charged in China with some pretty serious offences that carry the death penalty. Obviously you're in Opposition, but how do you think the government has handled this case? Is there a case to be made that the government should have been more vocal in its opposition to what China has done?

PLIBERSEK: Well Labor wants to offer the Government every support in its diplomatic efforts to ensure that Mr Yang is appropriately dealt with, that he gets a fair trial. I think it's very important that the government's diplomatic efforts are not compromised by a lot of public commentary on this. We support the Government in their efforts to make sure that Mr Yang and every Australian citizen in similar circumstances is offered every diplomatic support.

NORMAN: All right, Tanya Plibersek, just finishing off on a domestic matter, and that is the ICAC hearings in Sydney. You're from the New South Wales Branch of the Labor Party so it would be remiss of me not to ask, but we have heard some pretty explosive allegations this week of money being handed over by a donor to the New South Wales Labor Party, I think it was about $100,000. Obviously the investigation is ongoing but how worried are you about the potential for these claims to really damage the Labor Party?

PLIBERSEK: Well, I'd first of all say that I have always been a strong supporter of an independent corruption commission in New South Wales, and I'm a strong supporter of having a Federal corruption commission with real teeth, not the kind of half-hearted things that have been discussed by the government. I think we should have stronger donation disclosure laws. We should lower the threshold not raise it, as the Federal Liberal government has done, and we should make sure that disclosures happen much sooner after donations are made. Absolutely no one is above the law and we'll let these legal processes take their course, let the ICAC processes take their course and then any other legal issues that might arise from that but no Party is immune from this sort of scrutiny. We've certainly seen other political parties with their fair share of questions to answer and we're no different.

NORMAN: Well just sticking on that for a moment, the New South Wales Labor General Secretary Kaila Murnain is actually appearing right now before those hearings. The allegations are that she at least knew of this handover of cash, which perhaps wasn't fully proper. If the allegations are proven to be correct as they've been presented to the ICAC hearings, should Kaila Murnain be standing down from her position in the Labor Party?

PLIBERSEK: Look I'm not going to make comments. You wouldn't expect me to make comments about an ongoing matter that is currently before ICAC. All I can say, in the most general terms, is I'm pleased that we have these sorts of opportunities to air these sorts of serious allegations because what really matters, what really matters in the long term, is that Australians are able to have faith in their democratic processes and their democratic institutions, and however hard these types of investigations are at the time, in the long run, we need to know that we have a New South Wales ICAC with teeth and that we should have a Federal ICAC with similar powers to give us the faith that our democratic institutions are robust and corruption-free.

NORMAN: All right, Tanya Plibersek, we will have to leave it there but thank you for your time today.

PLIBERSEK: It's a pleasure Jane. Thank you.