THE HON TANYA PLIBERSEK MP
ACTING LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION
SHADOW MINISTER FOR EDUCATION
SHADOW MINISTER FOR WOMEN
MEMBER FOR SYDNEY
ABC RADIO NATIONAL BREAKFAST
WEDNESDAY, 27 JULY 2016
SUBJECTS: Four Corners program; Royal Commission into Northern Territory juvenile detention system; education.
ELLEN FANNING, PRESENTER: Tanya Plibersek, should Dylan Voller be released immediately?
TANYA PLIBERSEK, ACTING LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: Well it’s very difficult for me to comment on the individual cases, but what I would say absolutely is that our first and most important immediate responsibility is to make sure that all of the children and young people who were shown in that footage on Monday night are safe. I can’t say from this distance the best way of ensuring their safety but that’s our first responsibility.
FANNING: When politicians tell us the Four Corners footage shocked them, and when you look at the list of Inquiries that have gone on – headlines on the ABC, views on this program, stories in the newspapers – how can anyone be shocked?
PLIBERSEK: Well I think the Four Corners investigation certainly brought home in a very real way, because of the footage that was shown of the violence against those children, the extent of the problem, the brutality of the treatment that they were receiving. I think the point you’re making is how is it that we’ve gone so long with this happening, and no one has taken action? And I think that that’s a very important question for this Royal Commission. These children have been failed by the political class, I’m happy to take my share of the responsibility for that. I think it’s important that the Commonwealth and the Territory Government both examine the information that each level of Government had and why action wasn’t taken. But we need to look beyond that as well, to the systemic failures in schooling systems, in the health system, in housing. We need to ask ourselves what’s happening in our families and communities that 10 year old children are ending up in places like this.
FANNING: Certainly the Indigenous Affairs Minister, Nigel Scullion was surprised by what was revealed on Four Corners, if revealed is the right word. This is part of his press conference yesterday:
*Excerpt of Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Nigel Scullion press conference plays*
FANNING: “It hadn’t piqued his interest sufficiently”. I mean this is a man who lives in Darwin; he knew about the issue, he’s the Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister, and yet he didn’t act?
PLIBERSEK: Well I think people will make their own judgements about that.
FANNING: What judgement do you make about it?
PLIBERSEK: I think it’s inadequate, but he’s not the only person who has let these kids down; we each need to bear a share of responsibility for it.
FANNING: You know, the Minister has been criticised by Indigenous groups for his handling of his portfolio. There will be calls for him to go.
PLIBERSEK: Well I think he’s been a completely inadequate Indigenous Affairs Minister. We’ve seen about $560 million cut from this portfolio. We’ve seen reduced access to justice, we’ve seen the offer of preschool for all 4 year olds across the country under threat, particularly in remote communities, we’ve seen family and community centres under threat or closing. I mean, I think there are a number of reasons why I would criticise this Minister, but I think it is unfair to hold him solely responsible for what is obviously a deep and systemic failure that the Northern Territory Government should also bear its share of responsibility for, and previous governments too. This is not something that’s previously -
FANNING: Previous Labor Governments?
PLIBERSEK: I’m not shying away from that. I think this is the reason that a Royal Commission is the right response in this instance. This is a long-term and deep, systemic failure. We need to look at what’s happening inside these institutions, but we also need to look at how are we failing kids that they are ending up in places like this at such young ages.
FANNING: It’s been reported that Adam Giles, the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory once said he wanted to be Corrections Minister - he’s taken over that role yesterday - and he said he wanted the job so he could put all the bad criminals in a “big concrete hole”, even if he broke every clause in the UN Convention on the rights of the child. Is Mr Giles fit to be the Corrections Minister, or indeed the Chief Minister?
PLIBERSEK: Again, I think people will make their own judgments about that. I don’t want to use this as a political point scoring exercise, but it is plain that is we have 10 and 11 year old kids in lock ups like this, if we brutalise them, if we deny them an education and then we put them back on the streets again, what we’re breeding are more brutal criminals who understand that if you’re strong and you’re in a position of power, the way you use that strength and power is to be violent against people who are smaller and weaker than you. Is that really what we want to teach kids who are obviously already from troubled backgrounds, from situations that I’m sure most of us cannot imagine? The fact that they’re ending up at 10 or 11 engaged with the juvenile justice system in this way means that they have had years of unimaginable treatment before that.
FANNING: Mr Giles has pointed out that Federal Labor was in charge in Government in Canberra when some of this happened; you’ve said candidly the “political class” bears responsibility. Coming back to the Northern Territory, if you have a Government here that creates a deliberate system in which children can be treated in these ways – mechanical devices – an opposition in the NT unable to muster a really focused campaign to wake people up to this, should self-government in the Top End be suspended in the public interest, because you have to say, if the Top End were run form Canberra, this wouldn’t be happening?
PLIBERSEK: Well I hope it wouldn’t be happening and this is the point – you know, again we are in a discussion, Ellen, about whether it’s the Federal responsibility or the State responsibility, or the Conservatives or Labor – none of that matters -
FANNING: I’m actually coming to the competence of the political class in the Territory as a whole.
PLIBERSEK: I think it’s a big call to say that a State or Territory can’t govern itself because of even a catastrophic failure like this.
FANNING: I assume that if you were asked the question in the Parliament about whether mechanical restraints should be used on children, you’d have a pretty quick -
PLIBERSEK: Clearly no. And nor should the extensive use of isolation be used against children, nor should violence or force be used against children. It is unacceptable - the behavior that we saw on Four Corners on Monday night is unacceptable and it is important to hold the individuals who engaged in acts of violence and so on responsible, but there is a problem with a system that allows this sort of treatment of children, and there is a problem with a society that sees so many children in the juvenile justice system. And frankly, there is a broader problem with our society which is that it is more likely that a young Indigenous man goes to jail than goes to university. This is a broader issue of Indigenous incarceration.
FANNING: Alright, I want to talk about mechanical devices because the Northern Territory Assembly put those devices in the hands of those prison guards. I read the second reading speech for the Youth Justice Amendment Bill which legalised the use of mechanical devices; I want to take you to the words of Labor’s Natasha Fyles, Labor’s Shadow Attorney-General. She never at any point says, “this is outrageous” and this is her conclusion, she says: “clearly the legislators drafting the Youth Act saw the use of body restraints on youth for general purposes and maintaining good order and discipline, we feel that principal should not be let go of lightly. The concerning thing,” she says with the proposed amendments, “is the continuing ambiguity of the circumstances where the constraints can be used”. So, I mean, where does Labor stand on this? You think it’s abhorrent – your face was just a mask of disgust when I asked you that question, and yet, Territory Labor is squabbling about when and how they should be used?
PLIBERSEK: Look, I can’t answer for all of the details that took place during the debate of that Territory legislation. Are there circumstances where you need to stop someone hurting themselves? We use straight jackets for example, that kind of thing in the health system, I would -
FANNING: No, no, no – she knew what they were talking about. They were talking about mechanical chairs. She referred to it in the debate.
PLIBERSEK: I haven’t read the debate. And I’m not going to make any excuses for it, I think those devices are absolutely shocking. But, like I say, it’s impossible to expect me to answer for what everybody said in the debate in a Territory Parliament.
FANNING: The Attorney General, George Brandis said on 7:30 last night he’s got draft terms of reference, he does propose to take this beyond the Northern Territory. Can I ask whether the Opposition has had any input into that process?
PLIBERSEK: Our Shadow Attorney General, Mark Dreyfus has spoken with George Brandis, I have written – I’m the Acting Leader this week – I’ve written to Malcolm Turnbull urging that it’s very important that this enquiry goes beyond the Don Dale facility, that it looks at the whole of the juvenile justice system -
FANNING: In the NT or in the whole of Australia?
PLIBERSEK: In the Northern Territory, and indeed if there is a case for other states to be involved, we’re very open to looking at other states and territories. What I would say is in the short term, immediately, we have to make sure that the kids and young people that were shown on Monday night are safe, safe right now, because we know that they weren’t safe when this footage was taken, we know that the facility was not appropriately caring for them and protecting them, we know that whistleblowers often cop a pretty hard time after they’ve exposed this sort of behaviour, we need to ensure their safety immediately. We then need to look at the juvenile justice system – how the system itself is operating – and what is it that is funneling so many kids into this system? We need to look at alternatives, like the justice reinvestment project in Bourke, making sure that we are reducing incarceration rates, and also we reduce offending rates.
FANNING: Well Adam Giles says he wants to build a new juvenile justice facility – will that be iced while all this goes on?
PLIBERSEK: Well I think the conditions in that facility probably do need to be improved immediately, and maybe they could put a school in there as well so that when young people get out of juvenile justice they’ve actually got an education and some skills.
FANNING: We will come to your education portfolio in just a moment but what we have learned from all of this is places where the light doesn’t shine amongst marginalised people, there is always the potential for abuse and I can’t think of a more fitting description of offshore detention centres than that I’ve just given, “places where the light doesn’t shine with vulnerable people”, should those centres be included in the terms of reference? Children are in detention there.
PLIBERSEK: Well I think those places absolutely need greater transparency and greater scrutiny, and that’s why before the last election Labor said that we would do everything we could to allow better access, including to journalists, to those facilities, and to ensure that we had an independent childrens commissioner whose sole job it was to look after the interests of children who are in those circumstances
FANNING: And that’s a better option than including it in the Royal Commission terms of reference?
PLIBERSEK: Well, you’re talking about other countries. Our Royal Commissions don’t operate in countries that have their own legal systems, so we can do what we can do to shed greater light and insist on greater accountability.
FANNING: Now you’ve moved from Foreign Affairs to head up Labor’s Education team. As Deputy Leader you’re supposed to be allowed to pick your portfolio, so you must have specific things that you want to achieve?
PLIBERSEK: Absolutely. I think education – I loved the foreign affairs portfolio, it was very interesting, I enjoyed it very much, but education has always been a passion of mine and for two reasons really - because the individuals who, you know every kid in Australia deserves a decent education, every child deserves a decent education and it’s the best ticket out of poverty and out of disadvantage that we have. But it’s also really important for us as a nation. If we invest in education, we can be an innovation nation; we can prepare our young people for the jobs of the future. It’s the key to greater productivity and greater prosperity for Australia. So, both for the individual power that education has, and for the importance of it as a driver of our national prosperity, I think it’s an incomparable portfolio to take on.
FANNING: Over schools around the place, you still see the signs ‘Give a Gonski’. Would you ever compromise with the Government over the Gonski funding, to get more funds flowing?
PLIBERSEK: Well, what compromise are they offering? They’ve cut $29 billion over the decade from our schools system. There is no compromise on offer here. They say that they’ve met their responsibilities as far as, you know Christopher Pyne said they’re on a unity ticket with Labor on Gonski school education funding. They said no school would be worse off under them – well they’ve cut $29 billion. Where is the room for compromise? I will not resile from a needs-based funding system that says that every child in every school in every part of Australia deserves the very best education. This isn’t about the funding formula alone – it’s what that extra money buys. It buys more specialist teaching. It buys early intervention for kids who are falling behind. It buys extension programs for kids who are bright and to keep them engaged in schooling. It buys extra-curricular activity – languages, music – it makes schools a place that kids want to be. We are falling behind internationally. We are slipping in all of the rankings – around literacy, around numeracy, around science. We need to reverse that.
FANNING: I can imagine you going into the new office, education minister, opening the cupboard and there’s a little bit of a mess in the cupboard, and that is Labor’s past policy decisions in higher ed, uncapping university places which the Group of Eight want to end, student loans for vocational education and training’s been a disaster. We’ve seen Labor move to moderate these policies recently. Can we expect further changes on those, just briefly?
PLIBERSEK: Well I’m actually really proud of the fact that there’s 190,000 extra undergraduate students at our universities because of Labor. That one in four of the 750,000 or so undergraduate places is because Labor made it easier for kids to be the first in their family to go to university. I’m proud of that. Just as Gough Whitlam made it possible for a generation of Australians who never pictured themselves at university, to go to university, we need to keep extending the opportunity that university offers to kids who will be the first in their family, from low SES backgrounds, and so on.
FANNING: And vocational education?
PLIBERSEK: Vocational education, absolutely. The dodgy colleges who are ripping students off need to be brought to heel and in fact a number of them should be closed. They are money-making factories for unscrupulous people -
FANNING: Propped up by these student loans schemes.
FANNING: Not such a great idea, hey.
PLIBERSEK: No, it’s a great idea for colleges who are working properly. There are some providers, including and I’d say TAFE first among them that offer a great quality, affordable education that people can dip into throughout their lives to upgrade their skills, to get a second chance. The fact that there are unscrupulous people operating in this sector doesn’t mean that the vocational education sector is wrong, it means we have to crack down on those unscrupulous operators, crack down in the hardest possible way on people who are ripping off some very vulnerable students.
FANNING: Tanya Plibersek, thank you so much for making time.
PLIBERSEK: Thank you.