SUBJECTS: Attacks in Syria; Schools’ funding

SAMANTHA MAIDEN, PRESENTER: Tanya Plibersek, thanks for your time today. I want to start just by asking you about the shocking images that we have seen coming out of Syria. Obviously foreign affairs was your portfolio before your current one, what do you think the world needs to do in response to this atrocity?

TANYA PLIBERSEK, DEPUTY LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: Well it's a barbaric attack on civilians using weapons that are banned. There should be the strongest possible condemnation of this attack, and that means yes, the United States and the United Kingdom, which are condemning the attack as we speak in the UN Security Council, but it also means countries that are able to influence the Assad regime, like Russia, like Iran, making very clear that these types of attacks are completely unacceptable. It also shows that we need to redouble our efforts to find a political solution to the tragedy that Syria has become.

MAIDEN: Do you see it as a positive sign at all that the US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, took a very strong line when she addressed the UN overnight?

PLIBERSEK: Look I think it's very important that the United States position is consistent. The United States has consistently said that the Assad regime's attacks on its own civilians must stop. I think the greater influence would be if Russia, Iran and other countries that have influence with the Assad regime joined in the condemnation.

MAIDEN: Ok well let’s move to this debate about schools’ funding and what happens next. There's quite a serious deadline on this of course, the current funding agreement runs out in January 2018, what do you think the Government needs to do now in terms of spelling out how it's going to deal with this issue?

PLIBERSEK: Well they need to come clean on where the $30 billion of cuts from the 2014 Budget will fall. We know that this Government plans to cut $30 billion but we don't know how that will be divided across the states and territories and how it will be divided between the public, independent and catholic school systems. This is causing enormous uncertainty for parents, for teachers, for principals. They need to be able to plan for next year, they need to know whether the special programs that they've been able to start with the early years of Labor's Gonski needs-based funding will be able to continue in 2018 and onwards. It is a really complicated thing to run a school system, or to run a school, and principals and system administrators need to be able to say, will they be able to keep the specialist literacy teacher they've hired to help the kids who are struggling with reading and writing? Will they be able to keep the specialist coding and science teacher that they've got on board to help kids develop the skills that they'll need in the jobs of the future? They can't make those decisions now at a school level or at a school system level because they don't know what's happening next year. And it's extraordinary that we have a Federal Government that keeps saying we'll tell you soon, we'll tell you soon. They've been saying that for a year and a half now. Education Ministers meet tomorrow in Hobart and the Federal Government should tell State Governments what their plans are for school funding next year, and incidentally also, for preschool funding and TAFE funding which also runs out.

MAIDEN: I just want to try and walk through the history as I understand it and feel free to correct me at any time, but my understanding is that the original legislation for Gonski guarantees funding for non-government schools, but it doesn't guarantee the funding for public schools. Is it the case that if the Government can't change the legislation, fix the legislation, that the only option available to them would actually be to redistribute the money in some way, if they were going to do it within the existing funding envelope that they'd actually have to take money off public schools?

PLIBERSEK: Well there are different legal interpretations of some of the funding agreements that have been made and the legislation on which they're based, but our view is that any cuts should go through the Federal Parliament, because I'm pretty confident that the Government would find it impossible to get cuts to school funding through the Senate at the moment. I think that's the reason, one of the reasons, for this delay. Now people will give you different legal interpretations about what the Government might do, what I would strongly say is that at the very least, the Federal Government should now be making clear where they intend these $30 billion of cuts to fall. It's very instructive that the Minister yesterday refused to rule out cuts to public school funding. You asked very directly, and [he] refused to rule out cuts to public schools. Now we know that the majority of children with a disability, the majority of Aboriginal kids, the majority of kids from low socio-economic backgrounds go to public schools. That's why Commonwealth funding under Labor's agreements was rising at about double the rate to public schools as to catholic and independent schools. To see that go backwards, to take money away from the neediest kids in the neediest schools would be particularly disappointing.

MAIDEN: And just in terms of the history within the Abbott-Turnbull Government and then I want to turn to Labor's plans for education. They, of course, went to the 2013 election saying that they would support Gonski in full, then, in the 2014 Budget, they inserted, did they not, a clause about taking the indexation down to CPI, which is of course well below education inflation, but they did top it up in the last Budget, I think to 3.56 or 3.6 per cent. That is lower than the original Gonski funding though?

PLIBERSEK: Yes. Look, we've had every position under the sun from the Liberals. We had Christopher Pyne as Shadow Education Minister saying that it was not Gonski but a ‘Conski’ and that it'd be funded over his dead body. He realised, or the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition at that time, Tony Abbott, said to him I'm sorry, you're on the wrong side of this Christopher, it's very popular to properly fund our schools, so they went from ‘Conski’ to not a dollars' difference. They had the posters on election day saying you can vote Liberal, you can vote Labor, there'll be not a dollars' difference to your school. Then we saw in the 2014 Budget massive cuts to education - $30 billion over the decade. That's in their own Budget summaries, there's a graph that shows those $30 billion of cuts. There have been, you know, some fiddling around the edges since then but nothing replaces the scale of the cuts that were committed to in the 2014 Budget. What we don't know now, is where those cuts will fall. On average, that would be a $3 million cut from every school across Australia, but obviously some schools will be more affected and some schools will be less affected than that. Now -

MAIDEN: Well let’s turn to how Labor would fund it though, unlike health, at the last election where you basically announced that you couldn't fully go back to the original hospitals deal, if you remain fully committed to Gonski and taking that to the next election, how are you going to fund that, given that at least half of the company tax cuts have now passed the Senate and, as I understand it, your original pledge to honour the Gonski funding deal was based on, in part, those company taxes not going through.

PLIBERSEK: Well there's two things I'd say. The first is you saw the sort of savings we made when we were in Government to fund, not just proper needs-based funding for schools, but also the National Disability Insurance Scheme, one of the biggest, new social programs that a government's introduced in living memory. In my own portfolio, we means-tested private health insurance, in relation to Family Tax Benefit we more tightly targeted programs like the Family Tax Benefit, we made large and systemic savings when we were last in government to pay for our big social programs, including increasing the Medicare levy for the National Disability Insurance Scheme. We now have a situation where Labor has $37.3 billion on the table from capital gains tax and negative gearing changes. We had a $50 billion difference with the Government on company tax changes. We have criticised the Government for getting rid of the temporary deficit levy on high income earners, which will give someone earning a million dollars a year a tax cut of $16 000 a year, at a time when the Government has tripled the deficit. I can assure you - the only party that is actually proposing irresponsible spending is the Liberal Party of Australia with a $50 billion unfunded big business tax giveaway that will do nothing for productivity. The benefit to GDP rounds down to zero, whereas investing in education is the key to our future prosperity. As individuals, and as a nation.

MAIDEN: But the Coalition says that if your Gonski schools funding pledge is based in part on the cigarette tax and of course, at the last election we were told by Treasury towards the end of the campaign that it wouldn’t raise as much as you'd forecast. It's also predicated on the company tax cuts not going through, they have in part. Where are you going to find the money? The Coalition says you've got a $4 billion black hole in terms of your schools funding over the next four years as a result of those company taxes passing.

PLIBERSEK: Well that's just nonsense and when we present our final figures before the next election people will be able to make a very clear judgement about who the more economically responsible managers are. The Liberals are a government that have tripled the deficit, they've added $100 billion to net debt, and now they want to add $50 billion to deficits over coming years by giving an unfunded tax cut to big business. Where is the funding coming from for their $50 billion big business tax cut? They will not say. We have paid for needs-based funding for schools over and over again when we were in government by making the sort of changes that I talked about earlier. Tightening benefits, means-testing private health insurance, not proceeding with the big business tax cuts, changes to negative gearing and capital gains tax, changes to high income superannuation benefits, changes to multinational company taxes so that people pay their fair share. Well and truly, we have demonstrated how we would pay for needs-based funding for schools, and other big programs like the National Disability Insurance scheme in the past, and we'll do that again in this term.

MAIDEN: In terms of the base line issue though the Government wants to address, surely you would support a reduction - just in relation to private schools though, the Government says some of these private schools are overfunded according to the national resource standard, some by up to 250 per cent more than public schools. Surely the Labor Party would not support that gap continuing to grow? You would support the Government in trying to get that growth down closer to the national resource standards. It's essentially taking money off some private schools that are overfunded.

PLIBERSEK: Well, frankly, I'll be amazed if the Government actually has a proposal to do that. I think this is one more distraction from the Government, to distract from their $30 billion of cuts that hit every school. But I have said more than once, if the Government has a proposal on overfunded schools, we're happy to look at it. Under our proposals, the biggest increases in the fastest time go to the neediest schools. That's the basis of how we approach education funding. A needs-based funding system that is sector blind, that gives the biggest increases to the kids who need it, in the schools that need it. If the Government's got a proposal on overfunded schools we're delighted to have a look at it. My prediction is that there'll be no proposal. And one more thing - there is no way that you could change the formula for overfunded schools in a way that would pay for the massive cuts to ordinary schools, to underfunded schools, that the Government is proposing. So if they want to do it, we'll look at it, but it's not going to fix the $30 billion of cuts that are on the books right now.

MAIDEN: Ok well one last question then. I mean, do you fear that the Coalition is going to put some very minor cuts to private schools on the table to get the Greens across the line, to get some Senate support from the crossbench, to put through a revamped Gonski package that is really just about signing off on an indexation rate that is far lower than the original legislation provided?

PLIBERSEK: Well I would hope no one on the crossbench would be silly enough to fall for a bait-and-switch trick like that. It is absolutely vital that we commit to, and continue to fight for, proper needs-based funding - and that means the $30 billion that has been cut. It's also vital that we fight for the preschool funding and TAFE funding agreements that are running out. We need to invest in schools, in preschools, in TAFE, because that's how we drive our national wealth in the future. And I would be appalled if anyone fell for the sort of trick that you're describing.

MAIDEN: Alright, Tanya Plibersek, thanks a lot for your time today, we really appreciate it.

PLIBERSEK: It's a pleasure.