By Tanya Plibersek

30 April 2020



SUBJECTS: Return to school confusion; Independent schools funding; Lessons from response to COVID-19; trust in politics.

FRAN KELLY, HOST: Well, as I said, we were just talking about the mental health cost of this pandemic, hundreds of thousands of Australians ringing helplines seeking relief for the loneliness and anxiety caused by social isolation; the strain of losing your job or your struggle to keep your job; or you’re also caring for and schooling your loved ones.

Labor frontbencher Tanya Plibersek has been doing just that. She's been in lockdown like all of us and grappling with try to keep kids up with their lessons at home. And while she's been at home she's also been ruminating on some of the lessons that this pandemic is teaching all of us as individuals, and as a country. Tanya Plibersek, welcome back to Breakfast.


KELLY: I’m well, thank you. I'm going to come to the life lessons that you've drawn from this crisis in a moment. But first, could I ask you as the Shadow Education Minister, what's your response to the offer from the Government yesterday, the Federal Government, three billion dollars of funding brought forward for the independent private schools to get them to resume face-to-face teaching by June? Private schools in Victoria have described it as unhelpful because, of course, state schools in Victoria aren't scheduled to come back this term. What's your response to the Government’s offer - is a good idea?

PLIBERSEK: Look I think the nub of the problem is the different messages from the Commonwealth and the states. The Prime Minister's telling parents one thing and their Premier is telling them something else and it's just driving parents crazy. There's no bigger topic of conversation at the moment between parents than when are the kids going back to school?

KELLY: And so?

PLIBERSEK: Well everybody wants kids to be back at school as soon as it's safe for students and staff to be back at school. It's just not helpful to have different advice from the Prime Minister and Premiers about when that is.

KELLY: Well it might not be helpful, but that's the reality because some Premiers say that their health advice from their Chief Medical Officers is different to the advice that the Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer and the Prime Minister are saying is absolutely clear. So, I don't quite know how you resolve that. I mean, is it fair enough that different states have different regimes? As Shadow Education Minister are you easy about that?

PLIBERSEK: Look, I think it's fair enough if different parts of the country are taking a staged approach to getting schools back and there are some places, some states and territories where we've seen no new cases of COVID-19 for some time. They will have a different approach to areas still experiencing community transmission - that makes sense. What doesn't make sense is to have the Prime Minister telling people in one state to do something and the Premier of that state telling the same people to do something completely different. That's just really adding to the stress for parents. Everybody wants to do the right thing. We just want one message about what -

KELLY: I understand that - but we are a federation. So how do you fix that? What's the answer?

PLIBERSEK: Well, I think we've seen during this time that it's not beyond us to sit down as a group and come to one decision about things. The Prime Minister and the Premiers have to try a little bit harder about having one message. I'm not saying one message for the whole country. I accept that there's a difference - when a state hasn't had any new cases for weeks, well that's different to a state where you’ve still got potential community transmission, I get that. What isn't helpful is that the Prime Minister and the Premier have a different approach, that doesn't help.

KELLY: The reality in Australia at the moment is there's still ongoing transmissions on mainland Australia. I mean Tasmania has its own issues, has its own problems in the North West, but in mainland Australia it’s Victoria and New South Wales that still have community transmissions and yet they've got different timetables for going back to school. In New South Wales, some kids are going back as of today and there will be a phase in and children will start going back one day at a time. In Victoria they're not going back. So I mean you're in New South Wales, you've got children - are you easy about sending your kids back to school in New South Wales, even though the health advice in Victoria and Queensland at this point seem to be different?

PLIBERSEK: I don't think it's kind of right to ask me as one parent how do I feel about this. The simple fact is all of us should be following the advice of our medical experts. And Premiers run the school system day-to-day, so Premiers have made - the New South Wales Premier has made clear that the children of key workers or other vulnerable kids have been welcomed at school the whole way through and that we're looking at a phased return. I would be looking to the advice of each state Premier because they're the ones that run the school systems day-to-day, but even the fact that we're having this conversation in this way shows how confusing and how difficult it is, for parents I mean. I really think instead of bribing or potentially bullying, it's important that the Prime Minister sit down with the Premiers and try and come to one message to parents about when their schools in their state will be going back.

KELLY: You're listening to RN Breakfast. Our guest is Shadow Education Minister Tanya Plibersek. Tanya Plibersek you've been trying to use some of this, you know time, forced quiet time for some of us - not so quiet time for some of us with all the kids at home I agree - but to look at some longer lessons, some longer take outs from this pandemic in terms of how our governments have responded, in terms of how our community our society has responded. What's your number one take out?

PLIBERSEK: Well Fran, before we get onto that, it actually has not been a quiet time for Members of Parliament because we have experienced absolutely unprecedented volumes of people phoning and emailing for help. We haven't been able to do the same face to face things that we normally do, but the number of people who are unemployed, the businesses that are going under, people who don't know whether they're going to be able to pay the rent and whether they'll have a roof over their heads if they can't - that has been an absolutely unprecedented. And just the size of this pandemic, the economic impact, the size of the impact has meant that I have, as many people have, started to think about what kind of society, what kind of economy do we want as we rebuild? So many people have lost their jobs and we are really going to need to think about how we get those people back to work. One of the most important messages of course, is that the unions and the government and employers have been able to work together to support people through this time and to keep them working. That's a very important lesson, we need to do more of that.

We've learnt that people are prepared to sacrifice for each other. People used to look wistfully back at a day when we supported each other and had strong community bond, we’ve had some bad behaviour obviously, but we've seen very, very much of the opposite as well - people reaching out to strangers to try and help them. We've learned that our Universal Health System is 100% the best way to go. Countries around the world that might have very fine parts of their health system but aren't universal, have still seen the spread of the virus because if people can't afford testing, if they can't afford treatment, if they have to keep working, they keep spreading COVID-19. So it's the universality as well as the quality of our health system that's important. We've seen a lot of bipartisanship, even beyond bipartisanship. I think it's been great to see that and to see how well people respond to people, you know politicians, focusing on what matters and trying to come to a consensus on a way forward.

KELLY: Just on that - can I just interrupt you there? We are having trouble with your line, so we're probably going to have to wind this up soon. But just on that notion of bipartisanship and the high standing we're seeing through the polls so far for not just for the Prime Minister but also the state and territory leaders in their home states. There seems to be a real hunger for information and a real trust in what our governments are, how they're working together that bipartisanship you talked about, and what they're delivering. Up until this point we've been talking for years now about a trust deficit in politics. So what is the lesson here to try? Is there a lasting thing here do you think, in terms of restoring the trust from Australians more broadly in their in their politicians?

PLIBERSEK: Well I think there's two reasons for the increase in trust – the first is there's been a lot of bipartisanship on a lot of the measures that have been taken. The Government responded when Labor called for a wage subsidy, they responded and of course we are happy to support that. But the other difference Fran, and I think the other reason that we we've got high levels of trust in the community at the moment is we're relying on the advice of experts. We've got fantastic scientific researchers and medical researchers in Australia, epidemiologist doctors and other health professionals who are guiding us through the health impacts of this. And so people are reassured by that, they don't see their political leaders playing politics on any of these issues. That's what's restored faith and I would love to see that approach when it comes to the other huge issues that face us - like rebuilding after the recent bushfires. And also, of course the great conundrum that we haven't been able to solve in Australia in recent years - how do we get cheaper energy that will support our economy as it, we hope, grows back after this crisis?

KELLY: All right, Tanya Plibersek we are having a lot of trouble your line. I'm sorry about that. Thank you very much for joining us.

PLIBERSEK: Thank you.