By Tanya Plibersek

20 May 2020


TUESDAY, 19 MAY 2020

SUBJECTS: Childcare; university job losses; workers excluded from JobKeeper; Liberals ignore public schools.

KIERAN GILBERT, HOST: My colleague Andrew Clenell reporting today that childcare - the free childcare - is going to end in June, is that timeline understandable to you given businesses are starting to gradually come back online?

TANYA PLIBERSEK, SHADOW MINISTER FOR EDUCATION: Well, I think the Government's whole approach on childcare has been a mystery Kieran. They went to parents with all this great fanfare about free childcare - turned out the free childcare wasn't so great for childcare centres. Some risked closures, others were turning children away because they couldn't afford to look after them under the Government's arrangements. Now before parents have had time to catch breath they're shutting this program down. And today, apparently there was some report into whether this program's worked or not. The Government's not prepared to release that report. So it's a mystery of a program with a mystery report that the Government's not prepared to make public.

GILBERT: It's a very, I mean it's a difficult situation though, isn't it? When we’ve basically got the whole economy shutting down, to try and plug that gap - wasn't that the best option available?

PLIBERSEK: Well, it couldn't have been the best option available Kieran because it was distressing families, it was driving childcare centres to the wall, and before it's properly started the Government's saying it's over. I mean you have to really try to go to the Government to understand what their thinking is here, but perhaps they've realised that this was not a well-designed program and that it's really left many centres continuing to struggle and some even facing closure.

GILBERT: Let's look at the other end of the education spectrum: universities, featured during today's COVID-19 hearings and the higher education sector conceded, and I guess it doesn't really surprise anyone, but job losses are on the way given the current climate.

PLIBERSEK: Well, it doesn't surprise anyone that job losses are on the way, but the scale of the job losses is truly shocking Kieran. And I think if any other industry were facing job losses on this scale you would have the Government helping in some way. Instead, the Government continues to turn its back on university staff. And of course we are talking about academics, professors, tutors and so on, but we're also talking about security staff, cafeteria staff, librarians, admin assistants, telephone operators, grounds people, student welfare officers. These universities are like small cities and they have a really wide range of jobs, and what we're looking at now is thousands of those jobs - the university sector estimates 21,000 jobs will go over the next six months - and we're seeing it happening already. We've seen, for example, Central Queensland University has said that it will close its Yeppoon campus, it will close it Sunshine Coast campus, and it will close its Biloela campus. That's hundreds of jobs in regional areas. We've seen Deakin university saying that it'll cut hundreds of jobs in Geelong, La Trobe university cutting jobs in suburban Melbourne. When you take hundreds of jobs out of a regional area like this, a country town essentially, it has a huge impact on the local economy. If this were any other industry, I think the Government would be right in there trying to help and I frankly can't understand why, faced with the loss of thousands of jobs, the Government is not only not helping, they're making life more difficult. They keep changing the rules so that universities can't apply for JobKeeper or can't receive JobKeeper for their staff.

GILBERT: The Government says they're keeping an eye on things when it comes to this sector. Is there any prospect from your sources in the higher education sector that they could be eligible for JobKeeper because at the moment they're not.

PLIBERSEK: Well, they should be eligible. But the Government keeps changing the rules, moving the goal posts to make sure they're not eligible. And honestly, if I were one of those hundreds of people who are already lost their jobs, I'd be saying if you're keeping an eye on me why doesn't my job matter? Why doesn't my livelihood matter? Why doesn’t my family matter? Why doesn’t my community rate the sort of help that anybody else is having?

Picture this Kieran, if you're a uni student and you've been doing a shift a week at the local bakery or whatever on a Saturday for a bit of pocket money, you get $1,500 of fortnight JobKeeper. But if you're a university tutor or an admin officer or a security guard at a university with a mortgage and three kids to feed you don't get access to JobKeeper. Even though the universities are very, very clearly saying to the Government “We have to lay these people off, we don't have the money to keep paying them.” How is that fair? In what world is that fair?

GILBERT: You along with the Shadow Treasurer wanted to argue and put it to Parliament as a disallowance motion, I believe last week in terms of this, to extend it to the higher education sector. Talk us through what happened internally because it seems some of your colleagues were annoyed that that didn't go through the proper party process. Is that right?

PLIBERSEK: I mean, don't believe everything you read Kieran. We had very strong support from everyone in the Labor caucus and the leadership team, of course, to make sure that we are properly looking after Australian workers who would otherwise be missing out on these supports. So last week in the Parliament there was a disallowance motion to make sure that university staff would be covered, and that other workers who had been excluded, like the Dnata workers who do Airline catering some of whom have been working for the same company making meals for passengers flying around the country, those workers might have been with the company for 5 or 10 or 20 years - Australian workers living in our suburbs, in our regional communities were excluded by the Government because of the ownership structure of the company.

GILBERT: Well didn't Anthony Albanese express concern about the cost, you know, in terms of how much all of this was going to cost and that was the source of the tension.

PLIBERSEK: No, we had an opportunity, we had to move quickly because Parliament was only sitting for a few days, we wanted to move a disallowance. And of course we debate these things. It's very normal. You don't just bowl something out to a Caucus meeting or a Shadow Cabinet meeting and you know people yawn and tick it off. We discuss and debate things all the time. That's healthy, but there was universal support for making sure that workers that have been excluded through no fault of their own, through bloody-mindedness on behalf of the Government are actually covered. We're worried about the million casual workers that are missing out on JobKeeper. We're worried about the university workers that are missing out on JobKeeper. We're worried about workers in the transport sector, like the Dnata workers, who are missing out and we want to stand up for them. That's what it’s about.

GILBERT: Were you surprised that it led to some of your colleagues spinning, you know privately, that this was part of the you know, the leadership aspirations of Jim Chalmers and potentially yourself as well?

PLIBERSEK: What nonsense. I mean, honestly what nonsense. This is Labor’s effort to make sure that workers that have been deliberately excluded from receiving JobKeeper by the Government. The Government knows that these, like I say, million casual workers and a range of other workers - look at people in the Arts and entertainment industry, for example - are missing out. We support JobKeeper. We have supported wages subsidies from the beginning. We don't want people to join the unemployment queues because once they do there's a risk that some of them will never work again. That's what we've seen in previous recessions like the 1990s. We want to keep people working. We were arguing for a wages subsidy from the beginning. What's so sad is that the Government has agreed to do JobKeeper and then implemented it so badly to see so many people just missing out, missing out through no fault of their own because of the ownership structure of their company or because the fact that they don't have a choice but to work casually, or because of the industry they work in, it makes no sense. It's not fair.

GILBERT: And just to wrap up on the school's front because the Education Department said today that the Federal Government hadn't provided more funding for public schools amid the COVID crisis. But isn't that understandable given that is state's jurisdiction the public schools, Federal Government supports the independent schools?

PLIBERSEK: Well, that's what the Federal Government continues to say. Whenever you've got a Liberal Government they tell you that public schools are not their responsibility. Public schools are a joint responsibility when it comes to funding, Federal government provides, and has consistently provided, a share of public school funding. And they're very quick to want to have an opinion about when public school kids should be going back to school and public school teachers should be going back to work. Funding for public schools is a shared responsibility, but what we found out from the Senate inquiry today is that there is not a single extra cent for public school kids at this incredibly difficult time. So private school kids and their teachers have got a 10 million dollar fund to upgrade sanitation, hand washing facilities, provide more cleaning services and so on - not a single cent extra for public schools. So you have to ask yourself: do the kids matter less? Do the teachers matter less? I don't understand the logic of that. We also have a Federal Government that continues to say that some children will have fallen behind during this period of distance education and particularly disadvantaged kids in disadvantaged families and communities may have fallen behind. There is not a single extra cent to identify those children or to help them catch up. There's nothing there for them.

GILBERT: Shadow Education Minister Tanya Plibersek, appreciate your time. Thanks.

PLIBERSEK: Thanks, Kieran.