By Tanya Plibersek

07 May 2020



SUBJECTS: Return to school confusion; Universities; Apprentice shortages; Labor policy development; Eden Monaro by-election

LAURA JAYES; HOST: Let's go to live now to Sydney and the Shadow Education Minister Tanya Plibersek joins me. There's been a lot of focus on schools Tanya Plibersek, what is your advice now? What is your position? Should students, based on the medical advice, be getting back into the classroom as soon as possible?

TANYA PLIBERSEK, SHADOW MINISTER FOR EDUCATION AND TRAINING: Look, I think everybody wants children to be back in classrooms with face-to-face teaching as soon as it's safe for students and staff to be there. What we have seen though is a lot of confusion between the Commonwealth Government and some state leaders about whether it's the right time or not. What parents would really like is one clear message about whether they should be sending their children to school. And what they're also looking for, to reassure them I think, is making sure that school’s - the cleaning is upgraded, that the bathroom facilities are adequate for children to be practising good hygiene, washing their hands off and properly. We need of course to be protecting any staff who've got particular health vulnerabilities, if they are immune compromised themselves or they've got someone at home who is immune compromised. I think the real problem here is that there's a fight between the Commonwealth and the state, with some states, about whether that's happened or not. And in that case what we need to be doing is listening to state leaders because they're the ones who run schools in their states day-to-day. But we all share the desire for getting kids back to school as soon as it's safe to do so.

JAYES: The medical advice seems to have never have changed, at least at the National Cabinet level, but then that is the baseline and then states like Victoria are making decisions on their own. Is that where the confusion is, and if the medical advice to National Cabinet has always been that it is safe for students. What's the problem?

PLIBERSEK: I think the Deputy Chief Medical Officer also said that it's important for states and territories to interpret that medical advice for their own circumstances. So it's obvious that if you've got a state or territory where there's been no transmission of COVID-19, community transmission, for some time that's different to a state or a region, a local area, where there's widespread or continuing community transmission. It is important, when I say there needs to be consistent advice, that doesn't mean that every school across Australia has to be doing the same thing at the same time. What we don't want is a different interpretation of advice from the Commonwealth Government and the states. If there is a difference in interpretation of the health advice then we need to listen to state governments because it's the states that are running the schools day-to-day.

JAYES: Okay, a few other things in your portfolio. Universities could fly in foreign students under strict quarantine measures. Is that a good idea?

PLIBERSEK: I think it's up to the Government and universities to explain how that would be done safely. What I know for sure is that if any other industry of the size of the international education industry was struggling in the way that universities and vocational education providers are struggling, the Government would be sitting down and having a conversation with them about how to keep them going. I mean, this is a sector that employs 260,000 people. Universities have said that they'll lose 21,000 staff over the next six months and it's not just, people think "Oh, well, you know, big deal Sydney University, Melbourne University in the centre of town”. Think about the universities that have regional campuses, in Launceston or Rockhampton or Townsville or Armidale, the difference that taking a bunch of students out of those regional economies means to the landlords who are renting to them, the cafes that are selling them a cup of coffee and a smashed avocado. This is a really important export dollar earner for Australia and the Government has completely dropped the ball. It is good to think that they might be in conversation with universities about how we can safely welcome international students back to Australia, but it'll be up to the Government and the university sector to explain what protocols would be in place.

JAYES: There's many sectors in our economy that will just not bounce back after COVID-19 finally does pass, whenever that may be. Apprenticeships is one of those areas. How would you encourage businesses to take on apprentices and what kind of incentives should the Government be offering?

PLIBERSEK: Look, I'm very concerned. We saw just in the most recent figures a 73 per cent drop in the number of apprenticeships advertised. I know I've spoken to small businesses, particularly in the construction sector myself, who say they've been struggling to keep their apprentices on. The Government did early on offer a subsidy for apprentices - that's one small step in the right direction - but this is a really critical problem for us. We had skills shortages before Covid-19 hit. If we lose all those apprentices, if we lose that pipeline, we will just have an explosion of those skills shortages at a time when temporary migration and migration generally is actually on hold. We won't be welcoming a lot of migrants to Australia in the next few years, essentially because we're going to try and keep this virus at bay. Well, that means that we need to meet those skills shortages with Australians as the economy starts to rebuild. We absolutely need to be properly funding our TAFE and apprenticeship program - we've seen $3 billion of cuts in recent years to TAFE and training. The Government must restore that funding that they've cut, and we need to look at we need to look at adult apprenticeships, retraining people who've lost their jobs mid-career. We need to look at trades taster courses for young people who are leaving school who are thinking about do I want to be a carpenter or an electrician, plumber, do I want to go into some other area of shortage like being a chef or a hairdresser, making it possible for people to test out whether they're interested in those areas of study, and as we rebuild, as we begin to invest in stimulus projects, employers really need to think about where their pipeline of workers is coming from. They need to be investing in training the next generation of tradespeople in their areas. They need to take some responsibility to do that.

JAYES: There's a story in The Age this morning from Rob Harris, and Anthony Albanese has warned Shadow Cabinet that post-pandemic, there's going to be a complete rethink of your policies. Would you be comfortable dropping Labor's long-standing Gonski reforms, at least the quantum of funding?

PLIBERSEK: Well, I think Labor will always want to invest in education, including education for the most disadvantaged children, making sure that they catch up. A lot of kids have fallen behind during this period and we know that if kids fall behind, if they haven't caught up by the age of eight they struggle throughout their schooling. I'm also particularly worried about vulnerable teenagers who feel disengaged from school and I don't want them to join the long-term unemployment queues so we will always be looking for ways of investing in education particularly for the most disadvantaged kids - TAFE and training and universities. But look, I'm realistic too Laura. Nothing will be the same. Nothing will be the same for some time to come. We're going to need to look at ways of restarting our economy. What we don't want to see is the same old tired arguments from Conservatives, “we’ve just got to drop big business taxes and slash wages for low-paid workers and that will somehow fix things”. That's not how we rebuild. That's absolutely the wrong way to rebuild. So it's quite right for Anthony to lead a conversation now about what sort of economy and what sort of society we want to rebuild to. It's necessary and right to be doing that but we're not going to just slide into the tired old tropes that you see from some people, the lazy sort of approach that says if we slash wages somehow the animal spirits of the market will be released and everything will snap back. We've got to invest in our people, make sure that we are training people for the jobs that become available, make sure that we're working with businesses and unions to identify those opportunities and supercharge them. Make sure that we've got cheap, clean power to power a new manufacturing base in Australia. These are all things that should be on the table for discussion right now.

JAYES: Now just quickly before I let you go, Eden Monaro. It would be extraordinary for Labor to lose this at this stage, I’ve obviously given you a free hit here.

PLIBERSEK: Well, look, we've got a fantastic candidate down there in Kristy McBain, who impressed people so much with her compassionate, hard-working approach during the bushfires, particularly when Scott Morrison was missing in action in that area. And I think the chaos we've seen from the Liberals and Nationals in recent days, where they can't seem to find anyone who wants to represent the area, where in fact they talking about resurrecting Tony Abbott as a candidate for Eden Monaro, tells you all you need to know about the the preparedness of the Liberals and Nationals to turn their backs on the people of Eden Monaro. They just don't care and Kristy McBain obviously does. She's a passionate defender of her local community. But Laura if that's your last question to me, can I say something to you? I think this is probably the last time we'll talk before you go off on maternity leave and I just wanted to wish you all the very best. I'm sure everybody who's watching this morning and who watch you until you go off on mat leave, will have their fingers crossed for you to have a beautiful time with your with your new baby. That's a lovely time. I wish you and your family all the best.

JAYES: That's very nice of you. Thank you. And I too am looking forward to schools resuming as I'm sure you are as well.


JAYES: Tanya Plibersek, thank you. Thanks so much for your time.

PLIBERSEK: No worries. See you.