Appointment of Barry Spurr; National curriculum review; Burqa ban in Parliament House overturned


FRAN KELLY, PRESENTER: Kate Ellis is the Shadow Education Minister. Kate Ellis, good morning.

KATE ELLIS, SHADOW MINISTER FOR EDUCATION: Good morning Fran, good to be with you.

Christopher Pyne points out that Professor Barry Spurr was one of 15 experts commissioned by the review panel and his appointment wasn’t made by the Government, his private emails are a matter for him and Sydney Uni to work out. Is that the right position or fair enough position for the Government to take?

ELLIS: Look I think it’s obvious that Minister Pyne needs to take some responsibility, the accountability line needs to stop with him and there are some very serious questions the Government has not answered about the process in appointing Barry Spurr to this review. It was of course Christopher Pyne who hand-picked his political mate, Kevin Donnelly, and then appears to have given him a free reign to put on whoever he likes to look at individual subjects and have the taxpayers pick up the tab. Christopher Pyne obviously has some questions to answer.

KELLY: But what do you, what’s Labor’s position about the questions to answer here? Do they only go in terms to the school curriculum review? Professor Spurr did advise the curriculum review to focus less on teaching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander literature and place a greater emphasis on Western Judeo-Christian culture. That was his finding. We now know a backdrop to that is this email trail which includes these racist comments. You say that taints the curriculum. Is that basically the problem here? You want that curriculum to be re-looked at, that English curriculum?

ELLIS: What we said from the outset is that we need to have a process where there are independent experts with peer reviews in place look at what should be in our classrooms. We should not have ever had a system where the Minister hand-picks a couple of people because he agrees with their ideological point of view –

KELLY: Yes, but he did not, just to get back to this, the Minister, to be fair, did not hand-pick Barry Spurr, and Barry Spurr is an independent expert. He’s a senior academic in English and poetry, English literature and poetry at Sydney University. On the face of it, he is exactly that.

ELLIS: What we do know is that this is a far cry from the open and transparent process that was conducted by the independent authority (Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority) over several years to develop the national curriculum. The Minister and the Abbott Government chose to go about this process instead of the one that had been tried and tested.

We also know that when you have a look at Barry Spurr’s recommendations, his review is a very narrow attack on his pet ideological issues. At the same time as all the professional associations have backed the current curriculum and pointed out how robust it is, he’s made some really outrageous claims - as you mentioned: that there are not enough Western texts, he’s also said that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have only made a minimal impact on Australian literature, and he’s also said that there are not enough close links to Europe and North Africa [America]. Now when we look at the reported racist comments that this individual has made, it is pretty easy to see where these opinions have come, from and I think parents would be horrified if they thought that these were the opinions that were influencing what their children were being taught in classrooms across Australia.

KELLY: You’re listening to RN Breakfast. I’m speaking to Kate Ellis, Shadow Education Minister.

Well what about the Professor himself, and Sydney University? The views we’ve read that he’s expressed in emails are undoubtedly racist. He writes of “mussies”, “chinky-poos”, calls Nelson Mandela a “darky”, refers to the Prime Minister as an “abo-lover” and it goes on and on. There’s horrific sexism in there too. Now Professor Spurr has always just said that this is an email trail between himself and one colleague. Overnight there’s a suggestion that it was not just one friend but a number of university colleagues and the New Matilda website which found these emails, or released these emails, is considering naming these people. Do you think these people should be named, if there are academics who have been participating in or exposed to these emails without making them public?

ELLIS: I think that we really need to look at the individuals’ rights involved. But if I was at Sydney University, then I would certainly want to know how many people who were in their employment were aware of this and sat silently. I think that this is an issue for the employer and I’m really pleased to see Sydney University is taking action on this matter. What we’re doing is calling on the Government to rule out any more involvement of Barry Spurr in the curriculum review, but also to acknowledge that the process was deeply flawed from the outset. And from now on, we should make sure that any reviews of what’s taught in the classroom is done in an independent manner. That is; set up with independent expertise, that is peer reviewed, which has previously been the case, and that this Government broke with tradition to set up this process to do.

KELLY: And Kate Ellis, can I just ask you very briefly, we’re almost out of time. The Parliamentary Presiding Officers, Bronwyn Bishop and Stephen Parry reversed their decision to segregate burqa wearers behind glass yesterday. Now that that’s been rescinded is that the end of the matter?

ELLIS: I think there are still serious questions about how it ever got to this, and we know that the whole thing was incredibly damaging for social cohesion in Australia. I think there are questions remaining.

KELLY: Kate Ellis thank you very much for joining us.

ELLIS: Thanks Fran.