Labor’s plan for renewable energy, child care changes; Tony Abbott’s Federation Green Paper; Tony Abbott’s school cuts

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Kate Ellis, thanks for your company.

KATE ELLIS, SHADOW MINISTER FOR EDUCATION: Good afternoon, great to be with you.

VAN ONSELEN: What’s this ridiculous policy I’m reading about – outside your portfolio – about renewables? This idea that you’re going to somehow switch to 50 per cent renewables in 15 years? Only if the technology catches up with baseload power, surely?

ELLIS: We know that there is a huge potential in renewable energy, and we know that we need leadership, and we need to set goals, and we need to work on the strategies to get us there. I mean, I know that in my local area, people are really deeply concerned about the damage that has been done to investment in the renewables sector, due to the lack of certainty to begin with and then by those very odd attacks on wind farms and solar coming from the Government. People want some leadership in this area and I’m really pleased to see that Bill Shorten is providing it.

KRISTINA KENEALLY: Indeed Kate Ellis, this target would put Australia right up near the top, I mean Denmark has a 50 per cent target by 2020, California 50 per cent by 2030, New Zealand 90 per cent by 2025. When you are talking to businesses in your electorate – Adelaide, let’s be honest, has been hit quite hard – do they see the renewables sector as an area for employment in the future? Or are people a bit skeptical that it can deliver all that it’s supposedly promising?

ELLIS: Look I don’t think there is any doubt that people see this as a sector where future jobs will be. We know that South Australia has been leading the way in terms of Australia’s approach. We have seen really strong investment and we have seen huge growth rates in the take-up of renewable energy. We want to see that nationally and we need to see a structure around that, that provides the certainty so that we can see investment. We’ve heard too many stories of companies taking their investment money offshore and creating jobs offshore because of the uncertainty that the Abbott Government’s created.

VAN ONSELEN: Can I just move on to another portfolio area, of child care. One that you’ve got carriage for and you’ve got a renewed interest in this; congratulations by the way. What I’m interested in is actually a personal observation. You’re a new mother now and obviously child care is going to be something that you’re going to have to experience firsthand. You are well across the issue from the portfolio responsibilities over a number of years now. Is there anything that has changed for you from that firsthand experience that you’ve suddenly thought ‘wow I didn’t actually realise this’ or ‘I overestimated that’, in relation to what parents are going through, having just had a child?

ELLIS: I don’t know about having changed, but there’s certainly things that have been reinforced. And for me personally that has been my deep belief that we need to be ensuring that we have quality early childhood education services. I mean, I’ve spoken for a long time about the guilt that parents can feel when they’re trying to juggle work and family. And when we focus just on workforce participation – just on ways that we can make it easier for parents to return to work – we don’t recognise that every parent wants what is best for their child. Knowing that you can have the peace of mind that you can have qualified professionals, who are well trained to get the best out of your child each and every day, I think makes a world of difference, and means that when we’re looking at child care reform – and I think everybody is agreed that we need to look at child care reform – we need to do it through a lense of workforce participation, but also through children’s best interests.

KENEALLY: I want to ask you about some concerns you raised last week that the Government was looking at scrapping priority access guidelines, ensuring that vulnerable children and indeed children of working parents had access to child care. Have you had any response to that? And do you have any confidence that this will be addressed as part of the reform package?

ELLIS: We have a whole lot of unanswered questions really when it comes to the Government’s child care package. I think that’s actually really strange. For a long time in the lead-up to the Budget they were talking about how important this was going to be. I mean the politics around it – people were talking about how the families package was what was going to see Tony Abbott regain the faith of the Australian public. They announced a child care package and have just gone silent on it almost since. We’ve heard very, very little about the detail. But what we do know is that there are significant concerns. Kristina, you pointed out that the Priority of Access Guidelines which have ensured that the children that need those places the most, are those that receive them. There is a question mark over whether those guidelines will continue.

But there are some much bigger question marks about this child care package. We’ve seen modelling that shows that 1 in 4 families will be significantly worse off as a result of it. We also know that the changes will mean that there are very many vulnerable families that will lose access and lose support through the system as well.

VAN ONSELEN: One of the interesting things about the current government, being a conservative government, is that they want to see child care – perhaps as one of their options – be something you can only access it if you are a working mum, rather than not a working mum. Now obviously the socially conservative wing of the Liberal and National parties wouldn’t be too comfortable with that. I wonder, as someone who’s probably sleep deprived now, whether you feel that whether you’re a working mum or not – and you obviously are – it would be still nice to be able to keep accessing child care just for personal relief? As well as professional development for the child, quite apart from the need, for the necessary need, in a working context?

ELLIS: Well the other thing Peter that we know is that vulnerable children – and sometimes they are children in families where this is intergenerational unemployment, where there are a range of other issues – they are the children that can benefit the most from early childhood education. From actually being in an environment where they socialise with other children and where they have educated professionals caring for them. I don’t think anyone would want to see a system where we shut out the children that have the most to gain. All of the research actually shows, if you want to look at it just in terms of government investment, early intervention, getting in an educating these children that are at risk of falling behind when they are very young, is the smartest thing you can do to save money further down the track as well.

KENEALLY: I want to take you to the very issue of money and cost in education down the track because we’ve got today the Premiers, Chief Ministers and the Prime Minister meeting to discuss tax reform, federation reform. Education isn’t getting the same level of attention perhaps that health is, partly because Christopher Pyne ruled a whole lot of things out the second the Federation Green Paper came out, and then also just the focus that the Premiers are putting -

VAN ONSELEN: Only because Labor forced him to politically. When we had a Green Paper process internally the Labor party around carbon pricing, it’s just a Green Paper process. Anyway, sorry go on.

KENEALLY: Sorry Kate, that’s Peter just bringing his own little high horse in and riding it around the studio. Back to my question, which really was about this idea that if you can raise the GST and use that as a way to hypothecate money to health – and it seems education as an afterthought from the Premiers – is that a sensible approach? Is it the lazy approach? And is it something that Labor would be open to considering?

ELLIS: Look it’s an incredibly lazy approach. We know that the GST is a regressive tax, we know that, as we’ve seen in the Abbott Government’s budgets, it would be low and middle income families that are hit the hardest once again. People are sick and tired of that. We also know that -

KENEALLY: Can I just interrupt there, because I mean there is a suggestion that there would be compensation if the tax was raised, so maybe that could answer that issue. But this idea that we need to fill the hole that was created by cuts by the Commonwealth by raising a tax – the GST that goes to the states – it strikes me that if we’re really talking about Federation reform, we’re really putting the cart before the horse. Not talking about who’s responsible for what portion of our education system and how they pay for it, we’re just talking about raising a tax to fill that budgetary hole created the Federal Government.

ELLIS: Look I agree with you Kristina. We should be having a debate on who does what and the reasons for it, and unfortunately one of the reasons why I could have been yelling at my television screen at your co-host Peter when the draft Federation Green Paper was released is that on the one hand, people are calling for a serious debate about the options that were put forward in that paper, and on the other hand when you point out why those options are ridiculous ideas and would be backwards steps, then you’re accused of shutting down debate. Surely having a discussion about the future of education and schools must include us pointing out that it is my very, very strong belief that the Federal Government must have an ongoing role in the funding of Australian schools.

VAN ONSELEN: Kate Ellis, I’ve got to jump in there and defend myself, here’s the issue  -

ELLIS: I haven’t started attacking you yet Peter -

VAN ONSELEN: Well you kind of half did. This is the issue though, this is the issue, I want to have a genuine debate. But here’s the problem, the reason nobody takes politicians seriously is that the last sitting week before the winter recess, the Labor party turn around and hold up all these green papers saying ‘Ha Ha we’ve got the government’. Green papers which were everything from ‘cut all funding’ to ‘assume all funding responsibility’, then the government does the same thing to your side when there’s that leaked report in relation to what you’re going to do about climate change. They’ve become as bad as you. This is why voters just through their hands up in the air and just say: you can’t have a debate because it’s all gotcha politics on both sides.

KENEALLY: Kate you don’t really need to answer that if you don’t want.

VAN ONSELEN: Too much logic in it? Too much common sense?

KENEALLY: This is just your ‘I’m a master of public policy’ or whatever it is degree you have.

VAN ONSELEN: I’m just a citizen who’s frustrated with politicians.

KENEALLY: Frustrated about the people with green papers or white papers.

ELLIS: Let’s talk about the green paper. If you want to talk about the issues, let’s talk about the green paper when it came to schools. It put forward four options. And you’re quite right that they ruled out Option Four, which was essentially the means testing of public schools. But what that left us with is three other options that the Commonwealth put forward. Option One was that the Commonwealth Government completely wash its hands of schools; the running of schools and the funding of schools. Now, if like me you believe that the Federal Government’s central responsibility is to increase our international competitiveness and ensure that we have a strong economy for the future, you would agree that that is a stupid idea, and that they cannot be taking their hands off the education levers. Option Two, of course, was cutting federal funding for public schools, meaning that the Independent and Catholic systems were dealt with in one way, and public schools were dealt with in an entirely different way. I think that would be incredibly divisive, it would be a backwards step and it would not be helpful for boosting the performance of our schools. Then, of course, we had Option Three, which is what the Government put in their Budget: the cutting of $30 billion from our schools system.

Now all 4 of those options take our schools backwards at a time when we have just gone through the biggest review of our education system in over 40 years; came up with Gonski Report and the recommendations contained within it. That’s why I’m saying that we should discard the green paper options. It’s because they are all ridiculous.

KENEALLY: Kate Ellis thank you. And thank you for joining us. I think that was a really great response to your question.

VAN ONSELEN: Of course you do, you’re a Labor partisan.

KENEALLY: No. It’s because she dealt with the options in a sensibile and logical manner. Thank you Kate Ellis.

VAN ONSELEN: Thanks Kate, cheers.

ELLIS: Thank you.