2 March 2014

CHRIS KENNY, VIEWPOINT PRESENTER: Shadow Education Minister Kate Ellis, thanks for joining us on Viewpoint.


KENNY: I do want to spend most of the time talking about schools and education, but a couple of newsworthy points that I want to get out of the way first. Can you tell me what you think of Stephen Conroy staying in the defence portfolio after the abuse, the embarrassment, the stubbornness of last week? It is pretty much impossible for him to stay in that portfolio isn't it?

ELLIS: Well I don't think so. I think we are all ready to put last week's comments behind us. Those comments have been withdrawn. It has been put on the record the respect that Stephen Conroy and of course the federal Opposition have for Australia's military, and I think now what we want to do is make sure we are focused on what it is that our military is being instructed to do by this government and whether or not this government will front up and answer some pretty simple questions for the Australian people and indeed for the Australian Parliament.

KENNY: The whole episode has really highlighted a problem between Labor and the military, hasn't it? Because Bill Shorten wasn't even going up to the welcome home ceremony for the troops from Afghanistan in Darwin on the weekend, he had to revise his schedule at the very last minute. That was pretty poor judgement wasn't it?

ELLIS: I know that Bill Shorten and all of the members of the Australian Labor Party and the front bench have expressed our great respect for our military and our gratitude for what they have been doing on behalf of all of us in Afghanistan. That point has been made repeatedly and I know Bill Shorten absolutely admires and respects them as much as anyone.

KENNY: So are you sorry that Lieutenant General Angus Campbell had that slur of political coverage, of political cover up thrown at him?

ELLIS: I'm certainly sorry that we have spent so much time, including right now, discussing a matter that has been withdrawn when there were and are so very big questions about this government and about judgement and about exactly what happened that led to a man's death in this particular episode, which is where I believe the focus should be and where I think the Australian public would prefer our focus to be.

KENNY: Okay, moving on, you're in South Australia - South Australia the state Labor Government goes to the polls in just under two weeks. Bill Shorten has drawn strong links between that election campaign and federal politics. What lessons would the federal Labor Party draw from defeat in South Australia? Or if indeed the South Australian Labor Government were to fall which the polls tell us it will?

ELLIS: We know that it is always a very big ask, to ask a community to support one government in this case for 16 years. That being said though, I do think that Jay Weatherill and the Labor team here are a good government and a strong team, and what we're concerned about is that we don't want to see in South Australia what we've seen, not just what we've seen in Queensland, not just in other jurisdictions, but now with the Abbott Government, where they say one thing before the election and in Steven Marshall's case says nothing before the election, and then spring a whole bunch of nasty surprises on the community after the election.

KENNY: So you agree with Bill Shorten, that there will be a federal message from the South Australian election?

ELLIS: This election on the ground is being fought on local issues and I think that there are some particular issues in South Australia which the campaign has been focused on. I don't think that anyone is out there fighting this on federal issues on the whole, but I do think that there are some lessons we can learn from other state governments and from this federal government and make sure that the South Australian people don't find themselves surprised after the election, when Steven Marshall finally outlines some plans, plans that wouldn't have been palatable before election day.

KENNY: So you think he's likely to win then?

ELLIS: Well, certainty that's what the polls are suggesting. I know that there are almost two weeks to go and things can change a great deal. So I'm certainly not calling the election now. But everyone would say that the polling has favoured Steven Marshall and the Liberal Party at this point, and that there's going to be a very big two weeks ahead of us.

KENNY: I don't think I'm ready to call the election just yet myself, so I don't think a federal front bencher ought to go down that path. Let's go to your portfolio area and education. It was a central issue in the lead up to last year's federal election, it's one where the Labor Party dominated the agenda. You had the Liberal Coalition Opposition then sign up to your Gonski funding plan which had a lot of talk about education and promises through the Gonski plan, which as I say was a policy that Labor put forward and that Tony Abbott and Christopher Pyne signed up to, of increased funding. Yet there is no evidence is there that increased funding will deliver better results.

ELLIS: Well unfortunately Chris, what we saw before the election was Tony Abbott and Christopher Pyne claiming that they were on a unity ticket, claiming that you could vote Liberal or Labor and the school reforms would still go ahead, claiming that there would be no difference to the funding that your school attracted. What we have already seen is that was nothing but a lie. None of these reforms are being implemented by this government...

KENNY: But they are delivering the same amount of money to the states aren't they? So far, we know that there was a little argy-bargy last year which was embarrassing for Christopher Pyne, but so far they are committed to delivering the same amount of increased education funding to the states?

ELLIS: Well unfortunately, under Labor's plan, under the plan we had in place there would be $14.65 billion additional dollars flowing to Australia's schools, but under Tony Abbott and Christopher Pyne that figure is $2.8 billion. So even on the funding, they certainly have not ensured that no school would be worse off. In fact what they have done is open up the door so that state governments can cut school funding, so that state governments do not have to make co-contributions in return for getting federal funding, and indeed state governments don't have to sign up to the agreed indexation rates. So even on the funding front this was nothing but an absolute fraud. They never believed it to begin with, they lied to the Australian public and said they would deliver it and the moment they got into Parliament they flipped-flopped and have thrown the Gonski reforms aside. But on your point about whether this is about funding or about reform, the issue has to be both. The Gonski reforms were never just about additional funding, they were about making sure that that funding was directed to the five key areas that we know we have to do better if we are going to lift our school performance. All of the evidence here, all of the international evidence, shows that it isn't just about money, it's about ensuring that money is directed to quality teaching, to quality learning, into greater local leadership and into a range of areas. Now what this government have done is said we are going to be completely hands off, we will hand out a couple of blank cheques, do with it what you like, and the fact that you don't have to send it to the schools that need it most. Gonski is gone.

KENNY: They're actually going to hand more responsibility back to the states, which I suppose is the traditional way to run education, the states run our schools. Now under your plan, under the Labor plan, there would be more central control from Canberra. Isn't that a mistake to have Canberra reaching into every school in the country, really looking at every individual school's funding and individual school's curriculum and the way it's run?

ELLIS: I would think that all people on both sides of the political spectrum would agree that there should be accountability that goes with federal funding. I think it's astonishing to say, yes we are going to send these cheques out but we're not going to have any accountability about what they're spent on, and indeed to say we're going to send cheques to state governments for their schools but we're doing nothing to stop those state governments from cutting their own education budgets by exactly the same amount, if not more. I don't think that even someone with quite different ideological views than I have would think that that is a good idea. The other thing is that they are completely inconsistent. On one hand they are saying that we want Canberra to step aside and step out of this, but on the other hand Christopher Pyne saying he's got this dream of some notion of independent schools which he's asked all of his federal MPs to write to every principal in their local area and encourage, it's either hands-on or hands-off, but they seem to be making it up as they go along, making no sense, but also betraying every promise that they made to the Australian public on such a critical issue.

KENNY: If you take the party politics out of it though, because I think Julia Gillard as Education Minister did some good things in terms of autonomy and accountability in schools going back a few years, and different things are happening in different state, generally wouldn't it be a good thing if all schools had more autonomy, had more say in how they were run and what teachers they recruited?

ELLIS: Certainly empowered school leadership is one of the five areas that funding was to flow to under the Gonski reforms. This is something that was commenced under our former government. We do think it is really important that you are empowering that leadership, that you're making sure that you're involving the local community, that you're structuring your learning around the needs of that particular school, of course that's a good thing. But that's not what Christopher Pyne is talking about. What Christopher Pyne seems to be talking about is just a way to push onto school principals the responsibilities that government has previously taken care of, without adequate funding to support them to do so. That's the reason why you have seen state and territory governments of all different political persuasions line up and say 'no way, Christopher, not in our area,' because it is another one of these thought bubbles which is just meant as a distraction to take people's attention away from the fact that they were utterly lied to when the Abbott Government, well indeed the Abbott Opposition said that you could vote Liberal or Labor and it wouldn't make a difference to your school. That has been shown to be utter rubbish. And it's not about the politics of it -

KENNY: Well, we'll continue that funding debate no doubt for many months, if not years to come. Before I let you go though, I just want to get your thoughts on the national curriculum debate. Of course, there is a review under way. A lot of people focus on the need to get back to basics in education, and the national curriculum some say is a step forward to uniformity across the country, but how on earth are teachers supposed to try to embed three key themes into all of their education - sustainability, indigenous culture, engagement with Asia? All good things to be taught, but aren't we making education far too complicated when we're trying to embed these three themes into all of the subjects across the curriculum?

ELLIS: I think if you actually take a look at the national curriculum there is a common sense approach to this and this is about empowering teachers. I think the national curriculum is incredibly important achievement that had been spoken about for decades, that has been delivered, that is being rolled out right now. And we can see once more that this is nothing but a distraction from Christopher Pyne. If you don't take my word for it, take it that he's out there trying to get headlines on the national curriculum whilst at the same time cutting $20 million from the body that oversees the national curriculum - either you care about a national curriculum or you don't.

KENNY: So Labor supports those three themes for instance? You don't want the government to change the three themes? You see those as the three key major themes that should be embedded throughout the education of all children in Australia?

ELLIS: I certainly support the national curriculum as it stands, but I do think it should always be reviewed, we should always make sure we have the best possible curriculum, but we should probably do that through a proper process not just by appointing a couple of mates who have some quite extreme ideas about what should be taught in our classrooms. And most importantly, I think politicians should keep their hands off it, I don't think that when there's a Labor Government in Canberra we should be trying to put Labor politics into every classroom across Australia, and I certainly don't think this government should be doing it either. The national curriculum has had zero political interference into it to this point. It has been done independently, it has been done with all state and territory governments and it's been in consultation with the experts out there, with the teachers, with the parents, and with the broader community. I think that's the way any review in the future should also be conducted.

KENNY: Alright, Kate Ellis, thanks for your time tonight. We're going to keep talking about education on the rest of the program tonight, and no doubt we'll keep talking about it nationally for many, many months to come, so hopefully we'll be able to check in and catch up with you about how things are progressing later in the year.

ELLIS: I certainly hope so. Thanks Chris.