Interview on ABC 891 Adelaide, Breakfast with David Bevan and Ali Clarke
Topics: Release of Gonski 2.0 report; Pill testing; Parliamentary inquiry into management of water in the Murray-Darling Basin
08:35 AM

David Bevan: Let’s welcome Simon Birmingham, Federal Education Minister. He joins us now on the phone.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning David, Ali and everybody.

David Bevan: And in our studio Leader of the Australian Conservatives, Cory Bernardi. Senator, good morning.

Cory Bernardi: Good morning too.

David Bevan: And Amanda Rishworth, Federal Labor MP and Member for Kingston. Good morning to you.

Amanda Rishworth: Good morning.

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, what do you think of – because you’re the Federal Education Minister – what do you think of Queensland MP Andrew Laming’s suggestion that we just cut through all the bureaucratic speak surrounding Gonski and just go to our teachers and say; you know, what, how about you work an eight hour day, you get four weeks annual leave and we don’t expect you to do any marking or class preparation at home. How about that?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I think it’s fairly simplistic way to think and the truth is that many teachers work more than eight-hour day. Yes, they do some of their work at home sometimes and they do preparation and other things during their school holidays or other breaks, and there’s an absolute need, though, as this report’s identified to put more rigour, professionalism around the type of training and professional development that teachers have, to do more to keep our best teachers in the classroom and then have them doing more in terms of mentoring other teachers. And they’re some of the key recommendations that have been handed down this week to ensure that those who are our great teachers have a bigger influence across the whole teaching profession.

Ali Clarke: He says though the unions have gotten David Gonski running scared and that this is a soothing approach because he doesn’t want to take on World War III with the teachers union.

Simon Birmingham: Well no, there are some clear recommendations there that I expect will be challenging with the teachers’ unions, which I hope they’ll accept and that’s to shift from having reward for pay in terms of teacher salaries based just on time served, but instead to actually reward expertise in skill level, those teachers who are truly highly accomplished and lead teachers in their schools, and going to the effort to get certified as such and get reviewed by their peers as such. And they aren’t easy changes for the states and territories to negotiate with teachers’ unions, but they are important changes to actually ensure again that we reward those best teachers, incentivise them to stay in the teaching profession, to stay in the classroom teaching kids and reward them to take on more responsibilities for ensuring the practice of new teachers coming into the profession is of a similar high quality.

Ali Clarke: But Brad’s saying: look, show me any other professional worker that doesn’t do out of hours work and then show me any other profession that gets more than four weeks holiday. I mean, with all the different options that are being thrown up for a better education system and a better education for our children, why isn’t this ever put up as a viable option?

Simon Birmingham: Well Ali, there of course cases where schools start earlier than what is the norm elsewhere, that they have [indistinct] around the rest of the day in their teaching. I think we also- a number of times this week I’ve had the question of, if you want to attract better people into teaching why not pay them more? Well, I can certainly say that if we were to say that the number of working weeks of the year for teachers were to change, we’d get very significant calls to pay teachers more. And that would of course come at enormous cost as well.

Amanda Rishworth: Okay, so it’s completely off the table. Looking at their hours and work life, it’s completely off the table?

Simon Birmingham: Well no, it’s not completely off the table. I really encourage and again this report encourages principals to have greater autonomy around aspects of the way their school’s run, the teaching practices in their schools and that can include looking at the working day in terms of how it’s structured, when the kids start, when teachers start. But importantly, it really does go to say, how do you ensure the training teachers undertake is of real benefit to teachers and of benefit to kids.

David Bevan: Alright. Cory Bernardi.

Cory Bernardi: I think Andrew Laming’s onto something. He’s talking in a language that people can understand and it’s a starting point for discussion. I can’t even wade through the babble of Gonski 2.0 or what the Minister said. They keep experimenting with their education system to try and restore standards that were there two or three decades ago. So why- rather than keep coming up with new fangled ideas, why don’t you go back to what worked like teaching kids how to read, how to write, how to do their maths and how to be responsible for themselves rather than…

Simon Birmingham: You see that’s exactly what it says, Cory.

Cory Bernardi: Well Simon, it doesn’t say that. You wade through all this experiment…Okay, let me make this point, Simon. You threw $23.5 billion of money, borrowed money, into the education system with no educational outcomes, no measurable statistics and then you’ve gone in search of an agenda. It is ridiculous and our kids are getting dumber, they’re getting treated poorly. University lecturers tell me that they’re Year 9 standards that are going into universities now and you’re doing nothing to arrest it except experimenting.

David Bevan: Amanda Rishworth.

Simon Birmingham: She’ll say that I’ve cut money from the education system.

Amanda Rishworth: You have cut money; $17 billion, you obviously know me. But I would like to address Cory’s point. I mean I think- and what Andrew Laming’s really doing here is having a debate that’s been around for a long time, why should teachers work on school holidays, et cetera. That’s not the debate I want to have. I want to have a debate about how we improve the standards for our students, our schools and there’s no- Andrew hasn’t provided any evidence to suggest in some way changing the work hours would increase quality. What we want to have is quality teachers. What we want to have is a good curriculum that prepares students for the world ahead. And that does involve money, Simon, I hate to tell you. It does involve extra money.

Simon Birmingham: Cory says too much, you say too little. I say just right.

Cory Bernardi: Because you don’t know what you want to spend it on, mate. That’s your problem.

Amanda Rishworth: But I think teacher quality has to be our focus, absolutely. But just sort of bashing them and pitting families against teachers, other workers against teachers, is not the way to do it. It’s actually to ensure that we do attract the best people, that we do encourage them to stay in the profession, that they get ongoing quality professional development and they have a curriculum that they feel comfortable and confident in teaching. And that’s what I’d like to see the focus. Not on who gets holidays and who doesn’t.

Ali Clarke: Brad’s saying if we want smarter kids, maybe they don’t need 12 weeks of holiday a year.

Cory Bernardi: The parents might need them to go back to school earlier, I think.

David Bevan: But wouldn’t you like to see a system where we respect our teachers by paying them a much better wage than they’re getting? I mean, teachers used to be- it used to be a really high paying job compared to other jobs. You were a teacher, you were getting seriously good money. And that’s been eroded over the last 30 years. So how about we pay teachers a lot more money but we ask them to turn up and do an eight hour a day shift and they get fewer holidays? What about that?

Cory Bernardi: Well, look, respect for teachers comes in many forms and I think it starts with respect in the classroom and the behaviour of children and parents’ attitudes towards them. Respect for the education profession means having more than a minimum ATAR. I mean, you can basically fail year 12 and still go into the teaching industry. I think that’s wrong. We should be putting a higher barrier to entry for it so that we can get the best and brightest pursuing it.

David Bevan: And I remember talking to teachers who’ve said to me: look, when you start off, you’re doing horrendous hours because it’s such a stressful job, but if you’ve been in the job for maybe 10 years and you’re still doing those horrendous hours after school closes and on weekends, you haven’t got it right. You haven’t got your head around it yet.

Amanda Rishworth: Well, I think it depends on whether you’ve had your subject changed or a year change, because there’s a different curriculum. I think we’ve got to focus on supporting teachers. I think pay is part of it. It’s about respect. In Japan, they have a national holiday to celebrate teachers.

David Bevan: Cory Bernardi is shaking his head.

Amanda Rishworth: No, no. but it is about the attitude that the society has towards teachers, and I think there’s a lot of …

David Bevan: What, they want another day off?

Amanda Rishworth: No, no. I’m not suggesting we introduce- but it shows what society in Japan does value their teachers as a really important profession that needs to be recognised. So I think there’s a lot we can do in recognising teachers and the extra work that they do.

Cory Bernardi: And the educational outcomes in Asian countries is generally much higher because there’s more work ethic from the students and they teach the basics of literacy and numeracy, which is sadly lacking.

Ali Clarke: Simon Birmingham, here we go. Yes.

Simon Birmingham: And can I weigh in on this issue of respect, because respect for teachers actually starts at home. It’s not about what happens in school, it’s about ensuring children come to school with respect for teachers and a respect for learning. And indeed – and the point Cory there was just touching on – you see dramatic differences in terms of outcomes, not just across different countries, but sometimes within cultural groups within Australia. And some of that goes to the heart of how much parents, families, others engage and encourage children in their schooling, set high expectations and high ambitions for achievement. We actually do need to make sure that there’s really strong engagement between schools and parents, so the parents, carers, families, are setting the right expectations at home. Because you go and spend a lot of time talking to teachers as I do, and quite often they’ll tell you the biggest challenge are of course the kids who turn up with a poor attitude towards learning, with disrespect for the teacher, and that of course creates problems across the whole classroom and really does disincentives teachers themselves from wanting to stay in the job.

David Bevan: Pill testing. You might feel like you need a pill after that.

Cory Bernardi: Can I say, I agree with Simon. Like, I’ll put that on the record now. He was right on that.

Amanda Rishworth: And I have to say I agree with him as well. And in particular, there are programs out there really talking up parents as first teachers, and I think that’s an important concept that we need to ensure we’re supporting.

Simon Birmingham: And one of these we’ve done is back The Smith Family, to fund tens of thousands of extra places where they’re really intervening as an intermediary to try to create a better learning environment to kids who frankly aren’t getting it at home.

David Bevan: Pill testing: do you think it was a good idea? We’re talking for people who missed that story. They had a kids concert in Canberra and everybody knew that a lot of them were going to bring drugs, but instead of just allowing them to take these drugs at the venue, they could go off to a tent and have some of the drug tested. And if it was a crap pill, if it was a bad pill, if it was a dangerous pill, they’d be told. And according to the organisers, it saved lives. Amanda Rishworth.

Amanda Rishworth: Well, I think in terms of getting the balance when it comes to any drug policy, it’s a matter of – from my perspective – harm minimisation, early intervention, good treatment. But it does have to be balanced up by what is compatible with the law. So I’m not sure what the law is in the ACT, but …

David Bevan: Well, the police apparently supported what was going on, and they didn’t abuse what was there so that people could go in and have their pills tested, knowing that there wasn’t a cop standing outside the tent saying: I think I’d like to look in your bag, young lady. So the cops recognised that this was a harm minimisation thing, and so they cooperated.

Amanda Rishworth: Well, I guess it’s looking at whether you’ve got all the players on board, and…

David Bevan: If you do, do you think it’s a good idea?

Amanda Rishworth: Well I think it’s worth looking at, but I think we need to look at the evidence. I don’t know what the organisers say versus what the actual objective evidence is, whether it did reduce harm, whether it was compatible with the law, and what type of message it sends.

David Bevan: It must have reduced harm. If you then said to a young person: look, that stuff in your bag, it’s laced with toilet cleaner, don’t take it. And they said: oh, thanks mate. And they- now, actually what disturbed me was some of them just threw it on the ground, which says a lot about how they think about their peers. But they did not take that drug. It must have saved lives.

Amanda Rishworth: Well, I don’t think we can say that absolutely, but I’m very interested in looking at whether other states and territories are interested in doing this. What is the evidence around the harm minimisation, and proper rigorous evidence? But of course, it does have to be compatible with the law, because otherwise you’re sending mixed messages.

Ali Clarke: Cory Bernardi?

Cory Bernardi: These drugs are illegal. They’re not safe to take no matter whether they’re cut with baking soda or a bit of cement powder. I think it sends entirely the wrong message, and if you’re talking about harm minimisation and you want to make a practical difference in health outcomes, then you’d start to address smoking, and perhaps the Government should legalise vaping, to be frank, because it is …

Amanda Rishworth: I knew you were going to try and get that in somehow.

Cory Bernardi: Well, because it’s a much safer thing and it would have a proven outcome, rather than tampering or suggesting that we should be endorsing illegal substances.

Ali Clarke: Well, Simon Birmingham, is vaping on the agenda for you?

Simon Birmingham: I have to say that I haven’t looked at the science behind vaping at all. I’ve got plenty on my plate as the Education Minister and haven’t dwelled on that one, but if Cory wants to send us an article or two I’ll take a look at it. Look, I think, on this overall issue, this is one trial event in the ACT. I’m troubled by the potential for mixed messages if this became the norm: that you do end up with a scenario of us saying, on the one hand, it’s against the law, you shouldn’t do this because ultimately all of these drugs are potentially harmful in many different ways and destroy different parts of your life; but on the other hand, we’re going to set up regular pathways for you to minimise the harm – not eliminate the harm, minimise the harm. And we’ll only, of course, be able to do that in the odd instances, but what about where these checks aren’t in place, where, of course, the maximum harm can ultimately result? So I have reservations about this, so I’ll absolutely look at the evidence. Of course, it’ll be hard to derive too much from just one singular event, but let’s see. But I do think that the mixed messages are probably the big problem from it.

Ali Clarke: It’s 11 minutes to 9. This is ABC Radio Adelaide. I’m Ali Clarke. David Bevan is here. That was the voice of Simon Birmingham, the Education Minister. Cory Bernardi, the leader of the Australian Conservatives is in the studio, as is Amanda Rishworth, federal Labor MP, member for Kingston.

David Bevan: News.com is reporting this morning – it appears in The Advertiser on page six – upstream MPs stack key water inquiry; that’s the headline. Apparently, there’s going to be a federal parliamentary inquiry into the Murray-Darling Basin. There aren’t any South Australian MPs on it. How does that work?

Amanda Rishworth: Well, I think it’s a standing committee of the House of Representatives, my understanding, which has permanent membership. And I’m glad they’re doing this inquiry. I think parliamentary oversight onto the Murray-Darling plan, getting evidence from South Australia’s important. I’m aware that Mark Butler is in constant contact with the chair, who is Pat Conroy, but the makeup of that committee, my understanding is, is a permanent membership that looks into a range of different areas of interest to the committee.

David Bevan: You’d want a South Australian on it, wouldn’t you?

Cory Bernardi: Yeah, but if it’s anything like a senate committee, MPs can then go and join it. For particular inquiries, they can get co-opted onto it, I think I read this morning. But they have different rules in the House of Representatives.

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham?

Simon Birmingham: Well, it is a House of Reps committee. Cory’s right that in Senate structures, any member of the Senate can basically turn up and voluntarily participate in any inquiry. If that’s the case for the House of Reps inquiry, then I’d hope that some of the Reps members would look at doing so where the hearing’s relevant. But now, we had good news yesterday in terms of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority handing down an update in terms of the impact date on the lower lakes in Coorong, and showing that 10 of the 12 objectives that were set in the Basin Plan are being met or partially met; that we’re actually seeing improvements in plants, in fish, in native birds that are coming from the better management of the more than 2 billion litres of water that’s been recovered to date. So, it’s more than 2000 million litres of water that’s been recovered to date. So I think there’s a good story here around the Basin Plan. There’s lots of politics that keeps being played with it, and we’re living with the legacy of the previous state government’s royal commission and we’ve got all of those different argy-bargy elements, when actually what we’ve got is a government who’s delivered extra water into the basin, managing it well, and we’re getting the environmental upside from it. That’s the good news and that’s why we should focus on.

Amanda Rishworth: Well, I’m not sure, Simon, if people think that the stories of alleged water theft are good news for the confidence in the plan. But of course, the plan and having an independent authority is critically important. There’ll be a debate coming up, and certainly from Labor’s perspective, we want to see the extra 450 gigs delivered to the plan. That’s some that’s critically important; something that the previous water minister Barnaby Joyce really started talking down and really took it off the table when he said it couldn’t be delivered. We’ve got a lot of belief that that is critically important, and we would like to see the new minister deliver that.

David Bevan: Just very quickly and finally, Cory Bernardi, there’s going to be some more horse-trading over water for the Murray-Darling that will come before the Senate in the next couple of weeks. Are you going to sign off on any water that can be diverted away from environmental flows?

Cory Bernardi: I’m not going to support the next disallowance motion. I’m not interested in the politics of this. I’m deeply concerned about the corruption that’s going on upstream, which is why I supported the previous one. But I’m not being railroaded or pushed into a position which I don’t think is sustainable. If this disallowance gets up – the one put forward by Sarah Hanson-Young – the Murray-Darling Basin Commission will collapse. The agreement will collapse. I’m not going to be a part of that.

Simon Birmingham: That’s a very responsible position.

Cory Bernardi: I’m always responsible, Simon.

Ali Clarke: Oh, you got a tick from Simon, Cory. Wowee.

Cory Bernardi: You can say I agree with Cory again.

Amanda Rishworth: Got a tick from Simon, wow.

Ali Clarke: Look, on that note, I don’t think we can go out any higher – pardon the pun.

Amanda Rishworth: It’s not surprising really. He used to be a member of the Liberal Party.

Simon Birmingham: Well, I hope your position will end up being the same too, Amanda.

Ali Clarke: You just couldn’t let it go, you lot, could you? Amanda Rishworth, thank you very much for coming in, Federal Labor MP. Cory Bernardi, leader of the Australian Conservatives; and Simon Birmingham on the phone there, Education Minister and South Australian Liberal Senator.