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Minister for Education Dan Tehan interview with Patricia Karvelas, ABC Afternoon Briefing

Ministers:

The Hon Dan Tehan MP
Minister for Education

SUBJECTS: Border closures, International students and pilot programs, COVID-19 in Victoria and schools, Universities and freedom of speech and academic inquiry, Child care, Bushfire Royal Commission, Doha airport

Patricia Karvelas: I spoke to the Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan a little earlier. Dan Tehan, welcome.

Dan Tehan: Pleasure to be with you, Patricia.

Karvelas: Is the NSW Premier’s cautious approach to reopening the border with Victoria justified?

Tehan: Well, look, we’ve got to make sure that as Victoria reopens, that the rest of the country can ensure that it engages with Victoria in the right way. So, our hope, with both New South Wales and South Australia, is that with the reopening of Victoria we will also see the reopening of the borders. But, obviously, they’ll take the very best medical advice on those re-openings and make sure it’s done in a way that protects their citizens from COVID. So, but, our hope, from a Federal Government point of view, is that before too long we’ll see both the New South Wales border and the South Australian border reopened to Victoria, and, in particular, what I’d love to see is those bubbles that have been in place, in the first instance, if we could see them expand very rapidly that would be a great thing for those border communities.

Karvelas: And, Gladys Berejiklian says she wants to monitor cases. What’s a reasonable period of time to do that, because, as you know, as a Victorian, the eighth of November is the date that Victoria becomes one again. So, there’s no ring of steel, so-called ‘ring of steel’, around Metropolitan Melbourne. Should that be the date she works towards?

Tehan: Well, look, that would be a timeframe which would have some logic to it. But, once again, I’m sure she’ll take the advice of her Chief Medical Officer as she works through these things. But, it would be a fantastic outcome for the nation that on 8 November not only do we lose the ring of steel in Victoria, but also both New South Wales and South Australia fully reopen to Victoria. I think that would show that we’re making very, very good progress as a nation in learning to live with this coronavirus in a way that, you know, enables people, as best they can, to be able to carry out their lives as normally as possible.

Karvelas: Is it hypocritical for New South Wales to keep its border with Victoria closed, while insisting Queensland open its border to them?

Tehan: Well, on all these matters what we really want to see is state governments and territory governments listening to the very best medical advice that they can get, and making those decisions based on that medical advice. And, if that’s what they’re doing, then, I think, all of us can understand why they’re making those decisions. Where they’re being made in, where those decisions are being made more for political reasons, I think that’s where we do have concerns. So, as long as the advice that’s being taken is being taken on the best medical advice, then that’s understandable.

Karvelas: Melbourne’s economy is built around international students, partly, obviously, there are other factors too. How will their absence affect its recovery?

Tehan: It will have a big impact on the recovery of the Victorian economy. The international student market creates 250,000 jobs in this country, it provides $40 billion worth of income, and a significant part of that international student market is based in Victoria. As a matter of fact, international students, I think, were Victoria’s number one services export and their number one export before we headed into this coronavirus. So, our hope is that as we see pilots take place in the Northern Territory and South Australia, and hopefully other states and territories look to put in place pilots as well and plans to see the return of international students, Victoria will do likewise. Now, obviously, our priority, from a Federal Government point of view and one that we’ve expressed clearly to the states and territories, is we want to see all Australians home who want to come home by Christmas, or best endeavours made to see that happen. And, then, we also want to see a focus on international students in the lead up to the commencement of semester one next year.

Karvelas: Are you supportive of the Victorian Government’s plan to start bringing back international students next year?

Tehan: Well, we, what we want to do is see a plan from the Victorian State Government. And, we want to work with them to make sure that that plan can be put in place in a way that, obviously, protects Victorian citizens from the coronavirus, and has the right protections in place when it comes to quarantine. But, if they come to us with a plan, like other states and territories have been, then of course we want to work with the Victorian State Government to see a return of international students, because it’s incredibly important for the economic recovery of Victoria, and for us to be able to create the jobs that will be needed to help repair the Victorian economy.

Karvelas: Now, Minister, as you know, Melbournian students have missed out on, really, what could, what is essentially up to six months of face-to-face learning. What kind of work is your department doing around assessing the kind of both mental health and also educational disparity that that’s created? Are you commissioning new work? Is there anything you can tell me about what your department is doing to try and assess what the implications or the consequences of that have been?

Tehan: Well, I’ve asked my department to monitor what impact the coronavirus has had on states and territories right across the nation, but, in particular, in Victoria, because as you full well know, Patricia, nearly six months in some instances of face-to-face learning has been lost by Victorian students. So, my department is looking at this issue very seriously. I’ve asked them to report back to me on what they’re seeing as the impact and the consequences. And, on, my hope is that I’ll have that work and that research available over the coming months, because it’s going to be incredibly important to make sure that we can provide the help and support that’s needed for Victorian students and all other students who have suffered as a result of not getting a full year of face-to-face learning.

Karvelas: As you know, the Victorian Government has announced some tutoring support for students that have missed out to help them, kind of bring them up to scratch, this tutoring sort of program. Is the Federal Government looking to also assist and roll out additional help after you find out exactly where those gaps are?

Tehan: Well, we’ve already provided support in the Budget. We’ve funded The Smith Family to continue their work, ongoing work, when it comes to helping those from a low socioeconomic background. We obviously have provided support through Ken Wyatt and his Indigenous Agency, both for young Indigenous boys and girls, to be able to get the help and support they need, especially making sure they stay engaged or reengage with school. We provide record funding for states and territories, $314 billion over the next decade, and with specific loadings for regional and rural students, students with a disability and Indigenous students. So, we’ll continue to provide that financial support. But, also, we also know that the biggest impact that we can have on students in the classroom, outside of the home, is with how we provide support to teachers. So, obviously, ensuring that we continue to support teachers, both this year and next year, is also going to be incredibly important. So, we will do that work, and then we’ll look to work with both the Victorian Government and the other state and territory governments to see what support, additional support we need to provide.

Karvelas: Minister, just on universities. Would you have legislated a definition of academic freedom if One Nation hadn’t made it a condition for supporting your changes to fees?

Tehan: So, when Robert French did his report into freedom of speech and freedom of academic inquiry he made a number of recommendations, including that we legislate definitions of academic inquiry and also freedom of speech, and we accepted all those recommendations. So, I was delighted when One Nation said that they would like to see this legislated because it was one of the recommendations which we’d already accepted, and I wanted to ensure that we did legislate.

Karvelas: Why did you decide not to adopt the most controversial element of the French Model, which would have protected any lawful comment by academics?

Tehan: Because, I took advice, both from Chancellor’s with strong legal backgrounds, but, also, from others including Sally Walker, the former Vice-Chancellor of Deakin University, and that advice said clearly that one of those provisions was much better being in the freedom of speech part of the Code, rather than the freedom of academic inquiry part. So, I took that legal advice, that legal advice, made by, you know, people who have a very strong background in these matters, people who I respect, said that that particular section was better off in the freedom of speech part of the Code, rather than freedom of academic inquiry. So, it will still apply. But, it’s just in a different part. And, I accepted that advice, and that’s why we’re legislating in the form we are.

Karvelas: Just before I let you go, child care, of course, has been a huge issue. The Government intervened to make child care free for a period of time during the pandemic. Obviously, things have returned, well, to, a kind of COVID normal, and you’ve returned to the old system. Labor, as you know, has been very critical of the current system, saying that, particularly for the secondary earner, which is so often the woman or the mother in the family, that, you know, working more than three days becomes a disincentive. Now, I know the facts and figures. I know what you’re already going to say about your current scheme. My question is different, Minister. Are you going to be looking at that, that kind of cut-off point, and looking at whether there could be adjustments made to your system? Is that, is that something open to you, you’re considering to incentivise women to look for work and to work more days?

Tehan: Well, our immediate focus, Patricia, at this moment, is to make sure that we get the child care sector in Victoria up and running, and build on our, at what we’ve done in ensuring the supports that we’ve provided there have kept nearly 99 per cent of the sector open, not only in Victoria, across the nation. And, we’re going to be continuing to provide additional support into Victoria for some months to come. So, that is my absolute focus, is to make sure that we have the sector fully up, running and operating as a result of the pandemic.

Karvelas: Okay, I understand that. But, in terms of future reform, is your mind open in relation to further adjustments to try and make it easier for women to work?

Tehan: Well, I’ll tell you what we won’t be doing, Patricia. We won’t be providing for millionaires, for people who are earning over a million dollars, if they have two children in child care and they decide that they want to do some additional work, we won’t be providing them with $28,000 to start with, and then increase that if they want to do further work. So, that’s what we won’t be doing. We also won’t be providing a wage subsidy policy, which Bob Carr said made no sense at all. So, we will continue to …

Karvelas: … Okay, so that’s what you won’t be doing. But, will you look at further reforms, are you open to further reforms to help more women get into the workforce?

Tehan: Well, we, we will always continue to look at our policy, which has been very successful, very successful at getting women into the workforce. As a matter of fact, has led to the highest level of workforce participation by females since our policy was brought into place. So, we know that it works. But, at the moment, our focus is on making sure that we’re providing that support for the Victorian sector as it comes out of the restrictions of COVID-19. We know that our system works. We also know that whenever the Labor Party tinkers with the child care sector, fees go up, and therefore we will not be adopting the approaches that they’ve been taking.

Karvelas: Alright, well, they’re not in Government anyway.

Tehan: No, they’re not.

Karvelas: Do you agree that the Bushfire Royal Commission’s report should be released as soon as possible, so people can start digesting its recommendations ahead of summer?

Tehan: Well, my understanding is that it will be released, and that the Prime Minister and the relevant Minister, David Littleproud, will be releasing it. Obviously, it’s just come to the Government. We want time to digest that and then it will be being released.

Karvelas: And, just finally, and, I know this isn’t your portfolio area but it would be odd for me not to ask. It is such a, such a awful story. What actions do you think the Government could or should take over this appalling incident at Doha airport, where women were subject, subjected to these highly invasive medical checks?

Tehan: Well, obviously, this is something that the Foreign Minister has been dealing with and I, you know, know that she will be doing everything she can to investigate this and to make sure that such an incident won’t happen again. And, I’m very happy to leave it in her very capable hands in dealing with this matter and making sure that the right representations are made to the Government, but also to ensure that this type of thing, and this type of action, won’t happen again.

Karvelas: Minister, thanks for joining me.

Tehan: Thanks, Patricia.

Karvelas: And, that’s Education Minister Dan Tehan who joined me a short time ago.