Release type: Transcript

Date:

Interview — ABC News Breakfast with Michael Rowland

Ministers:

The Hon Stuart Robert MP
Acting Minister for Education and Youth

Topics: Schools reopening; Applying the National Interest test to ARC research grants

E&OE-------------------------------------

MICHAEL ROWLAND:

State governments across Australia have begun releasing their COVID-safe plans for a return to the school year as the end of the holidays fast approaches. For more, let's bring in the acting Education Minister, Federal Minister, Stuart Robert. He joins me now from Canberra. Good morning to you.

MINISTER ROBERT:

Good morning, Michael. Good to see you back again. I hope leave was good for you.

MICHAEL ROWLAND:

Leave was very good, not long enough, but that's a separate story. Let's talk about New South Wales and Victoria being pretty much on a unity ticket when it comes to return to school. Staff and students need to, or are advised to get two rapid tests each week. Is that a good way, in your view, to proceed?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Absolutely. Full credit to both those jurisdictions, the two largest in the country, of course, over half the nation's children. The Doherty advice coming through National Cabinet rolled out that it is very safe for parents to send their children to school, and I say that as a minister and as a parent. And of course the advice was to ensure we continue to suppress the virus at, at twice weekly testing. So it's entirely in line with the national plan and the Doherty advice. 

Working well in terms of how the jurisdictions are approaching this. They've got their rapid antigen tests in place. 

And I'm looking forward to a very strong start to the school year in both of those jurisdictions because, Michael, we need to get our kids back to school. The age of remote learning has to be behind us.

MICHAEL ROWLAND:

Well, that was the point being made by, at least, Victoria's Education Minister yesterday, and I'm sure the New South Wales Government would agree. Remote learning now is the absolute last resort, right?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Absolutely the last resort. Whilst kids have done exceptionally well, and the NAPLAN results have shown that, every research I have read on the mental health impact on our children have shown it impacts, some of them, quite acute. 

We need to get our kids back in to that social setting, back into face-to-face learning. Remote learning is behind us, we're now stepping forward to living with COVID in our school settings, and I think what New South Wales and Victoria has done has really set the stage for how the other states should look to follow.

MICHAEL ROWLAND:

Well, speaking of one other state, your home state, Queensland, has already pushed back the start of the school year by two weeks because it doesn't want students and staff to be exposed to the predicted Omicron wave in Queensland later this month and early in February. That's a pretty wise move, isn't it?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Queensland's vaccination has trailed the rest of the states, who are at 90 per cent double vaccination - compare that to New South Wales who are in the mid-90s. So school was set to start today, certainly for my children, and pushed back for two weeks to give the state time to plan for that. That's the decision they’ve made in line with their vaccination rates. And I'm looking forward to kids in Queensland, especially my kids, getting back to that face-to-face learning.

MICHAEL ROWLAND:

Well, you wouldn't want your kids to go back to school if this Omicron wave peaks in the next couple of weeks, the next month in Queensland?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Putting back the start for two weeks, a decision by the Queensland State Government, gives them time to plan, gives them time to look at the National Cabinet advice and the Doherty advice in the same way as New South Wales and Victoria have done. But absolutely, as a parent and as the Minister, I'm looking forward to my kids getting back to school in two weeks.

MICHAEL ROWLAND:

Has the government been advised, generally speaking, on a national basis, to expect another spike in COVID cases once the kids do go back to school?

MINISTER ROBERT:

The Doherty modelling, which is available publicly, Michael, shows that there, there will be an increase, but it's manageable. And the twice weekly testing regime will allow students who are positive, just as if they got a cold, or some other illness, to stay at home until they're over it, and come back again. So that's the whole point of the Doherty modelling, the whole point of the medical advice. And that's why New South Wales and Victoria are following it and you're seeing that in their response.

MICHAEL ROWLAND:

To another issue affecting you as acting Education Minister, as you’d we’ll know, anger has been brewing in the university sector over the summer period, Stuart Robert, over your decision on Christmas eve to veto six independently approved research projects. A lot of academics, a lot of researchers are very angry about this. They’ve written you, describing your move as nothing short of political. Why did you veto those humanities research grants?

MINISTER ROBERT:

It’s not the first time that, that ministers vetoed grants, Michael. As you’re aware, the legislation from Parliament requires the minister to cast their eye over it to ensure it’s in the national interest, and ensure its value for money. So I made the decision on six projects. Minister Birmingham had previously made the decision on 11, that they weren’t value for money for the Australian people.

MICHAEL ROWLAND:

Two of those grants were gaining- allowing people to get a better understanding of modern China. Why is not that in our national interest?

MINISTER ROBERT:

When you go through those particular grants and what they were looking at, considering the vast research we do across China, these two, in our view, didn't stack up. Likewise, the idea of looking at ‘did climate have an impact on Elizabethan theatre 500 years ago’, I'm sure it's important for Great Britain, but in terms of where Australia sits, there is better use of our resources than looking at that particular project. Therefore, the six projects weren’t chosen.

MICHAEL ROWLAND:

Well, speaking of climate, another one of the grants you stymied was looking at student activism on climate and democracy. Given young people are increasingly concerned about climate change, why did you stop that one?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Young people are concerned and we all are, that's why the Government made the decision, Michael, to go to net-zero by 2050. And the Government is leaning very heavily in the billions of dollars in terms of hydrogen. And again, that grant was looking at, at activism in terms of Western Sydney. Now, we understand the nature of people's concerns, we're seeing that on an almost daily basis. And it's good that our citizens are engaged and involved, and it's good the Government is responding.

MICHAEL ROWLAND:

But the point is, and it's been made by august people like Brian Schmidt who’s the ANU Vice Chancellor, a Nobel Prize winner of course, saying- pointing out that these grants have been independently approved, vetted. And once that's the case, ones the rules have been followed, which they were in this case, all of these cases, politicians, ministers, should keep their hands off.

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well that's not Parliament's view, Michael. Parliament's view, because the Parliament passed the legislation, said that the minister has to actually go through and have a look at it. Now I’m sure [indistinct]...

MICHAEL ROWLAND:

[Interrupts] But should you, I supposed, is the question?

MINISTER ROBERT:

I'm sure all organisations want their voice to be the last voice, but that's not how our democracy works.

MICHAEL ROWLAND:

Okay. Appreciate your time. Acting Education Minister and Employment Minister, Stuart Robert, thanks for joining us.

MINISTER ROBERT:

Great to talk to you, Michael.