SUBJECTS: Victorian lockdown, higher education
Kieran Gilbert: Let’s go live to Education Minister Dan Tehan, he joins us from his seat in Victoria. And it looks inevitable that Victoria is heading into stage four restrictions to be announced today. Will the Federal Government support them in that?
Dan Tehan: Kieran, obviously, the Federal Government wants to work with all states and territories, but particularly at this time work with Victoria as we deal with this Victorian second wave of the coronavirus. We’re already offering significant support. There’s over 300 ADF personnel helping with the Department of Health and Human Services in Victoria. That’s about 10 per cent of our national ADF deployment. So we’ll continue to provide assistance and support during these very concerning times.
Kieran Gilbert: And if they made that judgement, which we expect they will do today, the Federal Government will support them in that judgement?
Dan Tehan: Absolutely. We’ve got our officials working with the Victorian State Government. Our Chief Medical Officer is providing help and assistance to Victoria. We’re working collaboratively and closely with them as they seek to address this second Victorian wave. And we’ll continue to offer as much support as we can and work with the Victorian State Government. We want to make sure that this second Victorian wave that we can get on top of it and deal with it as quickly as we possibly can, because it’s absolutely in the national interest that we do so.
Kieran Gilbert: Is this the only option now given the level of infections?
Dan Tehan: We’ve got to work and collaborate and be supportive of all their efforts and we’ve got to get on top of it. We’ve seen that this can have a devastating impact in terms of the health consequences and it will have a devastating impact as a result of the economic consequences. So we need to make sure that we can get on top of this virus in Victoria.
Kieran Gilbert: It’s a bitter blow for your home state, though, isn’t it, given how close it was and the nation was to eradicating this virus?
Dan Tehan: There’s no question that these are very difficult times in Victoria at the moment
and I think that everyone wants to see us get on top of this second wave and it’s absolutely vital for the nation that we do this. And that’s why we continue to offer and extend support.
It’s why we’ve got the ADF working in those advise and assist roles in Victoria, it’s why we continue to provide medical advice and medical support and work with the Victorian State Government. Because all of us, for the sake of Victoria and the sake of the nation, want to see us get on top of this virus here in Victoria.
Kieran Gilbert: As Education Minister you would be well aware of the enormous strain on families, on students, on schools, with the return of home schooling. It is so hard, isn’t it?
Dan Tehan: Look, it’s incredibly difficult, and can I say to those Year 12 and Year 11 students who are undertaking VCE or a VCE subject, our thoughts are with you at this time in particular. And just remember, these are difficult times but you have our support. Please continue to focus on your study, that’s the best thing that you can do. And we want to be there to support you through this. Because for all those Victorian students in particular doing their VCE, incredibly challenging times for them and we want to be there to support them
and assist them as much as we can.
Kieran Gilbert: Should special provisions be put in place to support those Year 11 and 12 students or allowances given to them, given the very difficult year that they’ve faced?
Dan Tehan: Obviously we’ll look at everything that we can do to understand the circumstances that they’ve been through and to make sure that we can take that into consideration. It’s been incredibly difficult times now, especially for those Victorian VCE students as we’ve faced this second Victorian wave. So we’ll work with the Victorian State Government to make sure that there is an understanding of the circumstances that they’ve had to deal with throughout this year and make sure - working with our universities, working with vocational education providers - that people understand the circumstances that our Year 12 and Year 11 students have been through.
Kieran Gilbert: So you’ve expressed that message of support for those students. What about the message more broadly to families? The emotional strain of trying to manage the fear, the anxiety, over the virus itself, but then trying to keep your kids on track too.
Dan Tehan: Yeah, look, these are incredibly challenging times. I don’t think in Victoria we’ve seen anything like this since the Second World War. The Government is there to help and support at a federal level. We want to make sure that we’re assisting as much as we can all Victorians through this. And look, as a parent myself, I understand the difficulties and the challenges that our children are facing at the moment. Lots and lots of questions, and we’ve got to be able to, as best we can, provide those answers, provide that assurance to them that the best thing that they can do is continue to work hard, focus on their studies, and that if we stay strong we’ll all get through this together. And it’s so important that all of us focus on supporting each other during this time so that we can get through this together. That’s how we’ll defeat this virus and that’s why the Federal Government wants to stand with the Victorian people to help and support them through this.
Kieran Gilbert: Yeah, and what about business? Because my understanding is that there hasn’t been any direct request by the Premier at this point for additional fiscal and business support via JobKeeper and other mechanisms. But do you think there’s an option there for the Federal Government to keep that JobKeeper support for Victorian businesses at least at that original, more generous level?
Dan Tehan: Well, JobKeeper obviously runs at the current level through to the end of September, and we’ll continue to monitor the situation and we’ll look at measures as necessary. If you take the childcare sector for instance, we put an additional six million into the childcare sector last week for those outside school hour care providers who are finding it very tough in Victoria at the moment. So we’ll continue to work with the Victorian State Government, we’ll continue to work with industry and the business sector to make sure that they get the support that they need. And as we watch, monitor and understand the impact of this second Victorian wave, we’ll obviously provide the support as necessary.
Kieran Gilbert: So there could be additional federal support via that JobKeeper mechanism in the coming months for Victoria given how likely it is that so many more businesses are going to hit the wall if they don’t get support?
Dan Tehan: Well, obviously JobKeeper continues at its normal levels up until September and then there are new provisions in place for the following six months, and they’ll be discussions that the Treasurer would have with the Victorian Treasurer, obviously the Prime Minister would have with the Premier. What I’m saying is, is that we’ll continue to look and monitor the situation, and where there are instances where we think there is support needed for various sectors, like we did with the childcare sector during the week - an additional $6 million for those outside school hour care providers - because we understand that there’s a real impact being felt by those particular providers in the childcare sector. The Government will continue to monitor and assess the situation. Obviously we’ve provided about $280 billion worth of support nationally. The states combined have addressed about $40 billion in expenditure. So the Commonwealth has been paying the lion’s share when it comes to assistance and we’ll continue to monitor and assess the situation in Victoria and do what we think is needed.
Kieran Gilbert: Given the tragedy that we’re seeing unfold in a number of aged care centres, is there a feeling within the Federal Government that more could have been done in those aged care centres which come under the federal authorities?
Dan Tehan: The Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck has acknowledged there are some things which could have been done better, but what we’ve done and what we’re doing and will continue to do is provide additional assistance for the aged care sector in Victoria, understanding that the most important thing that can happen is that community transmission is brought under control. Because that is the key way we can protect the aged care sector in Victoria and that’s why we want to work with the Victorian State Government to ensure that we’re getting the public health response right so that we can deal with that community transmission, make sure that we’ve got the right contact tracing in place, the testing turnaround times are there. Because if we can deal with that community transmission, that’s the best way we can protect our aged care sector.
Kieran Gilbert: We’ve heard many reports, including from the state MP in Colac, that the testing times have not been anywhere near sufficient, particularly in regional Victoria and your region in Western Victoria. Is that a fair assessment, from what you’ve heard?
Dan Tehan: I think there’s no question, we’ve got to make sure that we’re getting those turnaround times right when it comes to testing. We’ve got to get that contact tracing in place, and the response times down. If we can get that public health response right, if we can continue to work on that and get it right, that’s the best way that we can deal with the community transmission that we’re seeing in Victoria. And that’s why having the ADF in there, helping, supporting and advising, I think, is incredibly important. As I said, about 10 per cent of our overall ADF national deployment now is with the Department of Health and Human Services in Victoria. And I think us continuing to help and advise in that area is going to be absolutely critical going forward.
Kieran Gilbert: Initially, you and the Government would have thought it might, hopefully, just be a few months’ disruption for universities and so on. But now it looks like it is going to be a structural black hole at least for the next three or four years for universities, because if they don’t have students coming in this year and next, well then obviously that has a flow-on effect. Given what is looking like a black hole in their funding model, will the Federal Government step up to provide support? Because presumably you don’t want to see tens of thousands of additional staff being laid off in our universities.
Dan Tehan: It’s absolutely vital that we continue to provide support for our higher education sector. We’ve obviously announced significant changes when it comes to the provision of support for Australian students. We want to see an extra 100,000 Australian students be able to take up places in our university system going forward. We’re also now working with the university sector to make sure that we support their research capability. A lot of the money that has gone into the higher education sector from international students has been about supporting our research capability at our universities. So we’re now working with the sector to see what we can do to support that research capability through the next 12 to 18 months. Because that is going to be vital to our economic outcomes going forward, vital for our economic outcomes for the next 5 to 10 years. It’s that research capability which will drive innovation and jobs. So we’re currently in very serious discussions with the university sector as to how we can protect that research capability going forward.
Kieran Gilbert: That is encouraging to hear. As for the changed fee model for students, the Deputy Secretary of your Department this week said he’s got no guarantee that that’s going to work to drive school leavers into the areas you want to study like maths and sciences, to help support that initiative that you speak about. Not just research but the industries of the future.
Dan Tehan: Look, what we’ve seen from previous changes is that we’ve seen a near doubling of the amount of students undertaking science, technology, engineering or mathematics. When similar changes were made in 2007 we saw a near-doubling of students. So we know through these changes - if we put a greater focus onto science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and on making sure we’ve got students studying in those areas where the jobs of the future will be - that we will get the students taking up those courses. And that’s why these changes are incredibly significant for our nation going forward. We won’t have felt an economic disruption to our nation like this since the Great Depression, so we’ve got to make sure that we’re training our young Australians to be able to take the jobs of the future, and that’s what our changes are all about.
Kieran Gilbert: Let’s just finish, if we can. It’s hard at a time like this, particularly in Victoria, to find any silver lining or glimmer of hope, however you want to put it. But I know you have regular contact with our researchers in the space of COVID-19. We have some of the best hopes in terms of vaccines. What’s the latest advice you’ve got on that, and in terms of a timeline? Some sense of hope for Victorians as they enter this stage four lockdown?
Dan Tehan: Really good question, Kieran, and I was talking to the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Queensland during the week. And one of the very positive things is that the vaccine trial that’s taking place under the auspices of the University of Queensland continues to go incredibly well. Obviously, there are still critical stages to go, but at this stage everything is looking really positive. And if we could have the vaccine and produce the vaccine here in Australia to put an end to this coronavirus pandemic, what an outcome and what an achievement for our nation. And that’s why it’s so important that we continue to invest in our research capabilities because it is possible that we will be the country that produces the vaccine to stop this coronavirus. And everything so far is going well with that trial, and let’s hope that it continues to go well, because that would be so significant, not only for Victoria and our nation, but also for the world.
Kieran Gilbert: We hope that you’re right with that optimism. We certainly hope that that happens sooner rather than later. Thank you, Education Minister Dan Tehan.
Dan Tehan: Pleasure, Kieran.