Subjects: Regional schools, bushfire assistance
BRIAN CARLTON: We’re very aware the Federal Government has been at loggerheads, I think that’d be a reasonable way to put it, at loggerheads with the Victorian Government in particular, at least publicly, over the different approaches they’ve taken to schools. Now, the Federal Government is determined that schools should remain open and as many kids should go as is humanly possible. There are all sorts of reasons for them saying that. Mostly, the low rates of transmission associated with school. In fact, negligible, bordering on zero and also the idea that we need schools to open so when the economy kicks back in again, those parents who are currently looking after their kids at home, when they go to work they’ll have somewhere to take the children. The other side of the equation has been teachers, reluctant to get in front of classrooms with kids. It’s been described to me, social distancing in schools, like ‘herding kittens’; almost impossible. So there are competing forces here. And trying to cut through this a little bit and maybe give it some perspective is Andrew Gee who’s the Federal Minister for Decentralisation and Regional Education and he’s having a red hot go at getting us all to think about maybe, we here in Tassie too, because remember our kids are not going back to school properly, properly full on, until term three at this stage – massive internal movement spearheaded by Madeleine Ogilvie the Independent Member for Clark, who’s again having a red hot go at this too. But given our situation here, particularly in the south of the state, can we get schools open a little earlier than possible? Andrew Gee joins me, good morning Minister, how are you?
ANDREW GEE: Well, very well, thank you Spoony. Great to be on the show.
BRIAN CARLTON: It’s nice of you to take the time to have a chat. What’s driving this from your point of view there, just the practical reality that many kids who live in regional areas are also disadvantage, let’s not disadvantage them any further? Is that the bottom line?
ANDREW GEE: Well, I think that there are a number of points to be made here. Yeah, certainly, that is one of them. So, the research that has come out on online and remote learning has revealed that those most at risk - and almost half of Australian children and young people are at risk of adverse educational outcomes, emotional outcomes, mental health outcomes from not being in school and particularly at risk are those lower socio-economic groups - and the reality is, that incomes in the country are lower than those in the city. So I come from country New South Wales. I live just outside of Orange so we’re in the Central West and we do have significant social disadvantage in my area but most other country areas as well. And I look at what’s happening with my own child who’s in a public school and I don’t think they’re ideally set up for so-called online learning. It’s not really online learning, it’s not as if they’re all sitting at home doing online classes. You have to go into school, you pick up the materials and then take them back home.
BRIAN CARLTON: Yep.
ANDREW GEE: And that’s fine if you’ve got a parent or two at home who can do that, who doesn’t have to be at work. Or that you’ve got parents that can do that. The reality is not every child, particularly in country areas, are so lucky, and this research has come from Tasmania itself, the University of Tasmania. And it’s been backed by other research as well, coming out of Melbourne, and so I have serious concern about the wellbeing of our kids and even when they do go back, they’re going to be at different rates of learning so it’s not as if they’ve all been doing the same thing at the same time. Some are going to be perhaps okay, some are going to be behind. In New South Wales, for example, even when they do go back next week, it’s only going to be for one day a week. In my neck of the woods they’re taking it back by house, so there are four houses in my son’s school and he’ll go back on Monday, and that’ll pretty much be it. And it’s -
BRIAN CARLTON: So they roll through the next house on Tuesday, the next house on Wednesday et cetera? Okay, I understand.
ANDREW GEE: Yep, when you look at the cases out here Spoony, we’ve got zero active cases between Bathurst and Bourke. I mean, we’ve got one active case in the whole region, which is in Lithgow. I know when you look at cases in Tasmania, you’ve got, what 223 cases down there?
BRIAN CARLTON: Yep.
ANDREW GEE: The situation is, has eased in the south and I think when we look at what the Prime Minister has said about the economic impact of this shutdown and it is enormous. So when it comes to schools we are looking, the closures and the shutdown of schools, three percentage points of GDP is the hit we are taking from that and that flows through to around 304,000 jobs.
BRIAN CARLTON: Dear, oh dear. Okay.
ANDREW GEE: So there is a big economic incentive to get folks back to work, and yes, we do have to take the necessary precautions. I was listening to your Education Minister, your interview you had with Jeremy the other day, he seems like a really sensible guy, he’s a farmer. Every state has to be guided by their own imperatives but the medical advice on a national level is pretty clear on this.
BRIAN CARLTON: Yeah, and I would’ve thought had the medical advice been substantially wrong on schools, we would’ve seen significant outbreaks sourced to schools all around the country, would we not?
ANDREW GEE: Yeah, that’s exactly right and okay, there will still be outbreaks until we find a vaccine. This is something that we are just going to have to manage. But I think that the medical advice is that kids are not the super spreaders that we thought that they were, and yeah, when this whole thing started we were the same like every other family in going, ‘okay, well maybe just to be cautious we should just take our kids out and follow the advice of the state authorities’. But I think we pushed through that now.
BRIAN CARLTON: There’s a lot of kids riding around on pushbikes and out playing ball sports. Not in any organised way, obviously, but there’s a lot of kids you know, sort of scrumming around and you would otherwise expect to be at home doing some learnin’. Look, just to cut to the chase here a little bit, east of Hobart, in the local government area of Sorell there has been a total of one case throughout the whole period, they’ve had a total of one. Brighton has had two cases, Clarence has had five, the Derwent Valley just north of Hobart Four, Glenorchy in suburban Hobart, suburban north Hobart three, the Huon Valley has had six and Hobart’s 11. That’s the total number of cases through this, positives, through this whole period of what, nearly three months we’ve been doing this? Are those numbers, to your mind, satisfying enough, to open schools in those areas as soon as possible?
ANDREW GEE: Well, look, they’ve been similar to the numbers we’ve been getting in country areas around Australia and some places in regional Australia have had zero cases. They haven’t ever has a case there.
BRIAN CARLTON: Indeed! There are eight council areas in Tasmania that are in fact zero.
ANDREW GEE: Yeah, look, I think we’ve got to start looking at our economic future and we’re never going to, until we get a vaccine, it’s never going to be perfect for country or city areas or the whole nation. So we have to look at the massive amount of damage this is doing to our economy. When we went into this, the debt to GDP ratio was about 19 per cent. Lord knows where it’s going to finish but I do know that our kids and grandkids are going to be paying this debt off.
BRIAN CARLTON: Yeah indeed, and look, the practical reality is that it’s going to be very difficult for your boss, Scott Morrison, to start talking about bringing people back to work if the schools aren’t up and running at that time, in full capacity.
ANDREW GEE: The schools are absolutely key to this, Brian. We’ve got to get parents available to work again and it’s for the kids as well. As you’ve said, you’ve got kids that are, perhaps not all, are engaging in unproductive activities. I said last week, my own kids, they were out driving golf balls at each other from the backyard, last week. They were enjoying it!
BRIAN CARLTON: Well, look, you’ve got to have a bit of physical, there’s nothing wrong with getting some physical exercise in while you’re sort of swatting away at a computer or iPad or whatever the kids are using these days, no bad thing. Anybody score a hit? Just curious.
ANDREW GEE: Yeah, there was a hit.
BRIAN CARLTON: Okay, alright.
ANDREW GEE: It was funny, it can only end in tears but I think a lot of people are starting to get cabin fever.
BRIAN CARLTON: You’re right, you’re absolutely right there, Minister. Don’t worry about that, yes.
ANDREW GEE: My kids are a bit older now but if you’ve got younger kids and you’re trying to work from home and basically home school them, I don’t know how you’d manager. I’ve got enough trouble managing my own kids who are a bit older, let alone-
BRIAN CARLTON: Yeah.
ANDREW GEE: trying to do it when they were younger.
BRIAN CARLTON: Large families trying to home school six kids, which is not uncommon here in Tassie. I can’t begin to imagine. Good luck with your push, it’ll be interesting to see the extent to which the state government here in Tassie responds to it. I think there will be, I think this will be fair to say, there will be some more, fairly consistent pressure from Canberra for the states to fall into line here and get everything up and running as quickly as humanly possible. Appreciate your time this morning, thanks Andrew. Cheers.
ANDREW GEE: Spoony, can I say one more-
BRIAN CARLTON: Yeah, go for it. Sure.
ANDREW GEE: Our area was devastated by the bushfires over the recent-
BRIAN CARLTON: I know! Just so you know Andrew, I know it well, I used to live in Orange.
ANDREW GEE: Spoony, there you go!
BRIAN CARLTON: It was a while ago now, mid-nineties I lived there for a couple of years!
ANDREW GEE: Oh, well you know exactly where we’re coming from. Anyway we had a lot of help from around Australia during those fires. They were out around the Rylestone area, Alinda-
BRIAN CARLTON: Yep.
ANDREW GEE: and we had great support from Tasmania so I just wanted to thank all of those firies from Tassie who came up to give us a hand, we really appreciate it. The locals loved having the firies up here, and I just wanted to extend the gratitude of our region, give some love out to Tassie for all their help and support. I know we’ve reciprocated in previous emergencies, but the feedback on the ground from the work that the firies from Tassie did was really positive, and they were outstanding for us, and we’ll never forget it so thank you very much.
BRIAN CARLTON: That’s nice of you to say so and let’s just hope we don’t have to go through anything like that again in a real hurry. Appreciate your time Minister, thank you.
ANDREW GEE: See ya, Spoony.