SUBJECTS: NAPLAN tests; Dr Yang Hengjun; Australia-China relations; Australia Hong Kong Free Trade Agreement.
ABC MELBOURNE POLLIE-GRAPH
WEDNESDAY, 28 AUGUST 2019
SUBJECTS: NAPLAN tests; Dr Yang Hengjun; Australia-China relations; Australia Hong Kong Free Trade Agreement.
RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Joining us in the studio is Alan Tudge, he’s the Minister for, Cities, Urban Infrastructure and Population and he’s the Liberal MP for the seat of Aston. How are you going Alan?
ALAN TUDGE: G’day Raff, pretty well thanks.
EPSTEIN: Good to have you here. And Mark Dreyfus is with us, he is the Shadow Attorney-General and the Labor MP for the seat of Isaacs. Hello Mark.
MARK DREYFUS, SHADOW ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Good to be with you. Hello Alan.
EPSTEIN: We will get on to China in a moment. NAPLAN results are out. Often contentious, some parts of it are good other parts of it are bad. The Deputy Premier James Merlino, who is the Education Minister as well, he says maybe the Year Nine results are bad because Year Nine students don’t really care about the tests. This is what he said to Jon Faine this morning.
MERLINO: Principals and teachers and parents, particularly parents know that that’s the age group where kids are least engaged in their education. That’s the hardest group to engage and principals and teachers are telling me that Year Nine students don’t see the relevance of their Year Nine test and aren’t taking it seriously and I think the results that we are seeing in Year Nine doesn’t reflect their capability or the quality of the teaching that is happening.
EPSTEIN: Alan Tudge I’ll ask you first because you’ve got a kid in Year Nine. James Merlino says Year Nine students don’t see the relevance in the test and aren’t taking it seriously. Is he right?
TUDGE: I don’t agree with what he said and in part because the Year Nines have been tested for many years now and the issue with the Year Nine test results this year is that some of them were below where they were in 2011. So they were probably disinterested in 2011 and disinterested now and we are seeing a decline in that standard. So I think that is the real issue. I don’t think we should assume the test is wrong or we shouldn’t do the testing. We should actually unpack what is going on and see if we can lift the overall performance.
EPSTEIN: What do you think is going on?
TUDGE: It’s very difficult to know. That’s what really needs to be unpacked. It’s not a lack of school funding because school funding has been increased over the last decade. We’ve shrunk the class sizes. I think most of the academics say, effectively, that school results are primarily due to the engagement of parents, the effectiveness of the teachers and the effectiveness of the curriculum and so we have got to ensure that we continue to work on those three things.
EPSTEIN: Mark, are the students not taking it seriously?
DREYFUS: I don’t have a child in Year Nine any more, but notoriously people say that Year Nine students are difficult to teach.
EPSTEIN: That’s why the schools have programmes in Year Nine, yes.
DREYFUS: We went to the last election with a commitment to review NAPLAN. I think we can have a sensible conversation about how we test, what we test. James Merlino is introducing another element saying it’s when we test. We must, however, I think, continue to have a test.
EPSTEIN: So you need the test? You wouldn’t get rid of the test?
DREYFUS: Certainly not that is not going to be Labor policy.
EPSTEIN: Why do you think it’s useful?
DREYFUS: I think it is useful because we can measure the way in which, at a moment in time, our kids are learning and progressing at school. I think that is very important.
EPSTEIN: It doesn’t distort the curriculum at this point in time?
DREYFUS: I don’t think that’s been the evidence. I think that measurement is important. That’s why there are these PISA tests, there’s a whole range of other international comparisons that are useful for measuring what is going on in our schools, to see whether they are measuring up against world standards. That is important.
EPSTEIN: And Alan says we have spent tons more so it is not a matter of funding? We have actually spent more on the system?
DREYFUS: We introduced need-based funding when Labor was last in government. Regrettably in the first year of the Liberal Government we saw billions ripped away from needs-based funding and they haven’t been put back. It’s now the third term of a Liberal Government and they still haven’t put back the billions that they ripped out of needs-based funding.
EPSTEIN: They did say under Malcolm Turnbull they brought in Gonski 2.0. David Gonski was a fan? The mechanism, he liked the mechanism.
DREYFUS: That’s just saying that Malcolm Turnbull committed to needs-based funding but they have still ripped billions out of funding of education. The Commonwealth is not doing what it should be doing which is committing more funds.
EPSTEIN: I will ask Alan Tudge about that. Brendan has called from Surrey Hills.
TUDGE: I was so polite I didn’t interrupt.
DREYFUS: That’s excellent Alan.
EPSTEIN: And you’ll get your go. Brendan’s in Surrey Hills. What do you want to say Brendan?
BRENDAN: Raff, just a note to you as a journalist, you’re not going to get a straight answer out of these guys because they’re politicians. You’re a journalist, you are going to have to do your research. Let’s not talk generally about NAPLAN. It’s a complete red herring. It’s a complete red herring. If we are relying on politicians to improve the education system we’re in deep trouble.
EPSTEIN: So what’s the big issue for you then Brendan. Here’s your chance
BRENDAN: Let’s talk about the funding. What is actually the funding?
EPSTEIN: What are you worried about?
BRENDAN: We’re talking about NAPLAN.
EPSTEIN: Okay Brendan here’s your chance because there’s two parts of the funding. There is the way we fund schools because the Federal Government tops up a whole lot of private schools…..
BRENDAN: They’re not starting from zero are they? They’re not topping up. Let’s talk about the actual money that’s going per student in a private school, per student in a Catholic school. So, we’re going to start with millions and then we’re going to top it up more. What are the elite schools getting funded, what are they getting funded for? We can’t fix downpipes and windows in a government school.
EPSTEIN: Let me raise that with a Government representative. He’s not the Education Minister, but Alan Tudge we’re spending more on the system. There was a really interesting ABC investigation the other day that if you look at the capital expenditure the top four rich schools in the country are spending more on their capital expenditure then something like the bottom 10 per cent of schools. Why do we top up a private school that’s got a healthy endowment and healthy balance sheet? Why are we giving them more money?
TUDGE: So those private schools wouldn’t get a single cent of capital funding. That would be all parental contributions and parents are entitled to spend their money on their school if they want to spend money at the school.
Let me say a couple of points. Firstly school funding is important but clearly it’s not the major driver of school performance otherwise you’d see a direct correlation between how much money a school is getting and its performance and you don’t see that. Furthermore, school funding has massively increased, even under our government, from what was about $13 billion when we first came to office to now we’re spending over $20 billion a year.
EPSTEIN: Has it gone up per student?
TUDGE: Yes it’s gone up per student like a massive amount in real terms. In relation to the public-private debate and I don’t think this is directly relevant to the school standards issue but I will say that for a very long time we’ve had the system whereby the state government is the predominant funder of government schools.
EPSTEIN: That’s what I meant by topping up.
TUDGE: And the Federal Government is the predominant funder of the non-government schools - Catholic and independent schools. Basically the system means that if you’re a wealthy school you get the least amount of government funding per capita versus the poorer school where you get the most. That’s how the system works and I think it’s a reasonable system. No system is perfect but I think it’s a pretty good one.
EPSTEIN: I’ll get a response from Mark Dreyfus in a minute but Rebecca is in Fitzroy on the testing itself. What did you want to say Rebecca?
REBECCA: Raf, this system makes my blood boil. My daughter is in Grade Five at the state primary school. She’s a very high achiever. In Grade Three her NAPLAN results were off the charts. This year her teacher in Grade Five coached her so hard to get results on the NAPLAN maths that she had a panic attack and couldn’t even sit it. So I want to know what these people say about the impact of this system on students when teachers in schools are trying to get the best results to make themselves look good at the expense of students?
EPSTEIN: Mark Dreyfus?
DREYFUS: That’s always been the fear Rebecca‘s right to point, this is teaching to the test. That fear of teaching to the test is the obvious criticism of all testing systems. We need to make sure, and there’s got to be systems in place, that schools don’t teach to the test.
EPSTEIN: We were talking about this when Julia Gillard was Prime Minister.
DREYFUS: I know it’s not in every school and not every teacher does this and the idea that a student, Rebecca‘s daughter, has been coached to the point that she’s had a panic attack, is shocking and we need to make sure that we don’t have teaching to the test. That’s a system issue but I’m still very much saying we need to continue with testing. We certainly need to keep it under review but we need to continue testing.
EPSTEIN: Alan Tudge, just a quick one on the pressure.
TUDGE: I completely agree with Mark there actually.
EPSTEIN: Feel strange saying that?
TUDGE: No it doesn’t.
EPSTEIN: Just joking.
TUDGE: I’ve had kids through primary school. Them and their friends did not suffer that same sort of pressure. I know it doesn’t happen in every school. I’m sorry that is happening there.
EPSTEIN: Can I ask you both - Yang Hengjun was born in China. He worked for the government, came here. He is an Australian citizen. He criticises the Chinese Government. He has been held for seven months. No one can visit him, not his lawyers, not his family - he’s got a court-appointed lawyer.
Alan Tudge I’ll start with you. Your Government has got to deal with this. Aren’t they saying, isn’t the Chinese Communist Government‘s saying to anybody born in China, that you’re owned by the Chinese Government forever and we don’t actually care if you go and become a citizen of another country?
TUDGE: I wouldn’t agree with that statement. What I would say is that no matter where you are born, and what your circumstances are, if you do become an Australian citizen then you will be represented to the best ability of the Australian Government of the day. In this instance this person has been detained for seven months without charge, without access to a lawyer, without access to his family and under some pretty harsh conditions from what I understand.
So we’ve been quite powerfully making representations to the Chinese Government at the very, very senior level from the Foreign Minister to the Chinese Foreign Minister to say either release him or at least to afford him to the basic judicial processes.
EPSTEIN: Do they care what the Federal Government says? I’m not faulting what the Government says. But does Beijing care what Canberra says?
TUDGE: We will continue to make our representations and I think that we all operate within an international community and we hope that China will want to be a good international player and therefore listen to reasonable representations from other countries such as Australia.
EPSTEIN: Do you think they listen Mark Dreyfus?
DREYFUS: I think China is a participant in the world community and they do listen.
EPSTEIN: Do they?
DREYFUS: Australia is right to make the representations that have been made by the Foreign Minister. The Foreign Minister has said in the most direct terms that there is no basis for the allegations that Dr Yang is a spy. The Government of Australia, backed by the Opposition fully, is calling for the Chinese Government to make clear what are the allegations against Dr Yang. Just today the Law Council - I’ll mention this – Arthur Moses, the President of the Law Council, said that Dr Yang should be given access to a lawyer of his choice which the Chinese have not yet done. That is a matter that is, again, in accordance with international law human rights principles.
So we are going to keep saying what needs to be said in defence of Dr Yang, an Australian citizen. It is my fervent hope that the Chinese Government will listen and there have been other examples of Australian citizens detained by the Chinese Government where they have listened. It’s on that basis that it’s quite correct for the Foreign Minister to keep saying to the Chinese Government, to her counterpart, we need to have these matters cleared up, we need to have Dr Yang properly treated.
EPSTEIN: I’m not going to ask both of you whether or not China listens because I don’t think you’re really allowed to say what I’m suggesting, which is no, they don’t listen. But can I ask you a different question? We’re in the process of signing a Free Trade Agreement with Hong Kong. That is going through a Parliamentary process here in Australia. The ACTU says we should put it on pause as a way of showing our displeasure with the way the protests have been handled in Hong Kong.
Mark, I’ll ask you first because it’s a labour movement thing. The ACTU want to put a free trade agreement with Hong Kong on pause. Should we?
DREYFUS: That Free Trade Agreement with Hong Kong is going through the current Parliamentary Treaties Committee process. That is going to take some time. It is yet to be decided upon by the Labor Caucus in Canberra. These are processes that always take time with free trade agreements.
EPSTEIN: But they’d listen to that wouldn’t they? If you put that on pause we’d get attention.
DREYFUS: It’s not even up to the point of let’s pause because it’s just now in the process of being looked at by the Treaties Committee.
EPSTEIN: Labor hasn’t put a position yet on the treaty I think?
DREYFUS: No we haven’t. We have a general position which is that we are in favour of free trade agreements which is the liberalisation of trade. It is in Australia’s interest as a trading nation that there be these free trade agreements. We’ve got some different positions from the Government on some types of clauses but overall Labor supports free trade.
EPSTEIN: Alan Tudge, would the Government consider putting that free trade agreement on pause?
TUDGE: No we wouldn’t. We’ve always supported the One Country Two Systems on which Hong Kong operates within. This free trade agreement was made on that basis. It was signed in March and as Mark said it’s going through the proper Parliamentary committee.
EPSTEIN: You’re not choosing trade over human rights?
TUDGE: As I said Hong Kong operates within a One Country Two Systems framework and that’s operated pretty well and this agreement is consistent with that. The Free Trade Agreement was signed in March. It will mean enormous opportunities for Australian business to invest, to export their goods and services into Hong Kong and it’s going through the committee process as Mark said.
Typically these things are agreed on a bipartisan basis and I would like to think that this one will be as well because then we will be introducing legislation to be enacted later this year. I would like to see a firmer commitment from the Labor Party to support this because I think it is a good deal. It’s been on the table for a long time and we want them to back it as well.
EPSTEIN: Ten second answer from both of you - have we actually worked out how to deal with China?
DREYFUS: I think it’s a work in progress. They are our largest trading partner. We did $200 billion of two way trade with China just last year. We are in a different position to any other country in the world in relation to China. We have to keep working though to make sure that the relationship with China remains a positive one. We should be working towards proper relations with China at all times.
EPSTEIN: Alan Tudge, have we worked it out yet?
TUDGE: I think we do work productively and constructive with China. It is a difficult relationship and it is evolving and Mark is right in terms of saying the importance of the trade relationship is critical, as well all the other matters which come up which we have partnerships with them on.
EPSTEIN: Thank you so much for your time both of you.
TUDGE: Thank you. Thanks Mark.
DREYFUS: Thanks Alan.