FAIRFAX BREAKING POLITICS
MONDAY, 22 JUNE 2015
SUBJECT/S: Abbott Government’s secret school cuts plans; Citizenship; People smuggling; Economic situation in Greece
CHRIS HAMMER: Andrew Leigh is Labor’s member for Fraser here in the ACT and he’s also the Shadow Assistant Treasurer – good morning.
SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER ANDRW LEIGH: Good morning, Chris.
HAMMER: Now, suddenly out there this morning is a Government discussion paper on schools and education – your observations?
LEIGH: It’s a secret plan for cuts to Australian schools that I think ought to be deeply disturbing for all parents. One of the great things about our public education system is that it recognises that everybody can send their child to a local public school without needing to pay. That gives you a greater diversity of backgrounds and local schools, and reflects the fact that when a child gets more education there’s a public good component to that. One of the whacky things about this paper is it seems to suggest that the Commonwealth has a natural role for funding non-government schools, but no natural role for funding government schools. I can’t see any economic logic in that.
HAMMER: Tony Abbot says that really the federal government doesn’t have any responsibility to the public schools, it’s a matter for the states and constitutionally he’s right.
LEIGH: Certainly the federal government has played an Important role in promoting equity in schools for decades. Federal government schools funding has had a greater equity bias than state and territory government funding, and that’s good to ensure that kids grow up to the same starting line. A child who is starting the race of life 10 metres behind the starting line and without a pair of shoes is given a pair of shoes and moved up to the starting line with everyone else. It’s Australian egalitarianism in action.
HAMMER: Now from what we know this discussion paper has a number of options – from the federal government withdrawing from school education altogether to being more involved, albeit with some kind of a means test. What’s wrong with those people who can afford it paying a little bit to state schools for their child’s education, I think an example given there is maybe a $1,000 contribution a year.
LEIGH: Well it goes back to the point I made before about the public benefit of sending to children to school. Health and education are different from other goods in society in that when you become better educated. I benefit as well because I become more productive in working alongside you. Better educated people are less likely to get sick, less likely to commit crime, less likely to be on welfare and more likely to contribute to the tax system. So because of that public benefit there is a natural role for government in subsidising education alongside health.
HAMMER: But the government can’t have it both ways, can it? It can’t withdraw from funding state government schools but then start dictating what should or shouldn’t be in their curriculum?
LEIGH: Absolutely. The meddling of the Abbot Government in the curriculum process, which had previously been handled carefully through committees of experts under ACARA is a backward step. Under the Rudd and Gillard governments, Australia put in place a needs-based funding system stemming from the Gonski review, and a national curriculum run by experts. We don’t need a couple of middle-aged white guys diving in there imposing their view on every little bit of the curriculum. What we need is curriculum experts sitting down with parents and teachers to work out what is best in every area of education
HAMMER: Just politically, Labor wouldn't be able to believe its luck with the Government bringing out these sorts of proposals. This would be an area you would be very happy to have a political stoush on?
LEIGH: We’re very comfortable in the area of education, Chis. We’re proud of our record there and we also think it’s a vital issue for the future. If you’re thinking about tackling inequality, one of the best ways of doing that is through boosting education. Inequality is a race between education and technology and if we allow technology to run ahead where we don’t improve the quality and quantity of Australian education, then the gap between rich and poor will widen and productivity growth will slow.
HAMMER: Can I just touch on a couple of other issues quickly? The first is citizenship: the government appears to be moving to a situation removing the discretionary role of the minster, instead setting in law the automatic stripping of citizenship form dual nationals engaged in terrorist acts. Is that more acceptable to Labor?
LEIGH: Again, we need to see the legislation. It’s important that we get this absolutely right. Labor has consistently said that there is a principal in legislation going back to 1948 that says a court can strip your citizenship if you fight for a foreign power against Australia. We’ve consistently said that if that were to be extended to fighting for a terrorist group against Australia then we would be open to a conversation about that. But the government is at war with itself. We have Malcom Turnbull popping up all over the place talking about the importance of maintaining adherence to the Constitution, and when even Barnaby Joyce is speaking out against a proposal in Cabinet, you know it’s got problems.
HAMMER: Ok, on people smuggling: on Monday last week Labor was very aggressive over these allegations that the government had paid people smugglers to return to Indonesia. Then the Opposition got cold feet, then went on the front foot again. What’s the position now is this – is it an issue you want to prosecute this week?
LEIGH: Chris, with this government there is so much bumbling and in-fighting that a single Question Time cannot put all the questions you want to put to the Government. Like many taxpayers, we are deeply concerned that the Government seems to have all but admitted that it paid people smugglers on the waters to turn the boats back. That’s got serious implications for the sustainability for anti-people smuggling efforts as well as, in my view, being a very poor use of Australian taxpayer dollars. The Prime Minister’s comments on the weekend went very close to confirming that those payments had been made, in direct contradiction of what his ministers had been saying a fortnight earlier.
HAMMER: So Labor will be pushing this issue this week, given these statements over the weekend?
LEIGH: It’s certainly a high priority for us and certainly many constituents I’ve spoken too don’t believe this an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars.
HAMMER: Now just finally, you are the Shadow Assistant Treasurer and you are also a former professor of economics. Things are reaching a head in Greece with the economic situation there – what are the implications, if any, for Australia and what should the Australian government be doing?
LEIGH: This is mostly about internal EU negotiations. If Greece was to exit the Eurozone it would have significant adverse impacts for that country. It would cut it off, at least in the medium term, from other sources of finance and it would be a major default. The impact on Greek living standards, I think, would be adverse. The real challenge that people worry about though is what the impact will be on other highly indebted countries within the Eurozone. Portugal, Spain, Italy are the three people speak about most often, and the potential for one of those countries to tip over the brink then would really be a body blow to income and growth in the Eurozone.
HAMMER: Do you think Australia is very much quarantined from any after-effects of that, or could it have a global impact?
LEIGH: I think it would have a global impact. It’s something that is high on my list of political Issues that have economic ramifications around the world. I’ve got my fingers crossed that they’re able to come to a deal, putting Greece back in there. Putting Greece back on the drachma would be bad for European growth which, let’s face it, has been pretty sluggish over the past decade, to say nothing of the living standards of people in that part of the world. You know, there are a couple hundred million people who ought to be seeing economic growth, but in many cases have lower living standards now than 10 years ago
HAMMER: So if there is danger of a flow-on to the global economy, is anything more that the Australian Government can realistically do?
LEIGH: I think it’s a matter of watch and wait for us.
HAMMER: Ok Andrew Leigh, thanks for your time.
LEIGH: Thanks Chris
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