The education election? We thought it was time to talk to Kate Ellis…
The Learning Press EXCLUSIVE
Kate Ellis has enjoyed a glittering rise to the top of Australian politics.
As a 30-year-old, she pole-vaulted into a position on the Rudd front bench as Minister for Youth and Sport, fittingly becoming the youngest government minister ever.
Nine years on and, if the polls are right, she is poised to take on one of the highest-profile jobs in the country.
We talk exclusively to the shadow education minister about what she has planned for our children if Labor win the election.
Labor’s education policy announcements have been widely endorsed by the school and university sector, but questions remain around your ability to fund those policies. The Coalition has attacked Labor with claims of reckless spending pledges and our readers have questioned how Labor will fund its education policies. Can you outline exactly where those funds will come from?
“The basic response is that it comes down to priorities, and in the budget which was announced a couple of months ago, the Government declared they will spend over $48 billion on their corporate tax cuts for multinational companies.
“We’ve said that we will not be proceeding with that initiative - this is one example that’s $48 billion they’re spending on corporate tax cuts, whereas we’ve announced that we want to spend $37 billion on education.
“There are decisions that have been made across the board - whether it’s on the policies we’ve announced on clamping down on negative gearing, whether it be multinational tax loop holes which we announced some time ago we would close, tobacco excise increases which we also announced some time ago…
“There’s a range of government spending programs we’ve announced we would shut down so that money can go towards budget repair, but also so that we can ensure that we can invest those funds in the areas which we believe are most important - and we’ve made really clear that that is education.
“If you want a couple of examples, the Government is scheduled to spend billions of dollars on their so-called direct action policy which hands taxpayer subsidies to the biggest polluting companies in Australia, and we’ve said that we would end that.
“Similarly, the prime minister did a deal with the National Party in order to secure their support when Malcolm Turnbull became PM to reintroduce a baby bonus, which we’ve said we would end and not spend that money.
“So I can supply you with a list of all the different initiatives that we’ve announced, but I guess it’s best summarised by the fact that we did the hard work before we announced our schools funding policy, because we knew that was a key question that needed to be answered and we made sure that we had announced at that stage over $100 billion in savings initiatives before we announced our spending commitment for schools.
“We know that it’s really important that people back education, but it’s also really important that people know that we can do that without damaging the budget.”
You’ve gone very hard on this idea of an education election. Do you think you’re at risk of being seen as a one-trick pony?
“I don’t think so.
“There is no question that education is centrally important to us as a country in terms of fairness and equity.
“We know that we have an issue in our school system to resolve but also, in terms of the future economy, we know that we need to make sure that young Australians have the skills they need for the jobs of the future, and there are some real questions about international competitiveness.
“Let’s not forget that is the longest election campaign that the country’s been subjected to for decades now, so there’s plenty of time to talk about a range of issues. But education is absolutely a key priority.”
David Gonski has broken his silence on education in the last few days and talked about the Coalition’s efforts to introduce needs-based funding into schools. Are you worried that the Coalition’s message that its education funding is sufficient will permeate, and people will start to drift away from supporting Gonski - and therefore Labor?
“I do think we should give the Australian people the credit that they deserve.
“At the last election, let’s not dress it up, they were lied to by the Coalition when they said they were on a unity ticket when it came to the Gonski reforms and they said that they wouldn’t cut funding for education.
“I think it would take a lot to fool the Australian public twice.
“We know that schools and education are not a priority for this Government, we’ve seen it time and time again.
“The Australian public is also well aware that it was only weeks ago that the prime minister put forward a proposal, which was endorsed by his cabinet, to say that the Federal Government should no longer have any funding arrangement with public schools across Australia and should only fund private schools.
“The Coalition can’t pretend that didn’t just happen and think that, all of a sudden, they can say they care about education and say they have a well-thought-through policy, because it’s really clear that they’re making it up as they go along.”
I get frustrated when politicians use figures to back up their arguments around education that are patently misleading. Do you get annoyed at the game playing and manipulation of figures around education, or does that just come with the territory as an MP?
“I think it’s frustrating for everybody when politicians try and muddy up the issue so much that it just becomes so confusing for the public that they tune out.
“What we need when it comes to the education debate is just really clear speaking and people being honest about where they rate education as a priority.
“There are a couple of key facts that we shouldn’t ignore, and that is that we shouldn’t just have a debate about funding figures, or about the Gonski needs-based funding model.
“I think it’s really important that we also keep an eye on the other findings of the Gonski report, and a range of other studies, which show that there are some serious issues in Australian schools that absolutely must be addressed.
“We know that the gap between those lower-performing students in schools and the higher-performing students in schools far exceeds the gap that is the OECD average.
“What that actually means is that people’s education - and in fact their entire life’s opportunities - are being in some way determined by the postcode that they happen to be born into or that the school they are enrolled in is in.
“That is wrong.
“If we want to talk about what kind of country we want to be, if we want to have a fair country and a fair society, then you’ve got to give every child every opportunity to succeed in life.
“At the moment our education system is not doing that for every child.
“We know, for example, that there is a significant gap of up to a year between those students in regional schools and students that are enrolled in metropolitan schools, and up to two years in remote areas.
“These are really important social issues but they are also really important economic issues.
“If we want to tap into all of this country’s potential then we need to fix the issues in our school system.
“At the same time, we have to say that we have some great schools and we have great teachers, but we need to make sure that they’re supported with a system which gives every child all of the individual attention and support that they need and deserve.”
Labor supports the policy that the most exclusive schools in Australia with lavish facilities receive Government funding worth hundreds of millions of dollars each year, while there are a number of public schools that struggle to pay for basic maintenance. You champion levelling the playing field for disadvantaged children - wouldn’t you like to see a review of the system so that a true needs-based funding model comes in that involves means testing those wealthy private schools so everybody gets a fair slice of the pie?
“I think it depends on whether you want to have a debate about how we allocate the ‘pie’, or whether we want to expand the ‘pie’ and make sure that those additional resources go to the schools that need it most.
“I want to lift up all of the schools across Australia, I don’t want to pull some down in order to meet in the middle.
“I think that we should be ambitious and we should try and set out to ensure that every school can be a great school.
“We know that that will take some resources…”
…But we are talking about schools with two swimming pools and three shooting ranges - we’re talking about the top level of privilege…
“They’re not the schools that are advantaged by the Gonski needs-based funding model.
“We need to ensure that we remain true to the funding model that was announced, but more so, that there is some accountability and transparency in the way that that funding is allocated so that we can make sure Australian taxpayers maintain support for the system.
“There hasn’t been enough of that transparency in the system because the Federal Government basically said the funding was ‘no strings attached’.
“Once people can see clearly where those additional funds are flowing to and the students that they are supporting, then I think we’ll have agreement that - whether those disadvantaged schools are local Catholic schools, independent schools or public schools - we need to make sure they are the schools in need.”
This is the education election, which means that it’s really the Kate Ellis show as far as Labor is concerned. Most of Labor’s promises so far have been around your portfolio - does that make you nervous about your ability to deliver on those promises post-election?
“It makes me absolutely inspired to make sure that we can have the opportunity to implement those policies.
“I am absolutely clear in my mind that the lives of young Australians will be changed if we are successful in this election, and they will be changed for the better.
“That means there’s a really big responsibility that we have, but it also inspires me to get out and use absolutely every second of every day up until the close of the polling booths to make the case and to argue the point.”
The Coalition’s Jobs for Families childcare package seems like good policy to me and it’s won support from stakeholders like Goodstart Early Learning. You have a lot of experience in early childhood education, do you see merit in those proposals?
“Stakeholders haven’t supported the package in its current form, they’ve supported the additional investment.
“Unfortunately, the sore point from the Government has been that there will only be additional investment in childcare if the parliament agrees to cut the support to low and middle income Australian families through cuts to their family tax benefit, and I haven’t seen anybody argue that that is a good idea.
“I absolutely believe that we need to reform Australia’s childcare system, but I do have serious concerns about the package that the government announced, in part that it now won’t be implemented for several years anyway.
“The government’s own statistics show that one-in-four families would be worse off and independent modelling has actually put that at one-in-three families worse off…”
…But there is a safety net built into those provisions so that the most disadvantaged children are actually supported through that policy…
“We don’t know any of the details of the safety net, except that it will be temporary for those people that have access to it.
“What we do know is that Australian children would be punished for the decisions of their parents or for the workforce participation of their parents, particularly in areas of disadvantage.
“Those are the same children that we know can benefit most from access to early education, so there are some serious flaws there…”
…At the same time there is an incentive there for women to be able to go back to work as a priority. Isn’t that a good approach?
“What we do know is that, where childcare subsidies have the biggest impact on workforce participation is at the lower levels of the income stream, all of the research backs that up.
“We’re talking about spending an extra $3 billion here, yet it’s not being targeted to the families that we know it will have the biggest impact on for workforce participation.
“I’m not aware of anyone across the early childhood education stakeholders who have said that this package should be implemented in its current form - whether it’s Early Childhood Australia, whether it’s Goodstart - everybody has said they cannot support the activity test as it is currently structured.”
What are your thoughts on Peter Dutton’s comments about refugees and their illiteracy and innumeracy?
“I thought they were appalling, I thought they were offensive, I thought they were divisive and sadly I think he probably intended for them to be all of those things.
“If we took the politics out of the immigration debate and actually focussed on policy and focussed on the fact that we are talking about human beings, then that would be a very good thing.
“I think that people would have expected more from Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister than to respond by backing his minister and labelling him outstanding for his contributions.”
Changing tack for a moment, I know you’ve been out there on Labor’s election bus. It must be a really different, fevered atmosphere during an election campaign. Is it easy to maintain balance and sanity or does it all go out the window?
(laughing) “Maybe other people should be the judge of that!
“The one thing I would say is that during an election campaign, the Australian community is more likely to tune into policy debates and ask questions and seek out advice on different portfolio areas, and that makes it a really exciting time for us.
“That’s what we do this job for, to engage with the Australian public and to have those discussions, so I really enjoy that part of election campaigns.”
Your working hours are obviously very long. I asked this question of (federal education minister) Simon Birmingham - is it a struggle to balance such a high-profile role with the demands of a young family?
“I think that every working parent has to grapple with balance at some point or another, but I’m really acutely aware that my job has more flexibility that many other people’s.
“Obviously I’m not on the minimum wage, I’m certainly not living in poverty, I’m not working inflexible shift work so I’m really grateful for the fact that I have that flexibility.
“There are times when you have to juggle things and yeah, there’s long hours, but I can take my baby to work with me and that’s something not many people can do.
“I just would hate to sound like I was complaining about how difficult it is for politicians.
“Your readers and other people would quite likely say ‘how out of touch are these people, don’t they know how it is for all working parents’ and that many people have it much, much worse - and they’d be right.”
As a young woman in a potentially huge Government role, and obviously you’ve filled big Government roles before, are you conscious of being a trailblazer and mentor?
“I benefit from the fact that we have a lot of women in the Labor party in senior roles and we have women who’ve been around for a lot longer and have much more senior roles than I.
“We have good relationships and good support networks so I think that’s a positive thing, although we’re also conscious of the fact that we still have a very long way to go.
“It’d be great if we could see the parliament appropriately representing our community at some time in the very near future but we’re not quite there yet.”
Do you feel like you’re treated differently because you’re a woman in a traditionally male sphere?
“Yes, absolutely - sometimes in the parliament, sometimes in the media, sometimes in the community.
“Sadly, that is probably not that unusual in our society.
“We’re getting there, though.”
Your husband, David Penberthy, is a right-wing newspaper editor and you’re a Labor politician. He’s been quite vociferous in his criticism of policies that you advocate, such as Safe Schools and Gonski. Do you talk about these things at home or do you just leave them at the door?
“Sometimes we do and sometimes we don’t.
“It’s not what our relationship is based on and I guess we’re just very lucky that we live in a modern Australia where wives aren’t expected to share the same opinions as their husbands.”
We have a couple of reader questions to put to you.
One is from Paul Cavanagh who asks “why no government has done anything about returning NAPLAN to a diagnostic test only and reduced its use as a tool for measuring schools against one another when it is grossly unsuited to that purpose”.
“There have been changes to NAPLAN and there will continue to be and I think that’s really important.
“I think it’s also really important that we keep having the discussion about what NAPLAN is and what NAPLAN isn’t, and the fact that it doesn’t show us everything.
“I think it’s also about making sure that we provide the leadership so that people don’t think it’s the be all and end all…”
…Do you believe in publishing NAPLAN league tables?
“We’ve said that we think the information should be available and we think that the public has a right to the information, but we also want to do what we can to ensure that that information is not misrepresented.”
Jennifer Haynes and Chris Cox both raised Prep curriculum concerns.
Jennifer asked: “How can you justify the Prep curriculum learning expectations when it defies all global research about high quality childhood education and simple developmental theory?”
Chris said: “The Early Years Learning Framework is accepted as the standard for children up to six years of age. The national curriculum for prep involves a lot of expectation that is well advanced of the EYLF recommendations.”
“As the minister who introduced the EYLF I take that endorsement!
“Of the curriculum more broadly, I’d say that this is new and we’re in the early stages of the national rollout.
“We need to ensure that we monitor and of course we make any necessary changes.
“We also need to make sure that we provide the appropriate levels of professional development for our teachers about the national curriculum and how it can be simplified and taught and doesn’t appear as overwhelming - all of that should be based on best practice and on the evidence.
“I guess I’m just hesitant to go too much further on that because the other thing that I passionately believe about the national curriculum is that it is not the plaything of politicians and it should be at arm’s length.
“It should be based on the evidence and the views of experts and that’s what ACARA* was set up to do.
“We should provide guidance and certainly put forward any existing problems and then let them do their job, rather than politicians talking about what should and shouldn’t be taught in classrooms.”
* Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority