Interview with John Laws
TUE 04 SEPTEMBER 2012
HOST: Prime Minister good morning.
PM: Good morning John.
HOST: Early morning for you, you’re in the West aren’t you?
PM: Yes I am in the West so it’s been a very early morning given the two hour time change.
HOST: Well thank you for getting up early for me. You were probably up anyway.
PM: I was John.
HOST: You want Australia’s schools to be some of the world’s best. That’s a very honourable thought, but why aren’t they in this league now?
PM: I think they’re not in that league now because there was a long period where there was neglect and under-investment under the former government.
When we got elected in 2007, we started making changes to improve schools piece by piece.
First of all, there’s MySchool, so we’ve all got more information about what’s going on in schools than we’ve ever had before.
When I first became Education Minister no one could even tell you which were the thousand worst-performing schools in the country.
Now you can get that on your smartphone if you want John, and have a good look.
HOST: But why do we have a thousand poor performing schools?
PM: Well I think there’s a few things, and some of them we’ve moved to address and now we need to do more. First and foremost, we’ve got to have a big focus on literacy and numeracy.
It’s not acceptable that any child comes out of school not able to read and write.
We have been focussed on that and we need to do more.
We’ve got to have a big focus on the quality teaching.
Nothing’s more important than the quality of the teacher in the classroom, and we’ve been working on that and now I want to do more by making sure we get the highest calibre people into teaching that they’ve got the skills they need to manage classrooms today.
You don’t want one disruptive kid meaning that the whole class can’t learn, or you don’t want bullying or cyber-bullying to mean that kids are distressed and not able to participate in school and get a good education.
HOST: You talk about improving the standard of teachers. One can only assume then that they are now substandard?
PM: I think we haven’t valued our teachers the way we should. To be frank I think we’ve got to lift standards in terms of who goes into teaching.
I would like the best and brightest in our nation to aspire to go into teaching.
We’ve made a start on that with a program called Teach for Australia, which does get very high-performing graduates into teaching, but we need to make a system-wide change.
Our teaching workforce is literally hundreds of thousands of people.
I want it to be harder to get into teaching – you’ll need to be in the top class to go into teaching – and for the teachers who are in service now I want us to be focussing on lifting their skills, annual assessments.
We assess kids, we should assess teachers too; and always be driving them to improve the way we ask our kids to always aim for improvement.
HOST: I don’t see anything wrong with that. You’re spending an awful lot of money - $6.5 billion and nobody seems to know where it’s going to come from. Where’s it going to come from?
PM: I’ve been proud to be a big investor in schools already.
We’ve basically doubled the amount of money going into education because we value it so much.
But now we know from the work that a review panel did for us, but also from the work we’ve done improving schools, we know that if you bring the right combination of money, partnered with lifting teacher standards, partnered with empowering principals to get on and manage their schools, partnered with more information so the community can play its part in working in the school to drive standards.
We know that that makes a difference and the kids get a better education. I want to take that out to 9,500 schools.
Yes it is going to cost money, and it’s going to take time to build, to get all of this work done, to get the best and brightest into teaching, to lift teacher quality, to get our principals ready to take control of their schools.
All of those things take time, so there will be a six-year transition, and we’ll step up to the plate, pour more resources into schools, and I’m asking state and territory governments to do the same.
HOST: Aren’t you effectively writing a blank cheque and expecting future governments to pay for it?
PM: Absolutely not – there will be no blank cheques in any of this in any sense. I’m not going to be giving money to states and territories unless they sign up to making sure that their schools are improving.
And I mean every school having its own improvement plan, and being held to account for getting the kids a better and better education.
More kids at school, more kids learning to read and write at the appropriate standard. More kids staying at school and succeeding at year 12. More information about what’s going on at that school.
And then for the Government’s budget John, we will do what we always do, and you’ll be able to see every budget figure and judge how we have delivered to our priorities.
We’ll bring the budget to surplus, we’ll get on with this work of investing in schools.
Yes there’s a transition time because you can’t make change in 9,500 schools overnight, but at the end of the day budgets are about choices, leading the nation is about putting your stamp on what’s most important for our future, and there’s nothing more important for our future than what’s happening in schools and the standard of education our kids are getting.
HOST: How much do you expect the states to contribute to the cost?
PM: John, I’m going to have discussions with state premiers and chief ministers. I’m not going to tip my hand on your show.
HOST: Why, what better place to tip it?
PM: What better place to tip it? But I’ll be having those discussions and I’ll be looking the premiers and chief ministers in the eye and I’ll be saying to them our kids are our future. We’ve got to work together to improve their education.
We’ve got to get about rolling out some very practical things to lift teacher standards, to make sure schools are improving, to empower principals, to make sure we’ve all got more information. Very practical steps to improve schools.
I want you to work with me on that, as well as work with me on better investing in our schools.
HOST: You won’t tell me how much you expect the states to contribute, but they already seem to be expressing their reluctance to come up with much at all. They expect the Commonwealth to contribute the majority. Will you do that?
PM: I anticipate as usual when we’ve got big national projects of change that require discussions between me as Prime Minister and premiers and chief ministers, we’ll see some of the usual posturing that happens in these areas.
But I’ve worked with state and territory colleagues to do big things like reform our health system to make sure that people are seeing more doctors and nurses, better-resourced hospitals, more local control of the hospital that they and their family rely on.
I’m going to take that same spirit to working with premiers and chief ministers.
I’m not going to be held to ransom John, and I’m not going to be held back.
I will be looking to work with those premiers and chief ministers who are as focussed and as passionate about our kids’ future as I am.
HOST: If you’re going to be spending a considerable amount of money, and I’m sure you agree it is a considerable amount of money, you’re going to have to cut somewhere else aren’t you, so that these reforms can be funded?
PM: We’ll have to make choices John, and I’m well aware that we’ll get people trying to run scare campaigns about what those choices will be.
But I would say to you and to everyone we’re a government that’s shown a preparedness to make hard choices in order to get the big things done that are vital for our nation’s future.
For example we means-tested the private health insurance rebate.
A lot of bitter words were spoken; a lot of political campaigning against it, but it was the right thing to do. I think that there are better uses of precious government funds than supporting my private health insurance or your private health insurance.
So we’ve made a hundred billion dollars of savings over our budget.
We’ll take the same spirit to making sure we fund the things that truly matter for our nation’s future. And John, you’re right to ask me about the money but if I can perhaps put the question another way.
We know that in the region in which we live, where the people we trade with are, in our region of the world, they’re our neighbours; they’re our customers; but they’re also our competitors.
Four of the top five schooling systems in the world are in our region, and ours isn’t amongst them.
And so what that means is they’re winning the education race today and that means if we don’t act they’ll win the economic race tomorrow.
So if we want to be a strong, prosperous nation for the long term, we’ve got to get schooling right for our kids.
HOST: When will taxes rise?
PM: John, it’s not about that. We are a government that has kept taxes below the level that we inherited from the Howard Government. So let’s just put aside any of this nonsense that you hear about taxation.
We are a lower-taxing government as a percentage of our national income, our national GDP, than the government that went before – the Howard Government – which reached the highest taxing levels in Australia’s history.
So there’s no need to be starting any silly scare campaigns about tax or any of that. We are focussed on making the right choices on the government’s budget to put our kids first.
HOST: I don’t want to start any scare campaigns – let me put the question another way. Will taxes rise?
PM: We are not going to have taxes rise John, no. And I know we’ll see some silly political posturing around all of this, this is about budgets and choices.
HOST: How do we differentiate between the posturing and the truth?
PM: You will be able to do that because you will see the government’s figures in front of you.
We’ve got the mid-year economic and fiscal outlook, then we will deliver the budget next year.
Of course we’re due to have an election next year, and that requires people to comply with the charter of budget honesty and to put all of their figures as checked by Treasury out there.
That’s what we’ll do, so you will have credentialed figures from the government checked by Treasury and you’ll be able to judge us against our word.
Right now on the other side of politics, and I think, John, this is something that really does need to be taken up with the Opposition.
The Opposition is proposing to basically hide its figures, to not get them checked by Treasury, to not have any proper accounting, and that’s because they’re already in a $70 billion mess which means that they’re planning big cutbacks a bit like Campbell Newman, and they just don’t want people to see what those big cutbacks are.
So I think people should be able to see all of that as well as all of the Government’s figures.
HOST: But back to what I said. Obviously some areas of the budget will have to take a cut so that you can implement this further spending. Will there be any cuts?
PM: You’ve asked me about various areas of the Government’s budget. Judge what I intend to do on what the Government has done so far.
On tax, we’re a government that has kept tax at a lower level as a percentage of GDP than the Howard Government did.
On savings, we’ve made a hundred billion dollars of savings in order to fund the things that we think matter most.
If we’ve done that in past budgets John, you can have a great degree of confidence that we will do that in the future.
We are looking at a six-year transition for additional resources in schools.
We’ve already increased resources to schools so we’ve been working hard since we were first elected, but a six-year transition to a full new school funding system and that’s dictated by how quickly you can make every dollar do some work for you in the system because you can’t do things like change the skill levels of hundreds of thousands of teachers overnight.
HOST: But can you answer this yes or no? Will there be cuts in other areas in the budget?
PM: John we will be making changes. There will be tough decisions that maybe some people won’t like.
HOST: Okay so there will be cuts.
PM: And I said that yesterday at the Press Club. Please read the speech.
I said in the Press Club yesterday that I’m not only asking the Australian people to join with me on a national crusade to improve our schools for our kids, but I’m going to ask the Australian people to recognise that that means some tough budget choices.
And I’ll make them, the Government will make them, because at the end of the day a budget is about what you think is important.
HOST: Prime Minister, you’re not getting cross with me are you?
PM: No, I’m just being clear with you John and I just want to be clear with your listeners.
Budgets are about choices, and I’d ask your listeners, many of them parents, many of them grandparents, when they truly sit down and think about what is important in their lives and the lives of their families, I doubt that there would be anyone listening to this show right now who wouldn’t answer that question with ‘the most important thing for me is my child, my grandchild and their future.’
Well if we say that as individuals about our family, surely we can say that collectively as a nation.
HOST: You intend to get rid of the existing private-public school formula and replace it with a base rate per student, topped up with additional funds on a needs basis. It sounds – it may not be – but to me it sounds complicated.
How does that work, and how does that take into account the private sources of funds available to those private schools?
PM: It’s hopefully not – I don’t think it’s too complicated. Let me try and explain it as simply as I can.
The independent review panel recommended that for every child’s education there be an amount of funding that they called school resourcing standard.
And they’ve worked out how much that amount of money should be by looking at some high-performing schools.
But the concept here is every child’s education needs to have an amount of funds brought to bear which gets the job done of getting that child a high-quality education.
Now that school resourcing standard should apply in public schools, independent schools and Catholic schools.
In independent schools and Catholic schools, just like we do now, we take into account the ability of parents to pay, their capacity to pay.
So they will obviously to meet some part of the cost of their child’s education.
Then we know that you do need special efforts and special resources to make sure that a child from a disadvantaged background, a lower-income home, an indigenous child, a child with a disability – gets a great education, and that’s where the loadings come in on top of the school resourcing standards.
HOST: Who’s going to be the arbiter on what child is disadvantaged, or what child is not disadvantaged?
PM: For who’s viewed as coming from a poorer home we’ve got very good information about the family circumstances of children going to school.
We use that information now for what’s on MySchool so you can pull up a school of MySchool now and click and see the distribution of the kids and which sort of homes they come from – are they from the poorest quarter of homes, the top quarter of homes.
We’ll use that sort of information so that a loading goes to the education of those kids from the poorest half of homes in our nation with the greatest amount going to those that are the poorest.
HOST: On another subject quickly, and I know you’ve got a lot to do.
Do you think Australians understand why our troops are still in Afghanistan after recent incidents?
PM: I think this is a contest for many people between their heart and their head. I think you get news like we got last week and it does just break people’s heart and they – it’s terrible.
And because people are bearing that pain then in the midst of that pain they do say ‘why can’t we just end this, why can’t we just get everybody home, let’s just leave there, I don’t want to ever hear news like this again.’
So I think there’s that really human reaction as we all just deal with such an amount of pain.
Then there’s the head and the head has to tell you we went there for the right reason. We went there because people trained in Afghanistan, had taken Australian lives.
They’re terrorists, they’ve trained there, killed Australians and in our nation’s interest we can’t see Afghanistan once again become a safe haven for terrorist training.
And so that’s the mission we’re on, to train the Afghan local people so that they can provide the security in their own country and stop it being a place that harbours terrorists.
We’ve got a job to do, we’ve got a timeline in which to do it, and then we know once that mission is acquitted that the bulk of our forces can come back home.
HOST: Those people who are critical of our presence in Afghanistan, and there’s no shortage of them as you know, they suggest that we are there in order to appease the Americans.
How important is it to cooperate with our American allies and how much does that determine what’s in our best national interest?
PM: We make our own assessments of our national interest. We’re Australians and we’ll always do our own thinking about what is in our nation’s interest.
We have a long term defence relationship with America. It’s pivotal for our long-term stability and security.
It’s been pivotal to us since the dark days on World War II where we turned toward America and that alliance will continue for the future.
And certainly when we saw the 9/11 attacks, when we saw what happened in the United States, when we saw the loss of American life and Australian lives – because there were Australians in those towers when they came down, then our alliance also came into play to work with America to deal with those who had brought such violence to America and to the city of New York in particular.
And so we have worked alongside the Americans and partners from many other countries in Afghanistan to degrade al-Qaeda, to prevent them from being a terrorist outfit that can come and take the lives of innocents and we’ve enjoyed success at that.
I mean Osama bin Laden is dead, many of the key al-Qaeda leadership members are now dead. The al-Qaeda network has been degraded.
The fight against terrorism is something that is going to always be there for us. You can’t let your guard down.
But we’ve got a defined mission in Afghanistan and we’re there to see the mission through.
HOST: Prime Minister, as usual you’ve been very generous with your time for which I thank you, and I presume you’re off for a busy day now.
PM: I certainly am and it will include going to a school in Perth, so I’ll look forward to seeing the kids.
HOST: You seem to like being around those little kids.
PM: I do, they’re always energising and full of fun and full of excitement, and I get to meet some great teachers and amazing principals along the way.