Television Interview with Andrew Clennell – Sky News Live Sunday Agenda – Sunday 26 June 2022

SUBJECTS: Education for Indigenous children, childcare reforms, international students

ANDREW CLENNELL: Well, joining me now is Jason Clare, who’s in a lot simpler position as Federal Education Minister. Look, I wanted to start by asking about the childcare reforms. I know you’ve got Anne Aly in charge of them, but you’re sort of over the top of that. When can we see these in place? What practical difference do you think it will mean to the workforce?

JASON CLARE, MINISTER FOR EDUCATION: I think for over a million Australian families it’ll mean cheaper childcare. It will mean, particularly for mums who are working part time, cheaper childcare means more incentive to get back to work for three, or four days a week. And for employers who are desperate for more skilled workers, that’s going to mean more workers for them and a more productive economy. That’s why it makes a lot of sense. It’s my top priority to get that legislation into the Parliament and passed this year, so that it can start on July 1 next year.

CLENNELL: So, it’s July 1. Okay. You’ve begun your job by travelling to various parts of Australia, including to look at Indigenous education in the Northern Territory. What have you learnt there and what strategies are you thinking of?

CLARE: I was in West Arnhem Land just on Wednesday, flew out from Darwin. It’s a two-hour flight to get just near Gunbalanya in West Arnhem Land. It’s a nine-hour drive, or a two-hour flight. So, it’s a long way in these remote communities, where you’ve got a population of about 50 people and ten or 15 kids. You’ve now got a school there. It makes the world of difference to that community because you don’t have little kids having to move two hours up the road to Gunbalanya to go to school. They get homesick so they don’t stay there and they come home. 

They get what they call a “two toolbox” education there in those remote communities. Because they’re learning their local culture, but they’re also learning the same sorts of skills in maths and English that a kid around the corner from here will learn. I realised that if you’re in a place like that, what you learn at school needs to be a little bit different than if you’re here in Sydney or in Melbourne because you’re going to grow up and want to raise a family there and stay there. So, you want to learn the skills to be a ranger, to look after that local community. That’s different if you’re an Indigenous kid in Darwin, or an Indigenous kid here in Sydney. 

The bottom line is if you’re an Indigenous kid, the gap in your opportunity when you’re young gets bigger and worse for every year of education. In pre-school, the gap in the percentage of Indigenous kids that go to preschool compared to non-Indigenous kids is pretty small. But then through primary school, high school and university, it gets bigger, and bigger, and bigger. 

So, the question I want the answer to, and I’m not going to make it up on my own, I’ve got to talk to Indigenous leaders about this, is what do we do to close that gap? I think a lot of the heavy lifting has got to be done earlier on. If you can close that gap in Indigenous enrolment and attendance at childcare and pre-school, then the flow on effect could be significant.

CLENNELL: I want to ask about international students, and what can be done to get more of them back into Australia. Anecdotally, you hear from employers, they’re just not coming back in the numbers they were before the pandemic, and that’s one of the reasons we have a tight labour market.

CLARE: Well, we’ve seen just in the first quarter of this year, a drop of 24 per cent in the number of Chinese students commencing university degrees here in Australia. That’s a massive drop.

CLENNELL: So, why? Why is that?

CLARE: Well, I think a big part of that is COVID. You’ve still got the Chinese Government going for zero COVID. There’s local lockdowns in China that make it difficult for Chinese students to fly out here if they want to. Limited flights. Still a real COVID hesitancy there. So, you see not just a drop in Chinese students coming to Australia, but the same drop for the UK and the US. We have got some of the best universities in the world. This is our biggest export that we don’t dig out of the ground and it’s been smashed by COVID. 

CLENNELL: What can you do about it? How can you lift these numbers?

CLARE: Well, there’s a whole bunch of things I think we need to do. We’ve got to say that Australia is open for business, that these students are important to our economy. They make billions of dollars for the Australian economy, but they’re also important from a soft power perspective as well. We educate students from around the world here, the impact on how other countries see us is massive. 

I’m going to be talking to the Indian Education Minister, who’s coming to Australia in the next couple of weeks, to look at how we can expand the number of Indian students who study in Australia. Mutual recognition of qualifications is a big part of that. We’ve got Penny Wong in Malaysia and Vietnam over the course of this week. We get a lot of students from those two countries, but hopefully more. 

And I’d like to see more international students not just study here, and while they’re here working in retail or hospitality, but stay here after they finish their degree. We’ve only got about 16 per cent of international students who stay and work in Australia after they finish their degree. We train them here. We skill them up. Where we’ve got skill shortages – and they’re chronic across the economy at the moment – it makes sense to encourage them to stay longer.  

I think that there’s a lot of good work we could also do in trying to match the type of courses that international students do here with skill shortages. So, at the moment, a lot of them are studying in business and commerce. We’ve got big gaps in our economy in the health care sector. If we can match that better, the benefits for Australia will be more.

CLENNELL: Do you have any fears that Chinese government will deter students from coming here?

CLARE: No, I don’t get that indication, and that’s partly because you’re seeing the same thing happening in the US, as well as in the UK. But this was a $40 billion export market before the pandemic. It’s now about $20 billion. So, you can see the massive impact that this has had on this sector. We’ve got to build it back. We’ve got to rebuild it and I want to work with the universities to help make that happen.

CLENNELL: Now teachers in New South Wales are about to strike over getting a 3 per cent pay rise. Do you support them on that? I think the New South Wales Premier wants to fine them for an illegal strike.

CLARE: Look, as a parent I want to see this resolved as quickly as possible. We want to see kids in schools and we want to see teachers better paid. So, I hope that the parties can come together and work that out. 

CLENNELL: Should they be striking?

CLARE: I get the impression talking to teachers, not just here in New South Wales, but around the country as I’ve been talking to teachers, that it’s not just about pay. Wherever I talk to teachers, it seems that a big part of the problem here is workload out of hours. We’re getting a lot of teachers burning out and leaving teaching. This is part of the reason why we’ve got a teacher shortage right now, that’s predicted to get worse. And again, this is not unique to New South Wales, not unique to the strike, but I want to get the education ministers across the country together to talk about the challenge of not enough people signing up to become a teacher and too many teachers retiring early, dropping out, hanging up the boots, because they don’t want to be a teacher anymore.

CLENNELL: Would you think about a restructure of HECS fees to assist that? Or a restructure of HECS fees anywhere?

CLARE: What we promised at the election is that we’ll implement a bursary or a scholarship that encourages smart young people finishing school to become a teacher. The days where you finish school and the first job you think you want to do is a teacher are disappearing. More and more people want to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or go into those business and commerce degrees. Fewer people want to be a teacher than ever before. And when you think about it, there aren’t many jobs more important than that. I think you and I, and people watching at home, can all think of one teacher that changed their life. I think we need to build more respect for the profession. That’s an important thing we can do here. But we can also, as a team, as a country, think about what we can do to give teachers more time to teach and to prepare for lessons, rather than the admin burden that often comes with the job.

CLENNELL: Hollie Hughes at the Sydney Institute a couple of days ago said all teachers were Marxist. What do you say to that?

CLARE: Well. You know, they used to say that the reds are under the bed, didn’t they? Now, apparently the Commies are in the classroom. This is just crazy, isn’t it? More denial from the Liberal Party. If they think that they lost the election because all teachers are Marxists, then I don’t think they’re looking in the right direction.

CLENNELL: Are you happy with the current arrangements around the funding of private, Catholic, and state schools?

CLARE: All of that has been set out through reforms that the former Gillard government, as well as the former Coalition government, put in place. We still need a pathway to make sure that government schools get to that full 100 per cent and that will be part of negotiations with the State governments over the course of the next 12 months.

CLENNELL: I wanted to ask you about the situation with the crossbench staff, and the withdrawal of some advisers from crossbench MPs. They say it’s unfair and arrogant. What are you saying?

CLARE: Well, if you’re a Labor MP or a Liberal MP or a Nat, you get four staff. And if you’re a Green or if you’re a crossbench MP, you get eight. You know, that seems to me to be a bit out of whack. And what Albo is saying here, is that if you’re a crossbench MP, you’ll get an extra member of staff, above and beyond what a Labor, or Liberal, or Nat MP will get. And we’ll put extra resources into the Parliamentary Library. That seems to me to be pretty fair. Albo is also cutting the extra salary payments for government staff. I think he’s ripping about $1.5 million out of that, and cutting about 300-

CLENNELL: Do you get the best people if you do that?

CLARE: People come to this job not for the pay, but for the opportunity that it provides to really make a difference. So, everybody’s taken a haircut here, whether it’s government staff, opposition staff, there’s a cut there of $350,000. As well as these cuts here. And I think most Australians would say, well, you’ve been elected, now knuckle down and do the job.

CLENNELL: You said your dream job was to be Federal Minister for Education. But wouldn’t you have more of a say over education if you were a state education minister or even a premier? They were after you to be Labor leader in New South Wales. You’re kind of just in charge of funding, aren’t you?

CLARE: Success depends upon building strong relationships with education ministers at a state level. That’s why I’ve met a lot already, and over the course of this week I’ll be off to South Australia and WA to do the same thing. When I was a junior defence minister, you didn’t work a lot with states. But when I was Justice Minister, you worked with police ministers and attorneys-general right across the country. A big part of being successful at a Commonwealth level is having those good relationships with Premiers and Ministers. Albo is doing that with Premiers. It’s up to people like me to build those strong relationships with education ministers as well. 

I said to Kieran in my first interview a couple of weeks ago that I’m the first person in my family to finish uni, first to finish year ten at high school. My mum and dad never had the chance to do that. And you know, the country’s changed a lot since those days in the 60’s, where working class kids from the western suburbs didn’t get a chance to go on to uni and finish school in the numbers they do now. 

The kids I was in the classroom with when I was little, they were refugees from South East Asia, they’re doctors, and lawyers, and business people today. But I am conscious that all of that opportunity hasn’t creeped into every corner of the country. And if you’re a poor kid, if you live in the regions, if you’re an Indigenous kid, the chances are you’re still less likely to go to childcare, you’re still less likely to go to pre-school, still less likely to finish high school, still less likely to go to university. I want to do something meaningful to change that.

CLENNELL: Alright, well, good luck with that. Now, we’re out of time. But just very briefly, I wanted to ask, a bit left field really, but your reaction to the US Supreme Court decision? The Roe versus Wade matter?

CLARE: Well, thank God we are a country here in Australia where abortion is not an issue that divides the Labor Party and the Liberal Party. I’m thinking, at the moment for women who live in some of those states, they’re basically being told today that if you want to have an abortion, then get on a bus and travel a couple of hundred kilometres. I share the anger, frustration and the grief that people are experiencing and talking about in the United States and right across the world at the moment.

CLENNELL: Jason Clare, thanks so much for your time.

CLARE: Thanks, Andrew.