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Transcript of interview with Joe O'Brien: ABC News 24: 13 December 2016: NAPLAN results; education reform; Malcolm Turnbull's leadership; US refugee resettlement deal; Trump Presidency

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SUBJECTS: NAPLAN results; Education reform; Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership; US refugee resettlement deal; Trump Presidency.

JOE O’BRIEN, PRESENTER: Tanya Plibersek is the Acting Opposition Leader and Shadow Education Minister and she joins me now in the studio. Tanya Plibersek, welcome. So these results are being released in the run up to this Education Minister's meeting on Friday. The Federal Government is going to go to that with a series of reforms. We will get to those specifically in a moment. But first of all, what is your overall assessment of the state of the system?

TANYA PLIBERSEK, ACTING LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: Well I think these results show - well, they are mixed results. There are improvements in some age groups, in some areas and, of course, 15-year-olds' writing has gone backwards. But, this is the third, I suppose, test: we had the international science and maths test, TIMSS, we had PISA and now we’ve got the more detailed NAPLAN results. And all of them show basically that Australian students are flat lining in their improvements. This is, as I say, mixed; some improvement, some going backwards, but globally you would say flat lining. And, I suppose, I was just listening to Simon Birmingham a second ago, it is really only a minister who is cutting $30 billion out of schools over the next decade that would claim that money doesn't matter. You’re quite right: Simon Birmingham is going to meet the state education ministers on Friday and he should say to them that he is going to fund years 5 and 6 of the Gonski needs-based funding, as the Liberals promised to do before the 2013 election. He is talking about reforms - everybody agrees that we need to make sure that initial teacher training is fantastic, that we better support teachers in the classroom. We had a set of reforms like this and Christopher Pyne when he was Education Minister junked them. He said that the states were grown up enough to make these decisions for themselves.

O’BRIEN: Your key focus on this has been equitable funding but we have interviewed people on this subject over the past couple of months and they have come back and said with these disappointing results internationally that it has not been a case of lower socio-economic schools dragging the results down, it is overall Australian students just aren't improving. And in these results today there were some bright spots for indigenous students and migrant students, so doesn't that fly in the face of your argument on funding?

PLIBERSEK: No, it shows exactly why we've done needs-based funding. We have seen that the early years of extra investment in kids from an indigenous background and we’re seeing year 12 completion rates have gone up, for example, for indigenous kids. So we are seeing some improvements but we cannot rest on our laurels.

O’BRIEN: So the funding scheme is right now?

PLIBERSEK: No, it is the very beginning of needs-based funding. These results are no cause for comfort. We shouldn't be resting on our laurels now. We should continue to drive improvement. Yes, with reforms: reforms to initial teacher training, continuing professional development. We also need much more individual attention for individual students and that's what needs-based funding allows. For kids who are falling behind, so we catch them early and help them out, but also for the gifted and talented kids. So, for example, the recent international test showed not just the growing disparity between kids from poorer backgrounds and kids from wealthier backgrounds; they also showed that our highest performing kids weren't doing as well as they should because we are not giving them the individual attention we need either. And that is an economic problem for us as a nation in the future.

O’BRIEN: Ok, so let's go to some of these specific reforms now that it looks like the Federal Government is going to be putting up on Friday. One is the phonics test very early on in year one, another is rewarding strong teachers rather than just teachers who have been there for a certain period of time, and the Federal Government funding being linked to minimum literacy and numeracy standards. So where do you stand on those three key reforms that Simon Birmingham looks like he’ll put to this meeting on Friday?

PLIBERSEK: Well, it is interesting if he does put them to the meeting because so far state education ministers haven't had anything in writing from Simon Birmingham about either the funding that they can expect, or the reform agenda.

O’BRIEN: Well he suggested them this morning, what is your position on them?

PLIBERSEK: Well, how can I know from a two minute interview what his position actually is? Of course we support -

O’BRIEN: These are measures that were mentioned in the Budget.

PLIBERSEK: So, I’ll tell you the sort of things we do support: we do support better teacher training, making sure that young people when they are choosing a career in teaching are not choosing it as their fifth or sixth best option; that we are attracting the best and brightest into the teaching profession; that we are giving them a great education in their initial teacher training; that we are supporting them throughout their career so that they are getting continuing professional development in the classroom;

they're being able to team teach, be observed, observe other highly performing teachers, having highly performing teachers mentoring and developing other teachers. We support all of that. If the Minister's proposing another test in year 1, I think there is a debate from educators about whether there's any point to this because we are already testing kids when they come in in kindergarten to test their abilities and following them very closely in that first year. But I am open, if he suggests that there is a real educational benefit and he can show that there is a real educational benefit, let's see that. Let’s have that debate in this country. A lot of -

O’BRIEN: Well, they put forward Britain as an example of the success of that phonics test.

PLIBERSEK: Well, I think there are mixed reviews on that, and I certainly support transparency and testing in later years but whether there's an additional benefit from introducing this test at this time when children, particularly in kindergarten, are monitored so closely for their reading development, I think that is yet to be proven.

O’BRIEN: Ok, we might go onto another couple of subjects because you are acting Opposition Leader as well today. Labor consistently criticises Malcolm Turnbull for not standing up to the conservatives, you say that he's been a weak leader. Are we getting a sign that maybe he is moving towards, he is getting more confidence in that area now with news that he's agreed to address this Republican event this coming weekend?

PLIBERSEK: Well I think it is terrific and a real coup for Peter Fitzsimmons and the leadership of the Australian Republican movement that they have got the Prime Minister to address what will be a terrific function on Saturday night. How far Malcolm Turnbull actually goes in supporting a move to a republic is another matter. I mean, turning up and giving a speech is good, but at the same time we’ve got a Prime Minister who has been saying now is not the time to pursue an Australian Republic - he is on the record recently as saying that. So I think they're pretty mixed signals and let's see what happens when Cory Bernardi yanks the short leash that he is keeping Malcolm Turnbull on.

O’BRIEN: But, you can see he has had to balance things in his party just to keep the leadership and maybe now we will see him start is to emerge and push the envelope in these kinds of things?

PLIBERSEK: Well, I know that everybody at the ABC in their heart of hearts hopes that Q&A Malcolm will become Prime Minister one day, but, I'm not seeing much evidence of it. I see a man who has given up on pretty much everything he ever believed in, including just this last week, climate change. I remember the Malcolm who used to say I don’t want to lead a party that’s not as committed to real action on climate change as I am. This week we've had new Malcolm coming out and railing against electricity prices, despite the fact that his own experts actually say that better action on renewable energy would save $15 billion on electricity prices over the next decade.

O’BRIEN: Ok, also in the news this morning is word that Australian officials have gone to the US to talk with the Trump team about this refugee resettlement policy. What chance do you give that policy of succeeding and do you agree with the way the Government has gone about that?

PLIBERSEK: I think they have waited too long, absolutely too long to resettle people on Manus Island and Nauru. And it’s one of the worst -

O’BRIEN: They have something there now.

PLIBERSEK: It is one of the worst failings of this Government that they have been so incompetent when it comes to finding a permanent resettlement. I hope that this policy succeeds. I think most Australians are, watching with baited breath, you could say, hoping that this will succeed. I can't give the Government any credit for the way they have gone about this. They have left it too late, they’ve left it until the last days of an Obama Presidency when they could hope to have support from the US on this. Who knows, I think a Trump Presidency is an unknown quantity. If this isn't resolved before he becomes President, who knows.

O’BRIEN: And Donald Trump is giving us a taste of what a Trump presidency might be like with statements we have seen from him and Twitter announcements that he’s put out. He has eased back on some fronts but China is not one of them. How do you feel about the way he has been approaching the China relationship and the implications for our region?

PLIBERSEK: Look I think diplomacy is a very delicate business and it is very important for any new President to have very good and sensible advisors around them when it comes to relations with other nations. And when it's two of the biggest powers in the world, I think a little bit of sober reflection is a good thing. I hope that the areas of cooperation between the US and China, such as on climate change, continue to be a big feature of the relationship. It is very much in Australia's interests for our two very important economic trading and security partners to get along.

O’BRIEN: Ok, Tanya Plibersek, thanks so much for coming in.

PLIBERSEK: Thank you.