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Transcript of press conference: Queanbeyan Public School, Queanbeyan: 30 January 2008: National Curriculum Board announcement; Industrial Relations Transitional Bill; wages; long service leave.

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30 January 2008

E & O E

Subjects: National Curriculum Board announcement; Industrial Relations Transitional Bill; Wages; long service leave

PM: Prior to the last election, we committed to an education revolution. And the reason we did so was because we need to build a modern Australia, capable of taking on the challenges of the 21st century. And that means, having as an objective for Australia, creating a world class education system.

That’s core business for this new government.

Part of that vision was that we would establish a national curriculum board, with the objective of developing a new national curriculum for Australia.

Why are we doing that?

The reason we are doing that is because right around the country this week, we’ve got some 80,000 kids who are starting schools in a different state or territory.

If you are a mum or dad or carer for those kids, there are a whole lot of problems in moving from one state or territory to another because, frankly, the curriculums don’t speak to each other. There’s a problem.

There’s another problem as well and it goes to the whole question of curriculum rigour. Now you’ve heard Julia and I speak about this on many occasions over the last 12 months. And it’s near and dear to our hearts.

If we’re going to have a world class education system, it means that we’ve got to have a highly rigorous curriculum. You look at some of the international benchmarking; only in New South Wales at the year 8 advance international benchmark in maths and science, is better than the international average. The other states and territories are not.

If you go to national reading benchmarks, there’s something like a 26 per cent difference between our best achieving states and territories and our least achieving states and territories. There’s a problem.

We need to be world class and for that we need a world class curriculum and we need a national curriculum.

There’s a further element as to why we are doing this as well. That goes to the overall challenge we face when it comes to school retention levels. These in Australia have stagnated at 75 per cent. You look around the country, in some states and territories, it’s something less than 70 per cent. In some it’s better than 80 per cent. Our target is 85 per cent and to ultimately build it to 90.

Why is that?

There is clear, indisputable international evidence that the more we have kids retained through to year 12 or year 12 equivalent, then the better the outcome for them personally and the better the overall contribution to the economy.

And there’s a wealth of data out there to support that. So three core reasons: mums and dads, and moving from state to state and as our workforce becomes more mobile, this is going to become more and more of a challenge for working families; second we need a rigorous curriculum which is internationally competitive to lift the standards; and thirdly, we’ve also got to lift our achievement when it comes to year 12 or equivalent retention, because that’s one of the best predictors of long term economic capacity.

So what are we going to do?

We’re going to - as we promised pre election - appoint a national curriculum board. And I am pleased today to announce that professor Barry McGaw from the Melbourne Education Research Institute, will be Chairman of this Board.

Prior to that appointment, Barry has also served as the Director of Education at the OECD in Paris. He is one of Australia’s foremost educators and we believe he is highly qualified to undertake what will be a significant piece of work for the nation.

He will be supported by a 12 person, or he’d be a member, of a 12 person board which will be drawn from the states and territories as well as from the Catholic and Independent sectors.

And we have done this, and will be doing this, on a consultative basis.

In terms of the task ahead, it’s formidable. This is an area of work which historically has been paved with good intentions, but very little outcome.

Our intention is to make a difference, but it is going to be very hard and we recognise that. But the objective we’ve set is for a national curriculum in the four key subject areas of English, History, Maths, Science - to be delivered, as we are starting now in early ‘08 - by early ’11.

Three year task, it’ll be tough, and very intensive work. Of course we have a second tranche of work as well, subsequent to that and that goes to subject areas such as Geography and Languages.

This is important work for the nation. And I thank very much, Professor McGaw for agreeing to take on this task on behalf of the Government.

I’d also thank the states and territories for willing to work with us collaboratively and cooperatively on this. And I end with this before asking Professor McGaw to make some remarks.

The overwhelming challenge we face is to build a modern Australia, capable of meeting the challenges of the new century. And within that, to create a world class education system. We promised we would establish a national curriculum. Today, we honour that promise by establishing this board. Over to you Professor McGaw.

MCGAW: Thanks very much Prime Minister. If I could just make a couple of brief comments. One, on the Prime Minister’s comments about international competition, and it’s a reality in economic terms, but it’s a reality increasingly in educational terms among OECD countries.

Since we began the program for the assessment of 15 year olds, countries are paying a great deal of attention. And with the release of the third set of data, last year, we can see that while Australia’s maths levels are holding at the same level, we’ve slipped relatively because other countries have moved ahead of us. Other countries that were equal with us have moved ahead. So it’s not a stable competition out there. Every country is seeking to do better and to learn from those that are doing better than themselves already.

In reading, the story was that we’ve actually declined in performance amongst our fifteen year olds, but the interesting thing is that the decline is at the top end. It’s not that kids can’t decode words on a page - text on a page - and read in that sense. It’s that they are not, at the top end, understanding, comprehending, highly complex text, in the way that we expect fifteen year olds to do, if they are going to build seriously in their further study upon their reading capacity.

So there are jobs to be done.

And the interesting question then is, to what extent we can do it nationally as opposed to in our states. Australia’s not the only federal system in the OECD, apart from Switzerland, we’re the smallest, the others are much bigger, Germany, the United States, Canada - is one and a half times bigger than us.

So you could argue that we are small enough to do things as a whole. Those that would have said that it’s better to have the states operate, would normally base their argument on these grounds - that the natural experimentation that occurs through state differences gives us the capacity to learn from one another.

The evidence frankly is, that we’ve never much learned from one another in that respect. The states haven’t exposed themselves to critical comparison and haven’t systematically learned in the past.

But in the last year I think things have aligned in interesting ways. I served on a committee set up by the Council of the Australian Federation, where the states were talking - in the absence of the Commonwealth - about achieving nationally consistent curricula.

So I think, Prime Minister, the stars are aligned in a way that might give more opportunity to achieve things than were, for example, achieved after the so called Hobart declaration in the late 80s or the Adelaide declaration in the late 90s. This time around, there is a real chance, I think, to do things nationally and effectively.

But the purpose has to be not achieving consistency for consistency’s sake, but raising the performance levels.

PM: Thank you very much. And to conclude before taking your questions, is that this is one pillar of our education revolution - national curriculum - and many other pillars as well which the Deputy Prime Minister, the Minister for Education is working on as well, together with the Parliamentary Secretary for Early Childhood Education, Maxine McKew. And that goes to early childhood education, trades training in schools, computers in schools. There is a huge amount of work to be done.

But this is an important part of it and we’re glad to get the ball rolling as Australia’s kids across the country go back to school. Over to you folks.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, what sort of time frame are you talking about here in terms of the work that Mr McGaw is going to do and will you have rigour - you talked about rigour - will you have rigorous performance indicators to determine how successful it is?

PM: Firstly on the time frame, prior to the election, we committed to three years and we’re kicking this off at the beginning of the school year in 2008. It will be completed by the beginning of 2011.

On the rigour question, Professor McGaw, in conversations with the Deputy Prime Minister, is plainly aware of the Government’s interest for there to be a rigorous national curriculum. Because, as he has rightly pointed out, we might be holding our own in terms of internal national standards, we’re not holding our when it comes to international standards. And that is the overall rigorous benchmark which we must all apply ourselves to.

JOURNALIST: Does this curriculum go through the whole school system from the bottom to the top?

PM: K to 12. Yeah. So from Kindy through to Year 12.

JOURNALIST: And it just seems -

PM: So the kids we met outside there, the little ones, Grade Four and Five - through to those who are, the last couple of years as well.

JOURNALIST: Even though it’s a tough task, three years seems a long time, can’t it be more quickly?

PM: You know, one of my experiences as a bureaucrat in years past is, I said before, advisedly, that this is a pathway sewn with good intentions and non achievement. I actually know how tough this is. Six territory, sorry six state, two territory curriculum bodies and then if you go out beyond that to the Catholic and Independent sectors - I think one of the advices I had here was that we got thirty four separate organisations contributing to the development of curricula across the country at the moment.

This is a big task. The nation hasn’t done this before. So I am being entirely upfront with you about how complex I think this is going to be, but entirely consistent with the time frame we put to people prior to the last election.

JOURNALIST: Mr Rudd, will it depend therefore on cooperation from the state’s to make this work? And how are you going to knock heads together?

PM: Yes it will require cooperation. And I said at the Melbourne COAG, we face, I think an excellent year of opportunity and our challenge is to make the most of it.

I know enough about Federal-State relations to know that that of itself is going to be an arduous task right across the reform agenda we outlined at the Melbourne meeting of the Council of Australian Governments. This is one area and I am sure Professor McGaw will be drawing upon the full breadth of his charm and diplomacy with colleagues from across the states and territories and the catholic and independent sectors to make this work. But it’s not going to be easy.

JOURNALIST: The ACT doesn’t have external public exams, will this be compulsory as part of the national curriculum?

PM: Now we’re getting down into individual state jurisdictions - I will flip to the Minister.

GILLARD: Thank you for that. Of course the task we are engaged in here is the curriculum development task. The task of assessing, we obviously want to make sure that we know what’s going on out there, that’s why we have the benchmark test internationally and nationally. Barry spoke about some of the results from the international tests, we also have the national tests to measure achievement and they feed in as information about where states are, who is high achieving, who is not so high achieving, what that says about the curriculum, and what that says about other things that need to be done in the education system. So this is about relying on that

data rather than imposing specific testing regimes on jurisdictions. We certainly want national data, and we’ve got an ability to get that through the benchmark tests that have been rolled out.

JOURNALIST: Just while you’ve got the microphone, just in relation to the transition bill, Sharon Burrow has said she wants it passed by Easter. Is that realistic?

GILLARD: Well can I make very clear some things about the transition bill. The transition bill is to end the making of Australian Workplace Agreements. The Australian people voted for that at the last election. The transition bill will be in the parliament in the first sitting week and we expect it to be dealt with by the parliament as quickly as possible.

Now that is not to deny the need for scrutiny, of course legislation needs scrutiny. But I think there are two things that the Liberal Party is refusing to get, about this piece of legislation.

One, we’ve got a mandate for it. We took it to the Australian people. I’m not surprised they are confused about that because they’ve got no experience in the question.

Two, we worked it up through a consultative process involving the National Workplace Relations Consultative Council, and the Committee on Industrial Legislation. These are expert bodies, representatives of employer groups, representatives of unions. They’ve been working with the draft legislation, making suggestions to improve it. Once again, a process the Liberal Party has got no experience in because it never used it.

So when that deal comes to parliament it’ll come with a mandate, it will come with the benefit of expert advice from all industrial relations stakeholders. Certainly the parliament should have a look at it, but there is no reason why even with an inquiry, it can’t be passed during the February and March sitting.

JOURNALIST: (inaudible) prices are rising, why shouldn’t wages rise (inaudible) to keep pace with them?

DPM: What I’ve said on inflation and what the Prime Minister has said and the Treasurer has said is, inflation is bad for working families. It’s bad for working families because obviously prices go up. It’s bad for working families because it puts upward pressure on interest rates. And that means that obviously, the cost of servicing the mortgage goes up on the family home. Consequently, it’s a shared task to fight inflation.

JOURNALIST: Are you attracted to the concept of a social wage - sort of a new version of the accord?

GILLARD: We live in a very different era. We live in a decentralised wage fixing system. And our policy, of course, is to have a decentralised wage fixing system. What I’ve said, and I’m happy to say it to everybody who is involved in industrial relations, is the way to get wage increases which are not inflationary is to be driving productivity increases. That’s why the focus of our wage setting system is on the enterprise. If you work cooperatively in your enterprise and you come up with ways of working smarter, then there are gains to be shared because productivity will have gone up.

JOURNALIST: (inaudible) is it not reasonable to have a wage increase when prices are rising, without having to have a productivity (inaudible) Is it not reasonable to have a wage increase?

GILLARD: Well, what I have just said is the policy of the government where we’ve got a decentralised system. Our policy for a decentralised system. A decentralised system is about setting wages in enterprises. It is about rewarding productivity growth. Fighting inflation is a shared task. The Prime Minister and the Treasurer have said the government is going to play it’s part in terms of the way in which we do the budget in May. Obviously we are asking everybody to play their part because inflation is bad for working families.

JOURNALIST: On a related topic, Prime Minister, are you concerned about the IMF slashing its projected growth for the world and the ramifications for - what are the ramifications for Australian economy? And secondly - I appreciate…

PM:The old double barrel, double pronger, from the west -

JOURNALIST: Secondly, unrelated, but, I appreciate that you are not going to attach compensation to saying sorry to Stolen Generation Aboriginal people, but, there is a call from Andrew Murray, as you might be aware, for you to co-ordinate a national reparations scheme that would go to all people who have been affected by state care. That would include all states and charities and churches. Are you interested or effected by that prospect?

PM:On the economy, I’ve read a summary of the IMF’s global economic outlook. Consistent with what the Government has said in Perth, actually, not long ago, we believe that we are facing a dual set of significant economic challenges. One is global - the global economy, downward revisions of growth coming off the back of the US sub prime, ramifications of that across Europe, some slacking of demand in Japan. And you see the outcome of that in terms of the IMF numbers for global growth being trimmed, including for the United States and off Europe as well. We are very mindful of that and that’s fully reflected in the speech I delivered in Perth not long ago.

The other challenge we face is the fact that we have been left with a significant inflation legacy by our predecessors, the Liberals parting gift to the Australian economy. Twenty warnings from the Reserve Bank, ten interest rate rises on the row, but the problem is, in those last couple of years of the preceding Government, inflationary pressures mounted and mounted and nothing was embraced as a strategy for dealing with it.

Now, these are two significant sets of challenges. We have a very clear weather eye on the unfolding developments in the global economy, and including in East Asia - notwithstanding what the IMF has said about Chinese growth projections for the year - which according to the IMF remain unchanged.

Also, we’re very keenly aware of where we stand with the inflation challenge particularly given the most recent CPI data. Hence the five point strategy we articulated in my speech in Perth. Hence our commitment to producing a robust Budget surplus. Our commitment to investigate measures to further boost national savings including private savings, as well as our commitments to skills, to infrastructure and improving workforce participation.

These two challenges remain right ahead of us as we embark upon 2008. I don’t for the life of me underestimate the seriousness of both of these challenges. We are acutely aware of them. We have outlined our framework for dealing with the inflationary challenge and are very mindful and have a weather eye on what is happening globally.

Second point, I haven’t seen Andrew Murray’s proposal, I’d really like to read what he has had to say.

JOURNALIST: (inaudible) fighting inflation. By definition it’s going to slow things up.

PM: Well, ultimately, these are the dual set of the challenges that we face. It’s a complex piece of economic terrain we face, let’s just be blunt about it. On the inflation front, and inflation, as the Deputy Prime Minister was just saying, is the enemy of working families. The enemy of business. It’s the enemy of small business.

As a responsible national Government we must deploy every measure to fight the fight against inflation. And that’s why in the first speech I delivered this year we outlined our plan for so doing. And obviously, as the Deputy Prime Minister said as well, that involves a shared responsibility and we are reflecting ours in terms of the impact of public demand on CPI pressures.

JOURNALIST: Mr Rudd, on the issue of saying sorry, you said that you will say sorry and you will say sorry and you will do it in the first session. Have you given any thought to adding another component to that sorry which is some kind of tangible thing that you offer indigenous people who have been stolen in the form of either reparations or free health care or something that they can actually have that’s not just a symbolic sorry, but actually gives them something?

PM: Well Patricia, this is really important for me to get it right, it’s really important for the Government. We’ve been spending a lot of time on this. Firstly, our commitment to saying sorry is clear cut. I said so before the election. I said if we’re elected we’d do it, and we’re going to do it.

And, I’ve said repeatedly, the reason for so doing is that there is unfinished business here on the part of the nation. We need to get this right because the symbolism of an apology is important.

But, it is beyond that as well. As I said, it’s building a bridge of respect which I think has been in some state of disrepair in recent decades.

But having crossed that bridge, the other part of it is all about practical business. The practical business for me is the programme which Jenny Macklin and I have been talking about since the 40th anniversary of the 1967 referendum. And I’ll draw your attention to the speech I gave back then which is on closing the gap.

Closing the gap in terms of life expectancy, infant mortality, skills attainments and health outcomes for indigenous people, is the core business. You will see therefore, over time, us unfold a significant programme in that area, very mindful of the experiences we are learning through the intervention - the controversial intervention - in the Northern Territory.

And, on those questions and how we handle them in the future in terms of the administrative arrangements concerning the apology and welcome to country, Jenny Macklin will have further to say about that very soon as she is concluding her first round of consultations.

JOURNALIST: Just back on the national curriculum, states like New South Wales who pride themselves on their curriculum through the HSC, ultimately would you like to see a nationally consistent HSC or leaving certificate?

PM: I’ve been around long enough to know not to prejudge the outcomes by those who are qualified to provide us with advice on this. Can I just say, I am acutely conscious of how much New South Wales Government is attached to the HSC and you’ll note the figure I used before in terms of the Year 8 attainments against international benchmarks in advanced maths and science where New South Wales is ahead of the national pack. It’s just the truth of it. It’s what the data says.

But in terms of the way in which these things are handled in terms of the report that Professor McGaw’s going to produce, we’ll wait and see where those deliberations will come to. It’s a big challenge.

JOURNALIST: Do you personally find it a little absurd that every state and territory has its own system?

PM: I think the 80,000 kids starting school today at whatever level in a different state or territory are finding it if not absurd, unnecessarily hard. And we actually need to move to a better place for them and for the national economy we need to move to a much better place than we are now.

JOURNALIST: Mr Rudd, do you have a view on school holidays -

PM: I used to enjoy them a lot as a kid. What about you?

JOURNALIST: (inaudible)

PM: I was voted for school holidays myself. Did you not like them, or what?

JOURNALIST: My question was, my child is going back next Tuesday. There are issues about mobility of the family, some grandparents might live in New South Wales, cant mind the kiddies because they’re might be working or something. Is there an aim - is there a belief - that there should be co-ordinated school holidays as well as a co-ordinated national curriculum?

PM: Let’s just bite off one challenge at a time. The content of national curriculum is a huge challenge. Synchronisation of school years across the nation is quite something else and you know there are multiple factors and demands impacting on that question. And when I spoke to my bloke, by the way, about the length of school holidays - he goes back to school himself next week - he thinks they’re not nearly long enough.

JOURNALIST: Just quickly on inflation. Given the need, the objective to curb Government spending, is there realistically any chance of a paid public maternity leave system over the next few years?

PM: Well, as you know, consistent with our commitment prior to the election, we have commissioned the Productivity Commission to look at a range of possibilities for the future to boost workforce participation. Do you want to add to that?

DPM: Currently the Treasurer, Jenny Macklin and I are working on terms of reference for the Productivity Commission consistent with what we have said before the election. We are obviously looking at commissioning the Productivity Commission to give advice on a paid maternity leave system.

We do not want to put additional imposts on small businesses. We are obviously looking at what is out there now. Some big businesses do offer paid maternity leave. Obviously the Government offers maternity payments as well. We are looking at a Government payment system that may assist, and that work will be done by the Productivity Commission.

JOURNALIST: Does the Government support the Workers Union proposal for portable long service leave?

DPM: Look, what we support and what we were elected on is making sure that there was a safety net in this country, and that no one could strip the industrial safety net away. In terms of the safety net that Labor will ensure is there for all workers, it will include current long service leave standards.

It is not our intention to build on those standards. We’re talking about the current standards being part of the safety net. The significance of the transition bill we were talking about before, is that of course, Australian Workplace Agreements that enabled the safety net to be stripped away.

That’s why it is urgent that the parliament deal with the transition bill to end the ability of anybody to make an Australian Workplace Agreement and to end the risk for any worker that they would have that they would have an aspect of the safety net stripped away.

And that is what the Australian people voted for. And we’re not asking Doctor Nelson or Ms Bishop to like the results of the last election, I suspect they don’t. But we are asking them to respect the result of the last election.

PM: And, last question.

JOURNALIST: New South Wales is considering lifting the leaving age to 16 (inaudible)

PM: Well, I saw that report from Premier Morris Iemma today or yesterday and I think it is a step in the right direction. That’s my own view. I haven’t consulted with Julia on this. But I just think it’s a smart thing to do.

See, part of the problem is here is, you know, me off the top of my own head and I hope I don’t do violence to educators on this question, is if kids move out of the socialisation of school and education and training too early, well frankly, it is very hard to get them involved in vocational education and training outside of the school. It gets harder.

Therefore, I think what Morris has done is a step in the right direction. And I hope having said that, I haven’t done violence to any well established principle of education of which I am completely unaware. And I’ve got to zip.