SUBJECTS: US Congress; ACCC report into child care costs; Safety in child care settings; University rankings; Integrity of international education; Disability Royal Commission; Daniel Andrews; Aviation; Voice Referendum
KIERAN GILBERT: I'm joined live by the Minister for Education, Jason Clare.
Minister, thanks for your time. Before we get to the news and your area of responsibility, just your reaction to the developments in the United States. The chaos continues, but they avoid shutdown some at least a short term reprieve in that setting which we've seen over many years. Shutdown looms they avoid it just.
JASON CLARE, MINISTER FOR EDUCATION: It seems like they've avoided it for another 45 days. Look, you’ve got to take it as good news, Kieran. We've seen politics in the US get more and more divided over the last few years. If you want to get big things done, and this is true in the US, it's also true here in Australia, you need the two major parties working together. And if you can find common ground, and it looks like there's common ground that's been found there in the Congress overnight, then that's a good thing. A bit of common sense, getting the two major parties working together is what's needed.
GILBERT: Let's look at some news at home. And really a bombshell report is how it's been described from the ACCC on child care, a range of things that it's found. One, that our government's paying more in terms of support for the system than comparable nations in the OECD, that families are paying more than the average in the OECD, and that market forces under current settings are not delivering on accessibility and affordability. Will you look at some of the recommendations here, like price controls? Will you institute price controls to get this system on track?
CLARE: Kieran, one of the things the report also shows is that the cost of care basically exploded in the last four years of the last government. That cost increases were double what they were on average, across the OECD, which I guess explains why this was such a red-hot issue at the last election. The good news is the Cheaper Child Care laws that we passed through the Parliament last year that have started in July of this year are now starting to have an effect. We've seen the cost of child care on hour, on average, drop by 14 per cent in July. That's a good thing, but there's a lot more work that needs to be done here. And this report zeroes in on the next stage of reform that's needed. It talks about price controls, but it also talks about the threat of naming and shaming child care centres that charge excessive fees. The report demonstrates that not-for-profit centres, for example, charge less and pay their workers more than for profit centres. It also exposes the fact that the child care cap that was introduced by the former government back in 2018 isn't really working. Back when that was created, only one in ten centres charged above the cap. Now it's one in five centres. So, they're just exploding through that cap. This report says that there needs to be some reform to that cap to make that work better.
GILBERT: I was going to say, just to pick up on one of those recommendations, the prospect of naming and shaming centres, how important would that be? Particularly reading through this report, where it does talk about centres, and a number of them skimming way too big a profit margins at the expense of their staff and the children in their centres.
CLARE: The report says there's no single solution here, but it does make the point that costs have gone up a lot more in Australia between 2018 and 2022 than has been the case across the rest of the OECD, and that a number of things need to happen if we're going to put pressure on prices. Step one is the reforms that we implemented in July to make child care cheaper, and that's pushed the price down by 14 per cent. Step two are some of the reforms that are floated in this report, and they'll give us their final report in December. But step three is the big work that's being done by the Productivity Commission right now on what a universal early education system should look like for the next ten years and beyond. So, this is one piece in an important puzzle that we're putting together at the moment.
GILBERT: But on those two standout recommendations, price controls, naming and shaming, will you do those too?
CLARE: They're draft recommendations, Kieran. They're asking for feedback from all of us at the moment. Anyone in the community that pays these bills, that knows how expensive child care can be or works in this sector, we're encouraging people to give feedback to the ACCC, they'll give us their final recommendations before Christmas and then we'll act on those recommendations next year.
GILBERT: It's unsustainable right now, though, isn't it, where the government's paying more than the average of comparable developed nations, the families are paying more and yet the system is unaffordable. It just doesn't seem to stack up. Surely there's got to be a way to overhaul this. Will you look at those? Are you inclined to support some of those ideas, like naming and shaming?
CLARE: A lot of those ideas in this report make sense, mate. The idea of naming and shaming providers that are just charging over the top fees makes a lot of sense to me. I made the point when our Cheaper Child Care laws came in a couple of months ago that if people were taking advantage of this just to jack up fees out of proportion with what's happening in the economy, then there should be pressure placed on them. And here's a recommendation that does that. This is the biggest bill, apart from the mortgage or the rent, that a lot of Australian families pay. Our Cheaper Child Care laws have cut the cost of child care for more than a million Australian families. This report predates all of that. This report says that fees went up double the OECD average before all of that. So, we've provided some price relief. But now comes time for some serious reform about what more we can do to keep prices down, put pressure on prices, and at the same time, mate, look at what the big reforms to child care need to be in the next decade around universal access and affordable access for all children.
GILBERT: On Thursday and Friday of this week, you're going to be meeting with your state and territory counterparts, the Education Ministers, to be briefed by the Federal Police on a very concerning series and horrific series of alleged crimes across child care centres over several years. I know many of our viewers would have seen this in the news in recent times, but talk us through how the Ministers and governments are going to respond to what is, as I say, horrific alleged crimes here.
CLARE: You're right, mate. I think the whole country was shocked a couple of months ago when news was released about an alleged offender who had raped almost 100 children over 15 years, allegedly. That matter is now before the court. But I was briefed on that by the Federal Police back in October of last year and convinced state and territory colleagues to set up an investigation and a review by the child care safety regulator, without being able to tell them what it was about, at the end of last year and early this year. That investigation is now on foot. And on Thursday of this week, the Federal Police and ACECQA will brief Education Ministers on the investigation as well as the work that they're doing. They're looking at everything from Working with Children Checks and how they operate in different jurisdictions across the country, to mandatory reporting right through to teacher and educator registration in our centres. What are the things that we need to do to make sure that our children are safe. And we'll get that briefing from the AFP as well as from ACECQA this week. We'll get their interim recommendations later this month and then their final report at the end of the year.
GILBERT: On to the other end of education. The Times Higher Education Rankings had our universities all falling. How much of a concern is that to you?
CLARE: A great university is more than just about rankings, Kieran, it's about students. We've got great universities in this country. There's six of them in the top 100 here. They punch above their weight. But as I said, a great university is more than just rankings. I think when I looked at this earlier in the week, it showed that there's a correlation between where a university is ranked and how many international students they have. And as you know, international students dropped in Australia in the last few years because of the pandemic. Students were basically told to go home. A lot has changed since then. Over the course of the last twelve months, international students have come back. We now have roughly the same number of international students in Australia today that we had back in 2019.
GILBERT: So those rankings are outdated.
CLARE: Yeah, a bit out of date. The big challenge we've got now is that as students have come back, so have the shonks trying to make a quick buck off the back of international students. Let me give you an example. You'll have a student that's enrolled in a course in university here in Australia. They might get approached by an education agent telling them to enrol in a vocational course. They drop out of the university degree, and they never turn up to the vocational course. They end up using that visa as a backdoor just to work here. Now, in the last few months, I've banned the practice of allowing students to be able to enrol in two courses at once in their first six months in Australia. But in the next few days, we'll announce a suite of more reforms to tighten the screws here in response to work done by Christine Nixon, the former Police Commissioner in Victoria, who's done work for Clare O'Neil, the Minister for Home Affairs, working with me, and Brendan O'Connor, the Minister for Skills.
GILBERT: So, those announcements to be coming over the next few days, you said, is that part of a joint response from you and the Minister Claire O'Neil?
CLARE: Clare O'Neil as well as Brendan O'Connor. It's important. International education is a key asset for this country. It's the biggest export we don't dig out of the ground. It makes us money, but it makes us friends in the region, because if you come here and study, when you go home, you take that love and affection for Australia back home with you. But where there are shonks or dodgy operators trying to exploit students and make money out of it, it's important that we crack down on this fast to protect the integrity of the system. And that's what the reforms we’ll announce over the course of the next few days will be all about.
GILBERT: The Disability Royal Commission handed down its findings four and a half years, six royal commissioners, but unfortunately, they were split on the future of special schools. How do governments respond to that, given the commissioners themselves didn't land on the way forward for special schools?
CLARE: I guess this shows just how complex an area this is, Kieran. You've got six Royal Commissioners split down the middle. Three Royal Commissioners said that we should close special schools by the middle of the century, and three of them said, no, there's a place for special schools. We need to make sure that children get the sort of education that they need. And there's a lot that we do at the moment in providing that support for students in the mainstream system. There's more that needs to be done there. But I know from my own experience as a local MP in my local electorate, I see special schools in action. I see the sort of facilities and services they have. Sometimes it's the sort of thing that the public school next door doesn't have or couldn't even dream of having, like a hydrotherapy pool. So, this is a complex area. The next step that was outlined by Bill Shorten and Amanda Rishworth on Friday is we'll set up a whole-of-government taskforce to work through not just these recommendations, but all 222 recommendations from the Royal Commission.
GILBERT: Is it disappointing that after such a long period of time that the commissioners couldn't come up with a cohesive, unified response after, what, four and a half years and $600 million?
CLARE: I guess it shows that even when you've got people that have a mountain of expertise, that they can come to different views. And to be fair, there's 222 recommendations. There's a handful of recommendations where they didn't agree, but this is an area where they didn't agree, where it's going to be incumbent upon us as a federal government, but also working with state governments and territory governments who run schools, to work with them on what the response to these recommendations should be.
GILBERT: Daniel Andrews called it a day during the week. A shock to many, the timing of it, at least. Will it mean a less autocratic government in Victoria?
CLARE: Every Premier has a different style, Kieran, and I suspect that Jacinta will have her own style as Premier. As you know Dan Andrews leaves big shoes to fill, but no one's irreplaceable. I hate to say it, mate, but even Andrew Clennell did a pretty good job while you were away.
A bit like John Howard or Paul Keating, you know, leaders who were absolutely loved or loathed by different people in the community and not a lot in between. Dan Andrews is one of those people as well that was absolutely beloved by some and loathed by others. He was a strong leader, a very determined leader, knew what he wanted to do and was determined to make sure that it happened. Wasn't distracted by headlines or sideline critics, and very successful. Won three elections, successful at the ballot box, successful in upsetting a few people on this network, particularly after dark as well.
GILBERT: He's polarising that's true onto a couple of other issues. Just to wrap up before I let you go this Sunday, on the aviation inquiry and the various issues. The government blocked that Qatar request a number of months ago for more flights. You know as well as I do Australians love to travel, they love cheaper international airfares. This has blown up politically for the government, hasn't it? Is it time to review that decision?
CLARE: Mate my view on this is pretty simple. Qatar can fly more planes into Australia now. They can fly more planes into Adelaide or Canberra or the Gold Coast or Cairns. They could fly bigger planes into Sydney or Melbourne or Brisbane. And so, before asking for more flights, they should fill the ones that they've got. Now, this is like my six year old asking for dessert and he hasn't finished his dinner. If Qatar want to have more flights into Australia, first, fill the ones that they've got permission to fill now.
GILBERT: But shouldn't there be transparency? Catherine King talks about the human rights question, the search of those women a few years ago in Doha. And so, if it's a question about the standards out of Qatar and then yet you and other government Ministers are saying fly into other cities, it doesn't stack up. Is it time for transparency from the Minister.
CLARE: On that point about what happened a couple of years ago. She said that provided context, but the overall reason is that she made the decision that it wasn't in Australia's national interest. If there are more flights that they can fly in now, they should fly those flights before asking for more. I just think that makes common sense.
GILBERT: And finally, the Voice. Two weeks out. Is it all gone? Is it done?
CLARE: Mate voting hasn't even started yet. It starts tomorrow in some states where there's no public holiday, it starts on Tuesday for states like NSW, which does have a public holiday. This is a chance to do what we should have done 122 years ago, to recognise the fact that Australia didn't start when Captain Cook arrived. That we've got a story that goes back 60,000 years. And, Kieran, this is not a Labor idea, this is not a Liberal idea. This is the idea of Indigenous Australians asking us to work with them, asking us to listen, holding out their hand. And Australians have got a choice in the next few weeks to shake that hand or to slap it away. If you can't find it in your heart, find it in your head to vote for this. Because think about this, if you're a young Indigenous bloke today, you're more likely to go to jail than to university. And it costs taxpayers $11,000 a year to send a young Australian to university. It costs taxpayers $148,000 a year to send that same Australian to jail. 13 times as much. Now, just think, if we listen and come to better decisions and get better results and have more young Indigenous men going to university than to jail, then it's going to be better for them, it'll be better for their community and it'll be better for Australian taxpayers.
GILBERT: Jason Clare. Appreciate your time. Thanks.