20 Mar 2018

KIERAN GILBERT: This is AM Agenda. With me now the Shadow Employment Minister Brendan O’Connor. Before I get your thoughts about the debate on school funding, I want to play our viewers the comment I alluded to before the break by Simon Birmingham the Education Minister when it comes to the Melbourne Catholic Education Office.

BIRMINGHAM: And I’d say that across the rest of the country Catholic education is engaging very constructively with us in terms of that review-
GILBERT: But not Victoria? But not constructively- 
BIRMINGHAM: There’s always someone who can be bought by a few pieces of silver. But ultimately we are going to get a solution here.

GILBERT: It’s been seen as a reference there to 30 pieces of silver received by Judas. That’s why it’s being reported today on the front page of The Australian. Your thoughts on that? Because the Minister says he was simply commenting on the fact that many parts of the Catholic system are being constructive - the Victorian, not so much.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR, SHADOW MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS: Well, the Catholic system is losing money and that’s been Labor’s position all along. It’s not a recent thing that we’ve made commitments to restore funding to the public education system and the Catholic system. 
Quite frankly, Kieran, Simon Birmingham’s comments are disgraceful and they are highly offensive and he should apologise - not just to the Catholic education office, but to all Catholic parents who just want to have a fair funding arrangements for their schools. 
That’s what the issue is here. The overwhelming funding cut has come from the public education system, and we’ve committed to restoring it. But 12 per cent of the cuts as we see them have come from the Catholic school system. We said we’d look to restore funding for Catholic schools.
Now, the Minister can disagree with the Catholic Education Office, but to use such language - and to be so dismissive and so insulting to Catholic parents in particular, who just want good education for their kids - is very offensive, and he must apologise for those comments. 
It’s one thing to have a public policy disagreement, but to use such personally abusive language is remarkable, quite frankly.

GILBERT: Well, he’s making the point that the rest of the Catholic education system are being constructive, and clearly his view is the Victorian arm of that system have not been.

O’CONNOR: Well, I think they’ve been submitting that they’ve lost money as a result of the changes made by the Government in relation to what was once known as the Gonski needs-based funding.

GILBERT: So, you’ve thrown that out the door with the needs-based commitment?

O’CONNOR: No, no. We’re going to restore needs-based funding. But 86 per cent of the funding cuts happened in the public school system, and that of course is our priority - as is the Catholic funding cuts as we see them, and confirmed by the PBO. We need to see that restored.
Tanya Plibersek our Shadow Education Minister is committed - as is Bill Shorten - to making sure we restore the funding - $17 billion.

GILBERT: To restore every single dollar? The Catholic schools will get every single dollar?

O’CONNOR: We’ve said, look, it’s not fair, and that we want to see funding based on need - but the idea that the Minister thinks he can just insult Catholic parents and the Catholic Education Office is quite extraordinary.

GILBERT: His whole idea is that it is needs based.

O’CONNOR: Well, we don’t agree with the way it has been modelled. And certainly you don’t get to take $17 billion out of funding for education and tell us you are responding to the needs of our kids.

GILBERT: The public school system are not too happy with Bill Shorten’s comments. Phillip Spratt for the Council of State School Organisations says it’s a spectacular special deal that Mr Shorten’s done with the Catholic Bishops. He goes on to say that it’s an irrational and illogical policy, and a scramble for votes.

O’CONNOR: Well look, he obviously has a particular standpoint. Our position from the start - from the point where the Government chose to reshape the policy and try and present it as what was once Labor policy - is that we don’t support $17 billion of funding cuts, 86 per cent of which would be restored into the public education system.

GILBERT: But if Labor do a special deal with Catholics, then you’re going to anger others aren’t you?

O’CONNOR: No, no. We are looking at all of the schools – independent, Catholic, and public schools - that have been affected by the cuts. 86 per cent of cuts are happening in the public education system, and we are looking to restore them. That’s our priority. 
The Catholic school system funding has also been cut, Kieran. Of all of those cuts, they make up 12 per cent of those cuts. And we’ve said we’ll look to support that. We’ve said that now for a year, or for as long as this policy has been presented by the Prime Minister and the Minister for Education. The fact is that that’s our view. 
The fact that the Minister chooses not to hold that view is one thing, but for him to attack the Catholic education office, and quite frankly the parents that send their kids to Catholic schools is highly offensive, and he must apologise for using such intemperate language.

GILBERT: On to some other issues now, and you heard the criticism of the Green’s from Michael Sukkar in relation to the climate change discussion that the Greens leader initiated yesterday. What are your thoughts on that? Because obviously Labor believes that the climate is changing, and it’s had an impact on the frequency of fires and so on. Is it appropriate to be raising that now though?

O’CONNOR: There are plenty of occasions where we get to underline the difficulties and the risks with climate change. But, the way in which it was presented by the Greens yesterday was inopportune. It was wrong to present it in that matter.
I think that our first thoughts and consideration must be with victims of bushfires. We can talk about the policy ramifications after that. 
We do not know what properties have been destroyed. There may well still be people who are at risk. There are issues around asbestos for those properties that have been damaged by fire.
So, let’s just deal with those issues. I think it was a mistake for the Greens to be focusing on policy around climate change by using these bushfires that are still raging.

GILBERT: Labor had a big win over the Greens over the weekend in the Batman by-election. Do you feel you have seen them off to that extent in that part of the world? Or is that going to be an ongoing battle against the Greens - and in that context as well, do you feel that the dividend policy might not be as much of a political negative as some have thought it might be?

O’CONNOR: Well firstly, I think we will never assume anything in politics. You always have to be attentive to what is out there and who you will be competing against. It was a very good win. It was a very good win because we stood on policy. We had an excellent candidate – really, you couldn’t have a better candidate than Ged Kearney, someone who really has always stood up for working people.
I think she engaged with people -

GILBERT: She found it hard to get support for pre-selection though, didn’t she? From members of the right faction-

O’CONNOR: I am not aware of the internal workings or all of that. All I know is before she was the candidate, she was leading the union movement. It’s not like we had her in the wings doing something that was not significant. She was a national leader. 
What you had in Ged was a local champion – because of her association with the seat – and a national leader. You don’t tend to get those two qualities in one candidate. You don’t get that often. So, we were very fortunate to have her.
A very good campaign – I should add – by the national Secretariat, and an enormous effort by all the volunteers and members. I just want to say on this – because we don’t too often focus on the- 

GILBERT: And on that dividend policy as well?

O’CONNOR: Look, people said Bill Shorten should have announced this policy after the by-election, what was he doing? I think people are sick to death of politicians saying one thing before an election – in this case a by-election – and then doing something different. We have been choosing to present our policies before the election – we did so before the 2016 election, we will do so before the forthcoming election – and, quite frankly, we need to present our policies that deal with fiscal repair and also provide us the capacity to fund education.

GILBERT: You are the Shadow Employment Minister, and there has been a submission to the Fair Work Commission from the hair and beauty employers that call for penalty rate cuts. You’re obviously opposed to that. But in terms of the business perspective, doesn’t it make sense that if they want to employ more people then that they would take that position, which the Government also supports?

O’CONNOR: We do not support cuts to penalty rates – at any time, but certainly not when we have the lowest wage growth in 20 years. It is self-defeating for businesses that rely on the consumption of goods and services to see wages fall in real terms. 

GILBERT: If a business is struggling, and they want to employ people-

O’CONNOR: We certainly understand that. Equally, if we have aggregate demand affected because we have less consumption – if people who are in retail and hospitality, who have their penalty rates cut stop getting their hair cut as often – then they are going to have less business. It’s a spiral that you do not want to get in to – which is low wages, low consumption, low business confidence, low consumer confidence, and it goes on.
Now, what we say is that we need to see a real increase – a responsible, but a real increase - to the minimum wage.

GILBERT: Why don’t you put a number to that?

O’CONNOR: I think it is incumbent on the Commission to consider all the factors and all the submissions-

GILBERT: Because you have said above inflation, but why won’t you put a number to it? Give it a dollar figure?

O’CONNOR: We have said that the Commission has a role, it has an expert panel, it has the wherewithal to make a decision having looked at all the submissions-

GILBERT: You’re not squibbing it?

O’CONNOR: What we have done – which no other federal Opposition has ever done, and we have done it on three occasions – is that we have made submissions to the National Wage Case to argue for an increase in the minimum wage because the minimum wage has been falling as a proportion to the median wage, and we want to see some improvement.
People deserve a pay rise.

GILBERT: I appreciate your time Brendan O’Connor.

O’CONNOR: Thanks Kieran.


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