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Afternoon Agenda, Sky News, 25 September 2023

Kieran Gilbert: Let’s return now to our top story and I’m joined live by Liberal Senator and Shadow Education Minister, Sarah Henderson. Thanks for your time. Before we get to matters education, there is a lot to talk to you about, not the least of which the latest reports on schools in the Northern Territory. But our top story today on Mike Pezzullo, he’s been stood aside pending an inquiry into these leaked text messages. Has the government handled this controversy appropriately, in your view?

Senator Henderson: Kieran, good afternoon and great to join you. The Prime Minister of course has referred this to the Public Service Commissioner and Mr. Pezzullo has been asked to stand down, and I do think that is the appropriate course of action. I just make the point, Kieran, that Mr. Pezzullo has served both sides of politics and of course he was a former Labor staffer, but I do believe that is the appropriate response that has been announced today.

Kieran Gilbert: Well he is and has been known as a public servant that gets things done. That was the feedback I certainly received from the former Liberal Government and have received from the Labor Government. So someone that’s been seen as a public official that might shake things up a bit but here, according to these reports, does it appear that he’s overstepped the mark?

Senator Henderson: Kieran, I’m not going to make any comment on that, this of course, has been referred to the Public Service Commissioner, that is the appropriate course of action. I mean, there is no doubt that Secretary Pezzullo has got a formidable reputation, someone who has served both sides of politics. He has headed up the Department of Home Affairs, which is a very, very difficult job. But I will leave my comments at that.

Kieran Gilbert: Do you think there’s any coming back from this for him potentially?

Senator Henderson: Oh look Kieran, again, I’m going to leave my comments at what I’ve already said. This is now under investigation. Mr. Pezzullo has correctly stood down and we will await the results of that inquiry into this particular incident.

Kieran Gilbert: I’ve noticed you’ve made, if we move on now, you’ve made an intervention in this discussion around funding for schools, particularly in the Northern Territory. Some in the Top End only getting 30% of their allocated funding or being shortchanged in terms of multiple millions of dollars. What’s your reaction to that and how on earth can that happen in some of the most disadvantaged parts of the country? You would have thought that funding would have to be flowing into there to try and turn things around.

Senator Henderson: Absolutely Kieran, and I want to congratulate The Australian newspaper on highlighting some of the horrendous stories that we are reading about with Northern Territory schools. Look, I have to say, for many, many weeks I’ve been raising concerns about the Albanese Government’s failure to listen to Indigenous children in remote communities. We learnt through the Budget and Senate estimates that the Government has axed the construction of two Indigenous boarding schools in East Arnhem Land and also in the Pilbara. It has not distributed the $40 million to Central Australian schools as it said it would do, which was part of the community safety package. And of course, we know that the Northern Territory Government is far short of the money it should be delivering under the School Resourcing Standard. But we have seen no action from the Albanese Government and the Education Minister, Jason Clare. There are horror stories, Indigenous students are falling well below the minimum standards, the statistics are terrible that have come out of NAPLAN and there is horrendous disadvantage. We had a range of initiatives in place which have been axed by this government and I say Kieran, this again reiterates the hypocrisy of this government, talking about listening to the voices of Indigenous people when some of the most disadvantaged and marginalised Indigenous children are not getting what they deserve. There’s a lot that Education Minister Jason Clare could do right now, but he’s just sitting on his hands and it really is quite a disgrace.

Kieran Gilbert: Isn’t it possible though, that a Voice to Parliament would help change the situation on the ground if the Voice you say that it’s time the government listened to the voices that matter, but wouldn’t that potentially provide an avenue for them to do that?

Senator Henderson: Well, no not at all, because we are hearing the voices that matter right now. And in fact, as I say, we delivered a very substantial package of funding for Indigenous boarding schools. And in the last budget, despite all the rhetoric, all the rubbish that we’re hearing from the Prime Minister going to the Garma Festival saying we’re going to listen to the needs of Indigenous children and then on the other hand we see this government axing funding. So the voices of Indigenous people only matter when you have a government prepared to listen, and we are seeing gross hypocrisy from this government which is demonstrating time and time again that they are not prepared to listen. Look at Yipirinya School in Alice Springs – we made a commitment more than a year ago to boarding facilities to keep kids safe at school, to make sure that they are able to get a stable and positive education, and yet the government has done nothing to match that funding. And then there was $250 million announced for Alice Springs, $40 million for local schools, and that was all about getting kids off the streets, out of jail in some cases, and back to school. And yet the government has just plugged a funding gap of the Northern Territory Government rather than address the issues facing Indigenous children most in need. So we are seeing time and time again, Kieran, gross hypocrisy from this government and frankly it is time that they started listening to the voices who are already speaking, pleading for help.

Kieran Gilbert: I need to get your thoughts on the Covid inquiry, it is going to deal with Commonwealth issues, not unilateral state issues. Some mixed messages from ministers, school closures might still be covered as part of this. Should it be incumbent upon the states to step forward though, Sarah Henderson, and get involved themselves to provide some full review of what went on during those difficult months?

Senator Henderson: Kieran, it wasn’t just difficult months, it was difficult years and children across this country are still suffering the mental health and learning consequences of schools being closed for such a long period of time. The Government has announced a Claytons inquiry, one in which they’ve just looked after their Labor Premier mates, this is a disgrace. Australians deserve a proper inquiry into COVID 19, the things that worked and the things that didn’t work and that’s why the states and territories must be front and centre of this inquiry. It’s not good enough that they can say, oh yes, we’ll volunteer to step forward if it suits us. They must be held to account for the unilateral decisions they made. And in Victoria, we saw what we saw some of the most extreme pandemic restrictions of any place in the world, school closures, playground closures, workplaces closed for months, the overnight curfew, industries shut down, borders shut down. But for Australian parents and Australian families, Kieren, we deserve a proper inquiry and kids deserve to know why their schools were closed.  Because of course there have been subsequent independent reviews into some of these restrictions which found it was totally unnecessary to close schools. So as I say, Australians deserve proper answers and that’s why this government must deliver a proper inquiry.

Kieran Gilbert: Sarah Henderson, talk to you soon. Thanks for that.

Senator Henderson: Yeah, great to talk to you. Thank you so much, Kieran.

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