SUBJECTS: Labor leadership; Speech to Sydney Institute; PM’s popularity
Christopher Pyne: Good morning everyone and thank you very much for coming to this press conference. Last night on Q&A Joel Fitzgibbon was given the opportunity on three occasions to express his confidence in Julia Gillard as Prime Minister and he refused to do so or failed to do so. In fact, he raised the standard for Julia Gillard. He raised the high bar by saying that popularity was the key test of whether a leader stayed as the leader of the Labor Party. We know that Julia Gillard is one of the most unpopular leaders in Labor Party history and therefore Joel Fitzgibbon was sending a very clear message that Julia Gillard’s days are numbered as Prime Minister and he essentially fired the starter gun on the run down to the removal of Julia Gillard as Prime Minister. He compared her to the Newcastle Knights who we all know are sitting 12th on the NRL table and have no possibility at all of winning the premiership this year. In other words he was saying that her season is well and truly over and it’s time she went. He was given the opportunity to change those comments this morning on ABC Radio in Newcastle and he failed to do so.
The Chief Whip is held to a higher standard of loyalty than anyone else in the Government or the Opposition because the Chief Whip’s job is to corral the numbers for the Prime Minister and for the Government. Joel Fitzgibbon is the Chief Whip and rather than corralling the numbers for Julia Gillard he is doing so against her. As a consequence he should either resign his position as Chief Whip today or Julia Gillard should exert some authority over this dysfunctional and rotten Government and sack Joel Fitzgibbon. If she was a leader’s bootlace, that’s exactly what she would do. It is impossible for Julia Gillard to tolerate Joel Fitzgibbon in the role of Chief Whip in that unique position given his complete fundamental breach of loyalty to her last night.
Journalist: So who would step in as Labor leader then? Who do you think should step in?
Pyne: Well, that’s a matter for the Labor Party. The Opposition’s point of view is that this is a dysfunctional and rotten Government. Our view is that whoever is the Labor leader, the party and the Government remains rotten and divided and dysfunctional. There are six contenders for the Labor Party leadership; Greg Combet, Bill Shorten, Kevin Rudd, Steve Smith, Simon Crean and Wayne Swan. The only thing they can agree on is that they don’t want Julia Gillard to be the Prime Minister at the next election. What they can’t agree on is who should replace her.
Journalist: In terms of our teachers, the Coalition will remove underperforming teachers; make it easier to remove them. How do you propose that those removals will take place?
Pyne: I gave a speech last night at the Sydney Institute where I outlined one of the key factors in good student outcomes is teacher quality. It seems common sense in fact, but in Australia we have allowed the quality of our teachers to not be the fundamental issue driving education reform in this country. Sure, good infrastructure is important, but who our teachers are and what they are teaching our young people is actually the fundamentally important principle that guides good student outcomes. We have in Australia a straightjacket over how teachers are remunerated, what career progression they can expect and as a consequence we are not attracting the highest calibre people to the teaching profession that we should be. The Federal Government can assist that in two ways; through University compacts, we can drive what our teachers are being taught, how they are being trained at University and secondly by introducing real principal autonomy at school level we can give the principals in government schools the power that they are seeking to remove, or retrain, or manage underperforming teachers out of the profession, while hopefully the state governments will pay better performing teachers commensurately with their effort.
Journalist: Would you then have a different education model, say like the one in Finland where teachers have to have their Masters Degree level?
Pyne: It’s really a bit impossible to compare Finland with Australia’s education system. I know people are fond of doing it because it’s the gold standard. But in Finland, teachers are valued as much as orthopaedic surgeons are valued in Australia. In Finland they have Masters or PhD degrees, there are 4 million people in Finland and they’re very much a homogenous society, they are not a multicultural community like Australia is, so it is very hard to compare the two, but what the east Asian economies are showing us and Finland and other countries is that a relentless focus on teacher quality is much more important than smaller class sizes, or paying all teachers more, or more teachers. In the last ten years we spent 44% more on government school education, our class sizes are now down to 20, or 21, or 22 and yet our outcomes are worse. So clearly it’s not about money, what it is about is teacher quality and what students are being taught. What I outlined last night is the Coalition’s approach to rewarding better performing teachers and removing underperforming teachers and I think that is exactly what parents want people to address in government.
Journalist: Finally Mr Pyne, would larger class sizes see fewer teachers?
Pyne: Not necessarily, I don’t have an obsession with class sizes. What’s happened in the last ten years is that state governments, both Liberal and Labor have had an obsession with smaller class sizes, and the unions have had an obsession with them. But there is no evidence that smaller class sizes somehow produce better student outcomes. In spite of Australia having small class sizes for ten years, in fact their outcomes have gone backwards. I am not fixated on a class size, what I am fixated on is the need to train our teachers better, and to ensure that when young people choose teaching as a profession, as a vocation, they can see ahead of them a career progression which they find attractive. At the moment they don’t, they look at teaching as a profession and think in five or six years I am going to plateau in my career and as a consequence many of them don’t stay in the profession that they have been trained for.
Journalist: Sorry, just back to the comments that Joel Fitzgibbon made overnight, what does this show about the state of the Labor Party?
Pyne: The Labor Party is dysfunctional, it’s divided and it’s rotten to the core. Joel Fitzgibbon is the Chief Whip. He has a higher standard of loyalty than anyone else in the Government because his job is to corral the numbers for the Prime Minster. Instead, he’s doing the opposite. He’s undermining the Prime Minister. This is not the first incident in which Joel Fitzgibbon has been responsible for undermining the Prime Minister, he’s been undermining the Prime Minister since February. Labor figures in Canberra have been talking about Joel Fitzgibbon gathering the numbers for anyone other than Julia Gillard. Since February when he wasn’t promoted he made it absolutely clear how furious he was about that. Last night on Q&A he grinned broadly at the suggestion he expected Julia Gillard’s polling numbers to improve and he laid out the standard, which was popularity. Now, we all know Julia Gillard is about as popular as anthrax in Australia right now and therefore he was saying that it’s time for Julia Gillard to go. He compared her to the Newcastle Knights who we all know, have no possibility of winning the Premiership this year in the NRL and as a consequence he fired the starter gun on the time for Julia Gillard to be removed as Labor leader.
If Julia Gillard was a leader’s bootlace, she would sack Joel Fitzgibbon today or Joel Fitzgibbon should resign, but it’s impossible for the Chief Whip to be both loyal to the Prime Minister and undermining the Prime Minister at the same time. He can’t stay in that job as Chief Whip and Julia Gillard must know that and if she doesn’t act on Joel Fitzgibbon today she’s demonstrating that weakness of leadership that she has become synonomous with.