Interview with Kieran Gilbert, Sky News

Release Date: 
15 April 2020

KIERAN GILBERT: Joining me now is the Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister and Cabinet Ben Morton.

Ben Morton, thanks very much for your time now. In contrast to the Victorian Premier and others, the PM's pushing hard on schools. What's motivating him on this issue? And I guess the other question to ask you as a father, are you sending your kids to school as term two resumes?

BEN MORTON: Hi Kieran. Look the Prime Minister is very motivated to make sure that education continues. There will be a lot of things that are taken from people as we deal with COVID-19 and he's very certain to make sure that a child's education is not taken from them during this period.  He's made certain that distance learning is going to be a part of education in term two. He’s said that in the video message that he’s published today.

But, we know that there will be kids where distance learning just won't happen. That is the sad reality.  That's why the Prime Minister has said thank you in a statement of gratitude today to those teachers, recognising the importance of teachers in our society and saying thank you to those teachers that will continue to provide classroom education to those students who will not be able to receive a distance education from home.

In my own in my own circumstance, Kieran, I’m quite obviously here in Canberra, I’m not at home in Perth.  My wife and my children are back home in Perth and my wife works. We don't have any family support in Perth. So my kids haven't missed a day of school and in term two they won't be missing a day of school, because if they do my wife won't be able to work either. Now, I'm not asking for people to feel sorry for me, but there's so many other parents in that same circumstance where they don't have a choice to provide distance education to their children.

KIERAN GILBERT:  And so in terms of clarity here.  What has the health advice been? Is it is it all unclear?

BEN MORTON: No. The health advice has been amazingly consistent. And I say that because the health advice to government has been that there is no medical reason why children should not be going to school.

Kerry Chant, the New South Wales chief medical officer made this point today that child to child transmissions have not occurred and would be releasing some more information to the New South Wales government on that issue. We know that the issues are not in relation to the health of students, but are in relation to the health of teachers. Just like in so many other workplaces, that’s why state and non-government education Departments need to put in procedures to protect the health of their teachers. It's quite clear that we can mitigate the risk of COVID-19 in workplaces. We need to do that and schools are an essential workplace.

We cannot have a situation where young children, particularly from those communities or those children that are most vulnerable, miss out on a month, or two months, or six months, or most of the year of their education. That will impact them for the rest of their lives. And that's what's motivating the Prime Minister on these issues.

KIERAN GILBERT: Angelo Gavrielatos of the New South Wales Teachers Federation told Andrew Clennell the Prime Minister's comments have been unhelpful. Then you've got Kevin Bates on Channel Nine saying the Prime Minister should keep out of the schooling debate, which hangs in the balance. He says he does not think it could be any further from the truth that the education of children hangs in the balance, was his point. What do you say to those teachers’ representatives who say that he should butt out of it and leave it to the states?

BEN MORTON:  Well, you've got a Prime Minister that is actually talking about the about the value of teachers to our society, the value of teachers to the education of our students and the value of teachers to helping support our country's battle with COVID-19.  I think this is an amazing recognition of gratitude to the teaching profession. I think it should be a welcome statement.

The statements from the Prime Minister are completely consistent with the statements from the state Premiers. Daniel Andrews and Gladys Berejiklian have confirmed that already today. What the Prime Minister was doing was to say thank you to those teachers, recognising the importance of those teachers to their students, to the families that they support, but particularly to those vulnerable students who we know that distance education will not happen.

There are communities, probably the higher socio-economic communities who will be able to deal with distance education better than some lower socio-economic communities. They’re the students that the Prime Minister has in his mind, that without classroom learning, there will be a complete absence of education for those students. That's the sad reality.

KIERAN GILBERT: What do you say to Labor and others who have said that there are mixed messages? That parents are saying today in Victoria, for example, Daniel Andrews says one thing, the Prime Minister says something else entirely when it comes to his keenness for kids to be back at school.

BEN MORTON: Well, just because Labor says there’s mixed messages does not mean that there are. And Premier Daniel Andrews has made it very clear that the Prime Minister's statement today has been consistent with the approach it’s taken. The Prime Minister today said the distance learning will be a reality, that it will be a feature of our education system. But, there will be students that need classroom learning to continue. Now, I'm not aware of any state education department that will be turning away students from schools that need to attend because that is the only option available to them. So it is consistent.

KIERAN GILBERT: And just finally, we're almost out of time. I will ask you about this phrase the Prime Minister talks about when he says ‘we've bought time’. What does that mean? I mean, does it mean that ‘we've bought time’ to September or I mean, how long are we in this state of crazy shutdowns that we're all struggling to deal with?

BEN MORTON: When the Prime Minister says we’ve bought time, what he's saying is thank you to the Australian people for buying that time.

What's really important with the time that we've bought is that we're able to look at and learn from the international experiences in other countries who are dealing with this issue in a much more emergency style situation. The Prime Minister is having regular telephone conversations with world leaders to learn from them. That's what this time has brought.

But importantly, in relation to our health system capacity, there are normally 2400 ICU beds in Australia, that can go to 3000 very quickly. And with the work that we're doing with private hospitals and the like coming up to 7000. Today there are 77 people, as of 6:30 this morning, in ICU and 43 of them on ventilators. So the time that we've bought has meant that we're able to plan and prepare. We’re able to make sure that we build the capacity in our health system, but also learn from international experience as well. And that time has been bought by the Australian people. And that's why the Prime Minister is so grateful for their acceptance of the restrictions have been put in place because it's worked.

KIERAN GILBERT: Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Ben Morton, thanks so much.

BEN MORTON: Thanks Kieran.