As attention turns to pupils’ return to the classroom, Opposition leader Anthony Albanese on Tuesday will promise a Labor government would spend $440 million on better ventilation in schools, building upgrades, and mental health support for children.
The plan is in two parts: a fund to upgrade schools in the age of COVID, worth $238 million and spent by the end of 2023, and $201.5 million to boost student wellbeing, which an ALP government would spend this year.
Albanese will outline the plan in a National Press Club pre-Australia Day address, billed as a scene-setter for election year in which he aims to give an idea of what kind of prime minister he would be.
Scott Morrison will address the club next week.
The start of the school year will see a fresh challenge for dealing with Omicron. NSW and Victoria have plans for the regular testing of children but appeals are being made to parents to be patient given the shortage of rapid antigen tests.
“Parents are worried sick about sending their kids back to school,” Albanese and shadow education minister Tanya Plibersek say in a statement. “Scott Morrison’s delays getting a COVID vaccine for young people means many students will be more exposed than they should be.”
In his speech, extracts of which were released ahead of delivery, Albanese says every school would stand to benefit from Labor’s proposed funding.
“The schools themselves will decide how to use the extra money to best help their students,” he says.
“Part of this funding will be allocated directly to activities that get our children back on track. This could mean more funding for school counsellors and psychologists, and for camps, excursions, sporting and social activities that improve children’s wellbeing.”
Labor would fund a “free, expert-developed, voluntary mental health check tool” that schools could choose to use to help identify children needing extra support.
An ALP government would have the Education Department conduct a review of COVID’s impact on students with disability, so they get the necessary help.
The upgrade plan would cover funding for better ventilation and projects such as more outdoor classrooms, replacing boarded-up windows and doors and buying air purifiers.
Labor’s initiatives would help schools and students “bounce back,” Albanese says.
Albanese says his speech title “Australia’s best days are ahead”, refers to “not just the better days that we’re all hoping for right now, but the best our nation has ever seen”.
Referring to Morrison’s statements we must “push through” the Omicron wave, Albanese says “‘pushing through’ this pandemic is not enough. We need to learn from it, we need to use what the last two years have taught us to build a better future”.
Australians have been “magnificent” in the pandemic, he says. If elected PM, he would see it as his fundamental responsibility to repay the sacrifices, reward the efforts, and “to prove worthy of the generosity and bravery of the Australian people”.
This would mean building on the lessons of the pandemic, he says. These include the importance of a strong public health system; the role of insecure work in undermining many families’ confidence; the need for Australia to be more self-sufficient; the importance of a high quality NBN and affordable childcare; and the consequences of stripping TAFE and training for skills gaps and worker shortages.
“In a recent profile, when asked to reflect on his time in office, Scott Morrison suggested he is not interested in leaving a legacy. For him, having no legacy is a conscious choice.
"If given the opportunity, I will make a different choice. I want a better future.
"And if I’m successful, that future will be clear to Australians by the end of Labor’s first term,” Albanese says.
“An Australia with rising living standards across the board, lifted by more secure work, better wages, stronger Medicare and cheaper childcare.
"An Australia with more secure jobs in both existing and new industries – industries that will be reaping the benefits of cheap, renewable energy created in abundance here at home.
"An Australia that is secure in our place in the world, standing up for Australian democratic values and for human rights on the global stage.
"An inclusive society, where gender, race or religion are no indication of a person’s opportunities or possibilities.
"An Australia reconciled with ourselves and with our history, and with a constitutionally recognised First Nations’ Voice to Parliament.
"The desire to deliver that legacy for Australians, with the lessons of this moment at its core, will be a driving force of a Labor government.”