Canberra Liberal criticises school meals policy, saying Labor is trying to ‘distract’ voters with free food

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Student Maddy Trezise, 7, waits in the lunch line at Perseverance Primary School on French Island on October 19, 2018.
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A plan to trial free meals in some Canberra public schools has provoked an uproar among the ACT’s main political parties, with Labor saying its Liberal opponents “just simply don’t care” about disadvantaged students.

Key points:

  • Canberra Liberal MLA Candice Burch says a Labor plan to trial free meals in public schools is a “distraction”
  • Education Minister Yvette Berry says Ms Burch’s comments are “disgusting” and shows a lack of care for poorer students
  • Liberal leader Alistair Coe would not be drawn on whether he stood by Ms Burch’s comments

Liberal MLA Candice Burch, who is the party’s transport spokeswoman, criticised the meals policy this morning, saying it was a distraction from the ACT’s education outcomes.

“Our school reading and mathematics results are going backwards, we’ve got the worst education outcomes in the country, we’ve had children forced to learn outside in the middle of winter due to hazardous substances in their classrooms, and instead of addressing these problems ACT Labor is trying to distract with free food,” Ms Burch wrote on Facebook.

Beneath the post, Liberal candidate for Ginninderra Ignatius Rozario commented: “Children go to school to learn not for free lunch.”

Mr Rozario has since edited the comment, saying he agrees with free food for children who need it but the policy will not fix problems in the education system.

External Link: Candice Burch’s Facebook post on Labor’s schools plan.

Labor leader Andrew Barr had earlier unveiled a plan to trial free breakfasts and lunches at five public schools.

Mr Barr also announced that, if re-elected, the Government would recruit 25 school-based youth and social workers.

When told of Mr Burch’s criticism at a press conference, Labor education spokeswoman Yvette Berry reacted angrily.

“That’s disgusting. All the research shows that when a young person has a full stomach, their education will improve,” Ms Berry said.

“And those kinds of comments show that they just simply don’t care. They simply don’t care about people in our community who are doing it tough, who need a hand up without the stigmatisation placed on it.

“They don’t have to ask for help — we’re going to provide them with the hand up that they need to get a really good education, in an equitable education system.”

Canberra schools usually have the nation’s highest literacy and numeracy results in national benchmark tests, though the territory’s average results slipped behind Victoria’s last year.

However, the ACT Auditor-General has previously found that Canberra students’ performances are significantly worse that children in similarly advantaged schools elsewhere.

Liberals say they will reduce poverty

A woman with a puppy smiles at the camera.

Liberal leader Alistair Coe would not be drawn on whether he stood by Ms Burch’s comments, instead saying the Labor Government had created a city with 30,000 people living in poverty.

“We have thousands of kids that are in poverty under ACT Labor,” he said when asked about his colleague Ms Burch’s comments.

“This is the reality. That’s why we called for a poverty inquiry.

“It is absolutely vital that we do everything we can to lower the cost of living in Canberra.”

Ms Burch responded to anger at her Facebook past with another message, saying the Liberals would help poorer students by lowering living costs.

“Of course we do not want kids going hungry,” she wrote.

“The best way to ensure that kids are well fed when they attend school is to lower the cost of living for Canberra families — and only the Canberra Liberals have a plan to do this.”

She said that plan included freezing residential household rates rises, reducing car registration fees and increasing bulk-billing rates by lowering doctors’ business costs.

“Remember, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and Andrew Barr already plans on increasing your rates by a further 20 per cent,” Ms Burch wrote.

Earlier in the election campaign, Labor pledged to hire more teachers and invest more money in improving government and non-government school buildings.

The Liberals had promised to overhaul the curriculum to free up teachers’ time and focus on core subjects such as maths and English.

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