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Simon Birmingham

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E&OE TRANSCRIPT
Doorstop interview, Canberra
Topics:
Thousands of families hitting the child care rebate cap; Making child care more affordable, accessible and flexible; Islamic Collage of South Australia; Senator Xenophon; Same Sex Marriage
16/02/2017

Simon Birmingham: Thanks for coming along.

The data that’s been revealed today demonstrates the importance of ensuring the Turnbull Government’s child care reforms are passed to help the hardest working, lowest income Australian families. What our data shows today is that far too many families are falling off the financial cliff mid-financial year when it comes to their child care support. Already this year around 3600 Australian families have run out of support for their child care bills, and that will hit 94,000 by the end of June, and that’s something that we want to end. 

Our child care reform, as we proposed in the parliament, will abolish this financial cliff for every Australian family earning less than $185,000. We will increase the rate of subsidy support for the lowest income families, going from 72 per cent child care support to 85 per cent child care subsidy. These are really important reforms that better target support for low income families. Let me give just one example: A family earning around $80,000 with both parents working and two children in child care three days a week will be around $3000 a year better off under our child care reforms. These are real savings, and they are net of our proposed changes to Family Tax Benefit, so they're providing overall benefits to those hardworking Australian families. 

Now, we are determined to see these reforms passed. We will keep working with every single member of the Australian Senate who is willing to talk to us to get the savings to pay for these reforms to ensure they are implemented. But I do call on Bill Shorten and the Labor Party – who have no child care policy of their own to speak of – to come to the table, to stop being missing in action on the child care debate and actually work with us to help fix this problem for Australian families. 

I also want to touch today on the issue of the Islamic College of South Australia. My department has today served notice on that college that we will revoke their future funding status from the end of this school term. This has been a very long process, a process of very thorough assessment with multiple warnings provided to the college. Last year, conditions were set down for the Islamic College of South Australia, which they failed to meet. They were given warning late last year about their failure to meet those conditions, and an opportunity to demonstrate that they would get themselves in a better place. Instead, what we have seen are resignations of the principal, a number of the board members, chaos, dissatisfaction from the parents but, ultimately, a cool-headed assessment by my department that they are failing to meet the high standards of governance, financial independence and management that we expect. 

Every single taxpayer dollar that goes into Australian schools should be used exclusively for the benefit of school children, not funnelled off to help any other external organisations, not mismanaged due to poor governance, not subject to internal feuding, and these are the types of problems that have beset this college over a prolonged period of time. Enough is enough. This decision has now been made. Yes, it is subject to certain appeal processes, but we will not tolerate a continued malpractice, mismanagement when it comes to the education of Australian children and the use of taxpayer dollars to support that education.

Question: Minister, last year you said the school had improved on its financial obligations and governance. What changed? 

Simon Birmingham: So last year we did set down a whole series of conditions that the school was expected to have to meet. Unfortunately, they have not adhered to those conditions in terms of the accountability, financial accountability, the governance standards and practices that are expected to be adhered to. The school was given a chance to respond to their failure to meet those conditions and, unfortunately, was unable to do so. 

Now, my heart goes out to the parents, the teachers, the students at the Islamic College of South Australia. They are the innocent victims of mismanagement of this school. But ultimately, we can't stand idly by, no matter how much we care about those students or teachers, and let mismanagement continue when taxpayers' dollars are at stake.

Question: What assurances are in place for those students then if the school is forced to close? What assurance can you give parents and students?

Simon Birmingham: I have been in touch with the South Australian Education Minister, Susan Close, this morning, and my department has been working continuously with the South Australian Education Department to make sure that there are safeguards in place. 

Now, it is a matter for the school as to whether it continues to operate. We have seen in the case of the Malek Fahd School in New South Wales that, despite revocation of funding last year, they are continuing to operate. They, of course, are embroiled in various appeals, which I note the last of those before the Australian Administrative Appeals Tribunal they have lost, but it is a matter for the school there. But certainly, the South Australian Department I know will work cooperatively with my Department to make sure that if there were a closure, those students are well cared for and appropriately helped and supported to find alternate education facilities.

Question: Do you believe the school is likely to stay open, like we saw with that other school you mentioned?

Simon Birmingham: That's entirely a matter for those who are running the school at present.

Question: Just on the appeals process, are you willing to work with the board to perhaps work on a way forward, or is this the end of it?

Simon Birmingham: This is a process that has dragged on since 2015 and enough is enough. We have provided multiple chances and they have failed at meeting the strong conditions that have been put in place. Now, ultimately, I think taxpayers expect the Federal Government, and all governments, to look out for every dollar that's spent. We are not providing funding to support schools, be they government schools, non-government schools, faith-based schools or non-faith-based schools, to be funnelled off to other organisations or to be mismanaged. We are providing that funding for the benefit and wellbeing of students and their education, and we won't tolerate it going anywhere else.

Question: Minister, can you be a bit more specific about how the school failed to meet those reasonable standards and expectations?

Simon Birmingham: I’m not going to go into each of the details around the conditions, because we have seen that there’s a higher level of litigation subject to these matters. Happy for us to provide what information we can in detail to you, but ultimately I want to make sure that our position, which has been vindicated in the case of the Malek Fahd decision by the AAT, is a position that we can strongly and clearly defend in the courts, as I’m confident it will be if required.

Question: Is this a warning to other schools? How many other schools out there are at risk?

Simon Birmingham: So there were six schools associated with the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils where we started an audit process way back in 2015, and where various steps have been taken in terms of the conditionality of funding around those schools. Now, many of them, a number of them, are seemingly adhering to those conditions, working through them. There are some questions still being answered by a college here in Canberra, and of course we have taken the decision now to revoke funding in the case of the Sydney and Adelaide colleges. But the others, I hope, will stick to the conditions, will stick to the high standards we expect, but if they don’t it is a clear warning that we will not tolerate, no matter what the faith, what the nature of the school, misuse of public funds or mismanagement of a school that is being publically funded.

Question: Teachers there are asking how they will pay their mortgages once this school possibly closes. What’s your advice to them?

Simon Birmingham: My heart does go out to students and their parents and the teachers who are all innocent victims of this. I of course hope that we see satisfactory outcomes for all of those students, and we will absolutely work with the South Australian Education Department to make sure that nobody’s education or schooling is interrupted. And I’m sure that good, outstanding, high-quality teachers will always find work within the school system, but we can’t stand by and just let a school who has failed, despite being given multiple chances, continue to be given another go.

Question: Why did you make this decision three weeks into the new school year, instead of at the end of last year to give families the opportunity to find new schools?

Simon Birmingham: The school was served notice last year in terms of their failure to meet the standards, and in terms of the need for them to demonstrate that they could do so. The school I think, from recollection, sought some extension of time in terms of their ability to respond to the questions that we asked. We granted them that extension of time. Ultimately there are very strict timelines laid out in the Education Act for schools to be able to provide responses when we issue such notices of intent, and so we followed those timelines in a strict manner. But of course we have and the department has been very thoughtful and determined in terms of setting the date for the revocation of funding to make sure that aligns with the end of the school term. 

Question: On child care reforms, can you rule out the option of splitting up the Omnibus Savings Bill into separate parts to ensure some of the savings past parliament?

Simon Birmingham: I’m not going to rule anything out in terms of ensuring that we get our child care reforms through the parliament. We will work with the crossbenchers if that’s what we have to do. If Labor continues to stay out of the child care conversation and check themselves out of helping hard working Australian families, we’ll work with the crossbenchers. We’ll do it clause by clause if we have to, to make sure we get an outcome and get through the parliament support for our child care reforms, and deliver that assistance that ensures that from next year we no longer have the case of Australian families falling off that financial cliff. 

Question: Minister, there’s a fairly scathing editorial in a Sydney newspaper today about the state of South Australia. The first claim is SA is one big Centrelink que. As a Senator from that state, what’s your reaction to that?

Simon Birmingham: There’s not a lot in that Daily Telegraph story that I agree with. It makes one or two points in relation to energy security in South Australia, which obviously is a crisis matter in terms of investment confidence in the state, and of course jobs in the state. They’ve been well and truly under pressure, with the most recent unemployment data showing the highest level of unemployment in the nation. So there are real problems for the economy in SA, but I flatly reject the characterisation the Daily Telegraph has put on the state of South Australia today, and frankly much of their characterisation of Senator Xenophon, too. 

Question: And just quickly on gay marriage, can you tell us the- the committee has come back, the cross-party committee. Are you glad that they’ve reached a consensus, and does this open the way for a free vote for Coalition MPs?

Simon Birmingham: Well I always like to see consensus in the parliament. I haven’t had a chance to read their report though, and I’m sure I’ll hopefully take a chance to do so over the coming couple of weeks.

Thanks everybody.
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