Interview on ABC RN Drive with Patricia Karvelas  
Topics: SA electorate seat changes; NAPLAN; School funding; Bullying in schools; New Zealand visas



Patricia Karvelas:         Senator Simon Birmingham is a senior South Australian Liberal. He’s also the Education Minister. Minister, welcome back to RN Drive.

Simon Birmingham:     G’day Patricia, great to be with you.

Patricia Karvelas:         One Labor seat down but those that remain with larger margins mean that there’s basically some safer Labor seats in South Australia. Would this redistribution make things easier or harder for the Liberals in South Australia?

Simon Birmingham:     Well let’s see what the final boundaries look like. It does of course seem to abolish a Labor seat in SA and I’ve little doubt that that will unleash some factional mayhem inside the Labor Party because there are five notionally Labor seats that are left and of the incumbent Labor MPs who say they want to run again at the next election, three of them are from the left but the right-wing faction is pretty dominant in the Labor Party in SA and I can’t imagine they’d want the left wing to have three out of five. So the question will be is it Mark Butler, Steve Georganas or Tony Zappia gets the chop? However, we in the end will work hard to win as many seats as we can for the Liberal Party in SA. It’s sad the state is losing a seat, and of course that’s only happened because of population and economic stagnation over the last couple of decades and I just hope that the new government here in SA can turn that around and perhaps in a decade or so time we’ll see an extra seat come back to SA.

Patricia Karvelas:         What’s the best-case scenario for the Liberal Party here? Who would you like to face and where because this redistribution you just said is just a draft but clearly where it lands finally is very important to your party. What would you like to see happen?

Simon Birmingham:     Oh look, we will fight the boundaries as they’re drawn at the end. Of course, there are four incumbent Liberal MPs who will work very hard to retain their seats. There’s the electorate of Mayo that we would like to bring back to the Liberal Party fold and with Kate Ellis retiring, whatever the boundaries of the new seat of Adelaide are, we’ll be giving that a red-hot crack.

Patricia Karvelas:         Your party wanted the seat of Adelaide to be scrapped. Labor wanted Sturt. Why did you make that submission to the AEC?

Simon Birmingham:     Look, ultimately every party- and it’s really up to the party officials as to how they pitch these submissions, but every party tries to draw boundaries that they think best serve the constituencies of the state. Of course, what the AEC has done is draw something that looks pretty fair in many ways on [indistinct] interest. Of course, our party officials will take a closer look, make further submissions, so too will the Labor Party but I’m pretty sure within the Labor factions in SA there’s a lot of ringing around going on at present to work out how it is that the right-wing faction led by Peter Malinauskas, the new State Opposition Leader here and Don Farrell can maintain their pre-eminence, then that will mean knocking one of the left incumbent MPs on the head [indistinct] loss of the seat.

Patricia Karvelas:         Let’s move to education. I think that means a lot more to a lot of people let’s be honest.

Simon Birmingham:     Oh it sure does.

Patricia Karvelas:         You met with education ministers from around the country today. Bullying and cyber bullying was on the agenda. What did you agree to with the states?

Simon Birmingham:     This was really a bit of a process update in some ways. Many listeners would recall as you would that premiers and chief ministers discussed the issue of bullying with the Prime Minister at COAG earlier this year. We got an update on some of the process work that’s happening to really try to get all of the states and territories to work together with us federally. Put the different things that are working in their schools on the table so we can build a national strategy built around best practice, make sure everybody’s learning from each other’s examples. We talked about, and I briefed them specifically on the work of the eSafety Commissioner which was a Coalition Government initiative to create a new office, new statutory powers to be able to receive complaints about cyber bullying, to investigate, to issue take down notices and while it’s very disturbing to see the number of complaints that the eSafety Commissioner is now dealing with, it is pleasing to see that the message about the eSafety Commissioner and their work is getting through and people are using those powers of that resource.

Patricia Karvelas:         How do approaches differ from state to state when it comes to cyber bullying and how can the Commonwealth I suppose unify that approach?

Simon Birmingham:     Well we don’t want to unify but we want to make sure that everybody is understanding what resources are available and pursuing the best practices that are available. I think we need to be realistic first and foremost: school yard bullying is as old as schoolyards themselves. Nothing we do will completely eliminate schoolyard bully but the advent of cyber bullying has made it an even greater problem. It made the capacity there for bullying to follow kids home school from the schoolyard and into their homes and into their bedrooms even, and that means that new strategies are required. Now we invest hundreds of millions of dollars federally in youth mental health programs such as headspace. The states and territories back a number of different anti-bullying programs such as the Carly Ryan Foundation’s work or the Alannah and Madeline Foundation’s work. All of those different pieces need to be drawn together to see where they’re having greatest success at creating firstly, tolerant, inclusive, safe, respectful, kind environments in schools to create that culture of kindness really in our schools that eliminates bullying as much as you can. But then where sadly it does still occur to make sure there’s an awareness of how to take action, what action to take, and the steps that are necessary. Pleasingly a month or so ago now nearly two million Australian students participated in the National Day of Action Against Bullying. It was a record number of schools and students participating and that’s encouraging for the future in terms of schools raising awareness and getting a better understanding of what to do.

Patricia Karvelas:         Now, a review of NAPLAN is on the cards. Have you agreed to a review?

Simon Birmingham:     No we have certainly not agreed to a review. A number of states and certainly the teachers union have been arguing for a review although I think in this case the teachers union – what they’re intending to argue for is abolition of NAPLAN. Education ministers today agreed that it was important that we still have uniform assessment of students in a number of ways across the country. That we undertook that in a way that provided transparent information to parents and to schools and to managers of policy across the country such as education ministers. I think it’s important people realise that NAPLAN is one of the few areas where we actually have consistent information across states, across school systems and between schools where we can get a sense check as to how schools are performing, how students are performing and whether there’s a need to focus in on certain schools. But we did agree that the ACT in particular could bring forward a proposal for a review around elements of NAPLAN which will be considered at the June meeting of education ministers and at that stage we’ll consider whether that is a good idea or not, particularly in light of some of the big changes we have got at present with elements of NAPLAN shifting to an online format.

Patricia Karvelas:         I understand your point that of course we need some benchmarks. We need to see how our students are going more than anything to help them and raise standards. But clearly there are elements of NAPLAN which are failing. Don’t you need to keep a pretty broad mind in terms of changing NAPLAN so that some of these elements – and we saw the revelations about the writing task for instance just last week – are altered?

Simon Birmingham:     Well NAPLAN itself is under nearly a constant state of the review in terms of what’s in the individual components of assessment each year, noting there are different components; there’s a reading components or a literacy component as such, there’s a numeracy component, there is a writing component that we’ve discussed. There are various other sample components where we don’t use the whole school population but we sample civics knowledge, we sample aspects of scientific knowledge and so on as well. Those things are under constant and steady review where experts and academics look at how the tests work or the assessments work and indeed the commentary from the US this week which did absolutely back the fact that there should be something like NAPLAN, there should be writing assessments that are undertaken, but provided some feedback around how writing systems might be improved. That will be looked at – not by the politicians – but by the curriculum and education experts.

Patricia Karvelas:         There’s a story out today that some very exclusive schools St Ignatius, Loretto for instance are receiving $7 million in additional assistance from the Federal Government. Why do they need to get all this extra money?

Simon Birmingham:     Well it’s not really a story out today, it’s old news from last year. When we put through the school funding reforms that the Turnbull Government proposed last year, that seek over a period of six to 10 years to get all schools from [indistinct] right now, or process right now where they are funded on vastly different processes under ancient special deals, we put through legislation to have a six to 10-year transition period to get everybody to consistency under the needs-based Gonski formula. Now at that time there was negotiations to get legislation through the senate, there was some negotiation and discussions about impact on certain schools, and there are some schools who are actually going to see a real reduction in their funding. Only a small number, a very small number.  But some will and those schools in particular along with parts of the Catholic system asked for some transitional support in the first year so that they wouldn’t face at less than six months notice by the time the legislature passed a real reduction in the first year. We acceded to that, but it doesn’t change the end point of the legislation that we passed which is that those schools will still see a real reduction while more than 9000 schools across the country will see real increases, many of them very significant increases targeted at most in need to ultimately get every school to a consistent approach in terms of school funding.

Patricia Karvelas:         Just on another issue before I let you go, Australia will merge a new Kiwi visa with the existing skilled migrant programme, meaning as many as 10,000 visas that previously went to people from predominately Asian countries will now go to people from New Zealand. That also means less migrants overall. This change was made by the Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton not via the Cabinet process. Why is this made by a minister?

Simon Birmingham:     Patricia, I won’t pretend to be expert in the topic that you’re raising there. We have of course in our migration program a ceiling in terms of migration numbers and it is a ceiling not a target and that’s being well explained by Peter Dutton and the Prime Minister over the course of the last couple of weeks with some increased commentary around that. The ceiling that we didn’t meet last year and I understand the commentary and that like we’re unlikely to meet that ceiling this year either and [indistinct] we target our migration program largely towards skills and people then have to meet the skills check that is set in terms of the numbers that receive visas.

Patricia Karvelas:         Okay but either way there’s going to be less immigrants coming to Australia. That’s the stocktake here, that’s the fact. Do you believe in a big Australia?

Simon Birmingham:     Look I believe that Australia should manage our migration program in a way that brings in skills that we need for the future, where we need those skills that we should continue to be as we are and will keep being a generous country in terms of humanitarian resettlement. That we careful manage of course family reunion visas as well which are a significant part of the intake. I don’t know if the analysis you’re putting there around a technical change to a visa category will result in fewer migrants [indistinct] or whether in fact it might just change elements of the skills picks but that’s something that the Home Affairs Minister will be best placed to answer.

Patricia Karvelas:         Minister thank you so much for your time.

Simon Birmingham:     Thank you Patricia.

Patricia Karvelas:         That’s the Minister for Education and Training, Simon Birmingham and this is RN Drive.