KIERAN GILBERT: … let’s look at some domestic political issues… The [Australian] Financial Review reporting this morning that Bill Scales, the Swinburne University of Technology chancellor… he was the author of the Button car plan [Motor Industry Development Plan] under Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke… he’s wondering why the Government is targeting higher education to pay for the school funding changes and not targeting the car industry. This is a gentleman that knows both industries pretty well.
BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Oh, sure. Look, we’ve actually… but we are the biggest friend that higher education have had. I mean, if you look at the investment we’ve made over the last five years in higher education, we have had a 50 per cent increase in real investment in higher education. There’ll still be ongoing investment over the next three years. In fact, it’s going up by billions over that time and we had to make a decision about where do we dedicate resources to ensure that children in primary and secondary school get the best possible chance. Now, this is where we found some savings. There’ll be other savings that’ll be announced through the budget process but it really is critical now that the states on Friday make a decision to invest in our children. I mean, we have, unfortunately, children that are missing out. As a nation, we’re watching other countries go past us in terms of the education standards and we cannot allow that to happen.
KIERAN GILBERT: It doesn’t look like they’re going to make any decision favourable to the deal.
BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Oh, look, I think there’s the usual argy bargy prior to a meeting on Friday. The fact is…
KIERAN GILBERT: So, you’re still hopeful that the states might sign on on Friday, because, to be honest, it looks very, very unlikely at this stage, listening to their rhetoric.
BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well, you think it about it, Kieran. Historically, the states are responsible for the overwhelming proportion of the investment of primary and secondary education, certainly in the public school system, and here they have an opportunity to match one dollar for every two dollars the Commonwealth puts in. I mean, $5 billion for New South Wales – $4000, on average, for each student; $½ million for each school… you’re going to miss out on that opportunity? In the end, I believe premiers that put their state’s interests first, and the children of each state first, will actually sign up to a deal that’s historic. They’re literally, right now, Kieran, at the fork… there’s a fork in the road. They go down the path of a very significant investment and fundamental improvement for our schools or they turn their back on that and I think most premiers are looking at this and saying this is an opportunity, regardless of which political parties in which government – that should not matter. What should matter is what’s in the interests of the children of Australia.
KIERAN GILBERT: There are suggestions the Coalition might unpick the deals done if it’s not unanimous, if it’s not every state signed up. It would be a messy situation, would it not, if you have, say, a handful sign up but you have one or two don’t.
BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well, you know, if I was a Liberal premier, I’d be looking at the Commonwealth’s gesture here – not just a gesture, but an offer to fundamentally invest in our schools, to make sure we have specialist teachers, to make sure we have higher teaching standards, to make sure that children get the chance that they’ve been missing out on against the backdrop within the region where we’re watching nations in our midst zooming past us. Who’s going to miss that opportunity? I don’t think premiers who are showing leadership will do that and, in fact, they understand, too, if they commit to this, that whatever happens in the election, the Government after the election will have to commit to fundamental reform.
KIERAN GILBERT: We’re going to return our attention now to the Boston Marathon explosions … the US President, Barack Obama, spoke to the media a little earlier this morning, expressing his condolences to those affected.
BARACK OBAMA: We’re continuing to monitor and respond to the situation as it unfolds and I’ve directed the full resources of the Federal Government to help state and local authorities protect our people, increase security around the United States as necessary and investigate what happened. The American people will say a prayer for Boston tonight and Michelle and I send our deepest thoughts and prayers to the families of the victims…
KIERAN GILBERT: … we’re joined now by Liberal frontbencher Senator Simon Birmingham. Senator Birmingham, obviously disturbing events in Boston and… concerning security situation, as well, overnight.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, it certainly is, Kieran – good morning to you – and the Boston Marathon is obviously an iconic event in one of the world’s wonderful cities and obviously the concerns of the Coalition go out to those who are affected, to the American people and to the city of Boston as they deal with this tragedy and, of course, we share the very deep and grave concern that this may well be an attack on a very major public event and obviously we’ll wait to see how it unfolds as to the source of those attacks and what that may mean.
KIERAN GILBERT: And just recapping for our viewers, the Foreign [Affairs] minister, Bob Carr, holding a news conference on the Boston explosions… the latest advice from his Department as to the Australians in Boston, those that ran in the marathon, at this stage, according to the Prime Minister’s statement just from a few moments ago… at this time, the Consulate-General in New York is unaware of any Australian casualties caught up in this. As we’ve been reporting right throughout the morning, two people are confirmed dead and dozens have been injured in these tragic blasts in Boston.
Now, let’s turn our attention to domestic issues, Senator Birmingham. Let’s talk about this schools funding debate. You heard what Brendan O’Connor had to say there about it being incumbent on the states now to do the right thing for their students. Is there a lot of election year politics at play here that the Premiers are under pressure not to sign up, not to give the Prime Minister a deal in this election year?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Certainly not, Kieran. The premiers are doing what premiers will always do and that is fight for the best deal for their states but on this occasion they have, I think, serious grounds to at least exercise concerns. It’s not about whether or not you support the principle of more funding for education. Everybody supports the principle of more funding for education. It’s about the process and the handling of this matter by this Government and once again the Government is shown and exposed to have fallen down in that sense in that they are looking tricky, mean and tricky, in the way they’ve shuffled money around over recent years and now with the new cuts to higher education. We’ve seen various cuts across school and tertiary education totalling $11 billion and we’re going to see simply $9.6 billion in funding going into schools, so that’s by no means a great new investment in education. It’s actually a $1.6 billion cut overall in recent years from education if this package is adopted.
KIERAN GILBERT: The Government has… as you know, it says it’s putting it on a more sustainable footing, responding to Gonski [Review of Funding for Schooling] and fixing the model that saw those cuts implemented, where indexation relates to what state governments spend – if that’s reduced, so is the Federal Government funding. That was the model put in place by the Howard Government.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Kieran, it’s not to say that models are always perfect and should be set in stone. There’s always room to work to improve these things but a key point that I was making there is the process of this. Part of it is the money shuffling I was just talking about. Part of it is also the continued ‘take it or leave it’ approach of this Government and they’re going to the states… Julia Gillard, just as she stood up on media reform and said ‘it’s my way or the highway’… this time around, she’s going to the states and effectively saying the same thing and it’s unsurprising that the states that think they’re getting a raw deal, who are then presented with a ‘take it or leave it’ approach, are saying ‘well, this isn’t good enough and we’re going to kick up a fight’, so I understand why they’re having those fights. I understand why they are concerned that the Government is not delivering in terms of the full spirit of Commonwealth-State cooperation that they’ve talked about and, in the end, the states, of course, are particularly worried. If you’re a Western Australia and you’re looking at millions and millions of dollars being stripped out of Western Australian universities and you’re getting the least amount of money going into Western Australian schools, of course you’re going to question whether it’s a good deal for Western Australia so I understand entirely where Colin Barnett comes from.
KIERAN GILBERT: And would the Coalition unpick it? Would the Coalition unpick the deal if they don’t all sign on, if it’s a partial deal?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Kieran, we’ll see what happens on Friday at COAG [the Council of Australian Governments meeting] and I’m not going to deal in hypotheticals there except for the fact that, of course, if it’s a bad deal, the Coalition will reserve the right in government to try to renegotiate to get a better deal in place – a better deal for students, for governments, for parents. In the end, what matters most here is that our school system works, works fairly and that all schools, be they independent, Catholic or government, have the core level of funding to provide the services necessary.
KIERAN GILBERT: Senator Birmingham, thanks so much for your time, appreciate it.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: A pleasure, Kieran.