SAMANTHA HAWLEY: Let’s turn first to the bombings at the Boston Marathon. Despite more than 100 Australians participating in the event, none were injured when two bombs ripped through the crowd at the race finish line. Three people were killed and more than 100 injured. The Prime Minister has written to the United States President offering Australia’s condolences. She says the terrorism alert here will not change.
JULIA GILLARD: At this stage, the Government has no information warranting any change in the terrorism alert level in our country, in Australia. The terrorism alert level remains at medium where it has been since 2001. What that means is that a terrorist attack could occur but I want to stress we have not upgraded warnings.
TONY ABBOTT: Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of those killed and injured in this terrible incident. While it’s too early to say who was responsible, obviously an event like this should deepen our resolve to stand up for democratic values and democratic decencies.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: Joining me this evening to discuss this matter and other domestic issues of the day is the Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham in Adelaide and the Labor Senator Louise Pratt who’s in Perth. Thank you both for joining us.
LOUISE PRATT: Good evening.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good afternoon, Samantha.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: Simon Birmingham, to you first. There were many Australians running in that race in Boston. It’s a sign, I guess, that we’re all vulnerable in a sense, isn’t it?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Samantha, if this does, indeed, prove to be a terrorism attack, as appears likely, it is a demonstration of terrorism at its very worst – terrorism attacking the types of activities that anybody could be engaging in at any day – and it’s a demonstration that the vulnerabilities exist where you least expect them, such as running an iconic event like the Boston Marathon, and obviously we do need to make sure that we take every sensible precaution but also that we ensure, ultimately, in response to these activities, that we get on with our lives and make sure that we don’t let these threats dampen community engagement and community involvement in such important events as this.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: Simon Birmingham, on the Gonski [Review of Funding for Schooling] reforms, obviously the COAG [Council of Australian Governments] meeting will be on Friday. The Prime Minister will need to gain support from all the states and territories there for her plan, or at least some of them. Can you just clarify for us the Coalition’s position on this? If agreement is reached with the states and territories, will the Coalition, if elected to government, stick by that deal?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Samantha, we will see what the final form of any agreement actually is and then we’ll make a sensible decision based on that. There obviously is still a way to go in terms of getting all of the states onboard and this is another classic example of the Government perhaps pursuing a principle that we might all agree with, in terms of increased funding for schooling, but the process by which they’re going about it and the fact that it is ripping money out of higher education to fund schooling – something that Carmen Lawrence, the former Labor premier and federal minister, has today described as dangerous, something that has been roundly condemned by many in the university sector – and the fact that they are presenting in some ways a fait accompli to the state premiers just shows the many flaws in the process they’ve gone through to get to this point.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: But would all the states and territories need to have signed up for a Coalition Government to continue down that path or would some of them… I mean, can you give us a bit more clarification on whether the Coalition actually supports this plan that is funding this through university cuts to put more money into the schooling system in this country?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: The aim of Gonski originally was to provide a simpler, fairer and more transparent way of funding schools and school places throughout Australia…
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: I’m just wondering, though, if you… yeah, I mean, just…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: … and the concern is if you don’t get all of the governments signing up, then you’ve well and truly fallen short of that aim and we could end up with even a more complex system of providing school funding, so we’re not against increased rates of school funding. If an agreement that is sensible and doesn’t enhance the complexity of the system is reached, then we’ll support it but we’re going to see what that agreement is.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: So, it sounds like you’d need everyone… so, you’d need all the states and territories onboard to stick by this, to keep it in place?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: All the states and territories being onboard would certainly increase the chances of it being something that we thought was at least a step in the right direction although I think there are still real concerns about the complexities of the model that is being proposed.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: Well, Louise Pratt, of course, Western Australia is one of the main states with concerns. Colin Barnett is certainly not inclined to sign up to this deal on Friday. Western Australia will get $300 million. That’s less than Tasmania. How will you sell that to your constituents?
LOUISE PRATT: Well, $300 million is better than nothing and I would argue that, without this scheme going forward, what we also know is that Western Australian students will go backwards by about $1500 per student and we know that because, you know, the current system is broken. It’s got a number of funding agreements and partnerships within it that are about to expire and you can’t just let those roll over without creating something to replace them. The great thing for WA is that WA students already have more money per capita being spent on them and already meet that benchmark, so, you know, I think it’s a win-win.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: But that’s thanks to what the Liberal Government’s doing there, Louise – credit where it’s due.
LOUISE PRATT: Oh, look, those increases have been built up under both Liberal and Labor governments and so, you know, I think that, you know… that’s part of WA’s good record on this issue.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: Simon, do you think Western Australia should get money in other areas to make up for the shortfall that they’ll receive here?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Samantha, I can understand the concerns of Colin Barnett and I think – whether it’s in other areas or, perhaps, more particularly, in looking at this model where South Australia also, compared with New South Wales, gets short-changed or Queensland or some of the eastern states – we have a situation where states that have done the right thing in education are going to ultimately be comparatively penalised compared to states that haven’t been spending as much per student and this is where…
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: So, we’re talking… but we are talking about giving all students the same chance, I guess, so that levels the playing field, doesn’t it? That’s the right thing to do? Every child in the country will get the same amount of funding?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well… and, Samantha, this is where, of course, we reach this real point of complexity as to how state funding arrangements, and overall state funding, interacts with specific purpose funding out of things like these packages and my concern is that, yes, you might get everyone on the same platform. Ultimately, perhaps, though, you’re keeping everyone at the lowest common denominator rather than providing the capacity for the states to aspire to actually do even better in the future. Where will the future incentive be for Western Australia or South Australia to actually spend more per student and make their schools the best in the nation?
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: Alright, well, can we move on? The Immigration department [Department of Immigration and Citizenship] has issued a scathing assessment of its own facility on Manus Island [Manus Island Regional Processing Centre]. It says that that asylum facility is cramped, it’s hot, it doesn’t have a reliable power source or water source, drinking water source. Louise Pratt, to you first, do you think that’s acceptable? Should we be housing people at Manus Island detention centre when even the Immigration department doesn’t think it’s up to scratch?
LOUISE PRATT: Well, the Immigration department is right to acknowledge that conditions there are difficult. It was part of the Government’s commitment to implementing the Expert Panel’s [Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers] recommendations that Manus and Nauru would reopen. You know, that means that we’ve got to get things underway there. What we also know is that, you know, whilst these are difficult conditions, these are the kinds of conditions that local people live in, if you visit these countries. Yes, it is hot, yes, power is unreliable and these are things that the Immigration department is trying to fix very quickly.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: Alright, well, Louise, just on that, I mean, is it suitable, then, for women and children to remain at that facility or should they be brought back to the mainland as the Greens have recommended today?
LOUISE PRATT: Look, this policy needs to be implemented as per the Expert Panel’s recommendations and if you start carving out certain categories of asylum seeker then the disincentive to take these dangerous boat journeys doesn’t exist. What you create is an incentive to put women and children on dangerous boats, so what we need to do is to make those living conditions on Manus as suitable for families and children as we possibly can and get that done quickly.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: And, in the meantime, when they’re not suitable, it’s okay to leave women and children there, even though the conditions are not suitable?
LOUISE PRATT: No, I would want to see those conditions ameliorated immediately.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: Simon Birmingham, to you, do you agree with that? Those conditions need to improve straight away?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Absolutely, Samantha, and this is a problem that Scott Morrison, the shadow Immigration minister, highlighted on his visit to Manus Island some time ago, so the Opposition and the Shadow Minister were warning about this before the Immigration department reported to the Parliament saying ‘these are problems’. Now, this is what you get when you have a Government that is haphazard and constantly changing its position on immigration that they were against…
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: And what… sorry.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: … being against offshore processing on the one hand and then having to quickly reopen facilities like Manus Island means of course you’re going to have this sort of situation.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: And do you think that the women and children on Manus Island should be brought home? Just briefly – we’re running out of time here.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, the ideal would be to get the facilities up to a standard as quickly as possible but, certainly, we have concerns that they are not at the standard suitable for women and children at present.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: Okay, well, we’re out of time for today. Louise Pratt in Perth, thank you very much for your time…
LOUISE PRATT: Thank you.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: … and, Simon Birmingham in Adelaide, thank you so much.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Thanks, Samantha and Louise.