Doorstop Interview, Adelaide
Topics: University student employer survey results; Susan Lamb; Negative Gearing; New funding for child and youth mental health




Simon Birmingham:    Thanks very much for coming. The release today of new data around employer satisfaction with university graduates is a demonstration of the real importance of Australian universities focusing on delivering outcomes that benefit students, their prospective employers and ultimately the Australian economy. That’s why the Turnbull Government has had a focus on how it is that we can best incentivise universities to lift their performance in helping their students to succeed. We’ve seen over the last few years some concerning trends in terms of student completion rates, failing and dropping units. There’s a higher level of attrition in some instances, with student satisfaction and ultimately employer satisfaction, not all that we would hope them to be in all circumstances. That’s why we’ve put on the table proposals for growth in university funding in the future to be linked to performance, to make sure the incentives are there for our universities to do the right thing in helping students study courses that are relevant to them, ensure their skills are relevant, and maximise their future employment prospects, also. The clear message from this data today is that students themselves should do their research before they head off to university about the relevant courses and best universities to maximise their employment prospects, but that universities with the new types of policies that we’re putting forward, have the incentives put in place to make sure they focus on getting the best possible outcomes for their students.

I also just want to touch briefly on the extraordinary comments of Anthony Albanese today in relation to Labor MP Susan Lamb, in which Albo said he doesn’t know if Susan Lamb is a British citizen. Well, this, of course, is quite extraordinary. It’s very clear in the declarations that were put forward that Susan Lamb admits she was a British citizen when she was nominated for the last election, but she never completed her application to renounce her citizenship, which presumably means it is still intact to this day. Do we have a pom in the Parliament? It would seem so, and Albo certainly says he doesn’t know. This is a clear case in which Susan Lamb ought to be referred to the High Court for consideration of her eligibility to be sitting in the Parliament. Bill Shorten ought to do the right thing and [indistinct] to support that referral.  

Journalist:                   Just on the survey results, a quarter of graduates said their degrees aren’t important at all or just very little importance. Does that show our universities are failing students?

Simon Birmingham:    Well, there’s a clear message in this data that the universities need to strive to continually improve their performance. We expect students to work hard on their performance, and we ought to expect our universities to try to improve their performance for their students as well. That the relevance of degrees, the content of those courses must be up to scratch to ensure that students are as employable as possible when they leave uni and go into the job market. Now, we know that graduates still have an employment and an income advantage over non-graduates. There are clear benefits to going to university, and Australia has outstanding, world-class universities, but they cannot rest on their laurels and there are clear signs in this data today that they need to keep working to lift their performance to help their graduates succeed.

Journalist:                   So do you think there’s an attitude now the universities are just churning out students without caring if they actually get employment? Does something need to change there?

Simon Birmingham:    Australian universities have record numbers of students on their books, as they have record funding flowing into their coffers, and they need to just take the time now to make sure that with the volume they have they’re also maintaining the quality of results. So they don’t put quantity before quality, but that they deliver high quality educational outcomes for every student that maximises each of those students’ chances of getting a job, getting a better job, succeeding and contributing to our economy.

Journalist:                   The Federal Government funding of universities is frozen. Is this going to solve the problem, or is it going to make it worse?

Simon Birmingham:    Well, universities are still going to see record levels of funding. Yes, one stream of their funding will be frozen for the next two years, and then future growth of that will be contingent upon performance of those universities in relation to their graduate outcomes, that we expect, we want to see university graduates getting support from unis to complete degrees that are relevant to their employment prospects, to maximise employment outcomes, to be satisfied and for employers to be satisfied, and they’re the types of metrics that we’ll assess future growth in university funding against.

Journalist:                   Do you think that’s the key. The world’s changing, so universities need to make sure their courses are relevant?

Simon Birmingham:    It’s critical that universities guarantee that what students are being taught will give them the best chance of getting a job, and for that to happen employers must be satisfied.

Journalist:                   Do you think there should be a change in attitude in Australia, that university isn’t the be all and end all, you don’t have to go there?

Simon Birmingham:    Well, I’d encourage every young person, career change to think hard about the options that are before them – not just university: apprenticeships pathways, vocational education pathways, all provide outstanding opportunities to secure high quality employment and wonderful career opportunities in the future. That’s why there’s a wealth of information that we continue to try to make available to students for them to make informed choices, and that type of career development and career information will continue to be essential in the future.

Journalist:                   Obviously there are some concerning statistics in the survey. Can you say that Australian taxpayers are getting value for money for how good universities are now?

Simon Birmingham:    We have great universities, and we should celebrate that. They, of course, contribute enormously to our economy through the international students they attract, and indeed through the training and research that is delivered to domestic students, whether they’re undergraduate students or research students. And so I want to make sure that our universities, who are great institutions, continue to be great institutions in the future. The message from data like this and other data sources is they have to keep their eye on the main game, which is ensuring that graduates, they’re employable, they have skills that will allow them to compete successfully in the job market, and ultimately to contribute to the growth of our economy.

Journalist:                   How would you summarise these survey results? Would you say that they’re concerning?

Simon Birmingham:    Look, I think these survey results provide a clear signal, a warning signal if you like, that we must keep an eye on the gained performance in our universities. That’s why the Turnbull Government has proposed that future growth in university funding will be linked to performance measures like student satisfaction, employment outcomes, and employer satisfaction.

Journalist:                   On the issue of negative gearing, the Treasury documents released today said that [inaudible] will only have a low, a small impact on housing prices. Has the Government misled the Australian public, and if so, does it need to apologise?

Simon Birmingham:    These two-year-old Treasury documents show very clearly that there would be an impact on house prices, which is exactly what the Government has been saying, and that is bad news for homeowners, who may well see the value of their existing home reduced if Bill Shorten was elected and his higher tax policies, his higher taxes on housing polices, were introduced.

Now, what’s also happened in the subsequent two years, in the two years since then, what we’ve seen is that APRA have taken a number of steps in terms of macroprudential regulation that has tightened, if you like, the market around housing investment. We see fewer investors in the housing market and we’ve seen a real drop in terms of the growth of house prices around the major housing markets, which means Labor’s big taxing policies on housing would pose an even greater threat today than they did two years ago. If you want to do something about home ownership and home affordability for first home buyers, you need to support first home buyers in the ways the Turnbull Government is doing. That’s why we’ve legislated to provide access to the same tax breaks for superannuation for first home buyers in saving for their housing deposit, so that it’s easier to save for that deposit, that there are tax incentives to do so, to help get people in the market. You don’t do it by depressing the housing market and indeed destroying value in people’s existing homes.

Journalist:                   Scott Morrison was talking about this having a devastating impact, taking an axe or a chainsaw to housing prices. That’s in contrast to the [inaudible] having a small impact.

Simon Birmingham:    These are bureaucratic documents that say, in bureaucratic terms, that there would be downward pressure on housing prices as a result of Labor’s policies. What that means is if you currently own a home, you would see the value of your home jeopardised as a result of that. That’s what Bill Shorten’s tax grab on housing would deliver, and indeed in the two years since then, the risk and the threat of that has only got worse.

Journalist:                   So has the Government been caught out lying about Labor’s negative gearing policy?

Simon Birmingham:    No. The Government has explained very clearly over the last two years that Labor’s negative gearing policies would be a hit on the housing market, that would jeopardise the value of Australian homeowners’ homes. That’s what these Treasury documents show. I think an even greater threat today as a result of the more depressed state of the market, because the steps we’ve taken have reduced some of the actions of investors, because we’re actually delivering now, as well, new policies in relation to supporting first home owners to get into the market.

But look, Bill Shorten and the Labor Party aren’t interested in first home owner affordability. They’re not interested in the housing market. What they’re interested in is $160 billion worth of new taxes, which includes taxes on housing, as well as taxes on investment, taxes on business, taxes on income. This is a big taxing Opposition, whereas the Government’s approach is to say: let’s help first home owners save, get tax breaks, pay less tax on their savings, to make sure that they can save up for a deposit to enter the market, rather than pursuing higher taxing policies that will threaten the value of existing homes.

Journalist:                   Why does Government ignore Treasury’s advice?

Simon Birmingham:    They Government, indeed, is acting in the way that is most responsible, to make sure that we have taken the steps, as I say, in the regulatory space, to slow down investor activity in the housing market. We’ve taken steps in policy reforms to help first home owners save. We’ve done all of that in a responsible way that doesn’t jeopardise the value of first home owners. The advice is very clear. It backs up what we’ve said all along, and that is that Bill Shorten’s policies on negative gearing would be a threat to housing prices. It would be a threat to the value of the savings of Australian homeowners, and that would be an even greater threat today than it was two years ago.

Journalist:                   So you still support the campaign the Government ran in 2015 about the impacts that negative gearing might have? And so you think that …

Simon Birmingham:    The Treasury advice is very clear that it will have a negative impact on the value of homes that Australians own today, that Australian families, who have worked hard to build their investment in their homes, would have that value threatened were Bill Shorten and the Labor Party to be elected.

Journalist:                   So just on Susan Lamb again, so are you convinced that she’s still a British citizen?

Simon Birmingham:    The case appears very clear about Susan Lamb. She admits that she was a British citizen at the time she nominated. The paperwork is clear that she never completed it, that when British authorities asked for more information she just said it was all too hard and gave up. So, if that’s the case, it seems pretty clear cut that if she was a citizen when she sought to nominate, if she never completed the renunciation process, surely she is still a British citizen. And when leading Labor frontbencher Anthony Albanese was asked today, is she a British citizen, Albo said: I don’t know. Well, if Albo doesn’t know, how is anybody else to have any confidence that Susan Lamb has a legitimate place in the Australian Parliament? It would appear, based on the rulings of the High Court and based on the information that she’s provided, that she does not. Bill Shorten and the Labor Party ought to do the right thing and refer her to the High Court.

Journalist:                   Tony Burke, though, says the Government will live to regret making hostile referrals without bipartisan support. It hasn’t been done before, so why is the Government prepared to refer Susan Lamb and others without Labor’s support?

Simon Birmingham:    Well, we’re calling on the Labor Party to do the right thing here. Susan Lamb’s case is very clear in its unique aspects here, and that is that she never completed the renunciation process. By her own admission, she never completed the renunciation process, and therefore presumably is still a British citizen. Now, it’s for Susan Lamb to explain if she has in fact provided false information to the Parliament in her declaration and that she did somehow complete the renunciation process, but otherwise her case stands unique, apart from all the others that are there. Others may well be subject now to the Katy Gallagher case and what precedent is set once that is resolved, but Susan Lamb’s case appears to be a pretty clear-cut one of an individual who never completed the renunciation process, and because of those unique circumstances Bill Shorten should ensure that this is a bipartisan action and that there is a full referral from the Parliament, voluntarily undertaken by the Labor Party, of Ms Lamb to the High Court.

Journalist:                   But Labor says it’s happy to refer Susan Lamb, Josh Wilson and others, but the Government must also refer its MPs who still have questions hanging over their head, such as Julia Banks. So why refer Lamb and not Banks?

Simon Birmingham:    Well, the case, for example in the case of Julia Banks, is very clear that she has clear advice from Greek authorities that she is not, in fact has never been, a Greek citizen. Susan Lamb admits that she was a British citizen and admits that she never finished the renunciation process. Labor is just trying to muddy the waters here, whereas in fact with Ms Lamb you have a very clear, distinguishable case that’s quite separate from any of the other arguments that the Labor Party have made.

Journalist:                   If the Government doesn’t agree to Labor’s mass referral program, doesn’t it just give the perception there that you’re just using your numbers to persecute Labor?

Simon Birmingham:    We’re mounting a case very clearly here based on the evidence and the own admissions of Ms Lamb. That’s why the Government proposed and implemented a full declaration process, so that it is very clear for all to see. Now, Labor seem to pretend that somehow they know better than the Greek authorities about who is a Greek citizen. Well, that’s just a preposterous argument. But in the case of Ms Lamb, she admits that she was a British citizen. She admits she seems to still be a British citizen based on what she tendered to Parliament. That’s the evidence that’s available and it’s a vastly different case from the types of ones the Labor Party makes. Just because they say you could refer a whole bunch of people to the High Court, it doesn’t actually hold water if you go and look at the evidence in each and every case. Ms Lamb’s is very clearly an individual distinguishable case, with a very strong argument to say she was British, is British, still is British, and therefore is ineligible to be in the Parliament.

Journalist:                   So you’re not running a protection racket for your own MPs then?

Simon Birmingham:    Well, our MPs who have had doubts have voluntarily referred themselves to the High Court. Our MPs who are confident in their position have provided that information, including the information provided by, for example, the Greek Government to make clear that they are not citizens of another country. It couldn’t be much clearer than that, to have official Greek Government paperwork, in the case of Julia Banks or Arthur Sinodinos or others, saying they are not citizens of our country. Susan Lamb can’t provide that because she admits she was a British citizen, and indeed said she didn’t finish the renunciation process – quite a different set of circumstances.

Journalist:                   On another topic, there was a new $110 million mental health program announced today; how many teachers will now get mental health training?

Simon Birmingham:    Well, there’s some $46 million under that program being provided to beyondblue to reach out to schools, teachers, early childhood education workers around Australia. I understand my colleague, Senator McKenzie, the new Minister for Rural Health, is speaking today about that. I don’t have a precise estimate on the number of teachers available to me, but certainly I welcome the fact, as Education Minister, that beyondblue will be leading the charge in expanding what is already a successful program to give more support, more assistance, more resources and tools to Australian schools, teachers, principals and early childhood workers.


Journalist:                   How would you describe the state of mental health in young people in Australia, considering suicide is the biggest killer of young people?

Simon Birmingham:    Mental health issues are a matter upon which we need to be ever-vigilant. I welcome this additional investment that the health portfolio is making, that the Government is making, in terms of support there. We of course need to make sure we do everything possible to support all Australians, around 4 million of whom in any given year face some mental health challenges, but particularly young people. Schools and places of education play a vital role there. The changing role of technology presents new challenges, new threats, which is why ensuring that organisations like beyondblue, who are at the cutting edge of research, are also at the cutting edge of rolling out assistance in those school communities.

Journalist:                   Well, how much of the mental health funding is designed to replace or supplement the Safe Schools program?

Simon Birmingham:    Safe Schools was a particular program that ultimately has provided some resources for organisations to choose to use or not to use as they see fit in the future, as part of fully integrated support for students, to ensure inclusivity in education, to ensure that we have cultures in our schools that don’t involve bullying, but do involve inclusion. Ultimately, though, this is about mental health support for schools to be able to provide to their students. It’s a vastly different program and focus, but of course students, schools, teachers and parents across the country draw on a range of anti-bullying resources as well. I know that states like New South Wales, for example, have now done a very good job of ensuring we have comprehensive anti-bullying measures that don’t focus narrowly in one particular area, but address the whole range of areas regarding bullying in schools.

Thanks guys.