Doorstop Interview, Adelaide
Topics: Government school funding; Cyberbullying; South Australian electoral boundaries

Simon Birmingham: Thank you very much for coming today. The COAG Education Council met today in Adelaide, and I was thrilled to once again have a series of constructive conversations with my colleagues from around Australia about important issues in terms of education, and particularly school education in Australia.

One of the very serious topics we addressed today was the issue of bullying in schools. Schoolyard bullying is as old as schools themselves and there’s no silver bullet to fix it, but we are very cognisant of the fact that cyber-bullying and online bullying presents a whole new world of threat and challenge to Australian schools’ children, and that we need to work together as a nation to make sure we minimise that challenge wherever possible.

Today we saw new data that the Office of eSafety Commissioner, established by the Turnbull Government, is dealing with growing and record numbers of referrals. That’s terrible that those instances are happening and any instance is one too many when it comes to bullying. But it is pleasing that Australians are indeed engaging with the eSafety Commissioner, who have themselves reached out and managed to engage with around 400,000 Australian parents and schoolchildren in terms of informing and advising them of the work the eSafety Commissioner can do to receive complaints but importantly to use our world-leading laws to ensure inappropriate material is taken down.

Following a discussion of first ministers at COAG earlier this year, education ministers have agreed that we will work cooperatively in terms of bringing recommendations back to COAG about further efforts that can be undertaken in the bullying space, and particularly what it is we can do to learn from each of the jurisdictions. All of them are doing innovative and different things in terms of trying to raise awareness of anti-bullying measures and policies and I look forward to that collaborative work ensuring that we can have a true world’s best national strategy to counter bullying and cyber-bullying in schools in the future.

The Government also received today or presented to Education Council the report of the Independent Review into Regional, Rural and Remote Education undertaken by Emeritus Professor John Halsey from Flinders University here in South Australia. Country kids deserve the same quality of education as city kids. Country kids deserve to have the same quality of teachers, of schools, of curriculum, of pathways and opportunity as city kids. The Coalition put this on the agenda because we recognised that, all too often, country kids see greater turnover of teachers and principals, and aren’t getting the quality of opportunity in their schools that they deserve.

This is a very comprehensive report that Professor Halsey has presented. It has many recommendations for states and territories; some recommendations for the Commonwealth as well. I was pleased that state and territory ministers of all political persuasions received the report and presentation by Professor Halsey today with respect, with a commitment to work through its recommendations in terms of the types of steps we can take to lift the quality of educational experience for rural kids. The Turnbull Government is delivering significant growth in funding across the board, but particularly based on need which is providing additional support for those children in rural regional Australia. We expect that recommendations such as this should be able to make use of that record growing needs-based funding to deliver even greater support for those children.

I want to place on record the Commonwealth’s thanks to Professor Halsey, but also to the thousands of individuals across rural and regional Australia who engaged with this report, who recognised that we need to put a really strong focus around rural and regional education, and we are very pleased that Professor Halsey’s report is now going to be considered by all of the states and territories.

Questions, guys?

Question: Now, I’m aware that funding was not the agenda at today’s meeting, Minister, but how important is it that the Victorian Government sign on to what’s been put forward and what sort of difference would that make for parents in Victoria?

Simon Birmingham: Well, it’s important that every state and territory signs on, ultimately, this year to an agreement that kicks off next year that will see record growing funds flow from Federal Government into schools across Australia, but also see a commitment to agreed reforms to get the best bang for our buck out of the record dollars being invested.

Now, I note the Victorian Government today has made some announcements about their future funding projections. I welcome the in-principle statements that have been made by the Victorian Government. There’s some significant rhetoric behind Victoria’s announcement and it must be matched by real, firm commitments about the rate of growth and funding from Victoria in the future. It is a reality that Victoria invests less per student on its schoolchildren than any other state in the country. So the test is to make sure that Victoria’s rhetorical commitment today is now matched by firm action in the agreements that are underway.

The Commonwealth, through the legislation passed through our Parliament last year, has made it very, very clear that we will be providing more than $1 billion of additional support to Victorian Government schoolchildren by 2023. There’s a trajectory for how that will happen. Victoria needs to provide a similarly firm trajectory of what it will achieve over the same timeline.

Question: What do you make of the protest action again this morning from the AEU outside of the meeting, and the constant grandstanding from the union when it comes to future funding?

Simon Birmingham: Well, grandstanding’s a good word for what the AEU gets up to from time to time. Unfortunately, the Education Union in Australia seems to be more interested in political grandstanding and headlines and, indeed, partisan attacks on the Coalition than it is on actually constructive engagement. And that’s a sad reflection on the union, and it’s not reflective at all of the many hardworking teachers and principals who I engage with around Australia. Now, we are providing record growing funding to Australian schools, but importantly, distributed fairly, consistently, on the basis of need. It’s in stark contrast to the Labor Party, who, when last in government, stitched up a whole raft of different special deals around the country, and in doing so, meant that children in one school in one state or territory could be getting thousands of dollars less from the Federal Government than children in identical circumstances of need in another school around the country. That’s not needs-based funding. That’s completely inconsistent funding, and the tragedy is it looks like Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek are going back down that path again of tearing up the Gonski Report recommendations and just stitching up special deals.

Question: In relation to bullying, was there a discussion about a national law, perhaps similar to the ones that have been rolled out in Victoria?

Simon Birmingham: We didn’t talk specifically about changes to the laws. What we did do was absolutely agree that we would be looking at best practice approaches from right around the country, and that we’ll consider best practice approaches in terms of legal frameworks, as well as the types of programs that are rolled out in schools. I think every jurisdiction, every state and territory is open to learning off of each other to establish how they can best keep kids safe, how they can ensure that schools are environments of respect, of tolerance and of kindness to one another.

Question: In regards to the electoral boundary changes, what do you think about South Australia losing a seat?

Simon Birmingham: Well, South Australia’s paying a heavy price for 16 years of economic and population stagnation under the previous state government, and this loss of a seat has only occurred because our population and our economy has not grown at the same rate as the rest of the country, and that’s a big, big price that South Australia pays in now having a reduced representation in the Federal Parliament and a reduced number of voices who will be there in future. But that’s a reality that we have to live with. Hopefully, the new government can manage to spur sufficient economic and population growth over the next decade or so that maybe we’ll be able to reverse this in time.

In terms of the boundaries themselves and the consequences of them, well, at a political party sense, the Liberal Party will obviously consider them carefully and make any further submissions through the AEC processes. But I would note and expect that it will ignite some factional warfare within the Labor Party. We see that, under these boundary changes, there are now five notionally Labor seats, and I wouldn’t think that Peter Malinauskas’ dominant right-wing faction is going to allow three incumbent left-wing MPs to dominate and occupy three out of those five seats at the next Federal Election. So, who’s going to get the chop? Will it be Mark Butler? Will it be Steve Georganas? Will it be Tony Zappia? That’s a matter for the Labor Party factions to work out, but I suspect it’ll be pretty ugly behind those backrooms. All good? Thanks guys.