Doorstop interview, Alice Springs
Topics: Connected Beginnings program; Community Child Care Fund; School attendance; Bilingual education; Domestic air routes; Next Federal election; Police numbers




Simon Birmingham:     Well thanks so much for coming along today. We’re thrilled to be here at the Braitling Primary School in Alice Springs. First and foremost to, at this school, to have a look at the Connected Beginnings Program, which is a program that the Coalition government in Canberra is running across a number of trial sites across the country and I’m delighted to be here with Nigel Scullion, CLP Senator for the Northern Territory, and of course Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, and Jacinta Price, the CLP candidate for Lingiari. Looking at how this program – Connected Beginnings – is connecting families and children with health and welfare services in the years before they start school so that it’s a fully integrated support arrangement to make sure that those children have the support and assistance they need to be able to succeed when they get to school. This is about making sure that children have the best chance of success, that schools get the best support they can, in terms of all of the extra ancillary services available to help them give a quality childhood education to our littlest learners, but also to make sure that all of those extra supports for children with complex needs, from challenging backgrounds, often challenging cultural backgrounds, get the type of assistance they require as well.


We’re also today releasing across Australia the results of our Community Child Care Fund support. In July this year, Australia will see a whole new childcare subsidy come into place, and the new childcare subsidy will deliver the greatest level of support to low income families and to hard working families. We want to make sure that people can access and choose to work the hours they want to, the days they want to, without childcare costs being an impediment to them. We also recognise that childcare is a critical component for early childhood education, which is why there’s a $1.2 billion safety net attached to these reforms, including the very significant funding under Community Child Care Fund.


More than 850 services will share in some $271 million of support across Australia to help those early childhood education services cater for some of the neediest children and to provide improved access to those early learning opportunities that are so essential to get a flying start into education. This is providing direct support importantly in the Northern Territory to some 43 centres who will share in around $50 million of funding; around half a dozen centres here in Alice Springs, including the Congress Child Care Centre, that we’ll visit shortly. All of whom are getting this support to be able to provide additional places, services, opportunities for vulnerable children to access early childhood education, to help make sure that those kids who most need support get it to be able to get the flying start to their education through the early childhood system, the preschool system, and then into outstanding schools such as Braitling Primary.


Journalist:                    So, why did you choose Alice Springs to make this announcement today?


Simon Birmingham:     Well, I’ve been in Alice for a couple of days, and this has been a great opportunity to be able to visit remote schools such as Wallace Rockhole yesterday, to be able to engage with a raft of principals across the government, Catholic, independent sector to look at the unique issues of boarding schools in Alice Springs, of attendance issues from remote communities, and really to try to get a big picture of some of the unique issues in Central Australia around education. Of course, because of the particular focus from the Community Child Care Fund on supporting disadvantaged communities and communities with children of high need, we wanted to make sure that this announcement was made in an area that will be a real beneficiary of it. So, the Community Child Care Fund will deliver significant benefits to Alice. Half a dozen services here will get additional funding to make sure they’re viable, to make sure they can give support to the kids who need it most.


Journalist:                    So, what’s your plan to improve the quality of secondary education in remote communities. Is there a plan?


Simon Birmingham:     We have a number of reforms already underway. Everything from improving the quality of training that teachers get initially; ensuring that funding is fair and based on needs, as well as working very closely with state and territory governments to make sure that they are applying the type of policies that can help attract the best principals, keep the best principals in place. Attract the best teachers and keep those teachers in school. There’s no silver bullet to lifting student outcomes. It’s about great school leaders, great school teachers, and of course, they’re the types of strategies that Nigel, through the Indigenous Affairs portfolio, has been driving to lift school attendance because we won’t improve school outcomes when we don’t have kids in school.


Journalist:                    Should funding for schools be attached to school attendance?


Simon Birmingham:     Well, funding for schools is attached to enrolments and there are various arguments from time to time about how we get the best measure of enrolment and attendance, because it’s about enrolments of children who are attending for a consistent enough period of time. Now of course, that’s challenging in areas where children can be highly mobile, and it puts a great burden sometimes on schools who are having to try to get engagement from families to get those kids to school. But it’s why we’ve deployed significant extra resources over time to try to help drive school attendance. And that’s something that was a rich topic of conversation at our principals’ roundtable this morning, as to what else can be done to help motivate families to get their kids to school and to help schools, who do an awful lot already, to try to create enticing, encouraging environments for schools to come to- for students to come to, to be able to potentially do more in the future.


Journalist:                    I know you’ve already touched on this a little bit, but only 156 students, Aboriginal students, graduated from government schools in the Northern Territory last year, and 66 non-government schools. Do you- like, what could you do to lift that number because that’s quite low, really?


Simon Birmingham:     We’ve seen good progress in the Closing the Gap targets around Year 12 retention and completion. It’s is one of the target areas that has been shown to be on track in terms of Closing the Gap. But there’s very definitely still a gap there. Of course, making sure that senior school studies are relevant to kids is really important and some of the things that Nigel, Jacinta and I have seen the last couple of days are where schools are putting greater emphasis on vocational learning in those final years, giving kids the chance to undertake pathways in terms of- such as mining and technology and earth moving equipment, and skills that could be quite transferable directly into employment opportunities in the future. These are some of the changes that are happening in schools that hopefully will improve retention and completion, but also completion that is relevant to getting a job at the end.


Journalist:                    Minister, has the topic of bilingual education come up since you’ve been here? And I’d also be interested in knowing whether Jacinta Price has spoken to you about bilingual education, particularly in remote schools and whether it’s effective?


Simon Birmingham:     Minister- NT Minister Eva Lawler was with me for the bulk of yesterday and we absolutely had discussions about bilingual education. Of course, it is critical though that young people learn English and that they learn skills that will enable them to be able to participate in our economy generally, to be able to secure jobs and work across communities. That’s not to say that language isn’t critical. It is, and of course the challenge in particularly those primary school years is to get the balance right and to be able to support learning local language, local culture, but also to develop English rapidly enough in those early years to make sure that children can succeed through secondary school and in their adult lives.


Journalist:                    Are there any attachments to this money, though, on language requirements for learning English, for example?


Simon Birmingham:     Well, the expectation we have is that children do learn in English throughout their schooling, but we also provide additional funding and support for students from language backgrounds other than English, which can include children growing up speaking Indigenous languages home, as well as extra support for Indigenous students, students from low socio-educational backgrounds, students with disability, students in remote settings. So, all of that federal funding and support is geared around the needs-based approach that really does particularly support a number of those small regional and remote community schools.


Journalist:                    Eva Lawler has, in the past, also stressed an importance for Aboriginal teachers, both in urban centres and in remote [indistinct] territory. Do you agree with those sentiments – that there need to be more teachers and childcare workers of an Aboriginal background?


Simon Birmingham:     We’ve just been chatting here at Braitling Primary about the beauty of homegrown teachers and homegrown educators. And how you make sure that you have retention in terms of teachers who will stay the distance and duration and bring stability to the school community. Clearly getting them from the local community in the first place is- it’s a really positive aspect there. So, encouraging our universities to continue to look at how they can increase the number of Indigenous students going into teacher training programs. It’s something we keep talking to them about. We give significant equity funding to universities to support them to prioritise enrolments across different [indistinct] cohorts, but I think they also recognise that teaching in particular, there’s some relevance to providing more opportunities to people who can return to country to teach.


Journalist:                    Do you have a time frame on building capacity in those remote communities for secondary education, or is that [indistinct] aspiration?


Simon Birmingham:     Well look, we have very clear targets laid down through the Closing the Gap agenda that are measurable and, as I said, we have been meeting those targets in terms of Indigenous student completion of Year 12. But there’s always more work to be done there and we’ll keep working with the states and territories who run the school systems to make sure that they’re applying the record resources they’ve got in ways that can make the best difference.


Journalist:                    Yeah. So on the retention rates, are there any plans to train up teachers in Central Australia to be able to teach in the region? Because I think it’s a big problem – people come in for a year or two and shooting off.


Simon Birmingham:     A number of universities such as Charles Darwin University do offer initial teacher education programs that can be undertaken remotely now. So, they would have students who are enrolled in Central Australia, studying here in Central Australia, who might only have to dip in to face-to-face parts of the teacher training program for particular parts of their course. Of course, there are clear expectations and strengthened expectations and some of our teacher quality reforms about the placements they will undertake in schools to get relevant experience to be able to become outstanding principals and teachers which are key components. But, we’d absolutely welcome and encourage the universities looking at any more they can do to create opportunities in the community for study, but still guaranteeing the quality of the outcome. So, [indistinct] a very important factor.


Journalist:                    Matt Canavan come out today saying he wants to look at allowing foreign airlines to fly domestic routes in Australia. Air fares are an ongoing issue in the territory. Just wondering if you have a view on that?


Nigel Scullion:             Well certainly cabotage, which effectively allows an international flight to then convert to a domestic flight has to be a fundamental part of the consideration about lowering the cost of travel in regional Australia. And I’m really glad that Matt is talking about this because we need to start talking about what people are thinking about. People are thinking, in Alice Springs, that I really- do I continue to live in a place where I’m so disconnected from my relatives, from my family, simply because of the cost of travel? So, yes I support Matty- area exploration completely. But I have to say, cabotage has been a very difficult issue. Very long, long time ago, back in Jurassic Park when I first became a senator, it was one of the areas that I took up and there is an enormous amount of push back from airlines, from airports, for very mysterious reasons, but I think we have to be fair dinkum – this is a great fight and it’s a fight that the Nationals are happy to have. But you know, we need to manage expectations about our capacity to dictate to airlines, for example, about- we’ve had a Senate committee come through Alice Springs and people are asking me: well, when can we expect airlines- to put, the prices to go down? I said: look, the Senate of the Australian Government, nobody can dictate to someone about how much you sell one of your services for. That isn’t Australian. That’s some sort of dictatorship. That’ll never happen. But it is really important to have a look at about how you might increase competition because as we know, competition is something that keeps people honest and actually drives down the price of travel. So, I’m really pleased that Matt is exploring those matters, but I have to say, as sometimes is the case, that’s the first time I’ve heard it this morning.   


Journalist:                    This is the second federal Cabinet minister to visit Alice Springs in as many days, which is unusual. Is this a sign that the CLP is going to be targeting Lingiari heavily whenever the next election is?


Nigel Scullion:             Well, I’m not sure you can connect the two, but let me tell you, we are certainly targeting Lingiari at the next election. There’s no doubt about that. But the reason that the ministers are here is that there’s a lot happening in Alice Springs. There’s a lot happening here. You know, we are a vibrant community that is right at the forefront of change. So, it is fantastic to have Birmo come here, but he’s able to move around the place and actually be able to, in a relatively short period of time, see such a diaspora of our educational system, to be able to talk to all the principals. We’re a very open community in Alice Springs, that’s why people are coming and have a look around you, where else would you want to be?


Journalist:                    Senator, can I ask a question about police numbers. Senator, you have called on Michael Gunner to give you a sort of, now what did you call it… An audit, that’s right, of remote police stations. How’s he going with giving you those numbers?


Nigel Scullion:             Well, in this environment, he’ll be getting a D minus, but look, this is something I’ve undertaken with the Northern Territory government to not just want to play politics on, but we have- I said that last December and I’m not, but we do need an answer. This government have invested in police stations in remote Australia and the people in remote Australia are rightly saying: well, where’s the police officers? Now, many Territorians mightn’t know, I pay for over 300 police officers. I pay directly for them. So, I still haven’t got those answers. Where is it? So this is, again as I’ve talked about, a standard. We need those police stations with police officers in them. I provided funding to provide that. So, my next consideration will be- this will be an outcome payment. If those police officers aren’t there then those funds will not be going because that’s a way I can actually tie an outcome to a territory government. I’m not suggesting any mischief. I know that the police are always under pressure. There’s never enough police officers. But I have a deal and I have a compact with those Territorians who live in regional and rural Australia that they will have a police force. And so, the Commonwealth, uniquely, in the territory, have said that we will assist the Northern Territory Government. But we’re assisting the territory government with the provision of police officers in remote Australia. And we’re now considering indexing those payments to the outcomes, as I do in so many ways with these jurisdictions. So, it’s very much on my mind and I hope it’s very much on Michael Gunner’s mind.


Journalist:                    Have you had a response from Reece Kershaw regarding the point of sale interventions at bottle shops in Alice Springs?


Nigel Scullion:             Well, yes I have and I understand that it was now more than 30 days ago, but he said within 30 days we will have the 30-plus police officers that was in deficit that we didn’t have in Alice Springs, it should have been on the roster, would have been returned. Now I haven’t had a meeting with Michael. I meet regularly with Michael and Mr Kershaw, but I haven’t had a meeting with him to get that assurance that that is now happening. So, you actually need the police here to be able to facilitate that. The Northern Territory government has said that the [indistinct] location at the takeaway outlets will be, the police officers will be replaced with police auxiliaries. I’ve got no problem with that at all. But that won’t happen until December. So, the undertaking that I need, which is still a bit vague around the edges, that every bottle shop, whilst during opening hours, will, as has been before the Labor government came into power, has a police officer on location with an iPad. And if you remember, in Alice Springs, within a fortnight of that policy coming into Alice Springs, we had a 73 per cent reduction in defence injuries.


This is about people, this is an essential element of our safety infrastructure in Alice Springs and up and down the track, and we need to make sure that that is maintained, that is maintained through December. Now, I get calls from people individually. I drove around Alice Springs yesterday. Most of the bottle shops, luckily for them, I suppose, in some ways weren’t open at the time I just had an opportunity to sneak around, but I get around the place a bit, and I know there is a fair effort, but this isn’t about aspirations and best efforts, Territorians demand these things. People who live in Alice Springs need to know that every time a bottle shop opens, there will be a police officer there and we’re more than happy to take the exchange when those auxiliaries move over to take over. I expect those 30 police officers that were promised to me and to the people in Alice Springs to be returned within 30 days. That’s passed that day now. So, there is no longer any excuses not to have a police officer maintaining a vigil.