Doorstop interview, Canberra
Topics: Islamic College of South Australia; Victorian judiciary sentencing; Delivering real, Gonski needs-based funding for schools; Use of Commonwealth funding for education; Victorian judiciary sentencing; Parliamentary commission of inquiry into the finance sector
Simon Birmingham: Thanks for coming along. The Federal Education Department has made a decision today in response to the request by the Islamic College of South Australia for an internal review of the revocation of funding in relation to that school. That internal review has upheld the initial decision of Department. So what this means is that funding, which ceased for the Islamic college of South Australia at the end of the last school term, will not be reinstated. This is a final decision by the Government in this regard. Now at a time like this, of course, the thoughts must first and foremost go to the parents, families, school children, teachers and staff of the school. I implore those who are operating and running the Islamic college of South Australia to give some certainty to their school community about the future operations, to ensure that they work with the South Australian government and other education authorities in SA for the well-being of students in a school, to make sure their education is not disrupted.
This has been a long and drawn-out process, but the Government is determined to make sure that where funding is provided to education authorities it is used exclusively for the well-being of children and the education of those children and unfortunately over the years what we have seen in relation to this college and a couple of others are matters of governance protocols, financial administration that have not met the standard we expect. That there is evidence over time that funding has not always been used exclusively for the benefit of the education of children within that school. That’s completely unacceptable and that's why the Government has taken the strong action that we have. We gave this school, as with others, opportunities to be able to adhere to clear conditions and sadly those conditions were not met, which ultimately led to the decision to revoke the funding.
So now we’re at a situation where it is clear funding from the Federal Government will come to an end, the school should give certainty to its teachers, to its students, to its parents, to its families, and make sure that in relation to all of those children they have the opportunity to continue their education with certainty in the future and I know that the assistance will be there from the South Australian Government and other education authorities in SA to help to ensure that that will be the case.
Journalist: Minister, you’ve just mentioned the certainty for the students, could we see a situation – as we have in other jurisdictions – where this drags out in the courts? If the Islamic College takes legal action?
Simon Birmingham: Of course it is entirely in the hands of the authority who run the Islamic College of South Australia as to whether they choose to appeal this decision. We have seen an appeal process undertaken in relation to the Malek Fahd school in New South Wales. I note that in terms of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal decision there, the Federal Government's decision was upheld under that hearing. So we believe we are in a very strong position in relation to the decisions taken and that our decisions have been taken carefully, methodically, based on evidence and will withstand any appeal or scrutiny. So while it is, of course, a legal right of anybody to pursue avenues of appeal, I would urge them to think instead about the students, about the families and to provide certainty in terms of the future for the school.
Journalist: And Minister, there are suggestions today that the school has gone into voluntary administration. Has your office been informed of that and is that the situation?
Simon Birmingham: I've heard of the suggestions but I have no official confirmation of that. Again, this is a matter upon which the school administrations should give certainty to their families, to their teachers and make sure they appreciate the circumstances that are there. There has obviously been a history of errant management in terms of this school. A lot of comings and goings when it comes to principals and board members that are, frankly, unacceptable and disruptive in any school environment, but of course in this case they only further demonstrate the fact that the Government's concerns about the governance practices and the financial administration of the school clearly are warranted.
Journalist: Minister, on the schools funding, if- the conditions for the Greens is that they want an independent oversight body. You would surely give that to them to get this through the Senate, wouldn't you?
Simon Birmingham: Well, Matt, we of course will do as the Turnbull Government has demonstrated time and time again. We will be pragmatic in our negotiations with the Senate in terms of getting our legislative reforms through, as we've done on many different occasions already. But we also want to play those negotiations out in public. So we will obviously hear the cases and requests from the different crossbench parties. That doesn't mean we will agree with all of them, but we will work cooperatively to get the legislation through. Of course, I am available any time Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek want to sit down and talk to them as well, if they actually want to come to the table in terms of delivering needs-based funding to Australian schools. The position of the Labor Party and the Education Union is embarrassing now. It’s embarrassing when you've got David Gonski, Ken Boston, Kathryn Greiner; all of the Gonski panellists lining up and saying that it would be a tragedy if the Turnbull Government's legislation did not get through and yet you've got the Labor Party and the Education Union standing there saying; no, we'd rather end up with a situation that could leave government school system is worse off, leaving in place lots of arrangements that distort funding across the country, rather than delivering what we are proposing, what has been endorsed by the Gonski panellists themselves of fair, consistent, needs-based funding across Australia.
Journalist: Just over a month ago you told us that setting up an independent body was very politically unlikely because of the states needing to agree. How do you explain the political realities of that with the Greens? Have you had a discussion with them about that?
Simon Birmingham: Well I have lots of discussions with the Greens and other Senate cross-benchers about pros and cons and different scenarios on the table and of course we will keep having those discussions and if and when an agreement is reached around any reforms we will take goes to the Senate.
Journalist: Minister, a young jihadi was arrested at the airport at Sydney this morning. Are you concerned Islamic schools are a breeding ground for radicalisation? Is there more that the Government could be doing to ensure that doesn’t take place and stop these young men travelling overseas?
Simon Birmingham: So we've made it crystal clear to the authorities in the states and territories that are responsible for oversight of school teaching and school curriculum, that they must be guaranteeing and ensuring that across every non-government school the national curriculum is being taught, appropriate standards are being upheld. Of course, the Government have also invested in de-radicalisation programs and efforts to work cooperatively with the states to address concerns that radicalisation of, particularly young Islamic men, occurs. But this is a problem that we've seen, not specifically in Islamic schools, it's a problem that has been seen in government schools as well and it’s one that must be addressed across the education landscape, not singling out any particular school sector.
Journalist: How much would it cost to trim the 10 year timeframe of the Gonski 2.0 plan to eight years and is that it cost you are willing to meet to get this package through?
Simon Birmingham: Well once again, these are ideas that are conceptually being put out there by some members of the crossbench and by other stakeholders. They are discussions we will keep having. We are committed as a government to seeing true needs-based funding applying to schools across Australia. We will work pragmatically with the crossbench, but we will do so mindful as well of any budget implications and the need to ensure that our commitment as a government to restore the Budget to balance is met and in the timeline that the Government has outlined.
Journalist: How much would it cost, though, how much would it cost to trim it by two years?
Simon Birmingham: Well I don't have those figures on me at present and, of course, it depends on a range of different assumptions you might look at in the model. They’re discussions that, when they’re put on the table, we’ll have with the crossbench.
Journalist: As a Cabinet minister, do you defend the right of ministers to speak out about the decisions that courts make free of sanction, such as we have seen with three colleagues?
Simon Birmingham: I think when Australian people vote for their elected representatives, they expect their elected representatives to speak their mind. And they expect their elected representatives to stand up on issues that the community are concerned about, that the community might think are unfair or bad outcomes. And I think that applies as much in relation to sentencing decisions of courts as to any other issue where people expect the democratically elected representatives to stand up to speak their mind to argue the case on behalf of their communities and that is all that I have seen my Victorian colleagues do today.
Journalist: Is it regrettable that they shot off their trap on something that could be interpreted as relevant to a case that’s now before a live appeal?
Simon Birmingham: Ultimately, every single one of us needs to be mindful of our different responsibilities we have in this place. But our first responsibility as members of Parliament is to the people who sent us here, to the voters who sent us here and to stand up to their interests, for their expectations and I am quite confident that that is all my colleagues were doing.
Journalist: And the wider war that the Government is waging on tribunals and courts? I mean, we’ve seen comments about the Administrative Appeals Tribunal – is this part of a bigger picture kind of using the courts and judiciary as a punching bag?
Simon Birmingham: I think our government treats every issue on its merits and that there are legitimate community concerns that have been expressed about sentencing decisions, about parole issues and we work to address those and we stand up for communities where that’s appropriate.
Journalist: One more on school funding: would you be willing to hold the Senate back? You know, extend the sittings into Friday? That’s been said, is that what you are planning to do?
Simon Birmingham: Well that’s perhaps part of the pragmatism of our dealings with the Senate. We will see how that goes, Matt.
Journalist: Can I ask you about the Greens move in the Senate passing their bill – which they obviously have to get through the lower house – calling for a Parliamentary commission of inquiry into the finance sector? They are effectively one boat short. It sounds like George Christensen’s going to support it. But it would, effectively, give them the power of the Royal Commission. They’d need the Government’s funding for it; would you stand in their way if they got the money for that?
Simon Birmingham: I will let the Treasurer and other ministers respond appropriately to that. I’m obviously focused on our schools reforms. The Government has outlined a whole range of reforms in the banking sector already in terms of putting in place provisions that make it tougher in relation to bank executives, the court put penalty options there where bank executives do the wrong thing, we’re introducing the new bank levy to deal with addressing a number of budgetary issues. As a government, I think, we’ve strengthened a range of provisions in terms of ASIC and there is a strong track record of action and ongoing action in terms of standards of behaviour in the banking sector. But in terms of individual proposals that might sneak up out of the blue; we’ll let the relevant minister talk about those.