Doorstop interview, Canberra
Delivering real, Gonski needs-based funding for schools; Newspoll

Simon Birmingham:                The Senate will have the chance to put in place fair, consistent, needs-based funding for Australian schools, as David Gonski and his panel recommended six years ago, and as they have endorsed in the Turnbull Government’s legislation, in the last few weeks. And this is a chance to see $18.6 billion of additional funding flow into Australian schools. But to ensure that it’s distributed fairly, according to need, consistently regardless of state or territory boundaries, consistently regardless of which schooling sector somebody might happen to be in, in the non-government system, to get rid of the 27 different special deals, the distortions to the funding arrangements. All of the different things that have made school funding so contested in the past can be swept aside this week, if the Senate comes along, backs the Turnbull Government’s reforms and gives us the chance to clean up school funding in Australia, once and for all. To put in place fairness, consistency, and to deliver the greatest support to the students who need it the most.

Ultimately of our $18.6 billion, we’ll see significant growth going into those schools in the public system in particular, who most need it. More than 4500 of Australia’s 9000 odd schools would see funding growth in excess of five per cent per student, per annum, over the decade under the Turnbull Government’s reforms. That’s really important to make sure they can deliver the types of services and support for their students that are necessary to help all Australian schools and all Australian school students excel into the future 

Journalist:                               Are you saying that you need- obviously you want Labor to come on-board and support the Government’s measures but it seems that there’s divisions within the Government’s own ranks over these reforms. 

Simon Birmingham:                Look, there are some small technical issues that Senator Chris Back and I are having discussions over. These relate to technical arrangements around if and when SES calculations might be reviewed, or the like, as he said publicly. But I’m confident that we will have support within the Government’s ranks to deliver the needs-based funding that Australian schools deserve, to deliver consistency into the future, across school systems. Chris is a good man and I am absolutely certain that he wants what’s best for all Australian school students and that he wants to see fair consistent needs-based funding applied too.

Journalist:                               This morning on AM, Senator Back, has called for this- a review of the funding model, especially to make sure that Catholic schools aren’t going to be left worse off and this review to take place over a year and then after the year to revisit the plan. Is a review on the cards?

Simon Birmingham:                Well look, a number of crossbenchers, a number of Senators, have been talking about how it is you continually improve the school funding model into the future, including in relation to the SES score. They’re discussions that we will absolutely keep having this week, as we seek to pragmatically get in place something that is fair and consistent. What I can tell you with absolute confidence is; we won’t be undermining our commitment to ensure consistency of treatment, regardless of state boundaries, regardless of school sectors. We won’t be doing anything that compromises our determination to see the Gonski model of needs-based funding put in place. But of course, we’ll be pragmatic in our discussions with Senators of all persuasions.

Journalist:                               So by being pragmatic, does that mean that the Government may delay a vote on your reforms this week and maybe wait until the spring session of Parliament to discuss what’s going on?

Simon Birmingham:                We really want to see this dealt with this week. Because it’s important for Australian schools who are budgeting for next year, over the coming months, to have the certainty in terms of their school funding for next year and beyond. So that’s why we’re working this week to make sure it’s in place. We’ve of course announced all of these reforms pre-Budget. They’ve been through a Senate inquiry that extended for around a month, they’ve been the subject of thorough scrutiny and analysis. Now is the time for us to work through the Senate and to ensure the $18.6 billion of additional funding we’re putting in is distributed fairly, consistency according to need.

Journalist:                               [Talks over] But if you don’t get a deal are you willing to delay it?

Simon Birmingham:                Well look, these are all hypotheticals, what we want to do is see the legislation resolved this week, to give certainty to schools, to invest $18.6 billion extra and to make sure that we apply consistent needs-based funding across schools in Australia, as David Gonski and his panel recommended and as they have endorsed over the last week or two.

Journalist:                                One of the- Kevin Andrews, is quoted in today’s Australian, suggesting that he doesn’t like the optics of the Government doing a deal with the Greens to get the package up over the line. How do you convince some of those members of the Coalition that a deal with the Greens may be the only option if Labor doesn’t back it in?

Simon Birmingham:                Well, I think overwhelmingly, overwhelmingly, Liberal voters, Australians of all political persuasions, want to see the government of the day get the job done, work across party lines, ensure that we deal with the people who were elected to the Australian Senate, to get good legislation through. And that is exactly what we will do in this regard. I am very grateful for the fact the Greens and the crossbench Senators have all been engaged in constructive discussions around these reforms. That they can all see merit in addressing the inequities in school funding, in putting in place consistent needs-based funding formulas. 

The only disappointing part is the Labor Party’s embarrassing position that having commissioned the Gonski Report, having lauded it for years, when you finally have legislation before the Parliament – that has been backed by David Gonski and his panel – the Labor Party won’t even come to the table and have constructive discussions about it. That shows just how politicised they want to make school funding. Whereas the Turnbull Government wants to fix school funding, wants to ensure fairness, consistency, needs-based funding according to those Gonski principals, unlike the 27 special deals Mr Shorten, wants to cling on to.

Journalist:                               If you can’t get Labor or the Greens on-side – because the Greens are saying that they want to consider the legislation in a bit more detail – you’re going to need 10 of those crossbenchers. Are you confident that you’ve got people like One Nation on-board? They seem to be sending mixed messages as to whether they support the package.

Simon Birmingham:                Well, I’m not going to play our negotiations out publicly. The Turnbull Government’s been pragmatic in dealing with the Senate over the years. But equally we make sure that we construct our negotiations in private. That they’re constructive negotiations and with all of the relevant crossbench players, as they are with the Greens, unlike the Labor Party who just won’t even come to the table.

Journalist:                               And today I noticed that the Catholic Education Commission boss, Chris Zahra, is around and he’s saying that he’s confused about the figures between the 3.4 billion extra that the Government says will flow to the Catholic sector …

Simon Birmingham:                [Talks over] Well let …

Journalist:                               He’s suggesting that, that money’s not really there.

Simon Birmingham:                Let me be very clear, there’s nothing to be confused about. The eight different Catholic Education Commissions across Australia will receive $6.3 billion in funding in 2017 that will grow to $9.7 billion by 2027 – that’s an additional $3.4 billion into Catholic education right around Australia. They will retain the autonomy to be able to distribute that funding amongst the schools in their Catholic education systems, they will see their funding calculated on the same terms and basis as every other non-government school in Australia – which has been endorsed as a fair funding model by the Christian Schools Association, by relevant independent schools associations; they all recognise that this is a fair, consistent approach. And what we’re doing is delivering that in a way free of special deals that treat any particular sector or system advantageously over others just because of their sector background or faith. We don’t want to see that, we want to make sure it applies consistently for all.

Journalist:                               So anyone who reckons that their individual school is going to miss out on money should direct their complaint to their state Catholic Education Commission rather than the Government, is essentially what you’re saying?

Simon Birmingham:                Well Catholic Education Commissions will absolutely retain their autonomy to distribute the funding and there is nothing to stop Catholic Education Commission in Victoria or New South Wales from funding each of their schools next year with exactly the same amount of money they received this year plus the 3.5, 3.6, 3.7 per cent growth that those different systems will receive. So it’s very clear that they can continue to fund all their schools in the same way with additional funding into the future which means there should be no need for school fee increases or the types of fear campaigns or scaremongering we’re seeing in some of those jurisdictions.

Journalist:                               And just finally, on the poll; are you disappointed that there still hasn’t been this so-called Budget bounce? The fourteenth straight poll where Labor is ahead of the Coalition. 

Simon Birmingham:                I think people expect a lot in terms of bounces and things like that in the commentariat whereas the reality is that Australians are getting on with their lives, their busy lives, their hard-working lives, and they’ll think about politics really when it comes to the next election which is still a couple of years away.

Journalist:                               So you’re happy to be where you are in the polls at the moment? 

Simon Birmingham:                I’m happy to be pursuing school funding reforms that will benefit schools right around Australia.

Thanks everyone.