Doorstop interview, Canberra
Topics: Regional Education Review; Sugar; Racial Discrimination Act; Penalty rates

Barnaby Joyce: Okay, thank you so much for being here. One of the big issues of course for the advancement of any person, especially in regional areas, is that they get some comparability in that they have the capacity, through the education process, to complete and complete at a standard that’s somewhat comparable to urban standards. Now, we’re noting that this is not the case and it is one of our greatest social responsibilities to make sure that if you grow up in Brewarrina or if you grow up in Geraldton or if you grow up in Wangaratta or Longreach that the prospects that you hold as a kid growing up in regional areas or out in the bush are within sight or, even better, the same as those in urban areas.

Now, the Coalition identified this problem and during the last election campaign we made the commitment that we would start this review, a review into the process of determining what makes this discrepancy and, more to the point, working out a path of how we alleviate that discrepancy. We have created a society where it’s quite apparent that if you want a path to a higher-paying job then not the only, but a vital component of that, is a tertiary education. The access to a tertiary education course is your results at a secondary level, and of course your capacity to work in the age of the internet really revolves around what your proficiencies are like in the fundamental articles, so secondary education should support you.

Now, we have a range of people here today but I think the first thing I’ll do is hand over to the responsible minister and I’d like to also acknowledge the great work that Bridget, Senator Bridget McKenzie and all our regional colleagues have done in pursuing this goal, and they’re all lined up here behind me and I can feel Rowan at my back, Scotty Buchholz there somewhere. And so I’ll hand over to Simon. Simon, break into song.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks Barnaby. I’ll save you all me breaking into song but education is, we all know and appreciate, a great mobiliser for individuals and a great capacity builder for communities. And it’s essential that we make sure that that mobility for individuals applies and is accessible to everybody across Australia and that for the building of capability and capacity within communities, that is equally there right across Australia.

The data tells us we have real challenges in regional education. That around one third fewer people complete Year 12 or equivalent in regional Australia. That becomes around two thirds fewer in very remote communities. That despite the growth in participation we’ve seen in higher education in recent years, that growth has not been as pronounced for regional students. We’ve done a lot more and achieved a lot more in bridging the gap in lower socioeconomic students or for Indigenous students than we have successfully bridged that gap for regional students. And the issues are complex. They’re not just about schools policy or higher education policy, they’re not even just about education policy. They relate to issues of ambition, to costs of access in terms of living costs, to a range of other factors that, of course, are complicated which is why we recognised in the last election, and Barnaby announced, after much work and agitation from Bridget and many on the backbench, that we’d take a full and comprehensive look at participation in regional education by young people across regional Australia.

And I’m delighted today to announce that Professor John Halsey, a former teacher, former principal, a former government bureaucrat, an academic, somebody who has worked right across the education landscape, but in all those different roles has had one thing in common every single time, and that is it’s all been about rural education and building rural access and rural understanding. And John is well known to me, to Bridget, to many of our colleagues here because of his work in advocacy in this area and he will now undertake a comprehensive review for the Government that looks at all of those different interrelated factors. I’m going to invite Bridget to say a few words about the work that’s led to this, and then of course we’ll invite John as the reviewer to say a few words about his perspectives that he will bring to tackling this very challenging but important and critical issue. Thanks Bridge.

Bridget McKenzie: Well, thanks Ministers. It was one of the great outcomes I think for those of us that are very, very passionate about ensuring that geography shouldn’t matter in a country like Australia in the 21st Century when it comes to educational outcomes. And the people behind me and many that couldn’t make it here today have been on this journey, the backbench, all rural and regional Coalition MPs and Senators, have been single-minded in actually focusing on the issue that we believe affects the future of not only the individuals and the young people and the families growing up in our communities now, but indeed the economic development and sustainability of our communities well into the future.

The last time we nationally looked at the education system was in 1999 and so many of those recommendations from that particular report have not been implemented because, as the Ministers have recognised, the issue is complex. State governments run state schools where over the majority of our students actually attend. Local communities run child care centres, and indeed our Federal Government has responsibility for higher education. So, coming together to understand the inter-relationship and interdependence of how young people in the regions can access education, how they can achieve to their highest capacity, and how they actually can get that ambition – because often for young people that grow up in the regions it’s about not having those local role models – about heading off to university and aspiring to something else. Because I’ll tell you what, it’s not because you’re not clever if you live in the regions. It’s not because you’re not as smart as those people that live in the cities, about our poor educational attainment rates at Year 12, about our poor access of higher education, our child care education, and indeed even our NAPLAN results across the board, if you live in the regions it’s a determinant, as Gonski found, as Bradley found, for your educational attainment.

Well, we’re backing our communities and their future by actually initiating this review and I want to pay thanks to all my backbench colleagues who have held roundtables right around the country – WA, Bunbury with Nola Marino who’s been so passionate about this issue for so long, Queensland, New South Wales – every single state, we went to, we heard from people, and we’re very, very excited about the $40 million plus that’s been allocated to fund the outcomes of this review.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks Bridget. Righto, John. 

Bridget McKenzie: Where’s John?

Simon Birmingham: Professor Halsey.

John Halsey: Thank you very much. It’s great to be here and first of all I’d like to just congratulate the Government and the Minister in particular on this initiative. He’s right to say this has been a passion of mine for a long time. I started teaching in the bush in 1967, and a certain backbencher behind me here was one of my students in mathematics. 


John Halsey: And we won’t go into too much detail, but he was an excellent student.

Barnaby Joyce: He never did.

John Halsey: He never did. The stand that I bring to this, if you like, apart from the background that the Minister just briefly shared with you, is that vibrant, productive rural communities are absolutely essential to Australia both now and into the future. And during my professional lifetime, as many of you probably know, the world’s population has doubled, and we’re just at the tipping point now where half the world’s population live in urban spaces. But increasingly we’re going to rely on high quality interactions and high quality engagement with rural communities for what it means to be a civilised, productive, sustainable society and, of course, as you’ve already been told, education is absolutely central to that – and education in the fulsome sense, not just in the restrictive sense of what’s the math’s score, what’s the science score, what’s the literacy score. These, as you all know, are enabling factors.

No one is arguing that kids in the bush should not have the best access possible and get the best results there. But one of the great heartening things about this review, when the Minister rang me about it, he stressed that what he’s looking for – if I can use in my words and his words – fresh and innovative approaches, as well as grinding away, if you like, in the same pathways. And what we’ve done in recent years is zeroed in on teacher quality, the nature of the curriculum, design of assessment, impact of leadership, and all the data says those things are critically important, but there’s more to it than that – significantly more – and notwithstanding a few commentators here and there about what matters outside the fence, what matters inside the fence. Particularly in rural communities, what happens outside the fence and in interactions with communities is critically important. And so one of the things I am currently undertaking at the moment is a significant review of the literature since about 2006 and major reports, just to make sure one hasn’t missed real gems of wisdom and insights, and then framing up a discussion paper. And what I’m particularly interested in unearthing is practices and policy settings which speak to the context, but also enable young people, as the Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister said, to be mobile. 

Basically, one article I wrote I think had a heading something like this: It’s not learning for staying or learning for leaving; it’s learning for choice. And one of the things I think we’ve sometimes left out of the whole equation is what is it that develops agency through education, but also connection to place, but not in a blind, if you like, defensive sense, but in a proactive, enabling sense. And so within that, also I think this review gives us great opportunity to look at things like entrepreneurial education and the way in which some schools – and in partnership with TAFE and universities and others – have really gone on the front foot and recognised that people want to be mobile; they want high quality qualifications, but also they want opportunities to build capacity locally and contribute both to the local picture and the big picture. 

So I’m particularly pleased – I was really going to use the word thrilled. I thought I was going to be playing jigsaws on the floor with my fifth granddaughter – that’s where I was when I got the phone call – because emeritus professors are supposed to kind of drift and do a bit of supervision of doctoral students and write the occasional article. So it’s back into the harness, so to speak, but I’m delighted to have the chance to do it, and I’m looking forward to really bringing forward a report for consideration which recognises what you might call the realities, but also opens new spaces and opportunities so that we see rural education much more on a proactive – and I’m using rural in a rural, regional and remote sense – proactive and not just living in the shadow of metro-centricity.

Bridget McKenzie: Hear, hear.

Barnaby Joyce: Okay. We’ll take some questions. Let’s make sure the questions are on this issue to start off with. So questions that are away from this issue …

Journalist: Should the review consider exempting regional schools from funding in years five and six of educational funding agreements, and is that a policy that you support?

Barnaby Joyce: Simon?

Simon Birmingham: Well there are no cuts to funding. Funding under the Turnbull Government is going to grow from $16 billion last year to more than $20 billion by 2020. And we’re working through exactly how that can be fairly distributed, but I can assure you that we will back and continue to back appropriate, needs-based loadings, including for small rural and regional schools, including for low SES students, including for Indigenous students, all of which of course flows back particularly into a lot of regional communities. 

But more importantly, more importantly, the work that John is going to do is not just another piece of work that comes down to how much money is spent. It’s a piece of work that will help to identify how it can best be invested to make the biggest difference, and that’s a big part of the puzzle that has been missing from too much of the education debate in recent years. We’re spending and investing record levels at a federal level; we’re expecting the states to invest more – some are, some aren’t – but we are committed to continuing record levels of investment in Australian schools, but we need to make sure it’s used as well and effectively as it can be.

Journalist: So does that mean the review will consider whether schools would be worse off for not getting the full amount for years five and six of those education agreements?

Simon Birmingham: The review is going to consider how it is we can get the best bang for our buck to make the biggest difference for regional students and their families and communities.

Barnaby Joyce: Next question.

Journalist: About the spending, a $40 million figure was mentioned just before – is that already locked in? Where’s it coming from for the recommendations and what that might look like?

Simon Birmingham: So there was some measures announced during the election campaign, and particularly in terms of some funding announced during the campaign to support this work, and that’s exactly what Senator McKenzie was referring to.

Bridget McKenzie: So it was in Barnaby’s Press Club Address, if you go to that transcript. An amount of money, when the independent review into rural education was announced, a section of money was actually tied to that.

Barnaby Joyce: I’m sure you were all there and paying attention.

Bridget McKenzie: That’s right, that’s right. 

Journalist: Minister, what’s the end goal here? What is the final outcome that you’re hoping to achieve from this review? Is it equity of access for tertiary education? Is it equity, again, between rural and regional centres? What are you hoping to achieve?

Barnaby Joyce: Well look, it’s all of that. What you’ve got to make sure is that- I was fortunate, I went to (inaudible) Public School – it was a little bush school, it had seven kids – and Woolbrook Public School where we- it was mammoth, we had 16 kids. So the first one was like one big unhappy family, and the second one was an extended unhappy family. But then I went off to Sydney to high school.

So the issue is that all those kids who started should’ve had the same opportunities by the time they finished year 12, or around about the same opportunities, but that wasn’t the case at all. In fact, when I go through the kids I went to primary school with, I don’t know about politics, but I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who ever went to a university. So there’s a huge discrepancy there. And you can’t create this sort of stratification of society where if you’re born in Sydney or you’re born in Melbourne you’ve got one prospect in life, but if you grow up in Danglemah, or you grow up in Brewarrina, or if you grow up at Karratha you’ve got another prospect in life.

I mean, the egalitarian nature of Australia means that we believe as much as possible – you’re never going to do it perfectly – but as much as possible you try to bring about an equality of opportunity. And inherently, I think, we’re all blessed with the same cognitive capacities. What’s between our ears differentiates a bit but not that tremendously across society so there’s got to be some other reason why people who have the same cognitive capacity, who have the same basic intelligence, are ending up in two completely different streams of life.

Bridget McKenzie: Well, I don’t know about that because of the complexity of the issue where state governments have responsibility for some aspects, communities and parents also have responsibility for some of the outcomes, as do we as a Federal Government, and so I imagine what will come out of this work will be a blueprint, if you like, of the things that all levels of government and rural communities, and industry in fact, can actually work together to achieve, to decrease, to close our gap. Because it is absolutely unacceptable, it’s absolutely unacceptable that in the 21st century, in a country like us, that spends the amount of money at a state and federal level, and privately through parents, on education that your post code should matter so much.

Simon Birmingham: And look, Ian, my primary school was a little bigger than Barnaby’s, I think there were about 70 or 80 kids there but again it was semi-rural, semi-regional school. Similarly, I suspect, the vast majority of those kids didn’t have the same level of educational attainment at the end as you would see in a bigger city-based setting. And sadly that is still too much the case despite all the gains we’ve made as I said before, we still see a gap in terms of level of Year 12 completion, level of higher education participation. And those gaps are not acceptable for the long term if we want to see successful, healthy regional communities that have their own vibrant economies that grow that, as John was saying, support the rest of our country in terms of their economic contribution as regional Australia does to such a huge extent already.

Now, what we want, as Bridget rightly said, are solutions. We want ideas of how we can best work right across portfolios, right across governments – state and territory and Commonwealth – to get better utilisation of dollars and resources that help shape family attitudes, that help families have higher levels of aspiration, that help schools to fulfil those levels of aspiration, and that help ensure access is there when it comes to kids finishing at school. They’re the types of integrated pieces that work right across government that we need to look at. We won’t sit still while John does his work either, I want to say. We’ve got some big policy work that we’re doing across my portfolio at present and there are things we’ve been looking at and that we will move on, but John’s is going to be a very important piece of work for the future of rural and regional Australia.

Journalist: Mister Joyce, on another topic if I can, this week…

Barnaby Joyce: [Interrupts]…Is that the last question we have on this?

Journalist: Senator McKenzie, you said before … maybe to the Ministers, but Senator McKenzie said before that the last review was in 99 and not everything that that recommended has got done. And the Coalition’s been in government for about two-thirds of the time since then. How much responsibility does the Coalition take for the state of things at the moment?

Bridget McKenzie: I think when you look at our commitment to a needs-based funding model, for instance, that actually was one of the factors that the need is based on being your rurality. I mean, that is our commitment to actually assuring this. The people behind me have gone through several Social Services Ministers to actually get significant changes to the Youth Allowance system over the last two budgets to support our communities, and removing the farm from the assets test for Youth Allowance, and in fact decreasing, for the first time we had this incredible position where country kids who were taking a gap year, was actually a gap one-and-a-half years. 

So, we have fought very, very hard over a long period of time to change the systems and structures we have existing but what we do know is that is not enough. What we’re doing now is not working, so rather than tweaking this program or that existing program, we need to go back to the drawing board, do the literature review, see what’s working where, will it be applicable to work somewhere else, which states are performing the best with their secondary and primary school education delivery, etcetera. There’s a whole raft of measures that need to go into the pot to build a blueprint of how we can get rid of this absolutely appalling fact that our kids on every measure do worse than everywhere else. Gonski said it, Bradley said it, we’ve had rafts of reports saying it, it’s now time to actually get a blueprint to go forward.

Journalist: Minister Birmingham, you’ve exempted Tasmanian schools. You’ve said that they’re not going to be worse off under your schools funding model than Labor’s. Why won’t you make the same guarantee for regional areas?

Simon Birmingham: What I’ve said is that funding will grow in Tasmania, as it will grow across every jurisdiction.

Barnaby Joyce: Okay, is there any- any further questions on education? Okay, we’ll deal with that once we’ve got any further questions on education.

Journalist: I just have one for Professor Halsey. I was just wondering as part of these solutions, how essential is it that there is more funding for country schools? Is that a critical part of the solution, or can there be solutions found without more money being poured in?

John Halsey: I think there actually can be solutions found without more money, and I’m not just saying that because that’s what’s been said to now. Because it’s not only the quantum; it’s how you use it. We know that, right? And we also know that there are schools – if you want to use colourful language, sorry – that are working above what you might expect. And just this morning I rang one just in case a question like this bobbed up. It’s a small primary school that was in rapid decline. It’s now burgeoning. It has a waiting list – it’s rural – out to 2022. It’s at absolute capacity. In 2014, its Year 7 NAPLAN results were – for Year 7 – were above Year 9, and they’re one standard deviation above this year. 

Now, at the heart of that school has been a program running for 21 years around a school shop that engages with the tourists, with tourists, and the kids make produce; they source produce in the community; they sell it on consignment, and they develop sophisticated computer programs. They take responsibility for that. But in old-fashioned terms, when the people come to the shop, the kids do all the transactions using mental arithmetic. 

Now, I don’t know deeply whether that’s actually feeding in, but the evidence over 21 years would suggest it is. They get no more funding than any other place, other than the $20,000 to $25,000 net that they get out of this little program. And- but when you look at it, it’s a combination between taking opportunity of context, adapting the curriculum, being absolutely relentless about kids will be successful, about engaging the children’s interest in autonomy, about thinking about how can you work with the community, and with a localised industry base to, on a locality, but also generate a more global, mobile situation. I could name others. 

Now, what I’m trying to sift out from these is with the basic resource allocation that is given, that just like us as individuals, there are many ways we can use it, and some seem to be delivering better than others, and ‘delivering’s’ a bit of a rough word in context, but I think you know what I mean. They enable children. The Member for Grey went to Kimba Area School, and that school for 50 years has taken children on a station tour and has also had a vibrant local history program such that every Year 9 student does a local history program, presents it to the community, archives it in the local history museum, and to date two PhDs have come out of the value of those primary resources and it has among the highest volunteer rate in Australia, and resilience. It’s not perfect, but it’s something about the engagement, but it’s a complex dynamic between curriculum, assessment, pedagogy, teacher commitment, teacher preparation, teacher autonomy, leadership, community assets, big picture, intense small picture, and clever, sophisticated utilisation of resources. So it’s a complex mix of things. 

Now often, a few thousand dollars tipped into that can be very catalytic. So it’s not saying no funding, but it is saying- what I am saying to you is I am pretty much of the view- very strongly of the view, actually, through my own practice and research that you can rethink how you do things. And one of the rethinkings is instead of seeing rural contexts as marginal, if you actually relocate yourself to say Brewarrina, to use I think the Deputy Prime Minister’s- in my language, Kimba or Woodna or wherever, Ceduna. If you locate that as the centre and then think out, what might change in terms of policy settings and practice, rather than seeing it in terms of catch up terms. What might that liberate in terms of capacity? And it’s not denying the fact that the data shows a range of things. 

What the data doesn’t measure is other things about resilience and capacity, and the unfortunate part of living as long as I have, I can dredge up examples in the past of kids who’ve left very early in schooling but have made success of their lives, and it’s a unique combination of education and entrepreneurship, yes, opportunity, and navigating that through. Something happened at school as well, and it was catalytic, and often it was the work of a good teacher or a good principal. Not exclusively. 

It’s also, my last point, which we’ve underutilised I think, is students themselves are huge resources to others. The ACER, Australian Council of Education Research, did some work some years ago which I’ve got to dig up which tried to quantify the impact of students on student learning. I think John Hattie’s done some work. I’ll check it out. Right? And that then speaks to how do you enliven or rejuvenate some of the learning contexts of students in rural areas by refreshing it with others coming from elsewhere, which then talks about cluster-based and partner-based education, which can be done with very little extra cost. 

Barnaby Joyce: I think we’ll- that is a record.


Barnaby Joyce: That is a record. You did very well. They’re going to try and drill me now, so stand out of the way. 


Barnaby Joyce: Okay, hang on. Let’s go one at a time. Bingo.

Journalist: Now that the Queensland Parliament has voted down the sugar bill, will you now move to enact a federal protocol?

Barnaby Joyce: Look, as I’ve always said, we want to make sure that the quickest result, is if QSL and Wilmar come to an agreement. That is always going to be the way that brings the best outcome in the most immediate form, and by gosh, we want them to really think about that today. I’ve been on the line to QSL myself today. 

The next quickest way was the Queensland legislation. Now, for whatever reason, last night Billy Gordon and the State Member- I think Rob Pyne and Peter Wellington all decided – all in sugar seats, all in sugar seats – decide to vote against the sugar farmers, and that is a disgrace. Mr Pyne, Mr Wellington, and Mr Gordon have to – and Mr Gordon’s office is next door to the canegrowers. I mean, I just- this is what’s happened. The Labor Party has somehow got them in their tentacles, they’ve wrapped them back up, and they’ve voted against their own sugar farmers, in their own state, in their own electorate, in their own electorate. So the state alternative is now off the table. We’ve always said, we’ve always said, and I’ll continue to say, that we reserve our rights at a federal level, okay? 

Now, today is Thursday. Today is Thursday. So nothing’s going to happen today, because we’re all about to go home. But if they think for one second that we’ve taken our eye off the ball or we’re going to let this go through the keeper, we haven’t. So I say to QSL, I say to Wilmar: if you don’t want the clumsy fingers in your business, then fix up your business, and fix it up, like today.

Journalist: Mr Joyce, George Christensen has put out some fighting words on Section 18C. He’s had a go at you for suggesting that people in Queensland aren’t talking about this issue in their sheds. He says it’ll be a breach of faith with the base of the party and its values if you don’t act urgently on this. What do you say in response to that?

Barnaby Joyce: Look, I’m going to deal with one of the biggest issues in a good mate of mine George Christensen’s electorate, and that’s Wilmar and QSL. I’m going to focus on that. I really am. If we think about this logically, do you want me to stop on Wilmar and QSL and start talking about 18C? I’ll go up and talk to the cane farmers. I’ll say look, fellas, I was going to try and sort this out, but apparently I’m going to talk about 18C. Now, you haven’t looked it up, so Google it, and that’s where all my energies are going to go. And you know full well that what those cane farmers will say to me is if you do that, we will rip your head off. You get hard at work fixing up the problem that’s closest to our lives; that’s Wilmar and QSL.


Barnaby Joyce: Hang on, hang on, hang on. I can only- I know I’ve got two ears, but I can only hear one at a time.

Journalist: Should any reform to 18C, then be dropped or put off the table?

Barnaby Joyce: Well, that’s an issue down the track. I’m just talking about what the priorities are for people now. Now, I talk in the tactile, I talk in the things, and I believe all of us do, in regional areas. What is the issue that’s paramount in people’s minds? Right now, QSL and Wilmar. That is what we’re going to be dealing with. Right now, they want new dams. Right now, they want cheaper power. They really do. They want to have affordable, cheaper power. Right now, they want to get the inland rail built, so that we can get people’s lives ahead and take- get a sense of social advantage and social progression for people in remote areas. Right now, they want to have a nation that’s defended, defended properly, so we’re building new ships and we’re building new submarines. That’s what they’re talking about right now, and I’m going to concentrate on the right now.

Journalist: Do you think cuts to penalty rates will help small businesses in regional Australia?

Barnaby Joyce: I think- I absolutely support the process. People are saying, ‘oh, you’re quibbling about this’. I support the process. There’s a process as designed by Mr Bill Shorten. Can we just remember this? Mr Bill Shorten, a process designed by the Labor Party. Now, the Labor Party said they wanted an independent arbiter; they got it. Just like the RBA. This independent arbiter, like the RBA, has come up with a decision, and now they’ll go through the process of enacting that decision. 

If you’re asking me the question do I want to step away from that process, no, I don’t. Why? Because the analysis of that competent body, set up by the Labor Party – predominantly I think housed with Labor Party appointees – have decided the best thing for our nation is for this decision to go forward. Now, I’m not going to argue with them.

Journalist: The Murray-Darling Basin Plan, ANU has released a report this week stating the plan’s not working and it should be relooked at, and in particular the infrastructure funding given to farmers hasn’t worked because they’re not saving water; they’re using just as much as they did previously. Your thoughts on what they’re suggesting?

Barnaby Joyce: Yeah, really simple. I disagree.

Journalist: How long are you prepared to give the millers to get their act together before you stick those ‘clumsy fingers’ in?

Barnaby Joyce: Not very long.

Journalist: Just to come back to 18C quickly, he’s effectively accusing you of breaching faith with your voters, is he out of line on this?

Barnaby Joyce: Well look, that’s what you’re saying. I’m- I get along very well with George, you know, and I will concentrate on what I think is the biggest issue in George’s electorate: Wilmar and QSL. Believe you me, that’s the big one. That’s what I’ll be concentrating on.

You’ve all done a wonderful job. Thank you very much.