Doorstop Interview, Canberra
Topics: University completion rates and graduate outcome data; Same-sex marriage; Sam Dastyari




Simon Birmingham:     The Turnbull Government’s higher education reform, in particular our push to have universities have performance payments applied to 7.5 per cent of their student funding. As this new data shows that numbers of students who are failing to complete their studies are much higher than the historical averages. The new data also shows the numbers of students who are failing to get a job in the first three months or so after they graduate is much lower than has been the case at other moments. All of that demonstrates that we need to make sure universities are really focused on the best outcomes for their students and what we want to ensure is that as universities in Australia continue to enjoy the autonomy, to enrol as many students as they want in whatever disciplines they want, will they also receive the incentive to focus on student outcomes, the financial incentive to focus on putting the best interests of their students first from the moment of enrolment as to whether or not that student ought to be enrolled is well equipped to complete their course through all aspects of the teaching and studying and learning and student experiences to make sure that get given the best support for completion and ultimately the outcomes of those students – are they getting jobs, especially in the disciplines in which they’ve studied? Because that’s what students want and that what the universities ought to be focused on.

Journalist:        Minister, we’ve seen some of your conservative colleague’s amendments voted down in the Senate on the same-sex marriage Bill. Do you buy into the argument that some of them are just trying to frustrate the debate and stop the inevitable happening, this legislation passing?

Simon Birmingham:     Well the first point I’d make is that the Bill that is before the Senate has strong protections in place in relation to religious freedoms as it relates to the change to the law to provide for same-sex marriage. When this Bill passes the Parliament – as I’m sure it will – Australians will still be able to go to their place of worship and they’ll be able to worship according to their faith, their doctrines, their beliefs as they can today. Churches, synagogues, mosques will be able to turn away same-sex couples and say: we don’t want to have anything to do with your relationship or your marriage. Ministers of religion will be able to turn away same-sex couples and say: we don’t want to have anything to do with your marriage or your wedding. So we have provided very clearly that for people of faith, for churches, for ministers of religion, they will be able to continue to lead their lives tomorrow as they do today. Now, yes, there have been a number of other issues that are raised and frankly there are some who are tilting at windmills in this regard. They are seeking to create debates about issues that don’t really seem to be there. Now, we are acting as a Parliament now to ensure that the will of the Australian people is enacted and that is critical and that will be what occurs. Same-sex marriage will be legalised in Australia, it will be legalised with clear support across the Australian Parliament, it will be legalised in a way that still protects people’s religious freedoms in relation to marriage issues. And in terms of other issues around religious protections in Australia, they will rightly be put through a process not dissimilar to that with same-sex marriage has been through over many, many years now but a much shorter process. A process where Philip Ruddock, Father Frank Brennan and other distinguished Australians will look at the entirety of religious protections and freedoms in Australia, not just the narrow question of same-sex marriage; they’ll come back and if they need enhancing the Parliament will act.

Journalist:        Senator, do you think that now, not all but the bulk of the amendments in the Senate have been decided upon, would you think that your colleagues in the lower house should refrain from making their own amendments? Do you think that process should be left to the Senate?

Simon Birmingham:     Both houses of the Parliament are sovereign houses and of course it is the right of members of the House of Representative to propose amendments, to debate amendments. But I would say to them that the Senate is sending them a good strong robust bill. A bill that is not just the subject of a week’s worth of debate in the Australian Senate, but a bill that has been the subject of many months, in fact, years of development. As the same-sex marriage debate is raised around Australia for a number of years now, the legislation before the Senate has increasingly been refined to get the right protections in place, for ministers of religion, for churches, for Australians of faith and to still deliver equality to Australians in same-sex relationships and it is a good bill, it’s a sound bill, it will pass the Senate I’m sure, it ought to pass the House in its current form.

Journalist:        Do you expect sittings will have to be extended in the lower house or do you think Government can get it done next week?

Simon Birmingham:     Well there are twice as many members of the House of Representatives as there are at the Senate, so that’s a lot of people who may wish to speak. But the Government has said that if extra hours are needed then of course the Parliament will come back and sit extra hours, that this will be done and dusted this year, hopefully as early as next week in terms of it coming into law but certainly before Christmas.

Journalist:        You voted against the amendment so are you expecting any hostility in the party room over this from your conservative colleagues?

Simon Birmingham:     Well I hope that we continue to have a respectful debate. Yes, there are people of different opinions. Frankly, I’ve had a different opinion on this issue with some of my colleagues for more than seven years now that’s been publicly known in terms of life support for same-sex marriage and for equality for all Australians versus some of their opposition. That probably hasn’t changed but we’ve worked cooperatively together with that difference of opinion in the past and we’ll keep doing so in the future having put this reform behind us and delivered equality for all Australians.

Journalist:        Just on another matter we’re hearing that Labor Senator Sam Dastyari reportedly warned a Chinese donor that his phone might be getting bugged. Do you think there’s anything concerning about his conduct?

Simon Birmingham:     Well these are very serious allegations about Senator Dastyari. It’s only a little over a year ago that he was answering questions about the influence of foreign players in relation to his receipt of donations, payment of personal bills and what influence that was having on his contribution to public policy in parliamentary debate. These are new and serious allegations that Fairfax media has reported today. It is for Sam Dastyari to respond to those allegations. It is for Bill Shorten – who happily re-promoted Sam Dastyari just a few months after his resignation in disgrace a year ago – it is for Bill Shorten as well to make sure that Sam Dastyari’s answers are comprehensive, that there’s nothing else there or indeed to take appropriate action in relation to Senator Dastyari if these allegations are proven to be true.

Thanks everybody.