Doorstop interview, Canberra
Topics: SA TAFE crisis

Simon Birmingham: Over the last five years, the Federal Government has provided $771 million to the South Australian Government to support vocational education and training. What we’ve seen in that time is constant policy chaos. The South Australian Government had a policy called Skills For All, and they scrapped it in place of a policy called Work Ready. They changed their provision from giving lots of funding to private providers to taking it all away, then giving it virtually all to the TAFE system. And now we’ve discovered that their administration of TAFE has been woefully inadequate to say the best. But of course, South Australian Government needs to be held to account for the failings in the TAFE system that have seen some 14 different courses out of 16 that were audited suspended by the national regulator. The State Minister has conceded that she has no idea of the total scale of the problem, but admits that the problem is much larger than what’s been identified today.

Now, a fundamental problem in South Australia at present is that the State Parliament will not sit again between now and the election in next March, which means the ability to hold Susan Close and the State Government to account at the state level has been greatly diminished because of the lack of accountability that is now available. That’s why I’m very pleased that the Australian Senate is going to do the job of holding Susan Close and State Labor to account. Jay Weatherill won’t hold her to account, but the Australian Senate will by establishing a senate inquiry that will look into the administration of TAFE SA, look into the policy failings, the budget cuts, the implications for students in terms of their wellbeing out of the debacle that has been created in the TAFE system in SA.

This is not a problem that can be fixed just by sacking a couple of public servants. It’s a problem that requires the Minister and the Government to take responsibility, and if Jay Weatherill will not hold Susan Close responsible, I’m pleased the Senate is going to. Now, the committee that is going to look into this matter is a committee dominated by the Labor Party, so there’s a test here first and foremost for the Federal Labor Party. That is: do not run a cover-up, do not run a protection racket for the South Australian Labor Party. Commit to having a genuine, fair dinkum inquiry that looks at all aspects of the mess that is TAFE in South Australia.
There’s a challenge for Susan Close, and that is: front up. Front up, give evidence at the senate inquiry, answer all the questions, make sure that you are held to account for the debacle that you have overseen. That’s the challenge that Ms Close must accept if she is to be genuine about allowing us to get to the bottom of this.

Now of course, having provided such significant funding to the South Australian Government over the last few years, it’s only appropriate that the Senate looks into the administration of that funding and the failures that seem to have resulted. It’s the least that we can do. I look forward to that report being handed down before the March election, I look forward to Susan Close fronting up and giving evidence as she should, and I look forward to all senators putting party allegiances aside and holding them to account for this manifest funding. Any questions?

Journalist: Whether you think you’ve got the Senate’s support in getting this motion through?

Simon Birmingham: We expect that this motion will be carried with wide cross-party support. It will be telling as to whether or not the Labor Party support the motion and let it go through as well. This is an important inquiry to get to the bottom of the mess that is TAFE SA and to hold Susan Close to account, because frankly Jay Weatherill is not doing so.

Journalist: What do you think of the work of Peter Vaughan and Steve Chapman and their decision to sack everybody?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Peter Vaughan has always been a political appointee pushed by the Labor Party. Frankly, I’ve never had any confidence in him in this role, and Susan Close ought to finish the job with Mr Vaughan in relation to the SACE board and any other government appointments he has.

Journalist: So you think he should be removed from the SACE board fairly swiftly?

Simon Birmingham: Peter Vaughan has been nothing other than a political appointment of Labor. He’s failed them. They ought to get rid of him from all appointments.

Journalist: Do you think the audit agency’s done a good enough job with the courses that it has? And should they look at more?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the national regulator has of course identified systemic problems that now exist in TAFE SA. They will be looking very closely at the reaction of the South Australian Government and TAFE in terms of its administration and the reviews that they have put in place. There ought to be – and we trust that we will see from TAFE – a thorough internal examination of their processes, a thorough identification of the scale of the problems, and of course, most importantly, thorough processes to support students who may have been negatively impacted by this. If TAFE fails any of those tests, then I would expect further action from ASQA. But above that, there is the policy question, and the policy questions are what the Senate will look at and address. How is it that with growing federal funding and huge sums invested, the South Australian Government has got away with cutting their funding? How is it that they’ve got away with chopping and changing policy so frequently, and how has that led to the disaster that has befallen the TAFE system?

Journalist: With so much funding from the Federal Government being given to SA – and I assume is being continued to keep the TAFE system going – is there anything the Federal Government could do to look over- to basically put extra requirements over that funding?

Simon Birmingham: Well, TAFE is owned by the South Australian Government and run by the South Australian Government, and they must be held to account for the failings of TAFE. We, though, as a Federal Government, have significant interest in its success because it’s critical economically, it’s critical for the education and training of South Australians, and that’s why we have a national regulatory approach, which of course is the entity and agency that has called out these problems. If the national regulator had not stepped in and undertaken these audits, Susan Close and TAFE SA would have kept on skirting on by, and lord knows how many thousands more students would have received qualifications that they never got appropriate training for. Thanks guys.