Subject: (China Free Trade Agreement; Industry Skills Fund; Higher Education Reforms; Border Security)


STEVE PRICE: We have a special guest in the studio tonight who has joined us, who is the Assistant Education Minister, Simon Birmingham; Minister, good evening, thanks for coming in.   

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good evening, Steve and Danny and listeners, great to be with you all. 

STEVE PRICE: That free trade agreement with China is massive, is education part of it?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Education is absolutely part of it; in fact, I was just in China and Korea last week talking to their authorities and businesses there about education. We have about 150,000 Chinese students studying in Australia at present, paying their way and making an enormous contribution to our education system. There are around 35,000 students in China studying vocational education and training courses with Australian providers, including Sydney TAFE and Box Hill TAFE and numerous others, so it is big business already. It’s our largest services export, it’s our third or fourth largest export industry overall in terms of where Australia generates international dollars and we need to keep building that sector.

STEVE PRICE: So will Australian universities have a freer hand there because of this?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: More Australian education providers, education and training providers will be listed on the Chinese government preferred list as part of the free trade agreement, so it will become easier for Chinese students to study with those institutions, so we do get an increased access in that sense and indeed there is real enthusiasm from the Chinese authorities. I met with their Labour Minister and with their Education Minister last week; they recognise the value of Australian education. The good news is and the thing that listeners in particular would appreciate, it is not just about the dollars that we earn, it ultimately strengthens those cultural ties, those economic ties, those security ties and makes the whole relationship richer and stronger in the future.

STEVE PRICE: Well, I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but it makes it even worse, that dreadful, xenophobic ad that the CFMEU are running today trying to suggest that because we’ve done this free trade deal with China that suddenly we’re going to get flooded with Chinese workers who are not skilled and they’re going to work for less money than the Australian industrial system demands and indeed, when you read the document that’s been put together by Andrew Robb, it shows that there are absolute safe guards in there and that Chinese workers coming in, that are not available here, will have to work under Australian conditions. 


STEVE PRICE: …The union campaign is disgraceful…

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: The union campaign is misleading and deceptive. It should be very clear to everybody that China will have exactly the same conditions in place to send workers to Australia under 457 visas as 150 other countries already have, that anybody who comes here will still have to be filling a demonstrated shortage in the Australian labour market, they will have to have the skills and qualifications to do the job and if it’s a job, like an electrician or a plumber, they will have to have the same licensing conditions as anybody in Australia to do the job…the shame of it all is that Bill Shorten was writing, himself, in The Australian today, backing this xenophobic union campaign that is putting at risk the relationship with Australia’s largest trading partner. 

STEVE PRICE: Just ridiculous…

DANNY BIELIK: Steve, can I flip this on its head?

STEVE PRICE: You can, Danny!

DANNY BIELIK: Imagine if you were to go over to China and have a union over there criticise Australian workers ‘we’ve got Australian’s coming in here, these overpaid people who do all these sorts of things…stealing jobs’ you know, equally they sit and look at these ads and don’t think for one moment that the business captains of China don’t see these sorts of ads and they go ‘Is Australia an unreliable partner in all of this sort of stuff’ so, the unions and business and government need to be working hand in hand to be able to say ‘Australia is open for business and we are a reliable business partner to do business with’

STEVE PRICE: Simon, great Labor leaders like Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, who spent so much of their time post political careers trying to earn money for themselves trying to get China and Australia closer together, must just shake their heads when they see that stuff from Shorten today.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well that’s just it, Steve. The Labor Party throughout modern history has, to their credit, been pretty reasonable when it comes to trade and been very sensible when it comes to strengthening the relationship with China. What we see now is an absolute upending of that through this union backed campaign. Now, I hope that this is just a short term tactic of Bill Shorten’s to get himself the national conference this weekend and at the end he’ll backflip on what he said today and run a million miles from this campaign…

STEVE PRICE: …He’s pretty good at backflips…

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: …but frankly, he should be bigger than that, if he wants to be the Prime Minister of this country he needs to recognise that China is our largest trading partner and the free trade agreement is great news for Australia. It increases access for all matter of Australian products, including our education providers, and we should be welcoming it with open arms.

STEVE PRICE: Danny, we have the Minister in to talk about the Industry Skills Fund, what is that?

DANNY BIELIK: The Industry Skills Fund, it’s interesting because over the years there has been on and off support for people who are in work to be able to gain access to training; and training could mean things like customer service training, we talk about customer service a lot, it could be about learning how to create business plans, so it could be things like certificates and diplomas in business because a lot of people have expertise in a particular area but often they need upskilling in certain areas. The government has historically been a partner in this and helped fund this. A lot of the funding has come and gone over the years and actually Australian business and Australian workers don’t know what to do and where to turn to. The Industry Skills Fund is an initiative that was put out by the Federal Government and started at the beginning of this year and I don’t know that there is actually that much education about it because actually in fact, this is a good program and it will be interesting to hear from the Minister tonight I thought to talk a little bit about it. 

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Danny, Steve, listeners, the Industry Skills fund is our government’s policy to try and get away from what we saw was too much training for training’s sake and actually recognise that people who really know the training we really need in our economy to create more jobs and to strengthen the economic base and productivity of Australia are employers. The Industry Skills Fund is a $664 million investment over the next few years and employers are the ones who apply for it. The condition is that it has to be about lifting the growth potential and the productivity of their business so that they can create more jobs in the future. It’s flexible about the type of training that is supports, but it recognises, as we do through our overall competitiveness agenda, that having skills is critical to growing the economy and to growing more jobs. So, we want to support…

STEVE PRICE: …Is it working?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: It’s early days. We’ve only been receiving applications through the course of this year, but we’re seeing some good, innovative applications across all industry sectors…

STEVE PRICE: …So give us a practical example of how this all works…

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: So look, a good practical example is a NSW based business whose application I saw today for expansion in to the floating LNG sector. Not a sector that’s happening out of NSW, but absolutely something that they can be a supplier of components and products in to. So, it is a small manufacturer who has the capacity to provide parts and equipment to support those operations out of Queensland, they want to diversify the skills base in their business to be able to be able to do that and that’s exactly what we will help to support them do. A whole raft of other examples…

STEVE PRICE: …So give me an example of someone who worked in that company, what new skill would they be trying to obtain and what sort of financial assistance does the government give that employer to make that happen? 

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: So in that type of instance, you would be looking at training around retooling or reskilling for the operation of the equipment required for a diversification of what they’re undertaking. In other instances, we have different examples where it’s about accessing a new export market and so a particular training dedicated to the language, culture or market environment in a different country that we’ve seen elsewhere, in terms of getting exports particularly to India if I think about a different example. One of our first grants was in my home state of South Australia for the Golden North Ice Cream factory, a good example of agricultural production and in their case, it was about broadening their market reach. So, sometimes it’s product diversification and skilling the workers to make different products, in other cases it’s about strengthening the sales and marketing workforce to be able to sell products to a broader market. So, all of those types of activities could be eligible, the key demonstration and assessment point is, is it going to help them grow the business and create more jobs.

STEVE PRICE: I used to eat Golden North ice cream when I was a kid…

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: …you should get back in to it, Steve!

DANNY BIELIK: There’s $664 million, you’re trying to train up a quarter of a million people with this fund, that’s terrific, but how does it actually work? How does someone…you’ve got to have a skills assessment, right? So someone comes in to your business and has a look at it, how does that work, who do they call?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Skills assessments are available by easily looking at the education website, it is the simplest place for a business to go, there are different skills advisers available across the country; some of them backed by industry groups, like the Australian Industry Group, who can go in, give a business a free skills assessment, but probably what’s really important to appreciate here is that business has to have skin in the game as well. This is not free government money without any sense of industry investment, they have to put money on the table, there is a greater co-contribution required from big business, a greater government contribution to micro and small business which, of course, is consistent with the last budget that really put that emphasis on small business growth and investment.

DANNY BIELIK: and this is interesting because you’re talking about having this available to even micro businesses so, home businesses, handymen, tradespeople, people with a ute that go out and fix stuff. For the first time, these people are actually able to access some of this funding and you’ll pay up to 70%, I believe, towards a certain amount of training for them. I went on to the website and downloaded a couple of these information sheets, these FAQs, but there’s not even a phone number, how do they then go and find out? Who can they ring? It says here, make an enquiry with the fund providing skills advice…Who do they ring? How can the tradie tonight, get up tomorrow morning and go ‘great, I’m going to get some training and get some of that paid for by Minister Birmingham’?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well Danny, I will absolutely check that website in the morning, although looking across at the piece of paper next to you I can see 132 846 right down the bottom of it so, hate to call you out on air, but let me give your listeners that number again off of Danny’s paper 132 846…

STEVE PRICE: …there’s a valuable lesson, Minister!

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: [Laughing] but, if anyone is having trouble getting through to that number, they’d be welcome to call my office as well, which in Adelaide is 08 8354 1644, which was going to be my answer until I just happened to glance across the table and see that form! Sorry to call you out there, Danny.

DANNY BIELIK: I will repeat that number again for maximum effect, 132 846.

STEVE PRICE: Danny’s got his glasses on now so he’ll be able to read his notes, you want to find out more about this skills training scheme from the Minister?

DANNY BIELIK: Yeah look, I think it’s an important point to note I guess, Minister, that this isn’t just for medium and large businesses, it is for small businesses. What sort of training do you think that small businesses would get an advantage from?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, I would really encourage micro and small businesses to access it, that’s where it’s most heavily geared to, with around 70% of funding available for those smaller businesses. The opportunity for them is often for the business owner themselves to diversify their skills. What we know is that there are more business owners in Australia with vocational qualifications, than there are with university qualifications. So, an awful lot of the small business sector is made up of people who have studied trades or other vocational skills and have started their own business. So often, their experts in their particular fields, but to grow the business, they need to get a bit of marketing skills or sales skills or otherwise. While it’s not big enough to perhaps employ other people, they need to get those skills themselves. So, what I’d say to a lot of micro and small business operators, the mum and dad owners out there, is think about investing in yourselves, upskilling your capacity a little bit and using this fund to do so because that could be the way you get to grow your business and hopefully employ another couple of Australians.

DANNY BIELIK: and a lot of that training, I guess the important point to note for people, is that training doesn’t look like it did 20 or 30 years ago where you’d have to take a few weeks out and close your business down for a few weeks while you go and get training, it can be done online, it can be done in the evenings and those sorts of things are available through the fund as well, aren’t they?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: They are and in fact the training available is incredibly flexible, it doesn’t have to be completing a full qualification, in fact, it doesn’t necessarily have to be something out of the suite of registered training products around Australia. It can be non-accredited training if it stacks up and it is something that can help to grow your business. 

STEVE PRICE: In big business you actually prioritise certain industries, don’t you?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: There are certainly growth sectors prioritised, agriculture, mining, a range of the, sort of, five key sectors we have that we can potentially grow our economy in that sense and these are complementary to our overall competitiveness agenda, but there are simply growth streams that have a priority status, it doesn’t exclude any business that can demonstrate their growth potential.

DANNY BIELIK: Interestingly, I didn’t see education in that list. Is education considered an industry at government level for these sorts of things?

SIMON BIRIMINGHAM: Education would certainly be able to apply, it hasn’t been put on that growth stream list which sits there as a number of, I guess, our more traditional product producing industries rather than in the services sector, but there is great potential in the services sector and obviously we were talking before about the enormous income we do generate from education, and for education providers the chance is there to upskill themselves if that’s going to help them grow their business to.

STEVE PRICE: Simon Birmingham is the Assistant Education Minister. Danny and I had Christopher Pyne on a month or so ago talking about the higher education reforms. You are going to reintroduce those?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: We are. They’ll be reintroduced, I expect, in the spring session. It’s our intention to negotiate those reforms. Christopher Pyne, I know, has been back in touch with the cross bench, with the Greens, he’s expecting to meet with the new Greens leader in the coming weeks to talk about these reforms. They’re really important to be able to give our universities the capacity to grow their funding base in the future, to specialise and compete with some of the world’s best. We’re not stepping away from these reforms. Everybody agrees that the current system is unsustainable for the future, what we want to have is a constructive conversation on how we can get these reforms or a variation thereof through the Parliament to give our universities what they need.

STEVE PRICE: Gets knocked back again, it gives you a trigger for an election. Would you be happy to fight an election on education reform?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I’d be very happy to do so but, I’d much rather get the legislation through and actually see the reforms in place for our university sector.

DANNY BIELIK: Let me ask you one more question, if we just talk about vocational for a minute, we know what you want to do in higher education, more people do vocational qualifications, as you said, more business owners have vocational qualifications, yet we have this completely screwed up system in Australia where in every state it’s completely different. If I want to, anywhere in Australia, I want to do a bachelor’s degree, I can get HECs or I can get fee-help so it costs me nothing at point of entry, I can start a course, costs me nothing, I can borrow the money from the Commonwealth, in an advanced diploma or diploma, it costs me nothing at point of entry, I can borrow the money from the Commonwealth, if I want to do a certificate IV or certificate III, a customer service, a frontline management course, learn to be an electrician, it could cost me thousands in NSW, it might cost nothing in VIC, it might be completely different in Queensland and in South Australia they took all the money from the Federal Government and ran! So what are we going to do to fix all of this? 

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well Danny look, firstly, I just want to make sure that everyone appreciates that we still have an outstanding vocational education and training system around Australia. The quality is good, the opportunity is great and 1.5 million people vote with their feet and their wallets by paying for their own training, so that’s very important to get on the table. But, yes, the system is complicated and confused and as the state leaders sat down with the Prime Minister today to discuss how the federation works, there’s probably no greater example of where it is crossing over one another and confusing for employers and people accessing training than vocational education and training. Now, I hope that we will get some good steps forward out of this federation process to clarify what the lines of responsibility are, whether that is done by jurisdiction, state or federal, taking over the whole system, whether it is drawing some clearer lines in the sand about the level of qualifications that a separate part of government might take responsibility for, whether there are different models where we take responsibility for employer based training and training dealing with people in the unemployment market and the states run post-school training, there are a range of different options that I know were on the table for state and federal leaders to discuss today, I just hope that we will see through that process, much greater clarity in the future that gives everybody certainty. 

STEVE PRICE: We appreciate you coming in, just before you go, Bill Shorten tonight has announced that the Labor Party…well he’s trying to convince the Labor Party that they should embrace your ‘turn back the boats’ policy. It’s a pity that they’ve come so late to that realisation that that defeats people smugglers, given the number of people who drown at sea, isn’t it?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: It’s a great pity, Steve, and if only people could really deeply truly believe it. Everybody knows that the Coalition Government is committed to policies to stop the boats and to turn them back where safe to do so because we have done so. Kevin Rudd said much the same things as Bill Shorten did today, Kevin Rudd said them back in 2007 before Labor was elected then and they simply did the opposite. Really, we know deep down that the Labor Party is deeply, deeply divided on this; we will see that play out at the Labor Party national conference this weekend. Who knows whether they will agree with Bill Shorten’s statement or not, but what we do know is that at any moment in the future, Labor could simply backflip on this policy again and open the floodgates to the people smugglers once more. 

STEVE PRICE: Simon Birmingham, Minister, thank you for coming in. 

A pleasure, anytime, Steve, Danny. 

STEVE PRICE: Thank you, Danny. Make sure you get your eyes checked before you come back next week!

DANNY BIELIK:  I will, see you next week.