Subject: South Australians in Cabinet; Higher Education Policy


MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Well B1 and B2 with us here in the studio. Simon Birmingham, he is a Liberal Senator, he his Minister for Education, welcome. 

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good morning, Matthew.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: You’ve thrown off those Assistant Minister shackles.


MATTHEW ABRAHAM: All gone. Well you’ve got to get something for organising a leadership coup. 

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: There were many people who were promoted in Malcolm Turnbull’s first Ministry and not all of them supported Malcolm, good people like Josh Frydenberg and Christian Porter who are great new talent for the party as well.

DAVID BEVAN: Are you more important than Chris Pyne now?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I don’t think anybody is ever more important than Christopher Pyne and especially in this studio. In this studio that Christopher Pyne has graced on so many countless occasions over the years-

DAVID BEVAN: He could be yesterday’s man.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: This is like being in his home!

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Mark Butler very politely listening there, Labor MP for Port Adelaide Opposition Environment and Climate Change Spokesman, welcome. 

MARK BUTLER: Thank you very much, good to be here.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: You wouldn’t right Chris Pyne off yet even though Birmo has taken his portfolio?

MARK BUTLER: Christopher always survives, he is resilient and as much as Birmo might be going after the crown as the Liberal king of South Australia, I think Christopher has got a bit of fight left in him.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: You think so?

MARK BUTLER: I think so.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: So you’re going to back the old guy?

MARK BUTLER: Well Simon was clearly sort of the chief faceless man in the most recent coup in the Liberal Party and that’s what he would have been called if he was a Labor Party Senator, but at the end of the day this was a pretty brutal coup and although there were some supporters of Tony Abbott who were promoted in the recent reshuffle by Malcolm Turnbull the important point to note is that every single support of Malcolm Turnbull, every single person who was around the kitchen table crunching the numbers got a promotion. 

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: It’s a time honoured tradition.

MARK BUTLER: Well I think we’ve seen over the last several days that there are still some pretty deep scars in the Liberal Party-

DAVID BEVAN: Yeah but how on earth can the Labor Party keep a straight face mourning over the way Tony Abbott has been treated-

MARK BUTLER: I’m not mourning Tony Abbott moving on.  

DAVID BEVAN: Well Bill Shorten has said how terrible it is and that leaders shouldn’t be treated this way and he was involved in the Gillard-Rudd stoushes, you’ve been involved in them Mark Butler, so really none of you can take the high moral ground over this. 

MARK BUTLER: I’m not trying to take the high moral ground I’m trying to call it as it is and now we’re trying to make an argument about whether anything has changed in this government and I think it is pretty clear a few weeks on that not much of any substance has changed although there are quite a number of new faces.

Simon Birmingham you’re Education Minister now, Chris Pyne was Education Minister, some see it as more of a senior portfolio.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I think Christopher has an incredibly important role to play in Industry, Innovation and Science which will be critical in this State perhaps more than anywhere else in the country.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: But seriously, what’s got the biggest budget? I thought Health and Education in the Federal Budget are the two biggies aren’t they?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Health and Education have enormous budgets, but they also have budgets that are very locked in to payments that go direct to the States.

DAVID BEVAN: So there is not a lot of discretionary spending?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Christopher has far more discretionary spending I suspect than I do.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Are you locked in to the Pyne agenda in terms of the tertiary fees, the agenda that has been blocked in the Senate, is it your job now to succeed where he failed and push that through?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I’ve been very clear to date that we have a new Prime Minister in Malcolm Turnbull, I’m a new Education Minister and I’ll be taking the time to listen and talk to the education sector, to listen to academics, Vice-Chancellors, students, industry and business and get a sense of what they see as the key problems we should be addressing and how we should best address them-

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Does that mean no?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM:  Well it does mean that I am open to change, that I am open to better ideas and different ways forward. We still have a policy that’s there, it is still legislation before the Parliament and until such time as the Cabinet determines otherwise that is the policy, but I am very open to talking and listening.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Until such time as the Cabinet determines otherwise, that is code isn’t it in that – well I’m going to go back and consult again and well go back to Cabinet?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I will definitely be talking to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet about the outcomes of my consultations. That is exactly what I think your listeners would expect a new Education Minister to do.

DAVID BEVAN: Ok now the policy we’re talking about is fee deregulation?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: That’s one element of Christopher’s reform arrangements that he proposed-

MARK BUTLER: There are so many other disastrous elements it’s hard to know where to start.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well we could talk about extending Commonwealth support to sub Bachelor places, Mark, which I think is a really important reform that-

DAVID BEVAN: If we could ask you this, Simon Birmingham, what was the problem that fee deregulation was trying to address?

So, David I think there are two key issues there. One is a current problem or issue and that is that everybody who receives government funding of any sort or is reliant upon market structures put in place by a government responds to those incentives and for universities the current incentive or the means by which they can increase their funding is simply to put more students in Bachelor places because that’s the only way in which they get to vary their funding level is to pack more kids in to lecture theatres essentially. And we have to ask whether that is working as the best mechanism for universities to be able to fund their undergraduate student programmes in the future.

DAVID BEVAN: And what do you think?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well I think we need to seriously look at as to whether that is working or not because you do have questions about the number of students going in, about the abilities of all of those students and in talking to Vice-Chancellors, there is much enthusiasm for some elements of the reform proposals previously put forward, not just about fee flexibility, but also about having a look at whether you provide Commonwealth support to students at lower level qualifications like Diplomas and Advanced Diplomas and Associate Degrees ensuring that there are pathway programmes for students who may not be up to a Bachelor Degree or may not need a Bachelor Degree for their aspirations, but could get another alternative quality qualification.

DAVID BEVAN: In a place like Adelaide the only people that have got any money are the universities. If you look at the big building developments that have gone on in the city, it has all been funded by UniSA and Adelaide University and, to a lesser degree, Flinders. They have got big budgets, they have a big influence, but it is being funded by student debt. 

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Universities do have big budgets. Now, some of them do incredibly well in terms of the international student market, which is our third largest export industry and in Adelaide University about 25% of their students are international students pumping money in to the university and in to the local economy, so that’s great and those international students are often subsidising domestic student programmes.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Mark Butler, does this worry you? Because I know Tony Abbott was on radio with his good friend Ray Hadley and he was saying that nothing has changed apart from him. But the policy settings, all the key policy settings are the same. Is your concern though that he has gone, there has been a big lift in Newspoll and some other published polls, maybe the public wasn’t all that worried about these policies that you think are terrible they just couldn’t stand Tony Abbott?

MARK BUTLER: Well I don’t think you can analyse polls only within a few weeks of a leadership change and frankly the bounce in the polls, whether it’s Newspoll or other polls, has been relatively modest compared to other leadership changes over recent years. But I think what people are looking at is-

Not that you’ve looked at the figures then…

MARK BUTLER: I think what people are looking at is whether their expectations that are changed to Malcolm Turnbull would mean a substantive change in government policy is going to come true. Now, what we’ve seen in some areas, say my area for example of responsibility in climate change and renewable energy, Malcolm Turnbull has been very crystal clear that there will be no change in policy, no substantive shift from the Tony Abbott approach whatsoever. In other areas you’re getting very mixed messages, you know, you’re getting one message for example from Mathias Cormann, the Finance Minister, about whether the government is open to looking at new revenue measures, for example, from high income superannuation accounts, you get a very different message from the Treasurer Scott Morrison. I think it is going to take a while for people to work out quite what this leadership change was all about. Was it actually about addressing some of the very serious issues and policy concerns that people had for example, in Christopher Pyne’s area, not just about university funding but also about schools funding the kicks in in 2017, was it just about seriously changing some of those policy directions or is it about putting some different faces on TV and if it is the latter I think the government is going to have the same concerns over the medium to long term.

DAVID BEVAN: That uncertainty that you say the population would have would make it difficult for Labor to work out a strategy. How are we going to nail this new guy?

MARK BUTLER: Well, we’ll continue to press the case about the policy, that’s what we’ll do. Now, Simon Birmingham obviously I think is to be congratulated to achieve a substantial promotion. I think it is good for South Australia to have a second Cabinet Minister. I think that broadens the base for South Australian perspectives to be put in to the general debate about the national direction, but he is going to have to get a hurry on I think, you know, these new university fee deregulation arrangements kick in next year. We’re about to finish, at the end of today, finish the third quarter of 2015, these new arrangements kick in in 2016 so he hasn’t got much time to indicate to, not just to the university Vice-Chancellors who have one perspective on this, but to students and parents across the country whether there will actually be any difference between a Malcolm Turnbull led government and a Tony Abbott led government. 

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: You changed leaders without changing substantial policy, certainly at the last leadership change – it’s hard to keep track of them…

MARK BUTLER: There was pretty substantive change in policy when Kevin Rudd took over from Julia Gillard, for example, in my area there was a substantial change in policy around carbon pricing, there was the substantial change in policy around asylum seekers and some other areas as well.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Simon Birmingham, if Tony Abbott is saying “it’s a game of snakes and ladders and I encountered a snake” I assume he’s talking about Malcolm Turnbull yeah?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well Tony Abbott can speak for himself but-

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: He did, he did. What interpretation would you – if somebody said that about you, called you a snake, how would you respond to that?

I think Tony could equally be interpreted as saying that he hit a snake on the game of snakes and ladders and he went down the game. 

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: I was waiting for him to go on, but he stopped at snake.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well Matthew, we can try to interpret Tony’s words, he can speak for himself. I think in relation to this question about is there a change or not, which is the substantive issue that Australians do want to talk about. We will be making incremental not revolutionary changes from here because we want to build upon the successes of the government. And the government has had great successes to date in terms of securing our borders, in terms of making inroads in to the level of debt and deficit, in terms of ensuring that we actually are a country that has some more competitive foundations by eliminating the carbon tax and the like. So, they’re the foundations that we build upon and things like the free trade agreements as well, but there is more to be achieved in the future and I think there is this real wave of optimism from the Australian people at present that they’re hearing a leader in Malcolm Turnbull who is talking positively about facing up to some of the global challenges we have, that has put in place some foundations that already point to changes as well. Mark Butler talked about his portfolio area, well Greg hunt the Environment Minister now has responsibility for the renewable energy target, he has responsibility for the clean energy finance corporation. The new Cities portfolio that Jamie Briggs is doing with Greg Hunt comes in and points to the fact that we are now open to funding public transport and urban infrastructure and not just roads as we were in the future. These are real changes that we’re seeing. I’ve talked about being open to changes in education policy. The idea that nothing has changed is quite ridiculous. 

DAVID BEVAN: Mark Butler.

MARK BUTLER: Well the point Simon makes is a great example. On Monday you saw on page one of The Australian Greg Hunt boasting about the fact that he now has control of the Renewable Energy Agency in his portfolio and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and that was a wonderful new dawn for the renewable energy industry. On the same page, on page one of The Australian, Mathias Cormann was boasting about the savings measures the Government continues to pursue which includes the abolition of those two agencies and he made a speech at the Sydney Institute confirming that the Renewable Energy Agency will continue to be abolished if the Liberal Government has their way and that’s the point I’m trying to make that this Government at the moment is speaking with two voices and people are still making up their mind whether it’s really just the old government with new faces or whether there is actually going to be any change and substance.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I am delighted to hear that Mark read Mathias’ Sydney Institute speech because importantly Mathias also pointed out that Mark and the Labor team have announced more than $10 billion in new spending measures as policy since the May budget, which I think is about four to five times the number of any offsets or savings they have proposed, so I hope Mark takes that message out of Mathias’ speech as well.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Do you have a problem with Abbott stalwarts like Mathias Cormann who are still sitting in Cabinet and haven’t drunk the Kool-Aid?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Not at all. Mathias has been really constructive and positive to date. I know his conversations with Malcolm and with Scott Morrison the new Treasurer have been positive and I have complete confidence that, as a government, we’ll maintain our focus on reigning in levels of debt and deficit in future. We don’t pretend that’s an easy challenge we face and especially as we look at some of those global problems with commodity prices, downturns in the stock market, they are significant issues Australia has to face and it’s a reason why our economy has to adapt to global changes.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Simon Birmingham, Liberal Senator and Minister for Education and Training, thank you for joining us.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM:  A pleasure, guys. 

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: And Mark Butler, Labor MP for Port Adelaide he’s the Opposition Environment and Climate Change Spokesman, he’s National President of the ALP, thank you. 

MARK BUTLER: Thanks guys.