SUBJECTS: Daesh recruiting young Australians, targeting VET FEE-HELP scammers, Peta Credlin and Senator Stephen Parry, Bali Nine.


KIERAN GILBERT: Good morning and welcome to the program. Islamic State claims Melbourne teenager Jake Bilardi has carried out a suicide attack in Iraq. According to IS propaganda the 18-year-old was among a group of suicide bombers attacking in Iraq’s Anbar province.

[Excerpt from Interview]

GREG BARTON: Despite all the propaganda about being a hero when you come and join Islamic State, if you’re a young kid from Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, you don’t speak any Arabic, you have no combat experience you’re not much earthly use apart from propaganda to Islamic State and so many of them become patsies who are told to strap on a vest or hop in the driver’s seat of a suicide vehicle.

[End of Excerpt]

KIERAN GILBERT: More from my interview with Professor Greg Barton from the Global Terrorism Research Centre at Monash University. That’s later in the program. First, reaction from the Government and joining me is the Assistant Education Minister Simon Birmingham. Senator Birmingham this is a disturbing development – unverified reports but IS claiming that that 18-year-old Melbourne teenager has been involved in this suicide attack.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Kieran, of course the Government’s not in a position yet to verify the reports, but if true they are a sobering reminder of what we face when it comes to extremism and terrorism around the world. A sobering reminder to anybody who is thinking about or is engaged with groups who are extremists of the consequences of these activities. That innocent victims in Iraq have lost their lives, that this young man may have lost his life and the consequences that has for his family, to whom of course they must be feeling awful and condolences go to them in what would be a very difficult and trying time. But it’s why the Government has taken this issue so seriously from the moment it first started to emerge as an increasing problem and enacted the range of reforms that we’ve pursued in this area.

KIERAN GILBERT: A non-Muslim family as well, I guess that is a reminder of just how potent this group is in terms of its recruitment, the seduction of its online message as brutal and barbaric as it is.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: It is hard for people to fathom how it is that a young man from the Melbourne suburbs is converted to Islam, is then radicalised to this extent, becomes an extremist and potentially undertakes a suicide bombing on the other side of the world. It’s hard for us all to fathom that but it’s why the additional funding we’ve put in place to our security agencies, the additional laws we’ve put in place through three separate tranches in the Parliament with the last one around metadata working through now are also important to ensure that we can better understand how this happens and more importantly how to stop it, how to ensure we don’t lose young Australians to such terrible, terrible acts of violence on the other side of the world and how to make sure of course we don’t have radicalised Australians posing a threat to people here in Australia.

KIERAN GILBERT: Now I want to look to areas of your responsibility as Assistant Education Minister, specifically when it comes to training colleges and some of the practices that the Government has uncovered here or the Competition and Consumer Commission has uncovered. Can you talk us through some of the behaviour and what the Government’s going to do about it?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well I have been aghast at some of the reports I’ve had in the couple of months I’ve been in this role about the activities of some brokers and representatives of training organisations who go out and offer free iPads or free laptops or meal vouchers or even cash giveaways to sign people on to programmes where they acquire a student loan – a HECS-style loan known as VET FEE-HELP – even reports of people going to nursing homes or retirement villages or setting up card tables outside Centrelink just to sign people on to what is described as a free course. Well, there’s nothing free about it, taxpayers have to foot the bill for these loans, the individual who takes them out wears the consequences on their credit rating and all of this dubious activity is of course starting to harm the reputation of our training sector.

KIERAN GILBERT: And these individuals it’s not only about the training, the standards of the courses themselves as you say, these people often in vulnerable situations then end up with these debts on their record forever basically.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: That’s right. Real consequences for the individuals, even if they never earn the income threshold to repay the loan, it still sits on their credit rating, impacts on their ability to borrow money for a car or a home or anything else through their lives, of course if they don’t pay it back, the taxpayer ultimately foots the bill so it increases our borrowings and our debt and our problems as a government in the future. The reforms we’re announcing today, we estimate, will save taxpayers and save individuals $16 billion in unnecessary student loans over the next decade.

KIERAN GILBERT: So what are the fines and what are the penalties here for those found to be pedalling this sort of rubbish?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Also firstly of course we have to take action to actually ban the offering of these inducements and incentives to ensure that miraculously short courses where the entire cost is levied up front are no longer allowed to be in place. Where you can’t be signing people up who demonstrably are incapable of completing the course or working in the field they’re being trained for. So a range of safeguards are being put in place that frankly should have been there when this scheme was opened wide in 2012 by the previous government but we’re taking the corrective action now. Of course we will also then be putting in place arrangements to be able to recoup the money from the training provider, make sure that we get that money back for the taxpayer, that the individuals concerned can have their debt waived in future and that there are additional financial penalties put in place and I’ll be working through implementation of all of these reforms with the banning of inducements starting as quickly as possible and certainly by no later than 1 April in just 20 days time.

KIERAN GILBERT: And finally how on this issue – finally how widespread is this? Is it just a couple of bad eggs or is it much more widespread then that?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I think the bulk of our training system still provides high quality training be it in the private sector training organisations or through TAFEs in the public sector or not-for-profits, but this has become a widespread activity particularly by brokers and third parties purporting to act on behalf of training organisations. So cracking down on those brokers and third parties is essential. The reforms do that and of course we know it’s widespread enough because the Budget savings over the next decade are $16 billion. That’s a vast sum of money that we are taking action to ensure isn’t lost to the taxpayer.

KIERAN GILBERT: To another issue now and a story – report in The Australian newspaper – Niki Savva today referring to a text message from the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff to the President of the Senate, your colleague Stephen Parry, described as a veiled threat saying that – making reference to his position, the fact that there are a number of senior figures in the Senate from Tasmania and basically the implication was felt, according to Niki Savva’s report that this was a veiled threat to the President of the Senate. What’s your reaction to that?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Kieran I note that neither Peta Credlin nor Senator Parry have confirmed such a text exists. Ultimately this sounds like insider gossip to me. I know Stephen Parry and Peta Credlin extremely well. I hold them both in high regard, both are exceptional operators for their respective roles and frankly I think this is a side issue that is of little consequence for the Government.

KIERAN GILBERT: Okay and lastly to the Bali Nine – the Grand Mufti of Australia has made his way to Jakarta to make a plea to senior figures in the Indonesian Government saying that Islam is a religion of mercy and forgiveness. He just recently made a similar plea alongside Anthony Fisher, the Archbishop of Sydney and now he’s taken that plea in a personal sense to Jakarta.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: We started this interview perhaps talking about the worst of Islam and this of course reflects the best of Islam. The Grand Mufti is doing a mercy mission on behalf of all Australians who care about the lives of these two young men, who acknowledge they did terrible deeds, wrong deeds but that they have been on a path of rehabilitation. It’s a credit to Indonesia what has been achieved there. We are very appreciative of what the Grand Mufti is doing in this regard and hope of course that his efforts, combined with those of the Government and all others who have helped in this space can ultimately make a difference.

KIERAN GILBERT: Senator Birmingham thanks for your time, appreciate it.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: A pleasure, Kieran.