Subjects: Early Development Census, election timing, marriage equality plebiscite, ABCC legislation and
Nikki Savva’s new book

Michael Brissenden: New figures out today show one in every five Australian children are developmentally at risk by the time they reach school. The Australian Early Development Census is released each three years to measure the development of children in their first year of school. The census shows between 2009 and 2015, the gap between the number of children in disadvantaged areas who were vulnerable to developmental problems widened, compared to those from the least disadvantaged areas. For more I’m joined in our Adelaide studio now by the Education Minister Simon Birmingham. Senator Birmingham welcome to the program.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Michael, great to be with you.

Michael Brissenden: So four out of five are developmentally ready for school but still one in five aren’t. That figure doesn’t seem to have changed much in the last- past six years.

Simon Birmingham: Well Michael, this is the third such census, the first being in 2009, then 2012 and again in 2015 and it does capture data from around 300,000 Australian children in their first year of school and it sees positive change in some areas particularly in areas around language and cognitive skills which is very welcome, but yes still a real struggle and particularly showing around one in five children do have developmental vulnerabilities and some of those in emotional or social maturity, in physical wellbeing, in issues that really do go very much to the home environment and the support that children have to ensure they are as personally equipped as possible to succeed when they get to school.

Michael Brissenden: And particularly a problem in disadvantaged regional and remote areas, why is that? Well I mean it does seem obvious but why is it?

Simon Birmingham: Well Michael, once again I’d highlight the fact that in those areas of language skills and cognitive capabilities, we’ve seen improvements right across the socioeconomic spectrum since the previous two census periods, so that’s really welcome and shows that some of the investment in early learning and support through child care is probably making a difference in those areas but it also shows that in the other areas around that emotional wellbeing, physical wellbeing, social capabilities that there are still real gaps that are in place and that as I said does go to the home environment, now there are some good examples that we’re starting to be able to pick out of localised communities who’ve used this data which can be broken down to a school level, to a local community level, to be able to put local programs in place that help families who are most at risk and therefore help those children to have that emotional resilience, the social capabilities, the physical wellbeing to be able to succeed when they get to school.

Michael Brissenden: Do you think this is something you can fix and what are you going to do to fix it?

Simon Birmingham: I think those type of challenges are things that are going to best be addressed at a local level very much because there’s only so much a federal government can do when you’re talking about whether or not children are getting enough sleep before they get to school, whether they’re having breakfast in the morning, whether they have the opportunities for physical activity as part of their day to day life as a toddler running around, so it’s really important that we do work hand in glove with state governments, with local councils, with local schools to open up the opportunities for more engagement for families, with health services, education services, through the very, very early years because the more we can do to make sure children are ready when they start school, the better they’ll go when they get to school, the less intervention we’ll need in the school environment and of course the less cost that will then be in terms of the successful education of those children, so there’s a lot of benefits from getting it right in the preschool area but so much of that falls on the shoulders of parents and families who we need to make sure the advice, the information, the support is available to them.

Michael Brissenden: Okay can I just ask you about the story we had- we ran at the top of the program- is it- are we safe to assume from George Brandis’ comments yesterday that we will be going to the polls in July?

Simon Birmingham: Well no I think as John Howard, I think it was, our no it was Tony Nutt last week who rightly said that only probably the Prime Minister and God may know when the election is and I think for the Prime Minister he’s still contemplating on that…

Michael Brissenden: [Talks over] But if we’re talking about a plebiscite on- if we’re talking about a plebiscite on same sex marriage, that suggests we’re going to have to go to the polls fairly soon doesn’t it? If there’s a plebiscite before the end of the year?

Simon Birmingham: Well Michael, the election- the Government’s been very clear, we would like the election to be held in the normal timeframe, that’s around September this year. That’s our intention but of course there are a range of real factors around the dysfunction of the Australian Senate, our capability to get very important reforms in relation to industrial relations through that senate, which is why we’re keeping all options open. The plebiscite will be held as soon as practicable after the election.

Michael Brissenden: Okay I’ll ask you about the Senate in a minute but has the Attorney-General discussed the timeframe for a plebiscite by the end of the year with the party room?

Simon Birmingham: I think it’s always been clear that we wanted to deal with this issue after the election but in the earliest possible timeframe after the election and that’s a very reasonable approach. We want to make sure we give the Australian people their say on this issue so that the end result has validity, has confidence for the Australian people, gives them that confidence that the changes if they are made to the marriage laws have the support of all Australians and that will occur in a reasonable timeframe as soon as is practicable after the election.

Michael Brissenden: But not necessarily before the end of the year.

Simon Birmingham: Well Michael, that of course, as you rightly pointed out in your opening questions is related to the timing of the election and the Government’s intention is to go full term if we can bearing in mind there are those important issues around the dysfunction of the Senate and making sure that we do have the most efficient and effective workplace environment in Australia to enable us to be a country that is competitive, to be sure we can attract and incentivise investment in Australia and these are the types of economic reforms we need to see to complement our innovation statement. To [indistinct] changes in relation to competition policy.

Michael Brissenden: Well on those senate negotiations and the ABCC legislation in particular, that seems to have dropped off the list. Have you reached an agreement with the Greens about the passage of that or would you be- that you’ll hold off on presenting it until another time in exchange for their support for the senate voting reforms.

Simon Birmingham: No that’s not the case, obviously we are giving primary attention to the senate voting reforms, they’re coming first if you like in the scheduling of legislation because it’s really critical but…

Michael Brissenden: [Interrupts] Is it true, though, that the Greens won’t support that if you push ahead with the ABCC legislation?

Simon Birmingham: I don’t imagine for a second that the Greens would do that, the Greens have a long and consistent view in relation to group voting tickets that dates way back to Bob Brown’s leadership. So I am confident that the Greens will maintain their consistent view unlike the Australian Labor Party who in the last two years handed down a parliamentary report calling for these senate reforms and are now voting against them and voting in favour of continued dysfunction in the Australian Senate voting system.

Michael Brissenden: Okay, can I ask you about the other- obviously the other big story of the day. History has now been written clearly about the Abbott prime ministerialship and the Abbott era. It does sound like it really was as dysfunctional as many have described. Was it?

Simon Birmingham: [Laughs] Look I was a parliamentary secretary and junior minister and I got on with my job during that period Michael. Others can write the history, I’m about the here, now and importantly the future as the Education Minister and that’s where I’ll be focusing my [indistinct].

Michael Brissenden: [Talks over] Have any of those revelations surprised you though?

Simon Birmingham:
Well I’ve not had a chance to read Niki Saava’s book. I saw some of the extracts on the weekend.

Michael Brissenden:
No I’m sure you’ve read the extracts, yes.

Simon Birmingham: I saw some of the extracts on the weekend and I have to say a number of those matters never really bothered my attention terribly much but I think obviously there were real issues in relation to confidence in the Government, confidence in the Australian economy and that of course is ultimately why a change was executed.

Michael Brissenden: Do you think Tony Abbott can move past it and is his current failure to do so affecting you and hurting the Government?

Simon Birmingham:
Look I hope that Tony does because Tony Abbott is a person of immense capabilities, he has a great contribution that I’m sure he will continue to make to the Australian public policy debate whether that is in the Parliament over a long period of time or whether it’s outside of the Parliament at some stage, they’re all matters very much for Tony. But Tony has been a thoughtful contributor who’s given a lot to Australia in whom the Liberal Party owes a lot and I well and try respect and honour his contribution.

Michael Brissenden: Okay. Simon Birmingham, a leader there. Thank you very much for joining us.

Simon Birmingham:
A pleasure Michael.

Michael Brissenden: That’s Education Minister Simon Birmingham.