Subject: (Bali 9 Executions; Marriage Equality; Direct Action Policy; Education Reform)




PETER VAN ONSELEN: I’m joined now live out of Adelaide by the Assistant Education Minister, Senator Simon Birmingham, thanks very much for being there.


SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good morning Peter, pleasure to be with you.


PETER VAN ONSELEN: I want to talk to you about portfolio areas, primarily, but before getting to that, the news that broke over the weekend of course, timed by coincidence or otherwise with the anniversary of ANZAC Day, is that the countdown for the Bali 9, the pair that is on death row has begun, that means they may have as little as 72 hours’ notice before being executed. What’s the government’s reaction to this? We know that you’re obviously opposed to it. Is there anything that can be done? What can you tell us?


SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well this is of course terrible news that’s come through, it really is a case now that we fear the worst but as a government, we’ll continue to work and hope for the best outcome. These two Australian men have really demonstrated that they have been rehabilitated, that they have taken to the task of reforming themselves during their time in prison and as a government we would respectfully ask that President Widodo and the Indonesian authorities to reconsider the position. We have of course left no stone unturned to date and we will continue to work from now until the very last minute to try to get a reprieve for these two Australian men. We believe that it is an appalling miscarriage of justice for Indonesia to proceed with the execution of these men and we would really implore on them to reconsider, rethink what’s about to occur, take these men of death row, recognise that they are a shining example of rehabilitation within the Indonesian prison system and ultimately we would ask Indonesia to simply do for these two Australian citizens what Indonesia has asked others to do around the world for Indonesian citizens.


PETER VAN ONSELEN: Our previous guest, Christine Milne, was talking a little bit about the internals of her party, social justice versus the environment. One of the issues that we talked about was the issue of gay marriage, that’s something that you’ve been on the record as in favour of. The Prime Minister told us that if the Liberal party room took a different view on this, then that would be a matter for the party room. Is it incumbent on the party room to therefore raise it as some sort of combustible issue internally? Or are we going to see ahead of the next election a guaranteed party room discussion about this? Is there any news on that?


SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Peter look, I would expect that, consistent with the Prime Minister’s promise, at some stage in the life of this Parliament, there’ll be a party room discussion and that will inform the party’s position going forward. Of course, my view has long been transparent on this, in favour of a conscience vote, in favour of change. There are different views, as is well known within the ranks of the party as well. The Prime Minister took a position at the last election; we’d have a discussion in the party room at some stage. That will happen at the right time, but there are always many, many issues for the party room to deal with. This is just one of those and we’ll get around to it I’m sure at some point.


PETER VAN ONSELEN: OK, so your expectation is that you’ll get around to it at some stage during this term. What about procedurally though? As you well know, the Coalition party room or the Liberal party room in particular doesn’t really tend to have formal votes as such; it tends to more just be quite discussional. You did have a formal vote, somewhat controversially, around Malcom Turnbull and the Emissions Trading Scheme support way back when. Would it be something of that order? You would expect to be able to know what the party room position is? Or would it be simply reading the tea leaves based on a discussion without a formal vote?


SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well the Prime Minister runs the party room by convention and by convention the party room reaches a consensus position, not always one that everyone is happy with or agrees with but one that everyone can live with and work with and ultimately that’s the way discussions occur in the party room and I would imagine that this would be the same type of discussion. We would be working towards what the best possible outcome would be in terms of the consensus within the party, not necessarily a vote per say.


TROY BRAMSTON: Senator, this week saw the first round of the government’s direct action policy in place, $660 million was allocated to polluters to reduce their carbon emissions. We just had Christine Milne on the programme underlining the fact that under the previous government it was the polluters themselves that paid to reduce their emissions, now we have the government or the taxpayer paying. Is that a fair point to raise here? That in a situation where the budget is deep in deficit, would voters be right to question spending so much money to give to polluters to reduce their carbon emissions?


SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well Troy, what we promised to do as a government was to make sure that we also drove down the cost of living, put downward pressure on electricity prices where possible and help to make the Australian economy more competitive and the abolition of the carbon tax was central to achieving those objectives. Now, if you compare the carbon tax policy with the direct action policy, with which Greg Hunt had such success this week, you can see they really are chalk and cheese. The carbon tax policy applies an electricity tax that sweeps across the entire Australian economy, raised between 6 and 9 billion dollars per anum, versus the direct action policy that targets action purely at those areas where you hope to have abatement and know you can get reductions in the emissions levels and comes at a price of $2.5 billion over the next four years. Far, far cheaper in terms of the impact on the Australian economy than the carbon tax was, far more targeted in terms of only investing with incentives in areas where you get emissions reductions rather than applying a tax in a sweeping way that covers all manner of areas where you expect to see no change in the emissions profile whatsoever.


TROY BRAMSTON: Certainly we have heard from government ministers including yourself this week, who have said that the policy is more efficient, more targeted and costs less in terms of the economy. Do you think it will meet the target, the bipartisan 2020 target, of a 5% reduction of emissions on 1990 levels? Are you confident of reaching that target?


SIMON BIRMINGHAM: We are very, very confident of reaching that target. Very confident of reaching the target, the latest assessments in terms of the abatement challenge we faced demonstrate that with the price set at less than $14 per tonne of abatement, compared with the carbon tax that was achieving abatement at more than 90 times that, we can manage to achieve the 5% reduction target based on 2000 levels, which is comparable to about a 13% reduction on 2005 levels which really means Australia, once again, will play a key role along the same lines as other major players in the rest of the world. Our target is comparable on 2005 levels with that that the United States is pursuing, just as we achieved our Kyoto stage one targets, we’ll achieve our 2020 targets, we’ll engage constructively in the Paris talks. You’ve got a really positive history here for Australia of meeting or exceeding its climate change targets and that’s something that we should be proud of as a nation and this policy will continue that trend.


PETER VAN ONSELEN: Senator, you mentioned the guiding principle of the government was putting downward pressure on standard of living costs, how does Josh Frydenberg’s idea of broadening the GST on online goods assist with that?


SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well Peter, we want to make sure the tax system is fair and efficient and effective and whether it is making sure that the GST applies to as many goods as it reasonably can within the construct of it, with the exclusion of education and food, the idea of expanding it to ensure that Australian businesses are not disadvantaged in relation to importers from offshore, I think is an important one to pursue as far as we possibly can to the point where it is as efficient as possible to deliver. Ensuring that ultimately, all Australians pay their fair share of tax is an important principle that we want to have in place and of course, ultimately ensuring the tax system itself works fairly, is central to the white paper process that we’re undertaking, that is having a comprehensive at the fairness in equity and effectiveness of our tax system and stands in contrast to a Labor party, who have already come out in relation to the next election, saying they will reintroduce a carbon tax, they’ll increase taxes on superannuation. They’ve got a multinational tax policy that arguably doesn’t work and that treasury has said wouldn’t work based on what Labor proposed last time. So they’re grabbing a hotch potch of tax measures to simply increase taxes, we’re taking a comprehensive review of the tax system to inform a thoughtful position that will be taken to the next election.


PETER VAN ONSELEN: Before we run out of time, Senator we should move on to your portfolio. I wanted to ask you about some of the furore reported on Four Corners, it’s been reported in features in The Australian as well, concerns are bound in and some discussion even at ICAC, about concerns in relation to foreign students and swapping of essays, concerns about standards of entry. As the Assistant Education Minister, is this something that you and your government are looking closely at? Are you concerned about it?


SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well we know that the international education market is critically important to Australia. It is one of our largest export industries; it is the silent player in our export industry in a sense but brings in billions of dollars of income to Australia and we need to make sure the integrity of that is protected. In my role, with responsibility for vocational education and training, I’ve taken a very firm line in terms of making sure that we are applying tough standards to training organisations, be they public sector organisations, like TAFE, or private operators to ensure a high level of quality is in place.


PETER VAN ONSELEN: Do you need to do more in that sector that you have direct carriage for? Because it does seem that some of this reporting is suggesting that there has been a slippage in standards because of the dollars on offer and, it’s almost exactly as you talk about, Senator, the significant importance of this as an export market for Australia, perhaps a turning of a blind eye by some institutions.


SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well we need to make sure that we are always maintaining the highest of quality because that’s so critically important to the long term sustainability of this industry. So if we hope to continue to secure export dollars and revenue from overseas, be it in the university sector or in the vocational education and training sector, we need to ensure we’re maintaining the highest quality possible. In the university sector, we have a strong regulator in place, TEQSA, to ensure strong standards are met. It is a sector that is under much scrutiny, much of the time and I am quite confident that we have a very robust tertiary education sector that is delivering high quality outcomes for the vast majority of students and what I would always say, be it in any form of education, if people have evidence of malpractice, of rorting of the wrong thing, we have strong regulators there, get in touch with them, provide that evidence so that we can make sure that we stamp out any isolated instances of wrong doing…


PETER VAN ONSELEN: …what about the fact though that there is a conflict for some academics that might feel inclined to what you’re talking about, around the cooler at least, but decide not to do so? Because the very viability of their courses, and perhaps their employment, gets put under the microscope if they do clamp down as they would like to and ultimately reduce the viability of the very courses that they teach in to.


SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Individual academics, universities all need to be very conscious that their reputation is on the line in this space, just as much as the entire education system’s reputation is on the line from that export sense; so individual players need to be conscious that it will harm their academic standing, the standing of their university if they are not ensuring that we have the highest quality right throughout the system. Now I’m confident we’ve got the systems in place to support that, but of course you need individuals to be living and breathing that culture as well. Australia has an outstanding education system, we as a government want to make it even better and ensure that it is well place to compete on the world stage in to the future and that’s at the heart of the reforms to higher education that Christopher Pyne has championed and put forward to the Parliament and we’ll keep working on that, but there is a very clear message in terms of these isolated reports of wrong doing, that universities need to take a tough position on this, just as we expect the regulator to take a tough position on it.


TROY BRAMSTOM: Minister, can I ask you about schools? It was reported during the week that the $4 billion in funding reductions to the states announced in last year’s budget would be maintained in this year’s budget, yet the Prime Minister has said that those cuts are open to discussion at a meeting of state premiers and territory ministers in July, so how should voters look at that $4 billion cut to school and education funding coming up in the May budget?


SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well Troy, voters should firstly understand that funding for schools continues to increase throughout the forward estimates. The only change that occurred in last year’s budget was that the rate of increase that had been promised by the previous Labor government has been slowed to a more sustainable rate of increase, but states will still receive increased dollars to spend on their education systems from the federal government and it is a complete fur few to be having people, and particularly the state premiers, running around the country claiming there’s some cut or some reduction in funding available for schools because that is just not the truth. They are getting more money to invest in their school systems in the future. We are also trying to empower them to give schools greater autonomy, we are doing great reforms, I think, in terms of teacher standards in making sure that the training of our teachers is of the highest quality possible. So we want to work with the states in partnership to get very strong and positive outcomes in terms of the quality of learning through our school system. They of course rune the schools, we’re trying to put in place the standards that give them the best possible teachers, that give them the incentive to deliver greater autonomy for those schools and give them an increase in funding streaming in to the future. We are always open to having positive and constructive discussions with the states; that can’t be about simply an open slather cheque book. We don’t have that. Everybody, I think, appreciates that the federal government has significant budgetary pressures, inherited a huge debt and deficit problem from the previous government, we are trying to do what is responsible by giving the states steadily and sustainably increasing funding for schools, not simply promising them amounts like the Labor party did, that were never going to be able to be delivered without further deepening Australia’s budget problems.


PETER VAN ONSELEN: Senator Birmingham, we’ve run out of time but we appreciate your company on Australian Agenda, thanks very much for joining us.


SIMON BIRMINGHAM: A pleasure gentlemen, anytime.