Simon Birmingham: Thanks very much for coming in today. This is a really important day where we release the third of our census of the nation’s school children in their foundation year, their very first year at school, and it provides us with a comprehensive snapshot of the capability of those children in their first year of school, to make the most of their schooling experience, to enjoy it, and to succeed in the learning environment. What it demonstrates is that we are making ground in some important areas, but still have important work to do elsewhere. 

What we’re seeing across the nation is a closing of the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous children, which is very welcome but still a huge task to be performed. We’re also finding great improvements, particularly in Western Australia and Queensland, in terms of the value and improvement around children’s cognitive capabilities and their vocabulary and their learning before they get to the school environment, and that is a demonstration that the record levels of investment in pre-school and child care and early learning is paying dividends in terms of those cognitive and language skills of children before they get to school. 

But we also see that there’s still real work to be done in bridging the gap when it comes to children’s social, emotional and physical wellbeing. Much of that falls back on the family and parents to ensure the children are well rested when they get to school, they’ve had a nutritious and healthy breakfast, are clean and ready to start the day. But importantly, we’re seeing this national data broken down into state and local data that allows communities, like the one here at the John Hartley School, to be able to work with their local community to make a real difference, not just when the child gets to school, but in those critical early years where we’re seeing a school program that is engaging from the earliest moments of postnatal care, right through a child’s development before they get into a classroom, as a reception student. Critically important, we give students help at every step of the way, and this is a demonstration of the value of this type of national data that can drive, not just a research effort to help lift student performance at school, but practical outcomes on the ground such as we’re seeing here. 

Question: Minister, are you concerned with the growing contrast between the outcomes of girls when compared with boys?

Simon Birmingham: There are real differences between boys and girls, and some of those we will continue to see for a long period of time. It’s been long accepted that some of the emotional developments of boys do lag girls, and so seeing a gap in terms of these figures is almost, not only a natural factor that we would expect to see, but almost a reliability test in terms of the data, to demonstrate that the data is accurate in measuring the different capabilities of children. 

But we importantly do need to recognise there seems to be a real gap in other ways between boys and girls, especially around physical wellbeing, which shows that we really do need to encourage parents to engage with services like those available here at the John Hartley School, to engage in those health and community services that can help them to ensure their children get all the rest, all the nutrition they need to succeed at school. 

Question: Do you think this data contradicts- when you’re looking at things like body weight and that kind of thing, do you think this data might contradict this growing epidemic when it comes to obesity?

Simon Birmingham: I think what the data demonstrates is that we do have problems as to whether people are providing the right start to their children. Now, overwhelmingly 80 per cent of Australians are providing the right start to their children, but with one in five children struggling in terms of their skills when they get to school – and particularly when it’s basics like whether they’ve had a good breakfast or a good night’s sleep – these are things that families and parents need to take responsibility for. But we can make sure there are services targeted in local communities to help those parents who may have had a poor upbringing themselves, who may not have had great role models, and who do need help to provide the best start to the children.

Question: Do you think schools maybe need to look at pulling back the use of technology? That’s been an increase recently, and that would seem to combat developing someone socially. What do you think schools can do there?

Simon Birmingham: We need to recognise this data is focused on a child’s status when they get to school. So it’s not just about what they’re doing when they get to school, but importantly those earliest years. The first teachers of a child are their parents; the home environment is the most important learning environment. Teachers and schools take over when they get to about the age of five, but what happens between naught to five is led by that home environment and parents, and they’re the ones who need to make sure that they’re reading to their children, that their children are getting a good night’s sleep, and that they’re getting a good, healthy breakfast.

Question: Senator, just on another topic, are Australians going to go to the polls twice this year do you think?

Simon Birmingham: Well Australians are certainly going to go to the polls for a federal election. That will be held later this year; the Government’s aspiration is for that to occur in the usual timeframe, which would be around September. We do have critical legislation before the Senate to tackle union corruption and we want to see that legislation passed, and accordingly we’re holding all options open in terms of the timing of that election.

Question: But George Brandis has said we will vote on a plebiscite for the- well, there will be a plebiscite before the end of the year. He’s let the cat out of the bag, hasn’t he?

Simon Birmingham: The plebiscite in relation to same-sex marriage will be held at the earliest practical time after the federal election. Of course, that requires time for the AEC, time for the passage of legislation, and all of that will be impacted, no doubt, by the timing of the federal election.

Question: But could that be before the end of the year?

Simon Birmingham: Well nothing’s impossible Mark, but these are matters that will be carefully considered by the Cabinet in the party room, and of course impacted on in terms of when the election [indistinct]. What’s really important around the plebiscite is that it will not only give Australians a say in relation to same-sex marriage, but it should give the Australian community a unifying outcome where they recognise the validity of whatever that plebiscite determines.

Question: So did Mr Brandis speak out of line in promising it before the end of the year?

Simon Birmingham: I think Senator Brandis was simply making it clear that it is the Government’s intention this occurs at the earliest practical time after the election. 

Question: Can I ask, what was- how did you find Peta Credlin [indistinct]?

Simon Birmingham: I found Peta Credlin to be a professional and astute judge of many things involved in politics. Now, I don’t want to rake over the history books, others will write history; my focus as a Minister in the Turnbull Government is firmly on the future. But I think that we should recognise that Peta made a great contribution to the Liberal Party, just as Tony Abbott did, but this is now a time to focus firmly and squarely on the future. 

Question: And how close was their relationship do you think?

Simon Birmingham: Look, they’re things that others can speculate on; I only ever saw an effective working relationship.

Question: Not more than effective?

Unidentified speaker: Last one, thanks.

Question: Was there any affection?

Simon Birmingham: I only saw an effective working relationship. Thanks guys. Cheers.