David Penberthy: To have a bit of a wrap-up of what Malcolm Turnbull achieved while he was here, we’re joined by Federal Liberal Senator and Education Minister Simon Birmingham, and we’ll also talk shortly with the Labor member for Wakesfield Nick Champion. But we’ll start with you, Senator Birmingham, and thanks very much for your time this morning. One of the big probably headline parts of Mr Turnbull’s visit here was his speech yesterday to Business SA about the economic direction that the Government is heading in and the challenges that lie ahead. I’ll ask you the same question I asked Chris Pyne on Wednesday: when are we going to see substantial details about your direction on things like taxation, and until such a time that you’ve announced those details, are you creating a bit of a policy vacuum that Labor can capitalise on?
Simon Birmingham: Well, morning Penbo, Will, and listeners. There will be further from the Turnbull Government in relation to taxation, and we are very determined to try to make sure that we drive down the rate and level of tax that people pay, because we don’t want to see the continued push of middle income earners up into higher tax brackets. But we already have tax policy out there and at the Business SA lunch yesterday, the Prime Minister spoke to some 1200 plus business leaders who were in attendance, and really did contrast elements of the tax policies of the two parties that are out there already. So the Turnbull Government, through our Innovation Agenda and Statement, is committed to providing tax breaks – particularly capital gains tax breaks – in targeted areas of venture capital and investment to really inspire investment in start ups, in new businesses, and to make that more attractive, which comes at the same time as the Labor Opposition is proposing to increase capital gains tax, essentially across the board unless it happens to be new building construction, putting in place a situation where of course you will be disincentivising investment and making it less attractive to invest in business and create more jobs.
So we’re already seeing contrast in terms of policies. And our Government, you can be quite confident, is looking at tax in a context of how we can make sure that we have a more efficient tax system, that we take the tax burden where possible off of those who want to create jobs, off of those middle income earners where possible, and we want to really focus in terms of how we give tax benefits that will encourage investment and spending and growth in the economy, whereas Labor’s tax measures are really all about funding record levels of spending commitments that they’re making.
David Penberthy: Would you concede that you struggled to get your message out at all this week because of the constant buzz about things like the Niki Savva book? Last night we saw the Prime Minister- former Prime Minister John Howard being interviewed by Dave Speers on Sky, being asked questions about his assessment of Peta Credlin. The in-fighting seems to have continued quite spectacularly, up to the point where I’d say that more than 50 per cent of all the political stories that are run on a channel like Sky News this week have centred on the Niki Savva book. You’re really struggling to find clean air because of this internal squabbling, aren’t you?
Simon Birmingham: Well, unfortunately, it is always easier to write stories about personalities and politics and those sorts of things than it is to actually talk about detailed policy like capital gains tax as we were just doing, and I think that is a shame. But look, we are getting on with the job as a Government, and I’m sure that as we get closer and closer to this election, we will ultimately have very fair debates around the policy and that a lot of this stuff will be left behind. You always have moments where a book is released, and that takes away some of the air time in the course of a given week, but I think for South Australians who heard the Prime Minister here this week, they would have heard somebody who’s very committed to transforming the Australian economy from one that has been reliant very much on a mining boom in recent years and to one where we put in place the policies that encourage investment, that encourage innovation, and that ultimately leads job growth.
That’s what we in South Australia are well and truly at the forefront of. Our economy is at the most difficult end of the transition into a different stage of Australia in terms of shifting gear in terms of the economy and desperately needing to make sure that we encourage that investment in jobs growth, and that’s what the Innovation Statement Malcolm Turnbull released last year does, and it’s not just the capital gains tax matters we discussed before, but it’s about changing the way research spending occurs in Australia so that there’s much greater collaboration between our universities and businesses. It’s about changing the way we teach coding and STEM through our schools and even our preschools to encourage kids to be able to actually be inspired to study the types of subjects that we know that 70 per cent of the fastest growing jobs are in, which is science and technology, engineering, and mathematics.
David Penberthy: On education, Simon Birmingham, can I ask you- there are reports this morning that several university Vice-Chancellors have spoken to The Australiannewspaper saying that very soon you as Education Minister are expected to confirm that you’re going to go back to some of the blueprint that was drawn up by your predecessor Chris Pyne with a view to pushing ahead with a 20 per cent funding reduction to the tertiary sector, with that… sort of a shortfall of funding being offset by a corresponding increase in university fees. Is that the direction that you are going to be heading in?
Simon Birmingham: The report in The Australian today is based on a lot of speculation from university Vice-Chancellors, and of course when you put 40 Vice-Chancellors in the one room, you will often get an awful lot of speculation as a result of that, but I did make clear in my speech to the Universities of Australia conference this week that there are budget issues we have to deal with in higher education, just as there are quality issues and innovation issues, and those budget issues are the reality. Since 2009, spending growth in higher education has gone up by 59 per cent. At the same time, the economy has only grown by 29 per cent. So we’re seeing- we have seen growth in spending essentially double the economic growth rate, and that’s just not sustainable. Now Labor can run into this election, as they’re doing in a whole raft of areas, promising billions of dollars in extra spending. That will only then come from either higher taxes or bigger debt, neither of which are acceptable to the Coalition.
So it is my view and the Government’s view that there are reforms we need to look at in higher education, but we will make sure that what we do is equitable – in that there’ll still be no requirement for upfront fees, no disincentive for students regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds to attend university – and we’ll make sure that we structure and support higher education and universities in a way where they have sustainable and secure funding [indistinct] for the long term so that they can play the crucial role that they do have to play in that economic transformation and innovation across the Australian economy.
Will Goodings: South Australian Senator Simon Birmingham, thanks for your time.