Interview on 2GB Overnights with Luke Grant
Topics: Free speech in universities; Smartphones in schools; Crackdown on dodgy family day care providers; Child care reforms; Tax reform




Luke Grant:                  Now, a lot has been going on in the education sector over the past few weeks. You’ll remember that earlier this week, we had Senator James Paterson calling for universities to face fines for failing to uphold free speech. I say hooray. The idea is that the proposed financial penalties would deter the kind of administrative cowardice, if I can use that expression, behind the ANU’s decision to ditch their Western civilisation degree. Now, we’re all well-versed in why that course was scrapped. The Education Minister, Senator Simon Birmingham, he oversees the university sector obviously, he said that with funding at record levels, taxpayers rightly expect that our universities uphold the values and the standards of free speech and academic freedom. Big tick there. It’s $17 billion in government funding that goes towards these institutions – $17 billion, a lot of money. Have a chat about that, and a really important development in child care and in particular the use of taxpayer dollars.


On the line is the Education Minister, Simon Birmingham. Senator, good to talk to you.




Simon Birmingham:     Hello, Luke, great to be with you.


Luke Grant:                  Thanks so much. Let’s go on first to the ANU and its ditching of the Western civilisation degree. There’s been lots of people talking about this obviously. We’ve had students at a Queensland university lose marks because they haven’t used gender-inclusive language. There’d be plenty of Australians hearing that and watching that news and thinking to themselves: gee, we spend a lot of money in this space and we’re not really getting what we thought we’re getting out of it.


Simon Birmingham:     Well, indeed. Look, if those stories about student losing marks over the type of language they use are true then that’s complete and utter madness, and that’s what we’ve publicly called it out as and we’ve certainly made it very clear that students ought to speak up if those things are happening and universities ought to hold their faculties and academics to account in terms of ensuring that free speech, free thought and common sense apply in our universities. And in terms of the Ramsay Centre proposal, look, this is a very generous bequest from the late Paul Ramsay. It’s a significant financial opportunity for a university. Of course they ought to protect their academic integrity and ensure that they’re not compromised by funding that’s made available to them. But equally, the very values that universities hold dear, in terms of freedom of thought and academic integrity, are basically the product of Western civilisation. So they should have absolutely nothing to fear about promoting the study of Western civilisation and scholarships for Australians to be able to do so.


Luke Grant:                  Do you agree, or are you of the view like your colleague Senator Paterson, that there needs to be at least a look at financial penalties when some of these institutions, seemingly lurching to the left, just rule the obvious stuff out?


Simon Birmingham:     We do have requirements already in terms of universities having to ensure they have academic integrity, and that’s written into higher education standards as they currently stand. Now, of course, the challenge then becomes ensuring that they’re upheld, but also how they’re interpreted and this is where, in the case of the Ramsay Centre, I hope and trust that a university successfully negotiates the deal with the Ramsay Centre to find a way to ensure this generous bequest is used for the benefit of the study of Western civilisation and scholarships for students and so forth. But I have to be mindful that ultimately unis are right to also say: we’re not going to have all of the terms dictated to us or that would compromise our freedoms.


Now, I’ve spoken personally to John Howard, who is chair of the Ramsay Centre, and he has assured me that they expect staff appointments to go through usual merit processes, that they expect curriculum to be agreed, not enforced. And so, I really hope that we can see this centre come to fruition and that we can absolutely have confidence that it is actually done in a way that delivers on the vision that Paul Ramsay had when he made the bequest, but also gives the universities the integrity, freedom, autonomy that they rightly expect.


Luke Grant:                  Alright. There’s lots in your area of expertise or responsibility. So let’s get to something else. Smartphones in school. That’s a debate we’re having now in New South Wales. It’s one they’re also having, I notice, in England as well.  What’s your take on that? When should students properly be able to access their smartphones?


Simon Birmingham:     I really welcome the initiative that Rob Stokes and the New South Wales Government have shown by initiating this review and by highlighting that it seems to be a problem, and it ought to be addressed. Several months ago now, I publicly called on the states and territories to have a look at the issue of phones in schools and I made clear that my view is personal mobile phones have no place in the classroom. Certainly not in primary schools, I doubt in middle schools and frankly in senior schools, you know, there’s still a question there, even though of course young people going into the workforce should also be learning how to make sure they manage and use their phones appropriately at that stage.


But, you know, frankly, a personal phone that’s connected up to the Internet, that’s connected up to different social media pages like Facebook and so on, really is a circumstance that is too much of a distraction for young people, is a distraction for the rest of the class then potentially, and of course can be a platform for cyber bullying or the like too. So I hope this review provides principals and teachers with really clear guidelines that don’t make the rules fall on to their shoulders and turn them into the bad guys, but actually makes it clear that we should have a common approach across big jurisdictions like New South Wales. Everybody should know where they stand. And technology that comes into the classroom, which is critical for learning nowadays, but it’s technology that is used for learning not personal devices.


Luke Grant:                  Yeah. I think that’s sensible. I agree with you. Now, this is really important. We like to be generous. We help people that need to be helped and we do that in this country probably better than most other countries around the world. But when you are like that, you obviously then lend yourself to being ripped off by the dodgies. And I’m delighted to say that, through a release from your office, that a six-month blitz targeting these dodgy providers within the family day care system has led to some serious enforcement action – 151 services – and stopping something like I think, Senator, $1 billion in taxpayer subsidies from wrongly flowing out the door. That’s a big win for the taxpayer.


Simon Birmingham:     It is, it is. And look, it staggers me that there are people doing the wrong thing in this sort of way. But we have been very vigilant as a government, as people would expect a Liberal government to be, about making sure that taxpayer dollars are respected, that in the end every dollar is precious because it’s tax that somebody has paid. And so, they expect us to make sure that it’s spent wisely. When we came to office, the Labor Party conducted just a few hundred checks on child care services each year in terms of whether they were complying with the law and the claims they were making, and they never suspended, they had zero suspensions over the year before we came in to office, or cancellations of child care services. We now conduct more than 4000 checks a year. We have suspended, in a six month surge, 151 different providers, or taken action against them in different ways, to make sure that we clean the system up. And there’s a couple of reasons for that: one is just doing the right thing now, the other is we have a new child care subsidy system coming into effect on 2 July that’s meant to provide more support for more families. And we want to make sure that’s where the dollars go, more support for more Australian families, not to people who are seeking to rip the taxpayer off.


Luke Grant:                  And will they do that by falsely claiming wrong hours and exaggerating the numbers of kids they’re caring for, is that what they do?


Simon Birmingham:     Well, look, at the extremes we get: cases where they claim for children who don’t exist or children who weren’t their, or children who are overseas at the time. But yes then sometimes you just get claims for higher fees than were actually charged, or for extended hours and sessions of care where the kids were only there for part of the time. So, a range of different areas of malpractice which we’ve identified.

Our new child care system that comes in on 2 July is going to make it easier for us to identify wrongdoing, we’ve got a far better system that we’ve built under these reforms. So, we’re not just giving more support to more Australian families, but we’re doing it in a methodology that’s going to allow us to pick up wrongdoers sooner and faster. And we’ve thrown the book at quite a few people, there are a number of prosecutions that have happened, and we will continue ultimately not just to shut down and push out of business those doing the wrong thing, but where we can lay criminal charges, we are and we will.


Luke Grant:                  Excellent. I just noticed in the figures there were 78 cancellations in Victoria, 36 in New South Wales, and then not so many in the other states. Of course that would flow in line to some extent with population, but gee the Victorian number is high. I’m just inclined to think is it a joint effort of the state and federal government that brings about discovering these people who are ripping us off, why do you think the number’s so high in Victoria?  


Simon Birmingham:     Yeah, we do cooperate with the state governments, and they effectively regulate the quality of child care services, who comes into the market, where our job as the Federal Government is largely providing financial assistance to families. But, of course, it’s those dollars that can act as a honeypot to people who want to do the wrong thing. So, that’s why we’ve got more heavily and intensively involved in making sure we monitor the dollars and the flow of those dollars. Now, what we have seen is that there’s a clustering. I should stress to your listeners, this is family day care providers, so it’s not the childcare centre that you see down the road, but these are people who operate small child care services usually out of the family home. So, that’s where we’ve seen this problem and where we’ve undertaken this compliance effort. Now, in terms of regional factors we have noticed there tends to be a clustering that if you get one group in one community doing the wrong thing it tends to spread a bit more across that group or community and becomes a bit of a known way to rip off the taxpayer, and that’s why we’re clamping down.


Luke Grant:                  Yeah. And I think, Simon, I’ve seen reports where people use each other’s kids, so they might be enrolled in two or three different areas or families that work together, whatever it is it’s completely unacceptable and good on you for cracking down and saving that nearly $1 billion. Just you mentioned in childcare, the new package, the new subsidy. I think I read that there’s one in three families that still aren’t signed up, which means a pretty large number of Australian families won’t receive these new payments. Is there a reason for that?


Simon Birmingham:     Look, we’ve been really pleased with the progress in terms of people signing up. So, we now have more than 900,000 Australian families who have registered for the new child care subsidy.

So, that’s up a couple hundred thousand on a couple of weeks ago or so when those figures were being reported. And we’re seeing steady sign-ups each and every day. And I expect there will probably be a bit of a surge at the last minute before we hit 2 July as well in terms of people making sure they get their paperwork up to date. And I just encourage anybody who hasn’t done so yet to make sure they visit education.gov.au/childcare, and get it done before 2 July.


Luke Grant:                  Final question. Again, I’m speaking to the Federal Education Minister, Senator Simon Birmingham. You’ve been very generous with your time. I was watching the final throes of the tax debate in the Senate this morning, and if I can just say some of the – as the votes were being counted – interjections across the Senate, and I did hear clearly the voice of Senator Doug Cameron, there were others, and some of the vitriol aimed at Senator Hanson and the two former Xenophon senators, gosh, I thought it was bad form, appalling, misogynistic, call it what you- well, it was almost- well, in my mind it was approaching, if not surpassing, bullying. Do you agree with that?


Simon Birmingham:     It was absolutely shameful from the Labor Party today. The way they carried on in the Senate, and yes a lot of it was targeted at Pauline Hanson, but there was plenty of vitriol as you say for the former Xenophon Party senators. Frankly, just because people disagree with your position is no reason to get personal, to get abusive. I certainly never saw Pauline Hanson or the Xenophon Party senators standing up and abusing the Labor Party or their leadership. They stated their position, and in stating their position they argued their case, and they happened to have a different opinion to the Labor Party. And look, ultimately what matters to your listeners and the Australian people, though, are the issues. And what really strikes me is that the Labor Party was so upset because what was passed in the Parliament were tax cuts for working Australians.


Luke Grant:                  Yeah, always good to talk, appreciate your time.


Simon Birmingham:     My pleasure. Thank you, Luke.