Interview on 7LA Tasmania Talks with Brian Carlton   
Topics: Announcement of an advanced welding training centre; Sexting; Student loans; Child care reforms; Archbishop Philip Wilson




Brian Carlton:              As you know, the Braddon by-election, we’re inside the, what, four-week window now. And I put out the challenge to the conga line of Labor frontbenchers to stomp up for a bit of a chat, crickets on that so far. I must say, the Government, the Liberals specifically, are pretty good at getting in contact with us and saying, hey, we’ve got a minister available if you want to have a chat. Today’s member of that conga line is Senator Simon Birmingham who’s in Burnie today.


Good morning, Senator. How you going?


Simon Birmingham:     Good morning, Brian great to speak to you again.


Brian Carlton:              It’s nice to- well, welcome again to Tassie. It’s a bit grey today, if you’d come yesterday the weather was a bit nice but hey, it’s still the best place on the planet. Tell me, Senator, let’s deal with what you’re doing here today. Now, I’m being a little bit naughty here because I’m getting you to talk about something that you’re not effectively announcing until 11 o’clock this morning. There is to be some spending on – what are we calling this, a welding centre of excellence, is it, is that what it’s called, what are you calling it?


Simon Birmingham:     Well, Brian, it is an advanced welding training centre in South Burnie. So, this is a project that Brett Whiteley put to me a little while ago about a really good opportunity to meet some skill needs locally, about advanced welding at a very high level and technical skills building opportunities, a proposal from the Tasmanian Minerals and Energy Council, which is to establish a training centre in advanced welding. And so, today it’s your exclusive [indistinct] since we haven’t announced it yet is that we’re spending $750,000 to establish this advanced welding training centre in Burnie to skill and train up local welding apprentices and workers by purchasing five state of the art welding simulators and providing some advanced technical training to train the trainers essentially to ensure that those state of the art welding simulators give local apprentices, trainees and other workers, the skills they need.


Brian Carlton:              Okay. And will that be a standalone facility, Senator, or is it attached to something?


Simon Birmingham:     So this is being put into the Tasmanian Minerals and Energy Council’s existing centre in South Burnie, as I understand it. It’s being located there and I’ll be visiting there shortly. And it’s got the potential to support around 250 local minerals related businesses who require particularly skills from welders. And of course, that can then feed into a whole range of different sectors; advanced manufacturing, maritime, defence technology and industries who along with agriculture and elsewhere rely very heavily on these sort of highly technical skills.


Brian Carlton:              Yeah. And look, virtually every section of what you might calling the building and construction industry at the moment is talking about the need for further trained employees to roll into the system over the next few years. As you are very well aware, there’s a significant build going on with the UTAS campus relocate. So you’ve been intimately involved. And I know that we’re going to need as many highly skilled workers as we can possibly get over the next decade, particularly in our part of the state, in the north, where that sort of demand I don’t think’s ever been seen in one lump, has it, ever?


Simon Birmingham:     Well there’s huge demand, in [indistinct] big projects such as the UTAS redevelopment, as you referenced. But then, of course, the real growth in areas of advanced manufacturing activity. And that’s where we need to have skilled workers. And it’s why there’s a very strong focus with the Turnbull Government’s now around boosting apprenticeship numbers. We’re thrilled that Tasmania is one of the five initial states and territories to sign on to the Skilling Australians Fund, which will support around 5000 additional apprenticeships across Tasmania. And that’s really about trying to lift people back into some of those traditional trades and apprenticeships, the employment outcomes from doing so are great, the opportunities for people to ultimately become their own boss, their own small business person and create those opportunities are enormous. But all of it, of course, then sustains other economic activities. And it can help sustain local manufacturing businesses, local agricultural businesses, feed into the defence industries.


I’m a South Australian senator, and we’re going to be doing a lot of naval shipbuilding work over the next few decades as a result of the Turnbull Government’s commitment to create a national naval shipbuilding project and the continuous supply that allows us to develop the industry here in Australia. But it’s not all going to be done in SA. We’re going to rely on suppliers, as part of the build process, right around the country. And there will definitely be opportunities for Tasmanian businesses too.


Brian Carlton:              So, will that mean some of the local existing Tasmanian businesses will be able to sort of, what, sub tender for some of that work or are you getting noises that BAE Systems is likely to set up here in Tassie or expand?


Simon Birmingham:     It’s more about small businesses…


Brian Carlton:              [Talks over] Getting involved in the process. Okay, okay.


Simon Birmingham:     …So, BAE, last week, when they were announced as the successful tenderer for the Future Frigates project – the $35 billion Future Frigates project – indicated that they had already pre-certified around 500 Australian businesses to be part of the supply chain in terms of building those Future Frigates. And that included businesses – I can’t tell you how many off the top of my head, but businesses across every single state including Tasmania, who they see as potentially supplying the different parts of the build, the technology et cetera that ultimately go into making something as big and complex as a naval warship.


Brian Carlton:              Yeah, indeed. It’s- they’re far more complicated than they used to be, no doubt about that, just the electronics if nothing else.


Senator, a couple of other things, if I may, while I have you. Yesterday, I spoke with your Cabinet colleague, Senator Mitch Fifield, the Communications Minister. We were talking specifically about the recommendation by Fitzroy High in Melbourne to, I don’t know, begin to instruct its students on how to so-called safe sext, in other words, how to send nude images of themselves on the internet. I spoke to him in his capacity as Communications Minister because – you know, as all of us are probably aware – transmitting what is effectively child pornography on a carriage service – in other words the internet or a telephone system – is illegal, possessing it is illegal, retransmitting it is illegal. Why do we have schools – state schools in Victoria – recommending that young people not only do something that’s inherently dangerous but also break the law, why?


Simon Birmingham:     Well, [indistinct], this is wacky and dangerous. Now, I’ve looked into this since your interview yesterday and some of the other media coverage at the end of last week. And there are a few important points to make here. Firstly, I’m told by the Victorian Education Department that this is not actually being taught in the school, it’s something that apparently a teacher has developed and that teacher is severely misguided in terms of what their thinking is here and what their approach is…


Brian Carlton:              [Interrupts] So, I’m sorry, Senator, Minister, can I just confirm that? What you’re saying is that this is not any kind of formal curriculum decision made by the education boffins in Victoria, but one rogue teacher going off and, what, developing a program of their own?


Simon Birmingham:     Well, it’s not even that, in that it has not reached a classroom. That is what I’ve been told and been assured. And I hope and trust that is the case. I saw the Victorian State Labor Education Minister express his concerns about it. And I trust from the information we got from his department that it is a [indistinct], this has not hit the classroom or a student and that it shouldn’t. Mitch Fifield offered to do yesterday [indistinct] Federal Government have the Office of the eSafety Commissioner get in touch with the school. The eSafety Commission was established by the Liberal Government in Canberra to really make sure that we can give schools the best advice on how to handle these issues, how to ensure that students understand how to engage safely online. And safety online is about not doing stupid things…


Brian Carlton:              [Talks over] Correct.


Simon Birmingham:     …like sexting, not sharing naked images. Because as Mitch Fifield rightly said to you yesterday, once they’re out of your possession and your control, then you lose control over it. And of course, there is no such thing as safe sexting in that regard because ultimately they can go anywhere and come back to haunt you at any stage of your life. And that really is the message that we have to make sure is well understood by young people, you know, that, yes, there could be laws broken here that could effect the rest of your lives, but even just in the sharing of such images, be a dangerous practice that could well and truly haunt you and we know that there are a range of different mental health issues [indistinct]. So, we have taken the action of ensuring that the eSafety Commission gets in touch with this school, proactively try to tell them there is a better way, not to go down the path that a wayward teacher might have suggested, and instead to say that there are expert properly developed resources that should be available.


Brian Carlton:              Okay. We- I will follow that issue with some interest. Clearly that’s something that we need to have a conversation about, because there’s a fair bit of it going on. But I’m very concerned about that message being sent to young people because it is mixed at best.


One more, if I may, quickly; the decision to increase the amount of HECS repayments, or the dollar value a former student earns before they start repaying it back has dropped. Why has that come in so quickly, Senator? There’s usually- well, a couple of people have come back to me and said: normally these things have phase-in periods where you give a bit of a heads up it’s going to happen. This just seems to have been dumped. Has it?


Simon Birmingham:     No. Well, changes in relation to HELP repayments were announced last year, so there’s certainly nothing that’s just snuck up on people there…


Brian Carlton:              Okay.


Simon Birmingham:     … although legislation actually didn’t pass the Senate before 30 June, so any changes are now more likely to take effect probably at the start of the next financial year in any event. But certainly, the reason we’ve been looking at these issues – and these numbers are quite staggering for your listeners – is that Australia currently, the Australian Government, Australian taxpayers, hold about $50 billion worth of student loans and student debt across Australia. And on the current repayment settings, around one-quarter of that, so about $12.5 billion, is estimated to never be repaid. Now, that’s obviously a huge debt to potentially wipe off, and the real threat is that we have these student loan programs to make sure that young Australians can go to university without facing any upfront fees whatsoever. And it’s critical that we ensure that program is sustainable for the long term, and so that future generations can go to uni without any upfront fees. But for it to be sustainable, we have to make sure that the vast majority of the loans that are issued are also paid back.


Brian Carlton:              I just wondered whether there’s some mixed messages there, given the very public noises – especially here in Tassie – about the value of education and the amount the Government’s investing in the UTAS moves. A significant amount of money. But is there not a mixed message there? Well, yes, we want you to go to university, we’re building all these great facilities for you. Oh, by the way, when you graduate, you’re going to have to pay the money back sooner.


Simon Birmingham:     Well, we’re trying to calibrated quite carefully. So presently, the first threshold that people pay back at sits at around the $51,000 mark and they pay back 2 per cent at that stage. In dropping it to a lower threshold at $45,000 we’re also introducing a 1 per cent repayment rate. So it’s about recognising that a modest repayment can make a big overall difference in terms of the scale of debt that won’t be repaid, but it does ultimately mean that those individuals will be simply paying back around $8 to $9 a week. And so it’s not a huge sum. I know that many people have a lot of different budget pressures…


Brian Carlton:              Yep.


Simon Birmingham:     … but to keep our higher education situation sustainable, paying $8 to $9 a week back once you’re reaching $45,000 in income, is, we think, a balanced proposition. And that $45,000 threshold is still basically twice the threshold that applies in a country like New Zealand where students start paying back at a much, much lower income level.


Brian Carlton:              Indeed. Again, just- something else has just occurred to me quickly. The child care issue, the changes to cut off for no further support. We’ve talked about this in the past. In fact, I lobbied pretty hard for that $350,000 family income cut off to be reduced to $250,000 which it now is, which is fabulous. There’s a bit of bite back from that change, believe it or not. I mean, targeting people who earn a significant amount of money, family income, the idea that they get any taxpayer support for anything at all I find staggering. But there is some blowback on this, and I find it astonishing.


Simon Birmingham:     [Indistinct], but I find it remarkable that the Labor Party seems to be running [indistinct] early childhood and child care spokespeople suggesting that they think that people on $350,000 or $400,000 family income really should be receiving taxpayer support for their child care fees. And what we have done, and I’ve just left a child care and early childhood education facility in Burnie with Brett Whiteley, chatting to them about some of the changes. And what we have done is tried to really target support, and so that the greatest number of hours of subsidised care are made available to the family working the longest hours and the greatest rate of child care subsidy is paid to families earning the lowest level of income. And by shifting the balance away from higher income earners and investing some extra funding, we’ve been able to do things such as, for very low-income families, increase the rate of subsidy from 72 per cent up to 85 per cent. Now, that’s a big increase in subsidy for those families, and we estimate that around 17,000 Tasmanian families are going to benefit, and on early estimates to around the tune of about $1400 per child per annum being better off as a result of these reforms, by better targeting the support to those who need it most. And that, of course, is about helping those families to then make the decision that if they want to work an extra shift or an extra day, they’re able to do so without the cost of child care being an impediment or a barrier to them deciding to do so.


Brian Carlton:              It’s also a salient lesson in governments who are determined to unwind some of what you might call middle-class or even upper-class welfare. I mean, it doesn’t matter how high up the income scale you target, you do get blowback. Again, just finally, Senator, I know you’ve got to rush off to your big reveal. Archbishop Phillip Wilson won 12 months in home detention. Is that enough for covering up effectively child sex abuse for so long in the Catholic Church?


Simon Birmingham:     Look, these are matters best determined by the courts. I think the public are rightly expect to see [indistinct] occur, a strong signal sent, don’t know whether a decision on home detention or not has been made by the courts yet, but obviously a 12-month custodial sentence is in and of itself a very serious signal. But it’s up to the New South Wales courts and New South Wales legal system to work out whether that can be served by a home detention or not. But it is a serious matter with which he’s been convicted and clearly a 12-month custodial sentence sends a very clear signal, I think, about the inappropriateness of the way in which such matters as not reporting claims were handled.


Brian Carlton:              I appreciate your time, Senator. Let’s talk again in the future if we can, or perhaps your defence counterparts might be more appropriate as to exactly what sort of action Tassie might see off the back of the big frigates spend announced last week. Enjoy your time in Tasmania, Senator. I appreciate your time. Thank you.


Simon Birmingham:     Always a pleasure, Brian, and I’m sure Christopher Pyne would love to talk defence industry with you.


Brian Carlton:              [Laughs] I’d be very happy to have a chat with him. Thanks Senator. Simon Birmingham there on the line from Burnie. One of the- and you know, I use this term for all of them, the conga line of senior pollies, particularly ministers and shadow ministers, who are heading interstate for the Braddon by-election.