Interview on 89.3 LAFM with Brian Carlton
Topics: UTAS relocation; Child care


10:17 AM

Brian Carlton:              Joining me in the studio is the Federal Education Minister- Education and Training, actually, Simon Birmingham. Senator, good morning, how are you?                 

Simon Birmingham:    G’day, Brian. Great. Great intro song too.

Brian Carlton:              Would you? Do you have leadership aspirations?

Simon Birmingham:    I’ve got quite enough on my plate, thank you.

Brian Carlton:              I wasn’t going to start there but seen as though you raised it. No, seriously though this is a big day for Tassie, isn’t it? We’ve got $130 million – I keep saying novelty cheque, it’s not – the $130 million for the Launceston UTAS move. And of course, that includes the Cradle Coast Campus at Burnie as well. And also the Cities Deal in Hobart being announced today; the Prime Minister literally doing a media conference as you sit here with me in the studio. He’s on his way up here to do the official reveal, is he?

Simon Birmingham:    He is indeed, that’s right. So, as you know this project’s been talked about for a long time. During the last election campaign, we made a commitment that we would deliver it. And now, of course, there’s been a period then of work with the University of Tasmania, in particular, to ensure that they put forward a business plan that all stacked up [indistinct] …

Brian Carlton:              It was a little later than we expected. We were all hoping the business plan would hit your desk a little earlier than it clearly did. Do you have concerns about the capacity of anybody here to manage this program through?

Simon Birmingham:    No look, we’re confident that, now we’re at this stage, we can see works commence during the course of this year really then get underway in the next couple of years. And what you’re looking at is a 2021 time for students on the new campus in the whole new setting and all of the benefits that will flow from that. So, it’s on track in terms of what the set timeline was, and we’re confident it will stay that way.

Brian Carlton:              Okay. The plans, the physical plans for here in Launceston have changed somewhat since I first got across them. The campus will now spread across the North Esk River back into the CBD a little more so than it was originally envisaged. When are we likely to see the first sod turned on any of those sites with the beginning of the project? Because I’ve got businesses talking to me all the time who are: when do we start hiring people? When do we need to plant up? When do we need to do what we need to do to take advantage of the tender opportunities that are going to be out here as part of this project? Everybody’s sort of waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting. When are we going to see it?

Simon Birmingham:    Now, obviously there will be a lot of design work undertaken this year. That’s clearly the next stage. And indeed, today’s announcement will take place at the University’s Architectural Studies Centre that’s already here in the Launceston CBD …

Brian Carlton:              Which you’re about to dive onto as soon as you’re finished here. Okay.

Simon Birmingham:    [Talks over] [Indistinct] and so, the university brings its own great skills to those design works. But we do expect that we’ll see some actual construction activity start before year’s end. But the main works obviously will then flow over the next couple of years over 2019 and 2020, and then we’ll start seeing students in the centre 2021.

Brian Carlton:              By 2021. Okay, I’ve made a note of that date. Tell me, one of the reasons for doing this – apart from the obvious economic benefits – is the desired education outcomes. Tasmania, as we all know, lacks on the national score card when it comes to tertiary graduations, amongst other things. What do you personally, as the Minister – the Federal Minister, hope to achieve in terms of education outcomes as a result of all this?

Simon Birmingham:    Well, this is where the fully integrated approach is important. And full credit to Will Hodgman and his Government that they not only pushed us to do this and undertake this investment, but of course, they’ve also been laying the groundwork by increasing year 11 and year 12 retention rates, and actually getting more kids coming out of high school with a High School Certificate.

Brian Carlton:              It’s interesting, I’m from New South Wales, and was educated in Sydney, and people my age who started school- sorry, people my age who went through the full school program right to year 12 level, like I did, have done two years less school than I did …

Simon Birmingham:    Look I …

Brian Carlton:              Here in Tassie, it’s astonishing. It does my head in.

Simon Birmingham:    Last year, I think it was – last year or the year before – I was here and Jeremy Rockliff took me to one of the schools where they’ve extended the access to year 11 and 12, one of the 30 –  I think it is – schools across Tasmania. And of course, there’s a promise being made for the next election to take that further. And I’ve said to a number of people across other states of Australia: could you imagine if a state government somewhere else said we’re going to take year 11 and 12 away from 30 high schools? The outrage, the condemnation, would be immense [indistinct] …

Brian Carlton:              And so, your view is that it is a massive disincentive if children have to leave at the end of year 10 to go somewhere else?

Simon Birmingham:    Absolutely. And the numbers stack up there and you’ve see the improved retention. And so, that’s why I say this is about an integrated approach. Of course, the University of Tasmania’s played a very big role there in their concept of creating the Associate Degree model, which is an important aspect of this and more flexible entry pathway, shorter timeframe at university, and you still get a quality qualification. One that is being designed and driven very much by local business, local industry, to ensure that it’s really enhancing employability, innovation, entrepreneurship skills.

Brian Carlton:              And it really is a place of historical entrepreneurship. I mean, Launceston is- when you go through the firsts that this city has achieved over its history, it’s quite extraordinary. Tell me a quick one on the Cradle Coast campus; is it the same timeframe in Burnie as it is in Launceston?

Simon Birmingham:    So, we’ll have some further to say about Burnie. In fact, if you take the Burnie announcement in to consideration, it’s a $150 million Federal commitment …

Brian Carlton:              I’m sorry, I’ve short-changed you 20 mil. Sorry.

Simon Birmingham:    No well, you don’t want to short-change Burnie or Launceston. So, it’s 130 mil coming from the Federal Government coming in to Lonnie. It’s a 20 mil commitment in relation to Burnie. Talks on that have progressed extraordinarily well, as well. So, hopefully we will be in a position to seal that deal very, very quickly, too.  

Brian Carlton:              The site earmarked for the campus in Burnie is absolutely magnificent. It is drop dead gorgeous, right on the coast, right on the point there, it’s just out of the city.

Simon Birmingham:    Well, let’s hope the students can concentrate as well.

Brian Carlton:              Look, I tell you what, I just imagine- I’m kind of thinking about going back and doing something now as a very, very mature aged student just to take in the views. Okay, just a couple of things quickly. There’s an unrelated story around today suggesting – the story’s been around for a while – that Australian students of Chinese origin – in some cases Chinese students studying in Australian universities – are being kind of monstered, if you like, by Chinese authorities, dare they take a different line on say Taiwan or Tibet or any of the other issues that are there, and suggestions that curricula are being sort of steered, skewed, a little bit to align with the China narrative. Do you have concern that this is going on in some of our tertiary education and do you believe it is?

Simon Birmingham:    Look, I think overwhelmingly our universities recognise that their independence, their integrity, is essential to their ongoing success; that they won’t continue to attract international students or domestic students if their credibility takes a hit. So I think overwhelmingly they recognise that they have to maintain that independence and that integrity and that they do. Now we get these isolated stories. Sometimes I think the stories are a tad unfair. I’ve seen media stories that have criticised the Chinese Embassy for organising a celebration of China’s national day. Well, frankly, plenty of diplomatic missions do that and when I travel to overseas places it’s not unusual for our embassies to organise Australian students to come and celebrate [indistinct]…

Brian Carlton:              Well that wouldn’t raise an eyebrow with me at all.

Simon Birmingham:    But of course we do have to be ever vigilant, and the message I guess to universities there is that they have to cherish that integrity, that independence and they cannot let anything get in the way of it.

Brian Carlton:              Okay. I know your time is really short today and you’re focused on the UTAS thing. One of the other issues that you’re dealing with at the moment are the child care rebates. Now that’s in your bailiwick, isn’t it?

Simon Birmingham:    It is indeed.

Brian Carlton:              Okay. I argued pretty vigorously and Jono Duniam rung up and said: look mate, we’ve done what you asked, which was to remove the child care access to families earning $350,000 a year. People just come to me all the time and say: I, as a single or- my kids are grown up, I’m out working, I’m subsidising people who earn three or four times my salary to go and earn that salary by paying for their kids to go to child care. And when you do the numbers and a family on $350,000, there’d be what, a couple of thousand of them probably in Tasmania if that. Sensibly, that’s gone now and the ceiling has come down, but you’ve got some major issues in terms of who’s saying what, who’s going to get what. The numbers here in Tassie are pretty good. Can we book a date at some point on the phone to talk through what’s going to happen over the next week or two before the changes come in in July with you?

Simon Birmingham:    Absolutely, very happy to do so. What you see in Tasmania is that three-quarters of families with kids in the child care system are clearly beneficiaries of our reforms and will see greater support. And why? Because they’re generally hardworking, low and middle income families. The two key things we’ve done very quickly are: yes, we’ve lopped off support for very high income families, but we’ve also applied an activity test to say: well we’re not going to pay child care subsidies if you’re not working, you’re not studying, you’re not looking for a job, you’re not engaged in society at all. Instead, we’re going to redirect some of those funds to…

Brian Carlton:              Aren’t they doing something valuable in raising the kids though? They’re making a determined decision to sacrifice a salary, stay home and look after the kids.

Simon Birmingham:    Well indeed, but why are you paying child care subsidy for it?

Brian Carlton:              No, no, I understand, but is there some kind of- okay, but then there is a disincentive then for women to make the choice to stay home and be mums for the first four or five years.

Simon Birmingham:    Well no, we’re recognising here that of course …

Brian Carlton:              Or dads.

Simon Birmingham:    …people can choice to be stay at home parents and the Family Tax Benefit system provides …

Brian Carlton:              Yeah, but there’s no money for it.

Simon Birmingham:    …the Family Tax Benefit system provides some support.

Brian Carlton:              Yeah but the others get that too.

Simon Birmingham:    …there’s different support, as distinct from- I mean, ultimately I think listeners would say: if you’re a stay-at-home parent, your need to access child care is much diminished, if indeed at all. Whereas, what you do want to access is quality preschool education, and that’s important and we’ve guaranteed support for that. So that’s about the early childhood education benefits, but we’ve really retargeted that money from the top end, as well as from those not working, into families who are working but not earning great incomes, so that they’re getting more support to go out to work and work more hours if they choose to.

Brian Carlton:              As we get closer to time, let’s- in fact, some time in the next couple of weeks when you’ve got some time, we’ll spend 10 or 15 minutes on the phone going through that in a bit more detail. Simon Birmingham, you’ve got to go. You’ve got an appointment over at Inveresk I understand.

Simon Birmingham:    I’ve got a very good student waiting to meet with me.

Brian Carlton:              Okay good. Alright, you better get out of here. Thanks for your time. Thanks to the Federal Government for doing this. This is a game-changer for Tasmania. Well done. Thank you.

Simon Birmingham:    Thank you very much, Brian.

Brian Carlton:              Simon Birmingham, the Minister for Education and Training live in the studio. Just about to head off to town to officiate in the formal handover of that – and I’ll get it right – $150 million, inclusive of the Launceston and Cradle Coast UTAS moves. I appreciate his time today, thank you.