Interview on ABC 891 Adelaide Breakfast with Matthew Abraham and David Bevan

Topics: Labor’s corruption of ‘Gonski’; Future schools funding arrangements

Matthew Abraham: We welcome in our studio the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, South Australian Senator Penny Wong. Welcome, Senator Wong.

Penny Wong: Good to be with you.

Matthew Abraham: Sarah Hanson-Young, SA Greens Senator, spokesperson on finance and trade, welcome.

Sarah Hanson-Young: Thanks for having me.

Matthew Abraham: And on the phone, Simon Birmingham, Senator, Minister for Education and Training, welcome.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning everybody, from Canberra, where the sun is shining and the skies are blue.

Matthew Abraham: Well they are here at the moment. Now what if you gave a press conference and nobody came? Well this is something that happened to one of our panellists, we don’t want to put anybody, make anyone feel uncomfortable, but this is from The Project last night, starting on the voice of Peter Helliar.


Peter Helliar: I want to talk politics; Penny Wong held a press conference today and I got to say there seemed to be this one thing missing.

Penny Wong: Which one do you want me at? This one? This one. Okay so we’ve got no journos haven’t we?

Peter Helliar: The journos! But ever the professional, Penny pressed on.

Penny Wong: Okay, thanks very much for coming.


Unidentified Speaker: That would be so bad.

Peter Helliar: They did have a camera there, so the – the journos could watch.

Unidentified Speaker: But still…

[Cross talk]

[End of excerpt]

Penny Wong: So what actually happened was…

David Bevan: What actually happened?

Penny Wong: .. I’ll tell you, I’ll tell you. The ABC and SBS rang and said we just want some grabs on the East Timor decision and usually you just go and you do some grabs so they can put it into their package but they sat up in the media room and I came out and the man goes oh we don’t have any journos and I’m like okay, that’s pretty funny. I didn’t know it ran on The Project, so I just talked.

David Bevan: You just talked?

Penny Wong: I did.

Matthew Abraham: I did like the thank you everyone for coming, though.

David Bevan: Yes.

Penny Wong: Yeah well you know, there were two very, you know, what’s the word, hardworking cameraman and some bloke as well who was nodding at me.

David Bevan: Did you find it was easier without the journalists?

Penny Wong: Well of course it is.

Matthew Abraham: It was.

Penny Wong: You say what you want.


David Bevan: It was probably much more illuminating.

Matthew Abraham: Sarah Hanson-Young, is that your ideal press conference?

Penny Wong: I am impressed that I got on The Project, that’s very high ratings isn’t it?

Sarah Hanson-Young: It actually happens more often than perhaps you realise it does and I’m the opposite, I actually find it worse than when the journalists are there. I find – just staring at a camera thinking you’ve got to give the grabs the way they are, at least when a journalist is there they can ask you a question and you can kind of go oh hang on what I meant to say was blah.

Matthew Abraham: Right so you still don’t answer the question, but at least you …

Penny Wong: Oh you’re so cynical Matt.

Sarah Hanson-Young: But it is a very, very strange kind of experience, isn’t it?

Penny Wong: It’s not the first time it’s happened.

Matthew Abraham: No. Senators – we’ve got a huge audience listening and we are streaming this live on Facebook. Senator Simon Birmingham, Simon Birmingham, I’m sure your press conferences are always packed.

Simon Birmingham: Not always, guys.

Matthew Abraham: Not only are you waging war on the front of Gonski, but because you’re a bit bored you’ve decided to take on private schools as well. What do you mean when you say that they are overfunded?

Simon Birmingham: Well Matthew, if you have a look at the way like-for-like schools across the country are funded, be they government schools or non-government schools, there are gross inequities that exist from one state to another and from one non-government school to another and that’s because we have 27 different funding models that are in place, a lot of sweetheart deals that roll over historical arrangements that the Gillard and Rudd governments left in place and so I’ve been saying very clearly for some period of time that if we’re fair dinkum about having a funding model for the future that is based on need in terms of the distribution of available funding, it should also be equitable across the states and territories and across the non-government schooling sectors and it should also drive reform and these are the types of problems I guess with the current model that I’ve been keen to highlight to help inform the discussions around how we design a better distribution model that treats students from one school of identical need in one part of the country the same as elsewhere in the country.

Matthew Abraham: Penny Wong is that code for something? Or is it almost Mark Latham-esque?

Penny Wong: There were a lot of words weren’t there?

Matthew Abraham: … Mark Latham had a hit list.

Penny Wong: And he actually told people what it was. I mean there were a lot of words there but fundamentally I think what Simon’s saying is he wants to take money off some schools now if he’s got a strong policy argument for that he should probably tell people which schools they are and why they’re overfunded.

David Bevan: But would you have a problem with taking public money from … we’re having a discussion here, do you have a problem with taking money away from the really wealthy schools? You went to Scotch College, why should Scotch College be getting any money? When there’s a school out at Gilles Plains that could do with it?

Penny Wong: Well we took an approach that said 1) investment in education is an economic priority for the nation, 2) we’re prepared to make a range of changes through the Budget in order to fund that and we went to the election for example with things like negative gearing changes, changes to private health insurance, a whole range of savings measures as well as saying no to the company tax cut because we said education funding is a priority. So we haven’t taken this as a zero-sum game what we’ve said is we want to move to a needs-based model, we know that what is it, one of the best things a kid could do in Australia for their educational outcomes is to choose their parents’ postcode well. Now that’s not a good state of affairs so let’s go with an approach that says send the money where it’s needed. Now that will mean some schools will get a lot more money, but we didn’t take a…

Matthew Abraham: Including private, including private?

Penny Wong: No well we didn’t take a zero sum approach, we didn’t say look let’s take money off some school and give it to another, we said let’s go with a sector-blind model that says per student this is the standard.

Matthew Abraham: Sarah Hanson-Young, why are you shaking your head?

Sarah Hanson-Young: Partly because I think I’m sitting here listening to what Penny’s saying and it feels as though Labor have forgotten who they’re meant to be representing or who I think that the community believe the Labor Party stands for. I mean we’ve got a situation where we’ve got a Liberal Party Minister starting to say maybe there are some of the wealthiest private schools who deserve to have a hair cut. I mean frankly I think that’s right. How that is done and what is done with that money I think is the other question. We know that we need to be investing in making sure the Gonski reforms actually happen and the debate is actually not about this- what would be about an $800 million cut to private schools, but in fact the cuts on the table to public schools, and if you’re going to give a trim to the private schools, then that money should go straight into the public system to the schools that need it most. The difficulty in all of this is that despite all the work that was put into the Gonski reforms which did take a sector blind perspective a needs-based funding model, what we saw was under the Labor Party they continue that link between the amount of money that goes to a public school and the automatic increase the amount of money going to a private school. When you look at actual real numbers we’ve got federal government money, almost $7000 going towards each private school student versus $2500 for public students. I don’t think that is fair.

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, if you take money away from private schools will it end up going to poorer state schools?

Simon Birmingham: David, let me address that plus a couple of other points that were made on the way through. Firstly to the question directed at Penny about should Scotch College receive funding, it is our view that every student in Australia should receive some funding support for their school education, regardless of where their parents choose to send them. So I think that’s an important principle to put on the table and it’s one that I hope and trust the Labor Party would agree with as well that every student is worth some degree of support. But we discount that then based on a capacity to contribute of the parents if they choose to opt out of the government sector. 

The second point I’d make is in relation to what Sarah just said of highlighting how much the federal government might give to a government school relative to a non-government school. The problem with that approach is you’re completely ignoring what state governments give in those circumstances as well. Non-government school students, on average around Australia, are already funded around 40 per cent less per student than a government school student. So we already discount significantly in total government, state and federal contributions what a non-government school student gets.

Penny Wong: At some point he’ll tell the answer.

Matthew Abraham: I beg your pardon Penny Wong?

Simon Birmingham: Are you alright there Penny?

Penny Wong: I was just wondering at what point are you going to answer the question, are you going to take money off private schools to give to public schools, is that the policy or not? I mean I think…

Simon Birmingham: Now, the policy …

Penny Wong: I think we’re all interested in what the policy actually is.

Simon Birmingham: Yep. The policy ambition is to treat schools equitably across the country. And so what your government did Penny was to say regardless of the funding model we want to put in place, a non-government school is guaranteed to get three per cent indexation year-on-year into the future forever even if it was on some old sweetheart deal.

Penny Wong: So is that a yes?

Simon Birmingham: So, I think [indistinct] …

David Bevan: See we don’t interrupt. We don’t interrupt our guests Penny Wong.

Penny Wong: You do it all the time…

[Cross talk]

Penny Wong: I learnt from the masters to my left here.

Simon Birmingham: I believe that every non-government school …

Penny Wong: Only geographically of course.

Simon Birmingham: I can answer the question.

Matthew Abraham: Yes.

Simon Birmingham: I believe every non-government school should be funded according to the same approach across the country. And if that means..

Matthew Abraham: [Interrupts] Yes but if you take money from private schools are you going to shift it to state schools?

Simon Birmingham: And if that means that some of them get less support because you’re transitioning them on to an equal funding footing, then so be it, that’s the case.

Matthew Abraham: Sorry I don’t really understand that. Is the money- if you take off this over-funded private schools going to go to Scott Morrison’s black hole or is it going to go back into the state schools?

Simon Birmingham: No. The funding for Australian schools from the Turnbull government will grow from $16 billion this year to more than $20 billion by 2020 …

Matthew Abraham: [Interrupts] Well inflation takes care of that.

Simon Birmingham: This is above inflation and above enrolments Matthew, so it’s real growth that goes into Australian schools and there will be growth that is faster into the government school funding than to non-government school funding, so in relative terms, yes. And the answer to David’s question and, yep, we’ve taken a little while to get there but we’ve made a couple of points along the way that are important…

David Bevan: Yeah, yeah.

Simon Birmingham: The answer to David’s question essentially is yes, we will see faster growth into those government schools into the future I would expect.

David Bevan:  Is the best thing that you can do Simon Birmingham is to kill Gonski – really, because it is – I don’t know anybody who really understands it out there in the real world, and it’s become like a big stick which your opponents on the left use to beat you about the head. It’s totally different from what was originally planned by Mr Gonski and his crew. You say there’s 27 deals that are actually making the system work at the moment all under the auspices of Gonski. Look can we just- it seems like it’s a road block at the moment, kill it off and start again. 

Simon Birmingham: Essentially David, I mean you’ve made most of the arguments there. Twenty-seven different deals but actually it’s not what David Gonski recommended. Ken Boston, one of the authors of the Gonski report was the one who called the current funding model a corruption..

David Bevan: [Interrupts] So is your job to kill it off? Is your job right now …

Penny Wong: His job is to justify $3.8 billion less into Australia schools for the next two years. That’s…

Simon Birmingham: No, no. My job – my job …

Penny Wong: That’s his job. And so the 27 …

Simon Birmingham: My job is to …

Penny Wong: All this talk, all the stuff in the media, all the stories about there being sweetheart deals, there is a political agenda behind this which is to say we want to take $3.8 billion out in 2018 and 2019 and put a different deal on the table and here are all the reasons why that’s okay. But fundamentally the core of it is still the same.

Sarah Hanson-Young: [Talks over] Meanwhile Penny, meanwhile though …

Matthew Abraham: Hang on.

Penny Wong: I do enjoy the way the Greens want to attack the Labor Party all the time. They can. But it’s always interesting to observe …

[Cross talk]

Penny Wong: It’s always interesting to observe we are your target, not the Liberal Party.

Sarah Hanson-Young: No I just …

David Bevan: Well many of the people in the Greens …

Sarah Hanson-Young: No, I am flabbergasted …

David Bevan: Many of the people in the Greens think that Labor has lost its conscience and they’ve decided to take up that role.

Sarah Hanson-Young: [Talks over] And when you see the Labor Party attacking …

Penny Wong: [Talks over] And that's fine if they wish to do that – if they wish …

Sarah Hanson-Young: [Talks over] And when you see the Labor Party out attacking …

Penny Wong: [Talks over] Well I'm responding, I'm responding to David. Well, if you want to attack a party that made education for all Australians, particularly resourcing poorer Australians, kids in disadvantaged schools, you want to attack that party, if you're saying it has no conscience, you go ahead.

Matthew Abraham: Sarah Hanson …

Penny Wong: It's not borne out in …

Matthew Abraham: [Interrupts] Sarah Hanson.

Sarah Hanson-Young: I think the confusion here is that people want to see us get on with funding schools on a needs basis, and we know that that overwhelmingly is going to be those public schools and the poorer schools around the country. They desperately need help, and we don't want to see billions of cuts to education, and I put on the table today that thankfully it looks as though the Senate is going to reject that, because Simon Birmingham would need the Parliament to agree. What I am flabbergasted about today is reading comments from the Labor spokesperson doing the dirty work for the wealthiest private schools. I mean – come on.

David Bevan: Though you agree really, you can take the money from private school because you want it to go to the State Government sector, don't you?

Sarah Hanson-Young: We …

David Bevan: Yeah. And is …

Penny Wong: But that's not his plan.

Sarah Hanson-Young: The …

David Bevan: No but I'm saying that's what your plan. So you're agreeing with the Labor Party.

Sarah Hanson-Young: Well … look I …

David Bevan: [Interrupts] But you're just stunned that the Liberal Party is going to take a pragmatic approach to school funding.

Sarah Hanson-Young: I think we need to be going back to what it is that Gonski actually asked for, and that was a needs-based approach.

Matthew Abraham: Where did you go to school, Sarah Hanson-Young?

Sarah Hanson-Young: I went to Orbost Secondary College in country Victoria, very small public school, and very proud of it.

Matthew Abraham: Okay, and Simon Birmingham went to Gawler High.

Simon Birmingham: Yep, that's right, that's right Matt. And …

David Bevan: What a funny old world we live in.

Simon Birmingham: It served me well.


David Bevan: And the Labor MP went to Scotch [laughs].

Penny Wong: I did get a scholarship.

David Bevan: Yes.

Matthew Abraham: But, yeah.

[Cross talk]

Simon Birmingham: Parental choice is an important part of the Australian system. My job though …

David Bevan: [Talks over] Well has anybody thought the best thing you could do to raise educational standards is to give the parents a job?

Simon Birmingham: Um, well …

David Bevan: Well, seri- no, you have a puzzled look, Penny Wong, and this disturbs me that you would think that was odd. It's quite clear that those areas that struggle in terms of educational results happen to be the poorest areas.

Penny Wong: Sure.

David Bevan: That – huge unemployment. The best thing you can do to raise educational standards is to start giving the parents a job so that it sets a good example for the kids. It gives them a disposable income as opposed to living on welfare so that if they want to put more money into their kids' education they can, either through tutoring or private schools or whatever.

Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] Is that a voucher system, though?

David Bevan: So- well- just- if you created more employment in these hugely disadvantaged areas, then you will see real growth in educational standards.

Penny Wong: Look, I don't think there's anyone who would disagree with …

David Bevan: [Interrupts] Well why'd you look puzzled?

Penny Wong: Well because I think it was the use of the superlative, it was saying the best thing. I mean, I think that there is no doubt that economic and social disadvantage have many effects; one of those is on educational outcomes, so I agree with you on that. But I think there is the suggestion that – which sometimes you see from the Liberal Party – the money doesn't matter – really misunderstands that there are such disparities in this country between kids who went to schools like the one I was lucky enough to go to and kids who go to regional schools or kids who go to really- under-resourced schools in areas of great social disadvantage…

David Bevan: [Talks over] And what was the unemployment rate amongst parents at that school, who sent their kids to Scotch? I mean, really?

Penny Wong: Oh, I wouldn't …

[Cross talk]

Penny Wong: My point is that resourcing schools so you can deal with some of the aspects of disadvantage, for example – for example …

Sarah Hanson-Young: [Talks over] Well let's get on and do that and drop the scare campaign around a hit list on the wealthiest private schools. I mean, that's what is so not helpful in this debate.

Penny Wong: Well I don't think it's unreasonable for Tanya to ask Simon to tell people what his policy is, but my point is that one of the things, for example, at one of the schools that I've been to, I said what did you use your Gonski funding for, so they used it for – frankly, for disadvantaged kids to try and get their reading capacity up to standard. Now – so your point is, well get the parents a job. We've already – we've got to deal with the way in which disadvantage refracts through our primary school and our secondary school education system.

[Cross talk]

Matthew Abraham: I saw a Scotch kid walking- a Scotch College kid walking along a cross-road two days ago, the headphones in, shirt hanging out, long hair, I thought frankly, standards are dropping since Penny Wong…

[Laughter, cross talk]

Penny Wong: Did you say cut your hair, though, is that what you said, did you wind down your window?

Sarah Hanson-Young: One of the issues that I think we – that isn't in as part of this debate is why is it that parents – you know, even those who do have jobs, David, people who are doing their best, why do they feel like they have to take out loans in order to send their kid to a private school because otherwise they're not doing a good enough job, and that is why we need to see more funding to our public system to ensure that the 80 per cent of kids across the country get good access to good education. You shouldn't have to take out a loan in order to pay for your kids' education.

Matthew Abraham: Sarah Hanson-Young, SA Greens Senator, thank you for your time. Penny Wong, Leader of the Opposition, Labor's Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Penny Wong: It's always such a pleasure.


Matthew Abraham: You love coming in here.

David Bevan: You do.

Matthew Abraham: And thank you also to Simon Birmingham on the phone line from Canberra.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you everybody.

Sarah Hanson-Young: Thank you.

Matthew Abraham: South Australian Liberal Senator and Minister for Education and Training.