Interview on ABC 891, Breakfast with Ali Clarke and David Bevan
Melbourne Cup; China International Import Expo, Mark Latham joining One Nation, Schools Funding




David Bevan: Let’s welcome Simon Birmingham, Minister for Trade Tourism and Investment, speaking to us from China today. Good morning, Simon Birmingham.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning David, Ali and listeners.

David Bevan: And Rebekha Sharkie, Centre Alliance MP for Mayo, good morning to you.

Rebekha Sharkie: Good morning.

David Bevan: And Mark Butler, Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Labor MP for Port Adelaide, Good morning to you.

Mark Butler: Good morning everyone.

Ali Clarke: Rebekha Sharkie, with another horse euthanised out of the Melbourne Cup yesterday and several ‘say no to the Cup’ events run, do you still think the majority of Australians are happy with this as a national pastime – in racing?

Rebekha Sharkie: Look I think they do. I think people, every time a horse is put down, are deeply concerned about it. I’ve been around horses really all my life and I’ve seen horses here today at dressage events, and a whole range of events, but certainly it was very sad to hear about that horse needing to be put down yesterday.

Ali Clarke: So you don’t think horse racing is heading for a greyhound racing moment?

Rebekha Sharkie: No, look, I think jumps racing is a different category and I think a lot of people, we see a lot of protesting around the jumps racing. But it’s not that common that for a normal horse race we lose horses, although every time we do people, naturally, are quite upset about it. I personally don’t have a bet on the Cup. I didn’t even watch the race yesterday.

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, the people who are complaining, and we’re getting a lot of complaints on our text line, are they on the fringe?

Simon Birmingham: Look I don’t know that they’re on the fringe, David. I understand that it’s upsetting. I grew up around horses, too, and have seen in those circumstances – the tragedy of a horse having to be put down due to injury – and it’s a very upsetting thing. But it is, in some ways, the risk of injury is minimised as much as it possibly can be in events like the Melbourne Cup. There is still a risk, but simple reality, I guess, is if you didn’t have thoroughbred racing, people wouldn’t be out there breeding thoroughbreds. 

David Bevan: Mark Butler, is this something that we just don’t go to that place – the Melbourne Cup, it’s untouchable.

Mark Butler: Well I don’t know that it’s untouchable. I didn’t grow up around horses or horse racing so I don’t know much about this topic and obviously it’s very distressing when one of these extraordinary animals dies as a result of racing. But I think horse racing, traditional horse racing, maybe not the jumps, is an industry where, it appears to me, great care is taken of the animals and I’d be surprised if this tragedy yesterday had a broader impact on the industry.

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, if I can return to you, you’re going to today witness the signing of a memorandum of understanding on $15 billion worth of deals between Australia and China. You’re in Shanghai at the moment. While that is happening, Victorian Premier Andrew Daniels has come into criticism for signing a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese Ambassador – this relates to the Belt and Road Initiative that China has. Should state premiers just stay out of something as controversial as Belt and Road?

Simon Birmingham:  Well it’s for Daniel Andrews to explain what it is he signed and what is in the document that he has signed, and he has not made that clear. We, as a government, have long had a consistent policy when it comes to the Belt and Road Initiative, which is that we welcome engagement by foreign governments in terms of investment in infrastructure in other nations around our region. But where they’re doing so, it needs to be done in a responsible way that’s sustainable for the country that’s receiving that investment, where it respects the sovereignty of that country. And that’s the approach that we have taken. And we’ve urged any potential partners with China in relation to BRI, to be mindful of that in terms of their engagement, whether that’s a business or an organisation purporting to represent businesses, which I guess could be what a state government is pretending to be in this case. But it is for Daniel Andrews to explain. But meanwhile, yes, I’m here in Shanghai with hundreds of Australian businesses and many great South Australian businesses like Elders, or Thomas Foods, or Anderson Hill Wines, or Adelaide University and others, who are all riding significant business that will only seek to further grow and enhance our already very large trade relationship with China.

David Bevan: Foreign Affairs editor with The Australian Greg Sheridan writes today that Andrews has been an unwitting tool of Chinese policy directed against Australia. Is that what is at risk in this?

Simon Birmingham:  Well, again, it’s hard to run commentary without knowing the content and in that sense Daniel Andrews is the one who needs to explain what the content of this MOU is and what the rationale behind signing it was. In the end, yes, China has looked for clear support to be given to its BRI – Belt and Road Initiative. Australia, instead, has a more general memorandum of understanding with China that does encompass cooperation on infrastructure but doesn’t go to the endorsement, as such, of the BRI. We welcome investment in other countries, as I’ve said, but where it meets the terms that we think is responsible, sustainable and respecting the sovereignty of those countries.

David Bevan: Mark Butler, again, quoting Greg Sheridan, he says that Andrews has behaved poorly and without due regard for Australia’s national interest. How do you respond?

Mark Butler: Well I think The Australian’s coverage of this this morning is a little over the top. Like Simon, I haven’t seen this MOU, but my understanding is that it really covers consultation arrangements between the state of Victoria and China around the BRI – the Belt and Road Initiative. I mean it’s not common, perhaps, for state governments to sign these sorts of arrangements with national governments like China, but it’s not unprecedented either. I remember the Western Australian Liberal Government engaged in these sorts of MOUs as part of its investment strategy around iron ore. But, you know, obviously I think any state government would want to be signing agreements like this in a way that is consistent with the national interest and with national policy. I don’t think our position is a million miles away from the way in which Simon expressed the Federal Government’s position. We think that any Australian engagement with the Belt and Road Initiative should be done on a case-by-case basis and very much with an eye to Australia’s national interests.

Ali Clarke: Rebekha Sharkie, moving to another collaboration of sorts: Mark Latham and Pauline Hanson joining together. Discuss.

Rebekha Sharkie: Well, look, I think Mark Latham has tried every political party now, not Centre Alliance, thank goodness. Look, obviously, it’s a meeting of minds. I think we’ll leave them to each other. I don’t think Mark Latham speaks for the majority of people in New South Wales and certainly most things he’s touched have turned to failure. So I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

David Bevan: What is it you don’t like about Pauline Hanson and Mark Latham?

Rebekha Sharkie: I find Pauline Hanson in the Parliament to be divisive, to be negative. I can’t think of a single positive policy that woman has put forward, and her team has put forward in the Senate. I think she’s a highly inflammatory individual and I don’t think there’s a place for her in the broad, national discussion.

David Bevan: Tell us what you really think.

Rebekha Sharkie: Sorry.

Ali Clarke: Don’t ever apologise.

Rebekha Sharkie: Well, you know, you ask me and I’ll always say exactly what I think.

David Bevan: There would be a lot of support for One Nation in your electorate, wouldn’t there?

Rebekha Sharkie: Look, I don’t think so. People like centre of the road politics in Mayo, I think we’ve seen that now with two elections. I think her stunts that she’s done with the burqa, the senate motion that indeed Simon Birmingham initially voted in support of, I think we see from Pauline Hanson at every opportunity a position of wanting to divide Australia and not unite Australia.

David Bevan: Mark Butler, how long do you give Latham and Hanson?

Mark Butler: Well his recent track record’s not great in terms of picking and sticking but good luck to both of them, they deserve each other.

David Bevan: You did want him to be Prime Minister at one point.

Mark Butler: We all make mistakes and that was a profound and deep one, David.

Simon Birmingham: Luckily the Australian people didn’t make that mistake. They at least managed to dodge a bullet, even if the Labor Party couldn’t.

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, did you make a mistake with the Catholic schools sector? Sam Maiden has written a piece for the Guardian in the last couple of days where she says that you have conceded that you had to lose your job as Federal Education Minister because of the Catholic schools campaign. It cost you your job.

Simon Birmingham:  Well I wouldn’t quite put it in those terms myself and in the end I’ll let –historians can write the history of my time as Education Minister. The changes we put through to the Australian Education Act are enduring changes, and I think that despite some adjustments in terms of other parts of school funding, we do see what will be in the long run a more consistent and fairer approach in terms of school funding, and particularly treating the states and territories consistently for the first time ever, which is a big breakthrough in terms of Federal Government approach to school funding.

David Bevan: But did Bishop Peter Comensoli ring you to complain about the funding deal, particularly regarding the calculator that would show which school is going to get how much money?

Simon Birmingham: Well I don’t generally go through the private conversations that I have with individual stakeholders. I spoke to many bishops and archbishops and school principals and many other stakeholders during my time as Education Minister.

David Bevan: But what was Comensoli’s problem with the calculator?

Simon Birmingham: I’m not going to repeat private conversations that I had with individuals. We put in place a system that, as I say, remains an enduring system, I believe, that changed the Australian Education Act so that rather than state-by-state deals that saw SA get less than some other states and WA left a world behind all of the other jurisdictions, we put in place something that is now transitioning everybody onto getting consistent fair shares in that sense. And I’m not seeing in the Labor Party’s proposal that they’re going to change that. They might up the increase of those shares; that’s for them to justify why they think those jurisdictions that are already at 100 per cent of the school resource standard should get a further contribution from the Commonwealth.

David Bevan: But, Minister, was the fallout from all of that, and it cost you your job, but was it also –

Simon Birmingham: I’m pretty happy with my new job, David.

David Bevan: Yeah, you got your new job, you’re talking to us from Shanghai. But it cost you your job as Federal Education Minister. And did it also result in a bucket load of money going to wealthier Catholic schools, because you had to shut them up?

Simon Birmingham: David, obviously, further policy decisions have been made to increase the volume of funding that is available. In some cases they were decisions, in fact the vast majority of the decisions that were made, relates to further changes to the school funding formula in terms of the way capacity to contribute is assessed – so the way, essentially, a school’s socio-economic status is assessed. They’re changes I put in the pipeline 12 months plus ago now, when we started a review in terms of whether to use census methodology or whether to use income tax data. It came back saying use income tax data. And they are changes that I would have made and were largely developed while I was in the chair.

Ali Clarke: Mark Butler, is all this fair enough?

Mark Butler: I mean the issue, with the greatest respect, is not really about Simon’s career trajectory. He seems to be doing fine from where I sit – he’s got the trade portfolio, he’s the deputy leader of the Liberal Party in the Senate. The issue is education policy here and as a result of the broad cuts across the Catholic sector, the independent sector and the public school sector. There were some concessions made to the Catholic and independent sectors, that appear to deal with their issues. We’re having a little bit of trouble working out what that means on a school-by-school basis because the extra funding is not disaggregated. But there’s still a $14 billion hole in public schools and that’s not being addressed at all by this Government, either under Simon or under the new Education Minister. And that means real money for schools in Adelaide. I know, for example, Henley High, it’s over $2 million over the next three years. Woodville High in my electorate, it’s $1.6 million. It’s less for some of the smaller primary schools, but that’s real money, real services, real support for students. So I think we should focus a little bit more on that aspect of this debate rather than Simon’s career trajectory, which seems to be looking after itself.

Ali Clarke: Okay, Mark Butler, look we unfortunately have to leave it there. To you, Shadow Minister for Climate Change, Rebekha Sharkie, Centre Alliance MP for Mayo, and Simon Birmingham, Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, coming to us from China. By the way, Simon Birmingham, Nick does say your phone line from China is quite clear and better than the usual reception when you phone in from Canberra. So I don’t know whether you want to see if you can stay longer or bring whatever phone you’re using back. We can go from there.

Simon Birmingham:  Well we did make sure we used the landlines, because the mobile connections are definitely sometimes a bit crackly.

Ali Clarke: Bye bye. Simon Birmingham there.