Interview on Radio National AM with Michael Brissenden
Labor’s corruption of ‘Gonski’; Future schools funding arrangements
22 September 2016

Michael Brissenden: The Federal Education Minister will sit down with his state counterparts tomorrow to start negotiation over a new school funding agreement, and already it’s shaping up as another row over the way education dollars are distributed to schools around the country. The Minister wants a new four year deal to replace the agreements signed by the former Labor government which he’s described as a “corruption” of the Gonski model of needs-based funding.

With more I’m joined now by the Education Minister Simon Birmingham. He’s in our Adelaide studio. Simon Birmingham, good morning.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning Michael, good to be with you.

Michael Brissenden: So you are looking at forging a new deal with the states in this meeting and to replace the last two years of the so-called Gonski funding. That was where the big money was coming from the previous Labor government wasn’t it, $4.5 billion, but as a starting position for this meeting you’re still not offering anywhere near that are you?

Simon Birmingham: Well Michael the Turnbull government is offering growing funding, funding for Australian schools from the Federal Government will grow from a budgeted $16 billion this year in 2016, to around $20.1 billion by 2020. That’s above inflation, above enrolment growth, it’s real growth into Australian schools from the Federal Government’s perspective…

Michael Brissenden: [Interrupts]…Okay, it’s not what the states want though is it?

Simon Birmingham: The states will always ask for more money and you’re right, it’s not what the Labor Party promised, but it is what Malcolm Turnbull and I released in the Budget this year, we took it to the election and we committed that we would make sure it is distributed fairly according to need and equitably across the states which the current arrangements the Labor Party left us with, the 27 different special deals scattered across the country don’t of course provide that type of equity in their distribution across the country.

Michael Brissenden: Well indeed you’re arguing that some of the deals signed were unfair, that some states did better than others, so to fix it presumably some states are going to have to get less under this new agreement.

Simon Birmingham: We have a growing pot of money so there’s no need for states to necessarily be getting less, but I do want to see it ultimately delivererd in an equitable way. We have a…

Michael Brissenden: [Interrupts] Well perhaps less than they expected they might have got.

Simon Birmingham: Well states will always hope for more but I will talk down- sit down and talk constructively with the states and territories. We have a situation where at present you can look at school in Australia with exactly the same demographic composition of its students, the same levels of need, the same type of circumstances and yet in one state or territory they’re getting around $1500 more from the federal taxpayer than in another state or territory. Now that doesn’t seem like the type of fair, needs based consistently applied model that allegedly the Gonski deal was talking about. Instead of getting the Gonski deal we effectively got the Shorten/Gillard deal which saw them do a whole bunch of special deals treating states and territories differently and embedding problems that, even if we implemented their full arrangements to 2019, would only get worse in some circumstances.

Michael Brissenden: Okay, but that does mean- to have that sort of nationally consistent approach, that does mean doesn’t it that some states that did well under the old system will lose money and others will gain to get to that point?

Simon Birmingham: Well I’m looking beyond just 2019 where the old system finished and want to have a look at a system that runs well into the future and ensures we do treat the states equally but it is a growing pot of money we have going from $16 billion to more than $20 billion over the years that are in the forward estimates, so the opportunity is there to make sure that we distribute that in a more even-handed way that is still and in fact improved in its attendance to need and the focus on what students actually need in school, but importantly also starts to derive some real reform in schools because the Shorten/Gillard deal that was done on schools was all about money and nothing about reform. In reality we’ve been spending a lot more money for a long period of time in Australian schools and yet our performance has been going backwards by nearly every benchmark.

Michael Brissenden: How’s that likely to go down with the states do you think with some of them who are going to lose out, are you setting yourself up for a fight?

Simon Birmingham: Look I hope the states will work constructively with us to get a fair outcome. Tomorrow when I meet with them it will really be the opening of discussions and what I want to hear from the states and territories is how they think we can most equably and fairly distribute the funding that’s available according to need and how we can best get the types of reforms in Australian schools that we need to lift literacy and numeracy outcomes again to make sure we don’t slip further down global rankings, to get more kids studying maths and science in the later years, to keep our most capable and able teachers in Australian schools, these are the types of things that I hope we an talk constructively about and that we can put some of the politicking that existed in the pre-election environment well behind us.

Michael Brissenden: Well the politicking is the thing that sort of dominated this argument isn’t it up until now and I would- I’d say it’s probably going to keep dominating this argument. Parents who look at all of this and they look at all the cost shifting they’re getting very- they get very frustrated about this argument don’t they?

Simon Birmingham: I understand. Parents don’t want to hear politicians squabble about money. They want to know what’s going to happen in their school and that’s why I’m really committed and the Turnbull Government is committed to distributing the funding fairly according to need, doing what people would expect a federal government to do in treating the states and territories fairly as well and not picking favourites amongst them, but also turning the attention away from just how much is spent because we have doubled funding over the period since 1998 in Australian schools taking inflation into account. Huge growth in funding into Australian schools and yet our performance has been slipping in a number of measures. So we really do need to focus on the types of things that can lift performance. How we carve up the pot of money is important to make sure it flows to the areas of greatest need – I acknowledge that, but actually shifting the debate to how we make sure that money is used most effectively to lift the real outcomes for students, that’s what can make the greatest difference in the long run.

Michael Brissenden: So from 2018 you’ll also require the states to at least keep their current funding levels. You are trying to shift certainly a bit more of the education cost burden onto the states, you want them to take more responsibility for it, don’t you?

Simon Birmingham: Well, states and territories are constitutionally responsible for education…

Michael Brissenden: [Interrupts]…Of course but you want them to take more than they have been.

Simon Birmingham: Well, no not at all Michael. In fact federal share of funding into Australian schools is at a record level and will only grow and the only way of course that the states and territories will bring that down is if they invest even more growth than what we’re proposing to do. Now I’d welcome that but that’s a decision for those individual states and territories. We are however seeing the federal share of funding for Australian schools sitting at a record level today and it will stay at that level unless we see even greater growth than what the Turnbull Government is promising and will deliver coming from the states themselves.

Michael Brissenden: Well you mentioned the inflation targeting- the tying of the indexation to inflation, will there be a discussion of the indexation process? Because I note that some commentators have suggested that if you did change the formula to tie it to wages growth rather than inflation you could free up a lot of money to be reallocated. Is that correct?

Simon Birmingham: Well the Grattan Institute has highlighted today in some of their comments that what the Turnbull Government has applied in terms of its budget setting is actually quite generous to the states and territories because we’ve looked at the historical average in recent times of wages growth and inflation growth and we’ve projected that out over the years- beyond over the years 2019 and 2020 to actually create an adjustment of 3.56 per cent to get to the technical terms of it. That of course is actually faster than what inflation or wages growth is currently today. So there is real opportunity there for us to leverage that funding, to get a good deal for the states and territories, to ensure that we actually are applying it then to the types of reforms that can make the best difference to students in Australian schools.

Michael Brissenden: Okay, for parents around the country who are going to be asking does this mean that our kids are going to be better off, are they going to be in better schools in the future. What can you tell them?

Simon Birmingham: I hope so. If we can do the type of deal that I want to see put in place we can end the school funding squabbles once and for all by having a consistent formula that addresses need applied across the country and by ensuring that it is tied to reforms in schools that identify literacy problems at an earlier stage for Australian school kids and that ensure we actually do get reforms that keep our best teachers in schools, that we have minimum standards for literacy and numeracy before kids leave school, that we have more people studying science and maths. These are the types of things that I think parents want education ministers to be focused on and certainly I will be.

Michael Brissenden: Okay, Simon Birmingham we’ll leave it there. Thanks very much for joining us.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you.

Michael Brissenden: Education Minister Simon Birmingham.