Interview on ABC AM with Sabra Lane
Delivering real Gonski needs-based schools funding; Support for students with a disability; SA bank tax

Sabra Lane: The man responsible for the package and negotiating its successful passage through the Parliament this morning – the Education Minister Simon Birmingham – joined me a short time ago.

Sabra Lane: Senator Birmingham, good morning. Welcome to AM. You’ve had a few hours to celebrate or perhaps sleep. Is it congratulations?

Simon Birmingham: Well, it’s congratulations to Australian schools and Australian school students, who are going to see around $2300 on average per student – additional support – flow in over the next few years. And that’s really critical because it flows fastest into the schools who need it most; delivering fairer funding for all Australians, according to the Gonski needs-based principles. 

Sabra Lane: The Financial Review editorial says, this morning; if there was ever a metaphor for all that’s wrong with Australian politics, the Gonski 2.0 funding is it. It’s a policy that won’t work, paid for with money the Government does not have. How do you respond?

Simon Birmingham: Well Sabra, the Government has taken an approach of being far more responsible than the Labor Party, who you have to remember were still voting against this last night, saying; it wasn’t spending enough. We’re putting in place …

Sabra Lane: [Interrupts] Well, it’s now the Liberal Government’s policy – so, how do you defend it?

Simon Birmingham: It is indeed. And I defend it because it is serious investment in needs-based funding, targeted to the schools and students who need it the most, to make sure they get the help in their classrooms. And what we will see is funding growth of around five per cent, per student, per annum, across the country. Growth around 6.4 per cent, though, in terms of support into the public sector schools and the needier schools in Australia. And some of those even up to around 10 per cent per student, to bring them up to getting the type of resources and support that they need to be able to help all children succeed in the future. 

Sabra Lane: The main point of the editorial is right though. It will be paid for with debt, won’t it? Is that good debt or bad debt? And given it will involve recurrent spending, it may not lead even to better student results either. 

Simon Birmingham: Well, there’s one important thing that people should understand about the change that occurred during the Senate deliberations – it brought forward schools reaching a common funding standard. And so yes, that will cost a bit more over the next few years. But in reaching that common funding standard, it then – over the long term – doesn’t actually add to the structural budget position. So, in that sense we were very mindful of making sure, yes, let’s get all schools up to that fair standard, let’s do it faster. That’s what the Senate agreed to do. But in the long term, we’re also very conscious of ensuring this remains an affordable investment in Australian schools and also that we expect the states and territories to do their fair share too.

Sabra Lane: Well, just on that point and on the point that you make; that was an amendment that was negotiated in the Senate and it means that some states will have to drastically increase their funding of schools, within the next six years. Queensland says  it will now have to find $1 billion more by 2023. Victoria’s also been hit hard. How is that a good result?

Simon Birmingham: Well, this is about states and territories being incentivised to do their fair share. These are the same state governments who have asked and pleaded for the Federal Government to do the Gonski, to apply the Gonski formula, we’ve come to the party, we’re doing that, we’re putting in some $23.5 billion extra over the last year’s Budget into schools over the next decade. We’re doing it by need; we’re doing it by the Gonski formula. But these states and territories should also be encouraged – as the legislation now does – to do their fair share to help ensure that all schools reach a fair level of funding.

Sabra Lane: What if, after the socio-economic status review for the Catholic schools that it’s recommended the formula be re-worked to give Catholics more money, will you deliver that?

Simon Birmingham: We will absolutely. We committed during the process of this Bill to put in place the recommendations of the review that will be undertaken. Obviously mindful of course …

Sabra Lane: [Talks over] And if it means more money?

Simon Birmingham: … of any Budget implications. But if it means more money and it’s demonstrated that it’s fairer and that’s what needs to occur, then that’s ultimately what the Turnbull Government will do. We made a compromised gesture during the legislation to maintain the system averaging formula that the Catholic systems have next year. 

But I really do want to reassure parents in Catholic school systems around the country that the agreements that have been reached, the legislation put in place, sees strong funding growth into the Catholic schools systems right around the country, in every state, growth around 3.8 per cent plus, on average, some of them significantly more than that. Because again, you had those disparities from one Catholic school system to another. And so states like Tasmania and Western Australia, who had dud deals in terms of Catholic school funding in the past, will see faster growth in the future. And this is about delivering fairness for everybody, including those in Catholic education.

Sabra Lane: Are you prepared for a prolonged fight with the Catholic sector? A lot of aspirational voters send their kids to Catholic schools. Are you worried by that?

Simon Birmingham: Well Sabra, I certainly hope not. Because I trust that when parents and principals and teachers and Catholic education authorities, genuinely see that their funding keeps going up each and every year, that there’s growth above inflation and above wages growth and it’s done in a fair way, that they are going to see that there is no need for fee increases or changes to their system. That we’ve delivered a fair deal for everybody that treats schools consistently, regardless of state borders. That ensures across the non-government sector, all non-government schools are treated consistently, regardless of which background, faith – or otherwise – they’re from.

Sabra Lane: If this doesn’t translate to a lift in Australia’s performance through the PISA testing results for example, what happens? More money?

Simon Birmingham: No, we want to make sure that it does translate to real educational outcomes. So, now that we have settled this – settled the terms of the legislation – we’ll get on with appointing the remainder of David Gonski’s panel, which will get underway, in terms of looking at how we achieve educational excellence from this increased investment. How it can best be used by each and every school with evidence-based measures and reforms. And I look forward to the states, the territories, all of the non-government school systems, the teachers, the principals, getting on-board, working with David, the panel, the Government, to ensure we get the lift out of this we want – which is better educational outcomes for every Australian school student.

Sabra Lane: How accurate is it that an edict was sent out asking Coalition MPs not to criticise Senator Pauline Hanson for her comments yesterday on autistic children?

Simon Birmingham: Absolutely not.

Sabra Lane: You didn’t fear losing her voter, over a backlash?

Simon Birmingham: No. Indeed. Look, I don’t agree with the way in which Pauline put some of her remarks. But I absolutely respect the fact that she voted for our reforms last night, and in doing so Pauline Hanson, Nick Xenophon, other crossbenchers, Jacqui Lambie and Derryn Hinch, Lucy Gichuhi, all of the Turnbull Government team, put in place a better arrangement to support students with disabilities of higher needs, in a better way, to put differentiated loadings in place at a nationally consistent level for students with a disabilities that will absolutely provide more support for all schools to be more inclusive of students with autism. And to provide them, though, with the additional support they need to make sure, then, that every student in the school can succeed. And that’s what needs to happen. And the only tragedy is that Bill Shorten and the Labor Party voted against that last night. 

Sabra Lane: You’re a South Australian. The State Government there has copied the Federal Government by imposing its own Bank Tax, on top of the Commonwealth Bank Tax. The former Commonwealth Bank Boss, David Murray, says it’s a desperate act of economic vandals. And the Business Council’s Jennifer Westacott says the Turnbull Government must accept responsibility for letting the genie out of the bottle. How do you respond?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the Turnbull Government’s applied a nationally consistent tax on banks that we’re confident banks can afford …

Sabra Lane: [Interrupts] We don’t need to prosecute that case again. But how do you respond?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the last quote you just gave me was about the Turnbull Government’s policy, so I was absolutely responding to that. In terms of the South Australian situation – the banks may be able to afford it, but the South Australian economy sure as hell can’t afford to be made any less competitive than the other states and territories. And the problem is, there are multiple new tax measures in the Weatherill Government’s Budget that are just going to make South Australia an even less attractive place for businesses to invest. And that’s a terrible situation and it needs to be addressed drastically given the highest rate of unemployment in the country has now been in South Australia for a prolonged period of time.

Sabra Lane: Minister, thanks for talking to AM, this morning.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Sabra.

Sabra Lane: The Minister for Education, Simon Birmingham.