Interview on ABC AM with Sabra Lane
Topics: Banking Royal Commission; Same-sex marriage; Sam Dastyari, University completion rates and graduate outcome data



Sabra Lane:     For his view on all of this and some issues in his portfolio, we’re joined in the studio by the Minister for Education and Training, Senator Simon Birmingham. Welcome, good morning.

Simon Birmingham:     Good morning, Sabra.

Sabra Lane:     Many Nationals MPs are determined to cross the floor on a banking royal commission; what does this instability say to voters?

Simon Birmingham:     Well look, we have, in the Liberal and National Party, long accorded our members and senators the right to cross the floor. Members crossed the floor in the Howard Government, in the Fraser Government, in the Menzies Government. It’s not unusual, it will happen again in the future – whether it’s on banking issues or others – I am absolutely confident that as the right of Liberals and Nationals, they will exercise it from time to time.

Sabra Lane:     The Nats have been asked about perceptions of disunity on this issue and on same-sex marriage and Senator John Williams this morning as saying: “tell someone who cares”. Nationals MP Andrew Broad, you heard there in that package too, says that Mr Turnbull’s not consulting conservative MPs and that it’s, quote: “a failure of leadership”. How do you respond to these things?

Simon Birmingham:     Well look, Mr Broad is somebody who threatened to leave the Coalition if there wasn’t a public vote in relation to marriage equality; Malcolm Turnbull, despite fierce opposition from the Parliament, showed strong leadership and found a way to deliver a public vote. It was an overwhelming success with 80 per cent of Australians participating, 62 per cent of people voting yes for marriage equality – including a majority of the people in Andrew Broad’s own electorate. Now, I appreciate that Mr Broad’s personal convictions are against same-sex marriage – have been for a long time, no doubt still are – but that is not a case to stand in the way of change.The Bill that is before the Parliament firstly provides very strong religious protections. People, when this is passed, will still be able to turn up to their place of worship according to their belief, their doctrines, their faith. Their church, their synagogue, their mosque will still be able to turn away same-sex couples and say: we want nothing to do with your marriage. Their ministers of religion will be able to turn away same-sex couples and say: we want nothing to do with your marriage. Those religious protections in relation to same-sex marriage are clear and strong in the Smith Bill as it stands.Now, of course, other matters that are raised go much, much broader in terms of debates around religious protections generally and that’s what Philip Ruddock and Father Frank Brennan are now going to have a look at and report back early next year.

Sabra Lane:     It’s not just on this issue, it’s the banking issue as well. Perceptions are everything in politics. The Nats – a number of them, not all of them – and certainly a conservative pocket within the Liberal Party seem intent on blowing up the Government.

Simon Birmingham:     Well, we elect strong-willed individuals to the Parliament. There’s no doubt about that. That is the nature of Liberal Party pre-selections, Labor Party pre-selections where we …

Sabra Lane:     But voters don’t reward, I mean, wasn’t that the lesson from the Labor years?

Simon Birmingham:     Well, I think in some ways we have to actually celebrate the fact that our parties are indeed a collective of individuals who are pre-selected by local party members, not by unions who go and pick people who’ll just be yes men when they get to Canberra. We pre-select strong-willed individuals who bring their passions and their convictions to Canberra and that means we disagree sometimes. And yes, for more than seven years I’ve disagreed with some of my colleagues on the issue of same-sex marriage, but we’ve worked our way through it. We’ve got to the point where it’s before the Parliament, it’s a free vote across the Liberal and National Parties and we are now on the cusp of delivering equality for Australians in same-sex relationships and that will be a great thing for the future.

Sabra Lane:     Alright. On the banks, if the Nats manage to get their commission of inquiry up, that would be embarrassing and damaging for the Prime Minister and riffing off that old adage: if you can’t govern yourselves, how can you govern the country?

Simon Birmingham:     Well look, I think Australians will judge the Government on a range of things at the next election. And what matters to them more than banking royal commissions are whether or not they’ve got a job. And right now, 370,000 Australians have jobs that were created in the last 12 months alone. We’re seeing huge jobs growths. What matters to Australians is their cost of living. And next year, in my portfolio, we’ll deliver a new child care package that, for some Australian families, some of the lowest income, hardest working families, will put thousands of dollars back into their pockets. Now, they’re the issues we have to make sure people are focused on come the next election to vote on. They care more about their jobs and their cost of living than they do the banks.

Sabra Lane:     Alright. What’s your reaction to these reports that Sam Dastyari warned a Chinese Communist Party linked political donor that his phone was probably tapped. That’s the allegation this morning.

Simon Birmingham:     Well, these are very concerning allegations. It’s only a little over a year ago that Sam Dastyari was fending off allegations that Chinese donors had paid personal bills for him. After defending him for some weeks, Bill Shorten eventually forced Sam Dastyari to step down from the frontbench, only months later to reappoint him to a senior role within the Opposition. So the test is on now for Sam Dastyari to come clean and to answer these allegations in Fairfax Media and for Bill Shorten to make sure that he gets to the bottom of it and doesn’t go and give Sam Dastyari a third chance.

Sabra Lane:     On your own portfolio, the university funding package is still stuck in the Senate, but you’re shining a light this morning on university completion rates by students and their jobs prospects. The six-year completion rate’s dropped to its lowest level ever, 66 per cent; what’s gone wrong?

Simon Birmingham:     Well, of course we have many, many more students at Australian universities now than we had in the past. Since 2009 when the so-called demand driven system was introduced, universities have enjoyed the autonomy to enrol as many students as they want in whatever disciplines they want and receive guaranteed taxpayer funding for each and every student and they’ve seized that with both hands and dramatically grown enrolments. Now, what we’re seeing is indeed lower completion rates and, in some instances, struggling employment outcomes. That’s one of the reasons why the Turnbull Government’s reforms is proposing that some of that funding for students ought to be based on performance of universities, that it ought to be tied to ensuring success at university for students, ultimately success when they leave university in terms of getting jobs – good jobs – because that’s what people want and it’s about ensuring that we are fair to those students when they undertake those university courses.

Sabra Lane:     Alright. Minister, sadly we’re out of time but thank you very much for joining AM this morning.

Simon Birmingham:     Thank you, Sabra.