Interview on ABC Insiders with Barrie Cassidy
Topics: Labor’s corruption of ‘Gonski’; Future schools funding arrangements

BARRIE CASSIDY:      Minister, good morning. Welcome.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM:            Good morning, Barrie. Great to be with you.

BARRIE CASSIDY:      You asked for some feedback earlier in the week and you got some of it there and not very much of it is positive.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM:             Barrie, I’d have to say that in the room on Friday at the meeting of the education councils, the comments were far more measured and far more constructive than some of the chest-beating that occurred outside of the room. Even in those two snippets you just showed, you can see the fact that, in a sense, we were criticised on the one hand for not presenting a detailed proposal, yet on the other hand, Adrian Piccoli claimed there was a detailed proposal there. The reality is that I did exactly what I would do here, and that is go to them and talk about exactly what the Turnbull Government took to the election which was a growing pot of federal funding for Australian schools, growing from $16 billion this year, to more than $20 billion in 2020, talked to them about how that can be fairly distributed according to need, equitably across the states and leveraged to drive reform in our schools to improve the types of outcomes we get from our students. Because we’re spending record sums in Australian schools, but he haven’t been seeing the type of improvement that Australians should expect from that record level of investment.

BARRIE CASSIDY:                  OK so you say that wasn’t a fair reflection of not what went on in the room. Would you also say that most states and you are not as far apart as might seem to be the case?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM:             Well there’s a little way to go there Barrie. We gave a commitment, Malcolm Turnbull, to the state and territory leaders that we would come to them with a final proposal in the first half of 2017 through the COAG meetings and that’s exactly what we will do, and that’s what I’m working towards. So last week, on Friday, I worked through some of those principles with the state and territory ministers and talked to them about how the current model is of course actually not as pure as many people make out in the public debate, particularly highlighting to them the reality as Ken Boston, one of the architects and authors of the Gonski Report – who’s a former head of the Education Department of NSW and SA, said it’s a corruption because it’s a construct of some 27 different deals that Bill Shorten did, running around the country prior to the 2013 election with state premiers and Bishops and others in the school sector. That's not a consistent, national, needs-based funding model. What I want to do is shift to something that doesn't have us working in a situation where the Federal Government is providing disparate levels of support, around $1500 in 2017, for a student in an identically disadvantaged school just because they're living in a different state. That hardly seems like a fair, transparent, needs-based model from a Federal Government's perspective.

BARRIE CASSIDY:                  Well then just in simple terms for the sake of stakeholders in all of this, just how different would your approach be to the one that was put up in 2013?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM:             I think the principles of the Gonski Report are actually very sound principles, and I've said this all along and we were very clear going into the election that our record growing levels of school funding would be distributed according to need, that we want to stand by the idea that you have additional loadings for students from low socio-economic backgrounds for Indigenous students, for students with a disability, for small, regional and remote schools. All of those types of areas of disadvantage are critical and we should be providing additional support for those students. So the concept of needs-based funding, as David Gonski himself has recognised, is something that all side of politics agree to. It's just what we don't agree to, what Malcolm Turnbull and I have been very clear about prior to the election and continue to work on now, is that it's not sustainable to continue 27 different deals with inflated costs attached to them, at a time of enormous Budget deficit and that we need to get more bang for our buck in terms of leveraging those things to improve literacy and numeracy standards in our schools, to keep our best teachers in the classroom, to actually get more kids studying maths and science through to the final years of their schooling. 

BARRIE CASSIDY:      Does it also mean though, that when you’re distributing the money that you virtually do away with the state borders and you look more at allocating the funding according to the individual schools?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM:             Sorry Barrie I missed the first half of that question.

BARRIE CASSIDY:                  It’s just whether you’re effectively doing away with state borders when you're distributing the money and you’re looking at individual schools, is that a point of difference?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM:             I think that Australians would expect the Federal Government, when funding a school student who might be in a highly disadvantaged school, who might be Indigenous, to provide the same level of support for that school student from the Australian Government regardless of where they live in the country. And the model that I showed to the state and territory ministers on Friday demonstrated that in 2017, in the best performing state in a sense or the state getting the best deal, that student gets $1500 more support from the Federal Government than the least supported state and that actually only gets worse by 2019 with that gap growing by more than $2,000 per student, so we really do need to recognise that this is not a fair arrangement, it is a construct of the deals that Bill Shorten and Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd all did back in 2013, and that if we don't work to fix them and change the model from 2018 onwards, it only gets worse.

BARRIE CASSIDY:                  But you spoke about Western Australia getting a raw deal as well, but didn't they have themselves to blame? They didn't sign up in 2013 and when they eventually signed up with the Coalition, they got less funding?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM:             Barrie, that's not actually the case, because what we delivered to WA, Queensland, the NT, after the election, despite the fact that Labor – it's worth remembering – went into the 2013 election and took out $1.2 billion from the schools funding budget because they hadn’t signed up, we put the $1.2 billion back in and delivered the funding exactly that was on the table. That's what Christopher Pyne and Tony Abbott said prior to 2013, and so that's what we did, we gave them the funding that was promised prior to that election, and they have been receiving that funding, but in looking at it, it's clear that it is actually not a fair deal for all the students across all the states of the Commonwealth, and so as a Federal Government and as a federal minister, I want to see that fixed so that we are treating students equitably, regardless of where they live in Australia, that we are addressing need, but importantly, and remembering that we’re spending around twice as much in real terms on school funding in Australia now than we were 20 years ago. 

Importantly I want to see us actually leverage reform for those skills so we lift our outcomes because we've been going backwards in terms of school funding over that period of time – sorry, backwards in terms of school performance over that period of time relative to the increased funding and that's just not an acceptable situation, to keep tipping more in if we're not improving the performance, which is why we also released in our election policy, not just the increased funding from 16 billion to more than 20 billion, but areas of reform across literacy, numeracy, teacher support and getting students to keep their studies in maths and science right through.

BARRIE CASSIDY:                  That 20 billion is an increase, but is that beyond negotiation, that’s a non- negotiable point as far as you are concerned – the overall funding? 

SIMON BIRMINGHAM:             The budget is the budget and we have, as Malcolm Turnbull, Scott Morrison and the whole Government has been very clear, very significant Budget pressures. We are contributing a record amount to Australian schools, a record share of funding in terms of the support the Federal Government gives to Australian schools. It is going to grow under the Turnbull Government from $16 billion this year to more than $20 billion by 2020. That is growth above projected enrolments, above projected inflation. The Grattan Institute were out there this week saying how incredibly generous the current budget was for growth, so the focus absolutely from our perspective is how you distribute it fairly according to need, how you distribute it equitably across the states and territories and how we leverage it to get reforms in our classrooms to lift student performance and reverse Australia's decline in performance.

BARRIE CASSIDY:                  Now what the states do know though, and they know where the numbers are in the Senate, and that they will have the support of Labor, the Greens and probably Nick Xenophon for more Gonski funding than what you're proposing, does that then present you with a political problem when the states know that they've got that kind of support in the Senate?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM:             Barrie, it is possible, as I understand it, for us to be able to work within our current budget, within the current Act, but that's not optimal because that will only entrench the types of inequities that we've been talking about and that I demonstrated to the state ministers the other day, so I don't think that it's acceptable for us not to see some changes to the Education Act. I hope that we can see that down the track, but the alternative is not a good alternative, and so I hope as we work through this and get to a final landing point with the states and territories early next year, that they concede it is much better to have a model put in place, that is needs-based, treats the states equitably, drives reform and that they’ll actually support us in getting the changes to the Act to make sure it is a fair deal.

BARRIE CASSIDY:                  So you're saying if it does come to that, you can in fact introduce a new model without legislation, without amending the Act?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM:             We can work within the current Budget because much of the extra spending that Labor had promised back in 2013, off in the never never, beyond the Budget Forward Estimates was never actually legislated spending, so much of that is not actually tied to the legislation. So we can work within the current Budget arrangements, but of course I think it is far, far better if we get reforms to ensure we are distributing funding according to need equitably across the states and driving reform in schools.

BARRIE CASSIDY:                  Finally, you're talking about a timetable the first half of next year. That could be 7 or 8 months of this?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM:             Well, there’ll be a number of conversations I will have with the State and Territory ministers and of course there will be engagements between first ministers as well, between the PM and his counterparts at the state and territory level, and I hope and trust all of that leads us to a very positive outcome in the end. There will be plenty of chest-beating along the way, the states will always ask for more money, as states and territories have always done for time immemorial and will always do into the future, but that won’t deter us from saying let's invest the record funding we have got, as fairly, equitably and efficiently as possible.

BARRIE CASSIDY:                  Minister, thanks for coming on the program – appreciate it. 

SIMON BIRMINGHAM:             Thanks so much, Barrie.