Interview on ABC Melbourne with Rafael Epstein

Topics: Tony Abbott, Delivering real Gonski needs-based schools funding; energy policy



Rafael Epstein: The Education Minister Simon Birmingham is travelling the country touting what is one of the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s successes: school funding. Gonski 2.0 it is called. They’re adding in money, they’re changing the way schools are funded. Some of the Government agenda though, if not all of it, is being diverted by internal tension. Simon Birmingham joins me in the studio.

Good afternoon, Minister.

Simon Birmingham: Great to be with you.

Rafael Epstein: Do you trust Tony Abbott?

Simon Birmingham: Yes. Yes, I mean, Tony and I worked closely together when he was leader and Prime Minister. I trust him, I respect him, I don’t agree with him all of the time but that’s part of politics.

Rafael Epstein: You must be frustrated by him.

Simon Birmingham: Look, I’m frustrated that the Government’s agenda is not the focus of public commentary, and that there’s far too much public commentary about internal political machinations rather than focus on school funding achievements or other important policy challenges, and that’s what the Australian people want us to be focusing on, and that’s what every single member of the Government should be focusing on.

Rafael Epstein: And every single member of the Government has been asked about Tony Abbott every day. Have you done an interview this week where you haven’t been asked about Tony Abbott?

Simon Birmingham: Look, if I think back probably not. Maybe on Monday, can’t quite recall.

Rafael Epstein: Can you run government if you have someone inside the party room effectively running an opposition to what you’re doing?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I don’t think Tony’s doing that. Tony is obviously a backbencher, and he can advance certain issues if he chooses to do so. As a former prime minister he gets more attention for doing so, and he needs to be mindful and have due regard, and ultimately, he as a member of the Government ought to play the team game along with everybody else, which means, indeed, making sure that we are focussing on issues that Australians care about, selling the achievements of the Government, and of course, moving on to the new policy challenges. We’ve dealt with school funding, we’ve put forward a-

Rafael Epstein: Sure. I will get on to school funding, but he’s not playing a team game, is he? There’s not a policy he hasn’t criticised. I won’t read out all of them, but he criticised your school funding: the risk with compromises designed to end policy wars is that the war doesn’t actually end, the battleground just shifts. Today he almost seems to be deliberating goading Christopher Pyne over submarines; it’s not just one policy, it’s practically every policy.

Simon Birmingham: Well, I have to say that when I’m out and about with teachers and principals and so on, they’re not asking me about Tony Abbott. I know that in some interviews this week, when politicians have been on radio, the callers have rung in and wanted to talk about issues rather than personalities, and that’s a message that we all need to heed; perhaps the media as well as politicians.

Rafael Epstein: I’ve no doubt the media needs to heed it, and I will get on to school funding, but you can’t be in government and have someone throwing bombs at you every day when they’re a former prime minister. It is frustrating and it is stopping you doing what you do as a government.

Simon Birmingham: Well, that sounds like a piece of commentary, and I’ll let the commentators run the commentary. We are-

Rafael Epstein: So none of your time’s taken up with this? It doesn’t-

Simon Birmingham: Well, a few minutes of my time have now been taken up on Melbourne Radio.

Rafael Epstein: No, no, aside from the interview.

Simon Birmingham: Internally, internally we’re actually all trying to get on with the issues, and I can tell you I’m not distracted on a day to day basis from the important challenges of my portfolio; I don’t think Malcolm Turnbull is, I don’t think Christopher Pyne is, for that matter.

Rafael Epstein: Are you frustrated?

Simon Birmingham: I’m frustrated when we get to moments like this several minutes into an interview and you’d rather be talking about those issues that matter to Australians rather than the insider politics.

Rafael Epstein: Simon Birmingham is the Education Minister; let’s ask him about education. 1300222774 is the phone number. We have seen this movie before. We think we know how it ends but we don’t really know. 0437774774.

When will schools know that the numbers on your website are precisely what they’ll receive? Will they change? Because the deal’s changed slightly because of the Senate vote, so when will a school be able to look at that website and go: yup, that’s what we’re getting in future years?

Simon Birmingham: So we took down the website when the Senate vote went through on Thursday night, because, indeed, transitioning all schools who are receiving less than a fair share of Commonwealth over a faster timeline means that they will receive more sooner that would’ve otherwise been the case, so the six year timeline is great news for many, many schools, but it did mean the numbers on the list were then wrong, and so we’ll make sure we get new information out to school systems, to schools where that’s appropriate, and of course-

Rafael Epstein: So, you say weeks, months, do you know?       

Simon Birmingham: No, look, all of that is being worked on at present. I’ve already written to state and territory ministers, to leaders of the Catholic and independent education representative bodies to give them a sense of the aggregate outcome from the arrangements. Now, of course, if you are-

Rafael Epstein: The amounts, that’s the school one.

Simon Birmingham: Well, that’s right, and of course, if you are part of the Victorian education system, the Catholic education system in Victoria, the state government, the Catholic representative body receives a lump sum payment from Canberra, and it is then up to those entities as to how they distribute it across their schools, but what we want to make sure is that everybody has confidence. The way we calculate those lump sums – or for independent schools the way we calculate their exact funding – is based on the same consistent needs-based approach, and that’s what this debate has been about from day one, and I’m delighted that that is now where we are headed.

Rafael Epstein: I just want to gauge whether or not the deal can be derailed. You’ve essentially said to the Catholic system: we’ll look at the way we measure what your schools need over the next 12 months. What if the new way of assessing a school’s funding- what if the Catholic sector don’t like that? Does that mean the deal is derailed, or they just have to accept the new assessment?

Simon Birmingham: So, we agreed through the process to establish a new national school resourcing board. That board will contain a nominee from the Catholic education sector as well as representatives of states and territories, independents and impartial representatives to bring it all together. That will have the first task of looking at the technicalities around how the socio-economic status scoring system works. Now, the SES scores are used to essentially try to reflect whether a school community has a greater or lesser capacity to contribute to its fees in the non-government sector, and the reason it was put in place way back in the Howard years was to provide a model where the Government could provide more support to non-government school communities of lesser means, and therefore empower more parents to make a choice if they choose to do so; to choose a faith-based education, to choose a Catholic system of education.

Rafael Epstein: But is that measure that the Catholic especially unfair to them? So I guess the question is – and I hear there’s a Catholic representative on the body making that decision – but if they don’t like it, is the deal derailed? Or because you’ve got the vote, they just have to accept it?

Simon Birmingham: The process is now all clearly set out in the legislation. The process to transition everybody to getting a common fair share of funding from the Commonwealth is all locked in, in terms of the legislation. What we’ve committed to do though is to make sure that the methodology around that SES score, around the capacity to contribute arrangements is properly reviewed and to act upon the recommendations of that review. Now, I don’t want to pre-empt where it might go, whether or not it will make everybody happy at the end, but I do want to make sure that it’s something that hopefully everybody can have confidence in.

The merits behind using something like that are about ensuring that the greatest support goes to empower choice to those who don’t have the financial means to purchase that choice as such, and to respect that those who choose a non-government education, be it low fee paying or high fee paying are of course dipping into their own pockets. They’re saving taxpayers something in net terms, because those schools receive less total government funding – state and Federal – than do public school education. We respect that choice, we want to empower that choice, but we also want to make sure we have a fair funding model everywhere, whether it’s public education or non-government education.

Rafael Epstein: We’ll get to your calls soon on 1300222774.

To return in a way to where we began, the Conservative critique of what you’ve done with schools is essentially you’ve promised to spend a ton more money, but you don’t even know yet how you’re going to spend it. That’s what David Gonski is going to have a look at for you, to make sure you get the bang for your buck.

Is it fair then? Do the Conservatives have a point? You’re just promising to spend money the same way Labor does, you don’t even know in what way you’re going to spend it?

Simon Birmingham: Well of course, in one way we’re attacked from the right for investing more in schools. We’re attacked from the left for not honouring the unsustainable promises that Julia Gillard made. Ultimately we’re trying to invest enough to make sure that we have confidence that all schools can meet a schooling resource standard if states do their fair share.

Rafael Epstein: You don’t know how much they need, I mean that’s essentially the question that David Gonski’s answering.

Simon Birmingham: Well no, the first report David Gonski did was to have a look at what a benchmark level of funding for schools was based on schools that meet certain minimum performance indicators. So in some ways, in economist’s terms, what David Gonski was doing was saying what’s an efficient price on a per student basis to fund schools according to their need, and so his first report around funding really was trying to come up with an effective way to do that. We’ve invested more to get rid of the special deals and to take a true application of many of those Gonski recommendations.

But yes, we absolutely recognise that there then is a second important question, which is okay we might have all schools then funded at that benchmark for us to be able to do their best, but do all of them have all of the information necessary to use that effectively, and to ensure they’re making their decisions informed by the best possible evidence, and that’s the work that David Gonski is going to do. Look, I hope that for, in some ways, the rest of my duration as Education Minister rather than continue discussions and arguments about schools funding, we can spend a lot more time now having settled implementation of the Gonski reforms talking about how that money is best used in our schools to back the quality of our teachers, to ensure the relevance of what they’re delivering in the classrooms around the curriculum, to get the best outcomes for all schoolchildren.

Rafael Epstein: I’m not saying you would want this, but do you expect any improvement in the polls because of the education bill?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I think there is credit given to the Government in discussions I have with principals, with teachers, with parents-

Rafael Epstein: But do you expect to see things go up at all because of-

Simon Birmingham: Does that translate into polls? Look, I think polls move slowly nowadays based on Government’s incremental performance, so I think we get hopefully some marks for implementing good robust policy here, and I hope that frankly the Labor party gets marked down for being purely partisan in their opposition to these reforms.

Rafael Epstein: Not happening yet though, is it?

Simon Birmingham: But all of that I suspect will take time and takes continuity of effort and that of course is what Malcolm, the Government, are focused around the Cabinet table: how do we keep moving through one challenge the nation faces to the next one? And of course people expect that of their governments. They’re not out there wanting to cheer us on, pat us on the back, they’re not really interested as we were saying at the outset of this interview in the day-to-day entrails of politics. They just want to know that we’re doing the best we can for the nation. I think we’ve done that in schools funding. We have other challenges to make sure we keep growing the economy, and to make Australia a competitive place to invest, to deal with energy challenges in terms of affordability and reliability, they’re all ahead of us.

Rafael Epstein: Do you think you’ll adopt a clean energy target as a party?

Simon Birmingham: Oh, I think we will absolutely respond to the Finkel review that provides certain very clear recommendations on a range of levels about-

Rafael Epstein: Sure, but just briefly, clean energy target yes or no if you were a betting man?

Simon Birmingham: I’m a member of the Cabinet, it’s not my job to bet on radio programs. It’s my job to be part of constructive, collective and collegiate decision-making around the Cabinet table. But we know we have to address certainty in the energy markets to get the investment that is necessary to guarantee reliability. I’m also a South Australian Senator, I know what it’s like when the power goes out, I know how crippling that is for business investment confidence. We need to make sure affordability is there, or that will cripple a range of industries, and deal with issues of emissions. That’s the trilemma as it’s being put that we’re grappling with, and looking at a clean energy target model is something the Government is responding to given we’ve got that Finkel report.

Rafael Epstein: Thanks for your time.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks very much, pleasure.

Rafael Epstein: That’s the Education Minister Simon Birmingham who joined me earlier.