Interview on ABC News Breakfast with Michael Rowland and Virginia Trioli
Delivering real needs-based funding for schools and fixing Labor’s model

Virginia Trioli:                           Now, Federal Parliament is back today and the Government's new school funding proposal is expected to dominate the debate there.

Michael Rowland:                      It is indeed. This comes after last week's meeting of federal and state education ministers ended in a stalemate with many states continuing to call for existing funding agreements to be honoured.

Simon Birmingham is the Federal Education Minister and he joins us now from Parliament House. Minister, good morning.

Simon Birmingham:                  Good morning, Michael.

Michael Rowland:                      As you'd be well aware, the Catholic school system is ramping up its opposition to Gonski 2.0. Is there any room for negotiation here?

Simon Birmingham:                  Michael, I'll keep talking with all parties and all stakeholders but I really do want to give some strong reassurance to, particularly, Catholic school families and parents who might be watching the program around the country that over the next few years, our Gonski-based reforms will see an extra $1.2 billion go into the Catholic education system, that in states – every state right around the state – will see growth of at least 3.5 per cent per student into the Catholic education system in that state. Now, with an extra $1 billion plus going in, there's no justification nor need for fee rises, unless, of course, those Catholic systems themselves choose to redistribute the money they have between their schools. And that's a matter for them. 

But what we are doing and what we are proposing is implementation of David Gonski's reforms in a way that treats all non-government schools the same, all Government schools the same, regardless of the state they're in, regardless of the sector of the non-government system they're in, but simply calculates the federal allocation of funding based on the actual need and circumstances of the schools so that the most disadvantaged schools notionally receive the greatest amount of Federal funding.

Michael Rowland:                      Okay, in response to that, the Catholic Education Commission is strongly defending the way that it does distribute funding to schools through that pool system. It argues it has a much better grasp on which schools need funding and which don't need as much funding compared to the Federal Government.

Simon Birmingham:                  And we're not proposing to change their entitlement to do that. They will still receive- The eight different Catholic education systems around the country will still receive one lump sum payment and still retain the autonomy to be able to distribute that between their schools as they see fit. So schools in Queensland, for example, will be able, if the Catholic education authorities want, to receive next year, exactly the same amount of money they received this year plus 3.7 per cent.

Michael Rowland:                      Are they being dishonest – the word used by your Cabinet colleague, Christopher Pyne, yesterday?

Simon Birmingham:                  I think elements of the campaign that start to talk about ridiculous fee increases in some schools in states like Victoria or New South Wales are quite dishonest because those states are all seeing significant funding growth going into the Catholic education system and if they want to retain their existing models for distributing funding, there is nothing in what we are proposing that prevents them from doing so. But, of course, there is a lot in what we are proposing that people should support because the reason we had David Gonski standing beside Malcolm Turnbull and I nearly three weeks ago is because we're actually giving effect to the recommendations of his report. We're taking the difficult decisions to actually apply needs-based funding consistently across Australia that is truly sector-blind across non-government schools, that is blind to different state boundaries across government schools, that ensures the greatest sum of money flows to the schools with the greatest levels of disadvantage and that, I think, is what Australians expect us to do.

Michael Rowland:                      You say you're prepared to talk, not just to the Catholics but all of the stakeholders here. You mentioned that funding increase; is there any room for movement on more money for, say, the Catholic school system than currently stands?

Simon Birmingham:                  Well we're already putting in $18.6 billion more across-the-board. For Catholic schools that translates, as I say, to about $1.2 billion more over the next four years and around $3.4 billion more over the next decade. So that is a significant increase in funding, well above any rate of inflation or wages growth …

Michael Rowland:                      [Talks over] And that's the final increase … Excuse me for the interruption, the Catholics say that’s clearly not enough.

Simon Birmingham:                  Well, no, Michael, I’m not sure that they do. They might have qualms about some aspects of the transparency of our funding approach but, frankly, I had – before this model was released – Catholic education authorities sit in my office and tell me as long as we get 3.5 per cent … Well, the result we produced gives 3.7 per cent on average across the country. So we've exceeded expectations in terms of the quantum of money and there's nothing that prevents them from continuing to support all of their schools in the different states of Australia in an identical way if they choose to continue to do so.

Michael Rowland:                      We have bodies like the Catholic Education Commission almost boasting over the next weekend – and indeed the last couple of weeks – about their ability to run these campaigns, to lobby local MPs. What do you make of Catholic school principals and sometimes even priests urging parents at their schools to be involved in political campaigns?
Simon Birmingham:                  Well that's a matter for them, it’s a free country and everybody is entitled to try to run a political campaign. I’d urge them to make sure that they speak about the facts and the reality of the record levels in growth that we are providing in terms of school funding, the fact that we are delivering truly on David Gonski's recommendations to target funding according to need. 

Now, I find it remarkable if I look at the political situation that we see Bill Shorten at present hopping from Catholic school to Catholic school around the country arguing for some type of special deal, when in fact, what Labor has talked about for the last few years is the Gonski reform. Well the Government is delivering truly on the Gonski reform by actually treating systems in an equal, fair manner and schools based on their individual need so that the most disadvantaged schools receive the greatest additional support. And I think all Australians, including many church-going Australians of all faiths and denominations, would think that that is fair and reasonable and that's exactly what the Turnbull Government is doing.

Michael Rowland:                      Okay, as the talks go on and as someone with keen knowledge of the way that the Senate numbers work, how confident are you of the Gonski legislation getting through the Senate in this session?

Simon Birmingham:                  Well I think it's very telling that aside from the Labor Party, nobody in the Australian Parliament appears to have ruled out supporting our school funding reforms. So we actually have open minds across all of the different crossbench players – be they the Greens, the Xenophon party, all of the different minor parties – because they recognise and they can see that there's a lot of impartial voices, not just David Gonski himself, but the Grattan Institute, the Mitchell Constitute, Anglicare, the Smith Family, all of these types of people have recognised that we are undertaking true reform here. And frankly, the Labor Party, who have stood there piously talking about Gonski for a long period of time should cease being the only party opposing our reforms and reconsider actually getting on board and supporting true needs-based reforms to school funding in Australia.

Michael Rowland:                      Education Minister Simon Birmingham, thank you very much for joining News Breakfast.

Simon Birmingham:                  Thank you, Michael.