Interview on ABC News, National Wrap with Patricia Karvelas   
Topics: Financial Services Royal Commission; Literacy and numeracy test for teachers; David Gonski’s Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools; NAPLAN overhaul; International students; Newspoll




Patricia Karvelas:         I’m joined now by Education Minister Simon Birmingham. Welcome to National Wrap, Minister.


Simon Birmingham:     G’day Patricia, good to be with you.


Patricia Karvelas:         Can you say the words; we were wrong on delaying a banking royal commission?


Simon Birmingham:     Well, we were absolutely right to instigate a whole raft of reforms to tighten banking financial regulation, to provide additional resources to the regulator, to put in place a Financial Complaints Authority, to take all of those steps. And what would have been wrong would have been to set up a royal commission and not do any of those things, which frankly is basically the path that Bill Shorten proposed. So, I think we were dead right to take action. Now, the proof of the royal commission will be in the pudding, not the headlines that it makes, but when it hands down its findings it’s whether it recommends there are other public policy responses that we need to put in place beyond those actions we’ve already taken.


Patricia Karvelas:         But can’t you walk and chew gum? I hear this argument we were taking other action. Couldn’t you take that action and also of called the Royal Commission much earlier?


Simon Birmingham:     Well, usually once you’ve got a royal commission underway you will then have people, including the banking sector and elsewhere, who would say: well let the royal commission hand down their findings before you undertake these actions. We believe that action first was what was most important in response to issues around financial advisors and their behaviours. We believe that action first was important in terms of strengthening the powers of ASIC, in terms of strengthening the resourcing of ASIC. We believe that action first was important in terms of putting in place a Financial Complaints Authority so that people actually have a vehicle to get real action around their complaints. The Royal Commission can hear their complaints, it can ultimately make recommendations. We’ll see what those recommendations are, but of course that’s when we’ll know whether the Royal Commission has been a benefit if it sees that there is additional reform that is required beyond that which the Turnbull Government’s already put in place.


Patricia Karvelas:         Do you really think that’s a sustainable position? Given the things we’re hearing out of this Royal Commission, dead people being charged, people being charged for services that they’re not even getting, can you really tell people; no, we did it at the right time, given we all remember that the Government actually delivered this Royal Commission reluctantly. You didn’t deliver this Royal Commission happily. You said it wasn’t a particularly good idea. How can you argue that?


Simon Birmingham:     We always believe that taking action to protect people, taking action to actually put in place ongoing strengthened requirements was far more important than a royal commission. And I still believe that’s the case. You can have a royal commission as well. We’re getting indeed newspaper headlines out of a royal commission. We will see from that as to whether when the Royal Commissioner, when Justice Hayne hands down his findings whether he thinks that there are recommendations worth making that would further strengthen the types of reforms the Turnbull Government’s put in place. But I think people would be right to condemn us if we had simply said let’s have a royal commission and put off action until later. Action first mattered, action first is what we delivered.


Patricia Karvelas:         Alright, let’s move to your portfolio. Today you released the results from a test of potential new teachers from literacy and numeracy skills – that’s what they were tested on. The results have  actually gone backwards from last year is it. Is it good enough that you’re going backwards? I mean these are people who want to be teachers.


Simon Birmingham:     Well, we see around 92 per cent of people passing these literacy and numeracy tests. Now these are reforms put in place by our government so that we can have absolute confidence that when anybody is graduating from a university and seeking to go into the teaching profession they have literacy and numeracy competencies themselves that are equivalent to being within the top 30 per cent of the Australian population.


I think most viewers would accept that it’s perfectly reasonable to believe that teachers themselves should have high standards of literacy and numeracy. This test is making sure that those hundreds of people in the eight per cent who haven’t made the grade won’t make it to the classroom. Now they’ll get a chance to go back with the support of their university or their higher education provider, reskill, develop their skills further, take this test again. But this is a very important safeguard that we have put in place as part of a number of reforms around teacher quality and we are absolutely clear in our position – and we trust the states and territories enforce this – that if you don’t pass the literacy and numeracy test you should not be registered to go into the teaching profession.


Patricia Karvelas:         The Government has already received the Gonski Report. Why are you sitting on the report, why don’t you release it?


Simon Birmingham:     Well the report we asked David Gonski to do along with a panel of esteemed educationalists and other significant Australians, is to have a look at how we make sure our record growing funding in Australian schools gets best bang for our buck, ensures that it lifts our standards across the board. Now, we received the report a couple of weeks ago. It’s not unusual for a government to take some time to put it through Cabinet processes to consider it in terms of our likely response, but I’ve committed that it will be released very soon and that indeed David Gonski will personally sit down with me to take state and territory ministers through the findings of the report so that hopefully we can cooperatively work together to implement those findings.


Patricia Karvelas:        Okay, if you won’t tell me what’s in it, can you give me a sense of what areas you may ultimately change?


Simon Birmingham:     Well look, David was tasked along with the educationalists working with him in looking at very much the big picture questions. How is it that we ensure that our teachers and our school leaders are actually equipped to know what is the best practice in their classroom? How do they ensure that in applying that best practice they’re able to best measure progress and evidence in terms of the effect it has on their students? So, a number of very big picture issues here that I’m confident people will see when the panel delivers that it hasn’t gone into the nitty gritty of trying to tell states and territories this is precisely in a prescriptive way how you should run your school systems, but instead seeks to build an architecture at a national level that really will empower all school systems to do better, and really, I hope and trust that we get a strong positive cooperative endorsement from the states and territories to apply those recommendations.


Patricia Karvelas:         NAPLAN is on everyone’s mind, it’s very close, and look, I have a little student about to sit it. There are deficiencies according to lots of people – including Rob Stokes – he’s been quite outspoken. What kind of overhaul might you consider to make NAPLAN stronger particularly in the writing component?


Simon Birmingham:     Well, firstly we’re already in the midst of a significant overhaul to NAPLAN and that is the transition to NAPLAN Online. And what that will do and it was welcomed at the time this transition was announced a number of years ago by the teachers unions amongst others, what it will do is ensure that teachers and schools and parents get results a lot faster as a result of the online test, that it’s an adaptive test that can range- that can assess a much broader range of student competencies, knowledge and skills than the current written test can. So it actually give far richer more detailed information which again will be more useful to the teachers and to the school, but also will make sure that it is hopefully a more satisfying test and assessment process for the students themselves.


So there’s a number of changes already underway and across Australia…


Patricia Karvelas:         [Interrupts]  But there needs to be more don’t you think? I mean if you look at the reporting.


Simon Birmingham:     Across Australia this year hundreds of schools will participate in NAPLAN Online for the first time. And in terms of New South Wales I’m thrilled that they are really leading the way in terms of the number of schools that will participate in NAPLAN Online there.


Some of the criticisms around the content of the writing test, well that’s something that is not for politicians to judge, but we absolutely have had a briefing from ACARA, the Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, about the type of process they’ll put that test through with academics, with educationalists to make sure that it is completely up to scratch and the type of standard we would expect.


Patricia Karvelas:         So you’ve been given a guarantee that they will improve the test, that they will fix that writing task?


Simon Birmingham:     They review the different components of NAPLAN, the literacy component or the reading and writing components, the numeracy skills, the writing test in particular as you talked about, they review those after each and every undertaking of NAPLAN and make sure that they are current in terms of current teaching methods, current curriculum standards, as well as comparable of course across years which is an important balance to keep there that you have to make sure that there’s that comparability for NAPLAN which is really our only single national assessment that gives some comparability over time and across jurisdictions to make sure that it is of the highest value possible.


Now, I know people like to get very worked up it seems nowadays in talking about NAPLAN, but I would stress that it’s just…


Patricia Karvelas:         [Interrupts] Well, if it’s not good that makes sense doesn’t it? I mean people have the right to get worked up if it’s no good.


Simon Birmingham:     It’s not no good. Not that that’s particularly elegant English, but it is…


Patricia Karvelas:         [Interrupts] [Laughs] Would you like to correct my English now?


Simon Birmingham:     No, I was criticising myself in saying ‘it’s not no good’. But it is a worthwhile undertaking that provides policymakers with very useful information to compare across the country and over time. It’s a useful undertaking that we hope we’re going to make more useful by the shift to online for teachers, for schools in terms of their application of it. We’re going to absolutely keep working to make sure that what is tested is relevant, current and effective. But also, people should keep a sense of perspective here too. This is four times in the life of a student during all of their schooling, it’s but one of many assessment tools that are used by teachers, by schools. This is not something that should be blown out of proportion. It is a simple check along the pathway.


Patricia Karvelas:         There’s delays for Chinese students trying to come to Australia. Is there a deliberate attempt to delaying their visas for engineering students for instance in PhD programs and technology?


Simon Birmingham:     Well certainly not. Chinese students undertaking university studies, higher education studies, school studies or research endeavours in Australia are some of our most valued partners. And just last week we acknowledged that international education and the number of students in Australia was again hitting a record level that we’ve already welcomed more than half a million students to our shores this year and that’s included a 16 per cent lift in the number of Chinese students…


Patricia Karvelas:         [Interrupts] Sure, but some of these students believe that because of some of these tensions around China, their visas are being  delayed. We know that very senior people from universities are travelling to China to appease some of these concerns. Are you involved in this space?


Simon Birmingham:     Well, the evidence doesn’t match the rhetoric in terms of some of the stories I’ve seen written there. A 16 per cent lift this year in terms of Chinese students is a very significant outcome coming off of a very large base that’s seen enormous growth year-on-year, in prior years as well. We continue to welcome research students at the advanced level as well and 99 per cent of visas are approved and accepted, but there are processes that have to be gone through. Processes that ensure the security considerations are given full effect before a visa is granted along with a range of other factors to make sure that people who come to Australia on visas operate within the terms of those visas – and we have welcomed as I say record numbers of Chinese students, Chinese researchers, to our shores over the last few years and we still continue to welcome record numbers – and they come because indeed we have outstanding educational facilities, because we are a very safe country, because of the culture and the English language opportunities that are provided here. A range of factors drive that and we are very committed as a government to continuing to work with our education sector to provide that high quality opportunity for students from across the globe including from China.


Patricia Karvelas:         Last question, Newspoll number 31 potentially comes out tonight. Another loss could be on the horizon. How’s the Government going to deal with that?


Simon Birmingham:     Patricia, look, as I travel around the country what I see is that increasingly I think Australians are seeing Malcolm Turnbull is delivering on his promises of economic growth, of jobs growth, record consecutive period of jobs growth of infrastructure, investment and just over the last couple of weeks, big announcements around the rail link to Melbourne Airport, around significant road infrastructure for the M1 and the Bruce Highway in Queensland.


But they are also increasingly asking what is the risk we would be taking with Bill Shorten? Now, it’s still 12 months or thereabouts until the next election. There’s a lot of water to go under the bridge until then, but I expect that as we get closer to that time people will focus ever more on the risks of a Labor government led by Bill Shorten that proposes higher taxes on their savings, higher taxes on their wages, higher taxes on their houses, higher taxes on their electricity. It’s a big risk people would be taking to change the Government.


Patricia Karvelas:         Minister, many thanks for your time tonight.


Simon Birmingham:     Thank you.