Subjects: Jobs and Investment package for Upper Spencer Gulf; Support for Arrium; Higher Education.


TIM BENNETT: $20 million has been promised for Whyalla, for the upper Spencer Gulf actually, in Whyalla was the announcement made with Rowan Ramsey, the sitting Member for Grey. The interesting thing of course is $20 million is how much money the Coalition Government have promised for grants, for education and expansion for local business across the upper Spencer Gulf. However, they did just a couple of weeks ago fall $50 million short of Labor’s planned support for the steel maker formally known as Arrium in Whyalla. Simon Birmingham was there in Whyalla, the Minister for Education and South Australian Senator, good morning.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good morning Tim and good morning to your listeners.

BENNETT: $20 million doesn’t quite make up the $50 million of the Labor plan, does it?

BIRMINGHAM: Well Tim, lets talk through that a little bit. This comes on top of, as you rightly identified, the $49 million commitment that we made for the expansion of the iron ore beneficiation capacity at Arrium. What we delivered there was exactly what the administrators wanted in terms of giving the fastest, most effective uplift to the cash flow in Arrium and then the, of course, long term sustainability. It doesn’t rule out the possibility of further support happening down the track, but it is far more effective than just parking $100 million in some unknown fund for something else down the track. We’ve actually funded and supported exactly what the administrators said to give the best short term bang for buck in terms of turning the company around and making it more attractive to potential buyers. So, I think our approach there has been far more responsible. It is not about who has got the most money on the table because if there are other things that need to be considered later on, then we of course will consider them. We’ve got a proper process in place to do it, we’re still expecting to get that full report and analysis back, but today we’re looking beyond Arrium and recognising that the upper Spencer Gulf has some challenges and have said that as part of the new $200 million regional jobs and investment fund that the Prime Minister announced on the weekend at our campaign rally, we will commit $20 million of that specifically to the upper Spencer Gulf region which will be used as a point of leverage to make sure that we get at least $40 million of investment in new activities to support jobs across the region.

BENNETT: Just to go through a little bit of the details so, $20 million from the Coalition, you want to get it matched by other levels of government and local businesses to hopefully boost it to about $40 million. You’ve said that the grants would be awarded through three streams, support for businesses to grow and bring forward expansion plans, building local infrastructure and investment in skills and training programmes to build a highly skilled local workforce. Now, I guess that will improve demand right across the board as well as at Arrium, why is that a better option than increasing demand from the, I guess the financial prospects of Arrium which I guess as well would trickle down through the community as well? Why is this a better option for you?

BIRMINGHAM: Well we’re doing all of the above really. We’re putting that investment in to Arrium’s upgrade, we’ve also brought forward…

BENNETT: Well it’s not really an investment, it’s a loan.

BIRMINGHAM: It’s a loan indeed in that it is secured, but it is absolutely an investment exactly as the administrators actually asked so, I think that is really something that should be celebrated, it has given great confidence to the fact that Arrium will continue trading, it has increased the likelihood that they will secure a purchaser in the future and it really is a very strong and most immediate commitment, the most immediate commitment anybody has made in this election campaign to secure the future of Arrium, but this is certainly looking beyond Arrium, it is not the only business in the upper Spencer Gulf, Whyalla is not the only town with particular challenges and we want to make sure that we have a fund there available which will be driven and guided in the decision making by local businesses regional development leaders. They will analyse which business proposals or infrastructure proposals can best give the likelihood of creating new jobs across the local economy and that could be those that work in the sector alongside Arrium or it equally could be completely unrelated instances where there is growth potential as well. We’re not going to dictate right here and now exactly where the money must be spent, we want to make sure it is spent in the businesses that get the best job impacts for the future of this region.

BENNETT: Simon Birmingham, here in the electorate of Grey and of course being a Senator the whole state is your electorate really, but here in the seat of Grey which covers what? 80% of the land mass of South Australia? It has just been a little over two weeks since Rowan Ramsey had a little bit of doubt cast up on him with the two party preferred going the way in the Reachtell poll to Andrew Broadfort of the Nick Xenophon Team, is two weeks enough time to sure up $20 million if you know what I’m saying?

BIRMINGHAM: Well this overall $200 million regional development investment fund has come about because Liberal and Nat party regionally based MPs like Rowan Ramsey have argued the case that there are some regions of Australia who are doing it tougher than others in terms of dealing with the economic transition Australia is facing and the Turnbull Government has determined that we want to give support to those groups in addition to the support that we provide of our overall economic plan.

BENNETT: Ok, but $20 million comes very late in the process now, we’re only a couple of days our from the election, there are going to be people, and I’ve already spoken to the Member for Giles this morning in State Parliament, who are pretty happy to put up an accusation of pork-barrelling here.

BIRMINGHAM: Well I don’t think you can [indistinct] when this is part of what has been rolling out through the entire duration of the election campaign, an economic plan focussed on jobs and growth, we’ve announced our business tax measures to encourage investment, we’ve of course put a focus on increasing trade opportunities especially for agricultural products and other products out of regions like the electorate of Grey and the different regions within it. There are a lot of different pieces to this jobs and growth plan Turnbull has been highlighting through the election campaign and on Sunday he announced another one of them which is the regional package of funding and [indistinct] where we would want to get some of those funds which is exactly what Rowan and I have announced today.

BENNETT: I just want to switch tack a little bit because you’re of course, as well as Senator for us, the nation’s Education Minister, you took over from Christopher Pyne last year. Now, you’re not actually going in to the election with a clear policy on tertiary education, why should parents and prospective students trust you with their future when yet, you’re still talking about what should go ahead?

BIRMINGHAM: Well Tim that’s not entirely accurate, in the budget this year we released a very clear paper that outlined the savings challenges we face in relation to higher education. We’ve made it clear that we will not be proceeding with full fee deregulation as a government, we have equally committed that we [indistinct] want to proceed with expansion of equitable [indistinct] at universities through associate degrees, we are creating more pathway programmes for people to [indistinct], we’ve re-committed ourselves to the HELP or HECS loan scheme which is the world’s most generous student loan arrangement to ensure that nobody pays a dollar upfront. We outlined some other areas of potential reform like perhaps creating a flagship degree programme where universities [indistinct] offering some flexibility in particular areas…

BENNETT: I just want to talk about that very quickly as well though because there has been that talk about giving universities incentives in that space of really innovative courses to deregulate those fees, but it has been criticised for having a lack of equity there because it will only allow those well off students to pay those fees…

BIRMINGHAM: That’s not true. Nobody needs to pay a dollar upfront.

BENNETT: Yeah, but at the end of the day I mean if no one wants to go in to a huge amount of debt, the Labor Government are talking about making fee-free STEM courses. Wouldn’t a free degree make more of an incentive?

BIRMINGHAM: Well Labor don’t really decide that and they abandoned it last time they were in government [indistinct] so that is a policy which they have tried, failed and had to abandon it themselves when they were last in government [indistinct]. Look, we are saying very clearly that nobody will pay a dollar upfront [indistinct] access to university under the fixed price regime that has been in place for a long period of time in Australia so that there is absolute certainty that that price is regulated and that there are no fee blowouts. We do want to find ways for our universities to equally innovate in areas where they can be a world class participant. Say a university wants to be the world leader in robotics, robotics is an expensive programme to run and under our arrangement they basically have a fixed price [indistinct]. We think that if we can create the right regime with safeguards, particularly our safeguards so that students don’t pay a dollar upfront, they repay the loan when they earn a decent income [indistinct]

BENNETT: Simon Birmingham, it has been a real pleasure to have you on, thank you so much and I imagine you’ll be very busy over the next couple of days so, enjoy the last couple of days left of the election.

BIRMINGHAM: Well we will Tim, I look forward to catching up with you again soon, it’s not that long since Rowan Ramsey took me around to a couple of schools in the area so, we’re well accustom to the region and I’m sure we’ll be back soon after the election.

BENNETT: Looking forward to seeing you. Simon Birmingham, thanks so much.