Interview on ABC Radio Adelaide, Breakfast with Ali Clarke
Topics: TAFE SA; Citizenship of Parliamentarians
09:05 AM

Ali Clarke: Good morning, on a Super Wednesday, to Sarah Hanson-Young, Greens Senator for South Australia, spokesperson on Finance and Trade, how are you?

Sarah Hanson-Young: Good Ali. Good morning.

Ali Clarke: Good morning Mark Butler, Labour Member for Port Adelaide and Shadow Minister for Climate Change and also the Federal President of the ALP. Hello.

Mark Butler: Good morning, Ali.

Ali Clarke: And Simon Birmingham, Liberal Senator for South Australia and Education Minister. Good morning.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning to you all.

Ali Clarke: Well, Simon Birmingham, TAFE SA is in crisis. Sixteen courses audited, all with problems, 14 suspended, and now thousands of people worrying about whether or not their time, stress, study, money was actually worth it. Do you have confidence in South Australia’s Education Minister Susan Close in fixing this?

Simon Birmingham: Well sadly no, Ali. We really have seen an absolute debacle in this regard and the state Labor government, over their 16 years, has cut and changed directions in relation to vocational education policy umpteen times. We had the much vaunted Skills for All policy, which was a few years ago, replaced by the even more celebrated WorkReady policy. We’ve, of course, had a revolving door of ministers. We’ve had a deregulation approach at one stage, only to then go and hand more than 90 per cent of places back to TAFE SA. It really has been a dog’s breakfast and now we’ve got a situation where the Minister herself is admitting she has no idea of the scale of the problem and is really trying to desperately outsource the solutions to it.

Ali Clarke: But what role does your government have to play in this though?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the management of vocational education is overwhelmingly a state government responsibility, but we have an interest because, through the VET student loan scheme, we provide millions of dollars in funding for students to be able to access quality vocational education, and through the national regulator, of course, we have in a sense really blown the whistle on this and identified the fact that there are systemic failings in relation to TAFE SA. But it is run by the State Government, it is owned by the State Government and it is the State Government who should be held entirely accountable and responsible for these failings.

Ali Clarke: Well yesterday though, I mean Minister Susan Close pointed out that ASQA, the Australian Skills Quality Authority, hadn’t touched any other TAFEs around the country. I mean are you getting ready for this to roll out everywhere else, these issues?

Simon Birmingham: Well, ASQA undertakes a series of audits right around the country in terms of their work right across the vocational education sector. They don’t play favourites in that regard and they are an independent regulator. One of the three ASQA commissioners is a former Labor Party Attorney-General. They’re hardly a politically stacked entity and they have undertaken this independent process in relation to South Australia, and it is quite an indictment on the State Government that has been there for 16 years, who haven’t managed to keep children safe when they’ve been in care, who haven’t managed to keep disabled South Australians safe, who haven’t managed to keep the lights and can’t manage to run a TAFE [indistinct].

Ali Clarke: Okay so, but hang on, if ASQA actually comes up with issues in Liberal-held states, with their TAFE offerings, will you come down just as hard on them?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Ali, I’ve been quite consistent in my approach. We have taken a fairly strong approach to government in relation to vocational education. We shut down the much-rorted VET FEE-HELP scheme. In doing so, we’ve put a number of private providers who are doing the wrong thing out of business. We’ve seen many deregistered in that case. We expect high standards in vocational education because it is critical to our economic future and it’s terribly disappointing and concerning that, in SA, those high standards aren’t being met and, of course, it’s devastating for the individual students and they’ve got to be the ones at the forefront of our mind as to how those who have studied are going to be given the security that their studies are worthwhile and that they aren’t disadvantaged as a result of these failings by the State Government.

Ali Clarke: Mark Butler, look, what do you say, though, when you read stories like Chelsea Williams? She’s on the front page of The ‘Tiser. She just doesn’t know what her future holds now.

Mark Butler: Well, I think people are entitled to be very angry about this. I think the Government’s entitled to be angry. I think most importantly students are entitled to feel very angry about this latest report, or the audit from ASQA, and I think it is important that the State Government take immediate action. I mean, this is a report that, I think, means that heads need to roll within TAFE. Decisive action needs to be taken to ensure that students have some confidence that the education that they’re accessing through TAFE colleges is going to set them up for their future. That’s I think a very clear entitlement they should have.

Ali Clarke: So, why should heads need to roll but only within TAFE? What about in the Minister’s office?

Mark Butler: Well, let’s- look, I think the Government- we’re a bit distant from this in Canberra. This has only come up in the last couple of days but the Government has taken decisive action here. I think it’s important that this be cleared up very quickly, if at all possible by the beginning of the academic year next year. And I’m sure the Government is doing all that it can to do that. Simon is going to score some cheap political points and to be clear their track record shows that they do have one rule for Liberal state governments and clearly another rule for Labor state governments. Let’s put Simon’s sort of political attacks aside, it took him five minutes to mention the interests of students in his commentary about this issue. The focus should be on students. The focus should be on taking quick decisive action to get the South Australian TAFE system up to the standards that all of us should expect it to be at.

Ali Clarke: Sarah Hanson-Young.

Sarah Hanson-Young: Look you know, frankly I just find this extraordinary. Both sides – Labor and Liberal – have been cutting funding from TAFE for years. And you can’t rip out public money from what is meant to be a public body – a public institution – and think that things can keep going on the way it is. The State Government in South Australia has cut $91 million from TAFE and now they’re wondering what on earth went wrong. Well, you’ve been de-investing in it, you’ve pushed students, pushed teachers, pushed the institutions to a brink. Heads should roll, absolutely. And it’s simply not good enough that we have courses that were being run by people who weren’t even qualified to be the trainers. We now have 800 students who have to redo all of their training if they’re going to have a qualification that is acceptable. Who’s going to pay for that? These students need to be supported, they need compensation, they need to get their courses done if they want to redo them and they need to be absolutely told this was not their fault.

Ali Clarke: I mean …

Sarah Hanson-Young: Today- Ali, can I just jump in here?

Ali Clarke: Yep.

Sarah Hanson-Young: Because this is a really important issue for South Australia but it is reminiscent of what’s going on around the rest of the country as well. And I think what we’re doing today – I’ve been negotiating with some of my South Australian colleagues in the Senate – we’re going to move a motion today to establish an inquiry in to what’s going on in South Australia. But this will just be the beginning because you can’t rip public money out of public institutions and then think: oh well, everything will go okay. It won’t.

Ali Clarke: So, this would be a separate inquiry to the one that the Minister Susan Close is launching from today?

Sarah Hanson-Young: That’s right. This is going to be a Senate inquiry, so it will be federal. But it will be short, it will be snappy but we don’t trust that you can have the State Government inquiring in to themselves.

Ali Clarke: I mean, Mark Butler, I know you’re saying that you are removed from it there but as Federal President of the ALP, I mean, you know your state colleagues are gearing up to fight a state election in March. South Australians have the Oakden scandal, not the Minister’s fault; the Families SA scandal, again it wasn’t the Minister’s responsibility; now this. I mean, at what point do voters deserve to ask what ministers are actually responsible for in their portfolios?

Mark Butler: Well, I think voters are continually asking that. I mean, that’s the job of the media, that’s the wonder of an open democracy. Voters are continually asking this. And they’ll decide in March …

Ali Clarke: So, what’s the answer?

Mark Butler: Well, each voter will make their own answer to that. The question is whether their government is taking action to deal with some of these issues that arise inevitably in South Australia – and states around the country in a range of different services – to ensure that problems are fixed and things are set up for the future. And that’s the challenge with this TAFE issue, I think.

Ali Clarke: Well …

Sarah Hanson-Young: I don’t understand how we say- we beg young people, in particular, in South Australia: stay in South Australia, get trained in South Australia, we’re going to find jobs for you. And then we treat them like this. It is just simply appalling. We need some proper funding in to training and VET programs. And we need to actually work with the young people to get this done. The other thing that we need is an independent ombudsman in VET in South Australia so that students have somebody that they can raise these issues with because clearly no one was listening to them when they were saying: hang on a minute, this person isn’t even trained to be training me. And that’s what’s been going on. It’s appalling.

Ali Clarke: It’s 08:45, you’re in the middle of Super Wednesday with Sarah Hanson-Young, Mark Butler and Simon Birmingham.

Mark Butler, coming to you, why should Australian taxpayers fund any trip from now on to the High Court, or any resulting by-election for MPs who now – now – have issues with their citizenship?

Mark Butler: I’m not really sure what the guts of that question is, Ali. I mean, we’ve been advocating universal disclosure process for some time now. All of our MPs have followed that. There is one case of a Labor MP who has not been able to access the paper work that he says reflects the renunciation he made of his citizenship 10 years ago. And he said that if he can’t do that paperwork or find that paperwork by the relevant time, he’ll self-refer to the High Court …

Ali Clarke: It’s only five months.

Mark Butler: … All of the other cases on the Labor side at least have been out in the public record for some time. All of us have gone through the processes, taken the reasonable steps – which is the High Court test – to deal with any citizenship issues that we have. Now …

Ali Clarke: So you don’t think Bill Shorten has a credibility issue here, or egg on his face at all, after standing for so many weeks and months saying there is no problems with Labor, no problems with the citizenships, no problem with our paperwork, and then it turns out that one of you can’t actually find the paperwork?

Mark Butler: Well, that’s only become clear over the last few days.

Ali Clarke: But why has that taken only the last few days? This is what I don’t understand.

Mark Butler: Well, because I think, you know, David Feeney was pre-selected more than 10 years ago. He went through the same process all of us did back then, I was part of that incoming class as well, where we all responded to a question in there …

Sarah Hanson-Young: Yeah, but Mark …

Mark Butler: And then submitted our forms to the High Commission. Now, David has said the High Commission, or the Home Office from Britain, is not able to provide that paperwork, and David’s going through his bank records from more than 10 years ago to see whether there is now a record of submitting the very substantial fee we all had to submit, and he has ‘fessed up and said, according to the test that Christopher Pyne imposed, if you can’t provide your paperwork then you need to be referred to the High Court. Now, there are seven MPs on the Liberal side who have not been able to provide paperwork to substantiate the case they’ve made in their disclosure. Christopher Pyne said, if you can’t provide paperwork, then you should be referred to the High Court. We’ve got one case which only came to light over the last few days …

Sarah Hanson-Young: Look, I just …

Mark Butler: The Liberal Party has seven.

Sarah Hanson-Young: It just doesn’t, kind of, pass the sniff test though Mark, unfortunately, because we’ve known for months that this whole citizenship crisis has been unfolding. You know, everyone’s been going and looking at their, you know, at their details, working out where their paperwork is. For David Feeney, the Member for Batman, to kind of come out, you know, yesterday and go: oops, I can’t find my paperwork; it sounds little bit like the dog ate my homework. It just, you had months and months for him to get this sorted.

Ali Clarke: Simon Birmingham …

Sarah Hanson-Young: And if he can’t find it, if he can’t find it by the end of this week, he should resign. Not just refer himself to the High Court, but he should resign.

Ali Clarke: Simon Birmingham?

Simon Birmingham: Well, indeed. That’s the [indistinct]. Look, David Feeney, the Labor MP for Batman in Victoria, who is one of every- all of the Labor MPs who Bill Shorten and Mark Butler and everybody else have relentlessly been saying do not have a problem, that they are rock solid, absolutely confident in everybody; David Feeney now tells us that he renounced his citizenship through the Labor Party and the British Home Office, but he can’t find a copy of it, the Labor Party can’t find a copy of it, and the British Home Office can’t find a copy of it. It really doesn’t pass the sniff test.

Now, what Mark Butler is trying to conflate, is he’s saying, there are Liberal or National Party MPs who need to somehow provide documentation to show that they have never been a foreign national or a foreign citizen, because that’s the difference here. David Feeney admits that he had foreign citizenship and can’t provide any evidence to show that he has renounced it. Mark Butler is trying to smear others in suggesting that somehow people who have never actually had foreign citizenship ought to somehow come up with documentation to prove a negative. Well, you can’t prove a negative by saying: here’s my documentation that says I’ve never been a foreign citizen, that just doesn’t actually exist in that sense; whereas the Labor Party, uphill and down dale for the last few months, have gone around the country, hand on heart, piously saying we have no problems, and yet now you’ve got David Feeney, as well as of course the number of other cases of individuals who did not renounce their citizenship in time, and where there is at least a genuine question that only the High Court can answer about their validity.

Ali Clarke: Mark Butler, do you appreciate – and I can put this to all of you – do you appreciate that the sympathy that may have been there, sympathy from people thinking, well, it’s part of the Constitution but the intent and everything else around it – and as someone text before: you know, we’re going to lose good politicians over this – do you accept that the sympathy, though, is running out?

Mark Butler: Well look, I think people are very frustrated around the community as I do my street corner meetings pretty much every Saturday morning in my electorate. People are expressing their frustration about this because it’s a huge distraction from the issues that actually impact on their lives. I get that. I get that feedback from my own community, and it is important that we work through this issue, particularly over the course of today and tomorrow. Get to a position, if we can, as a parliament, about what the next step is. I mean, there’s going to be some political argy bargy and to-ing and fro-ing, but, you know, the ideal position is that we can agree, as a House of Representatives, a process from the end of this week, deal with this and get back to the issues that matter to Australian households.

Ali Clarke: So then I guess, Mark Butler, returning to my first question, do you understand the frustration? I see it on the text line and …

Mark Butler: Yes …

Ali Clarke: The frustration in people. Why do we have to pay for all these by-elections if this stuff just can’t get sorted out and you guys can’t sort it out?

Mark Butler: Well, at the end of the day, there are by-elections, you know, we are a democracy that has a system of funding the electoral process. That’s not unusual for Australia.

Simon Birmingham: And Ali …

Ali Clarke: I do think …

Simon Birmingham: It could have all been sorted out if Bill Shorten had been honest from the get go rather than piously going around the country saying: Labor has no problems; when in fact, what’s been exposed now the declaration process has occurred is that Bill Shorten was lying all along.

Ali Clarke: Alright, well look we will have to leave it there. Sorry …

Sarah Hanson-Young: I think people are just sick and tired of it, full stop. They want it cleaned up. They want it done. And it would be good if we could get back in February after the break and actually get on with some real issues.

Ali Clarke: Well, on that note: to all of you a merry Christmas. That’s my last Super Wednesday for the year so I hope you have a wonderful one wherever you’re spending it.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Ali.

Mark Butler: You too, Ali.

Sarah Hanson-Young: Thanks Ali.

Ali Clarke: Alright. Sarah Hanson-Young, Greens Senator for SA; Mark Butler, Labor member for Port Adelaide; and Simon Birmingham, Liberal Senator for SA.