Interview on ABC Radio Adelaide, Breakfast with Ali Clarke
Topics: Funding for South Australian schools; Parliamentary sitting dates; National Energy Guarantee.

Ali Clarke: Good morning to Simon Birmingham, the South Australian Liberal Senator and Minister for Education. How are you?

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Ali, good to be with you.

Ali Clarke: We’re waiting for Penny Wong and Sarah Hanson-Young to join the line, so, I don’t know. What do you want to chat about?

Simon Birmingham: Here we go, excellent, well.

Ali Clarke: Let’s start with education. Now, yesterday the State Government announced an investment of $110 million into funding into independent public and Catholic schools. Now they said as part of that investment, that’s because they are claiming that you and the Federal Government have pinched over $200 million of their funding. Do you think that states in South Australia at least has to pick up the slack that you’ve dropped?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I think in this case it’s South Australia picking up its own slack. South Australia has supported non-government schools less than any other state or territory. They’ve been the most parsimonious and mean-spirited when it comes to supporting the non-government school sector. So I welcome the fact that at long last the Labor Government here – having been in office nearly 16 years – has decided that just before an election, they’ll catch up in terms of the type of support provided in SA relative to other states and territories. That’s good news for parents in terms of their ability to make a choice. Of course our reforms earlier this year provided more than $750 million of additional funding across schools in SA. Now the bulk of that of course rightly going to the government school sector as part of a needs based funding model; but it did provide additional support as well for non-government schools across SA too.

Ali Clarke: On that note, I will introduce and say good morning to Penny Wong, SA Labor Senator and Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister who joins us. Hi, Penny.

Penny Wong: G’day. Good to be with you.

Ali Clarke: And also Greens Senator, Greens Spokesperson on Trade, Sarah Hanson-Young.

Sarah Hanson-Young: Good morning.

Ali Clarke: Hi, Sarah. Your points and your take on this funding to and fro between the state and feds over this funding for our schools?

Sarah Hanson-Young: Well look, sorry, apologies for the background noise. I’ve just touched down in Canberra and I’m still on the tarmac here. But I think this is a really worrying trend actually, when there is now a bidding war between state and federal governments as to who can spend more money on private schools – on Catholic schools and independent schools – when we know, overwhelmingly, the majority of our kids go to public schools and our public schools are chronically underfunded. I’ll look at the details of this from the Weatherill Government, but I must say, I know my daughter goes to a state school in Adelaide. Our public school system needs a huge injection and that’s where the priority should be.

Ali Clarke: Well you’ve said that you’ve just touched down in Canberra. Let’s get to the fact that you’re all senators, so you’ll of course have to work next week, but the Prime Minister of course has said the House of Representatives won’t be sitting. Simon Birmingham, did you agree with this decision?

Simon Birmingham: Well look, absolutely. It’s not unusual for the Government to reorder the sitting schedule. It’s happened two previous times over the last couple of years, so this year’s just a case of Government, as usual, getting on with making sure we can get the approach in terms of taxpayer value for money when the Parliament sits, and we’ve said we want to see the same-sex marriage legislation passed this year. We don’t want to have to have extra sitting weeks added on to make that happen, so the most logical thing is that the Senate has all of next week to get that done, and then we have up to two House of Representative sitting weeks still available to ensure that’s resolved, the citizenship issues are resolved, so that we can get all of these different issues cleaned up for Australians.

Ali Clarke: Tony Abbott didn’t agree with the decision though, did he? I mean he was on Sky last night saying: look, you might not always want to go back to Parliament, but you always have to go back to Parliament because that’s your job.

Simon Birmingham: Well, you have to go back to Parliament when the Parliament is in session. There will be, indeed, up to two extra House of Representative sitting weeks as were always planned. We’ll make sure those are there scheduled in a sequential way so the Senate can do its business and then the House of Representatives can get on with its business. I mean really, this is the Labor Party and others trying to squeal and cause a bit of political trouble out of this. I understand that their interested in the Parliament sitting is more about …

Penny Wong: Come on, Simon. Come on.

Simon Birmingham: … their interest in the Parliament sitting is more about game playing and what type of political tactics they can deploy. The Government’s interest is actually in seeing legislation passed – the will of the Australian people in relation to the plebiscite acted upon.

Ali Clarke: Well Penny Wong, is that you squealing on behalf of Labor?

Penny Wong: Yeah, I don’t know if I was squealing, I was groaning. I mean, look, the Prime Minister cancelled Parliament because he’s scared about losing a vote on a royal commission, he’s scared about losing a vote to protect penalty rates and he’s scared of his party room. This isn’t normal. I mean, we cancelled a week of Parliament I think during the tragedy of the Bali bombings; you don’t just rock up as a Prime Minister and say: oh, I’m a bit worried about what’s going to happen in my party room, I’m a bit worried about what’s going to happen on the floor of Parliament because of my vote count and I know the crossbenchers and some of my own party actually support a royal commission into banks, I know some people actually support protecting penalty rates; so I’m just going to cancel democracy for a week.

I mean, the arguments are spurious that Simon’s just put forward. He knows the Senate will finish with the Marriage Equality Bill in plenty of time for the Parliament to deal with it. But, I’ve just got to say: what does this say about the chaos in the Turnbull Government that you’ve got Malcolm Turnbull so scared about his own job that he wants to cancel the Australian Parliament to suit himself? It’s extraordinary.

Ali Clarke: Simon Birmingham, you do get what this looks like to the average person don’t you?

Simon Birmingham: Well, look, I get that if people take the spin that Penny’s putting on it they would see it in a negative light; but what I would urge people to understand is that earlier this year the sitting schedule was changed for this year to accommodate various international events; last year the sitting schedule was changed by the Government; this is another change of the sitting schedule by the Government …

Penny Wong: Come on.

Simon Birmingham: … to accommodate circumstances. In this case, it’s the circumstance of saying we don’t want the House of Representatives to get to the end of its currently or previously scheduled sittings, still not have dealt with the citizenship issues, still not have dealt with the same-sex marriage legislation, force upon Australian taxpayers then an additional sitting week when instead we could simply change the scheduled sitting weeks. It’s not that we’re not having Parliament sit. Parliament will sit. Parliament will be able to deal with these matters. It’s just going to sit in different weeks. That’s all.

Penny Wong: So will you sit until all the citizenship matters are dealt with, or are we going to see the same thing that the Prime Minister tried to do when he put up his so-called plan for disclosure which he’s had to toughen up because of Labor pressure where you were going to try and push all the citizenship issues off til after the Christmas break? You were trying to skate through not having to deal with it. This is the consequence.

Ali Clarke: Well, will you, Simon Birmingham?

Simon Birmingham: [Indistinct] for the House of Representatives to deal with the citizenship issues, will be the first order of business when the House resumes. There’ll be basically one day …

Penny Wong: As well as marriage equality.

Simon Birmingham: … one day for people to comply with that, because everybody knows the details now that the Senate has agreed upon a motion. There’ll be one day for people to get their declarations in and then, absolutely, they will all be dealt with. The whole point, in part, of changing the sitting schedule is to allow that and same-sex marriage to be dealt with in an orderly, sequential manner.

Penny Wong: Right, so we’re going to have one week where we have to deal with both marriage equality and citizenship. I mean, the more the Liberal Party explain this …

Simon Birmingham: No, there is still up to two sitting weeks …

Penny Wong: The more the Liberal Party explain this, the clearer the message is: Prime Minister cancelling democracy because he’s scared of democracy and scared of the Parliament.

Ali Clarke: Sarah Hanson-Young, you’ve been listening to this as you’re no doubt getting off the plane by now; your thoughts?

Sarah Hanson-Young: Oh look, this is just- let’s just call bullshit on this. Really. I mean the fact is the Prime Minister doesn’t have the numbers in the next week in Parliament, he’s worried about things like a royal commission into the banks; it’s got nothing to do with prioritising marriage equality. If the Prime Minister wants to prioritise marriage equality, we would have got it done and dusted a long time ago. I mean, just because the Prime Minister wants to have a doona day, I’m sorry, the rest of the country has to get up and go to work. And really, next time my daughter complains about wanting to go school because there’s a maths test, I’m going to give her Malcolm Turnbull’s number.

Ali Clarke: Simon Birmingham, Bob Katter raised the point: what about all, say, charity groups or other groups that have made point appointments to meet with people? I mean, what will happen? What will happen to them?

Simon Birmingham: Well, look, obviously the Senate will be there in the scheduled week, people are able to continue to have meeting events if they choose to, they’re able equally to reschedule those meeting events. As I said, this is not exactly unprecedented. The Parliamentary sitting schedule for this year has already been changed once before this year; last year’s sitting schedule was changed on an occasion. This is not at all unusual for the Parliament to rearrange the weeks for the sitting to make sure that it best aligns with the business of government and that is what we want the Parliament to sit for. We don’t want the Parliament to sit so that Penny and the Labor Party can play games or pull political stunts, we want the Parliament to sit to get on with the business of government. That’s what we’re scheduling it to do.

Ali Clarke: Well on that, Penny Wong, will any of your Labor peers be turning up next week regardless?

Penny Wong: Well we still have a Shadow Cabinet meeting so we’re not going to be cancelling that. So certainly the Shadow Cabinet will be there and the senators will be there, I think. Obviously other MPs aren’t required now because of this decisions, but the leadership of the Labor Party will be there and if Malcolm wants to change his mind we’re also happy to sit.

Ali Clarke: Is that a waste of money?

Penny Wong: Having the Shadow Cabinet? No, well, unlike the Government, we think it’s probably a good thing to actually try and develop policy and think about what you’re going to announce before you announce it. At the moment what we see from the Government is announcement after announcement without, frankly, much work being done. It’s really quite- it’s just one of the most chaotic periods I’ve ever seen, to be honest with you.

Ali Clarke: It’s a quarter to nine. We’re in the middle of Super Wednesday with Simon Birmingham, South Australian Liberal Minister and Minister for Education; Penny Wong, South Australian Labor Senator and Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister; and Sarah Hanson-Young, Greens Senator and Greens spokesperson on trade.

Just stopping for a moment to give you some breaking news that Ange Postecoglou has stepped down as the coach of the Socceroos, so bringing that to you now. When we do wrap up Super Wednesday, I’ll bring you the audio from the press conference that’s currently underway.

So, much has been made of the modelling on the Government’s new energy policy: savings now of up to $400 annually, we’ve been told, in households. And this has all been handed down, this new modelling, ahead of the COAG meeting on Friday with all the energy ministers. Now, South Australia’s Energy Minister, Tom Koutsantonis, is refuting the benefits to this state. Sarah Hanson-Young, do you find any comfort in these new figures from the Government?

Sarah Hanson-Young: No, not really. What it does is it shows that South Australia is still going to have locked in the highest prices in the country, but in addition to that, of course, it’s going to make it even harder for renewable energy. And our state is the renewable energy state, the industries in our state who want to invest should be being supported, not having hurdle after hurdle put in front of them. And of course, overall, Ali, I’m really worried about what this means for climate change. We have to reduce pollution in order to address climate change, and this NEG, this Energy Guarantee – which is nothing but a guarantee to make climate change worse – is really going in the wrong direction.

Ali Clarke: Well, Simon Birmingham, this NEG – the National Energy Guarantee – the Energy Minister here, Koutsantonis, says that this will entrench large energy monopolies and push our prices here in SA. How will South Australia not be charged more than anybody else?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Tom Koutsantonis is just dead wrong, and sadly he’s showing an absolute unwillingness to get on with good and constructive policy development. Just yesterday, the Council of Trade Unions, the Council of Social Services, together in a statement with the Australian Industry Group and various energy bodies, all urged states, territories, Labor, Liberal, to get on with the job of developing and implementing the National Energy Guarantee. So you have this huge swathe of those outside of politics, the lobby groups from the unions right through to the industry groups, urging us to implement this policy.

And really, Tom Koutsantonis, Jay Weatherill, ought to stop the game playing. I know that their entire playbook is about endlessly having arguments with the Federal Government. Well, this is not something to argue over. This is something to get on to work with us constructively on, to see it implemented, because yes, the modelling shows that it can save households and businesses significant sums in terms of their energy prices in the future: $400 or $120 compared to business as usual for an average household; significantly more – potentially 20 per cent plus in savings – for many businesses. It’s modelling that’s been undertaken by Frontier Economics, the same people Jay Weatherill and Tom Koutsantonis used in modelling their own energy policy, so they can’t dispute credibility of the modelling, and it shows there will be savings and we have even the Council of Trade Unions urging them to come on board and support us in development of this policy.

Ali Clarke: Well, Penny Wong, there you go. This is the Panacea, this is the all-fix.

Penny Wong: I’ll tell you what, it’s pretty funny, isn’t it? Nearly half a decade after they’re elected, we now have a Federal Government that’s presided over a complete mess in our National Electricity Market, saying to everybody: oh, you’ve got to get behind it, now that we’ve finally decided that we’re going to stop fighting each other and having national electricity policy court – in the fight in the Liberal Party room. Now, can you just please all lock in behind it?

Let’s understand a few points here. The energy market is in a mess, the uncertainty is increasing prices and it is preventing investment, which is also impacting upon supply. So the business as usual trajectory is a chaotic one, so any policy, basically, is going to be better than the business as usual, because at least there’ll be some certainty.

Ali Clarke: To be fair though, Penny Wong, this mess that it’s supposedly in, hasn’t happened overnight. I mean, the fallout of it has …

Penny Wong: No it’s not. The mess is because we had a carbon price in place, a carbon system in place, which the Government then removed and didn’t replace with anything. That’s why the mess has been created, fundamentally. Secondly, on the modelling: it’s pretty funny, isn’t it, that we’re releasing modelling how long after the announcement’s actually made? So we had an announcement where the government spends a fair bit of time on a glossy pamphlet, telling everybody what the National Electricity Guarantee is. They tell people prices are going to come down, people then find out the back of the envelope calculations about 50 cents a week, so they then run off and do some modelling which they don’t release, but they give to the papers ahead of Friday. Now this is a chaotic way to run a complex and important area of politics.

Ali Clarke: Simon Birmingham, would you like to respond?

Simon Birmingham: But after all that is said, Penny, do you agree with the ACTU that everybody should get on with actually supporting the development and the implementation of the National Energy Guarantee? We’ve spelt it out, we’ve laid out the policies, the proposals, the correction. We have support …

Penny Wong: Do you agree with the ACTU on your politically motivated royal commissions? Do you agree with the ACTU on right of entry? Do you agree with the ACTU on freedom of association? Come on, seriously …

Simon Birmingham: Unlike your party though, Penny, I don’t give the union movement votes in my party conference. You rely an awful lot on the trade union movement, and of course you and most of your members come from trade union backgrounds.

Penny Wong: Here we go. You couldn’t wait, could you? You tried to use the ACTU as a reason why we should agree, and now you’re saying so you’re owned by the trade unions. You’ve got to get your line right, Simon.

Simon Birmingham: No, no, Penny, I’m simply asking you a straight question. You went on and on and on, talking about energy policy but you never actually offered a position on a National Energy guarantee. Now we have a long list …

Penny Wong: You show me the policy, actually, yeah.

Simon Birmingham: A long list of people from across the political spectrum.

Penny Wong: You show me what the policy actually is. Show me what the policy actually is, Simon.

Simon Birmingham: A long list of people across the political spectrum saying we should get on with it and get it implemented. Do you agree? Do you support that position?

Ali Clarke: Do you support this, Penny Wong?

Penny Wong: You keep asking me a question, do you want me to give an answer?

Ali Clarke: Yes, let’s do that.

Penny Wong: Why don’t you show me what the policy is? You’ve given us an eight-page glossy document, you’ve given us an indication that what the NEG actually does is reduce the proportion of renewables in the mix, and we know that that is one of the best ways to keep prices down in terms of new capacity, is renewables. And now you’ve released modelling to some newspapers, and you want us to sign up? I mean, give us a break.

Ali Clarke: Okay. I’m starting to feel like I used to feel when mum and dad were fighting, so …

Penny Wong: Hey, I don’t want to be your mum.

Ali Clarke: Okay, well on that note, we might leave it there. Penny Wong, South Australian Labor Senator; Sarah Hanson-Young, Greens Senator as well; and Simon Birmingham, South Australian Liberal Senator. Thank you and enjoy the week.