Interview on ABC Radio Adelaide Breakfast with David Bevan and Matthew Abraham
Topics: How South Australia stands to gain from the 2017 Budget; Delivering real, fair needs-based funding for all schools; Labor’s hypocrisy on schools funding
Presenter: Well we always enjoy Super Wednesday but it takes on a super significance the day after a Federal Budget.
Let’s welcome Simon Birmingham, Liberal Senator for South Australia and Federal Education Senator. Good morning, Senator Birmingham.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning.
Presenter: Senator Nick Xenophon, leader of the NXT team and South Australia’s best in SA at the next state election. Good morning, Senator Xenophon.
Nick Xenophon: Good morning.
Presenter: And Mark Butler, Federal Labor MP for Port Adelaide and National President of the ALP. Good morning to you.
Mark Butler: Good morning, super to be with you.
Presenter: Let’s start with Senator Xenophon. Nick Xenophon, has South Australia been short changed in terms of infrastructure spending?
Nick Xenophon: Well unambiguously, yes; the figures speak for themselves. The $70 billion in infrastructure commitments, there’s only just $3.1 billion for South Australia – 4.5 per cent of the total amount, we’ve got 7.1 per cent of the population, about 10 to 12 per cent of the nation’s road infrastructure. It is very difficult, and I think the point that’s been made is that its not actually new money it’s a continuation of the North-South Corridor which is of course welcome. And I fear that we have been dudded in relation to that.
There are a number of spending measure that I and my colleagues pushed hard for: the solar thermal plant at Port Augustus’ very important; some extra road funding for local roads which local government was concerned about; manufacturing projects; apprenticeships; the proton therapy. These are all big issues and obviously we welcome them, things that we fought for. But really the infrastructure spend is anaemic.
Presenter: Maybe Jay Weatherill should’ve buttoned his lip with Josh Frydenberg. The State has picked up a- well, seems to be perceived by the Federal Government as a whinging State Government and maybe they don’t get the inside running.
Nick Xenophon: Well I think you’re suggesting that a Government would be capricious and venal in the way it makes decisions. I just think that isn’t the case. I just think that for whatever reason, the infrastructure spend is woefully inadequate for South Australia compared to $7.7 billion for WA. And I know the Eastern state commentators try and taunt me about the whole issue of submarines. To put that in perspective, as wonderful and as welcome as that project is, this coming financial year only $319 million will be allocated for the future submarine project. Most of that will go to the French design team, to Australians going to in France as they must do to get ready for the project, and for the US combat system design process in the US.
Presenter: But many of those measures that we did get, you negotiated. Could you teach Jay Weatherill a thing or two about negotiating?
Nick Xenophon: I think as always it’s always down to one politician to pretend to teach another, but there was some…
Presenter: Well hang on. What did you do differently …
Nick Xenophon: Can I just say on the issue of the proton therapy, that’s something that Simon Birmingham’s been outspoken on; Jay Weatherill and we pushed very hard for it as well. I guess sometimes it’s a question of a quiet but persistent diplomacy. Look, I’m on the crossbenches. I’m not the Opposition, and I think that the politics is quite different. But I think we all want the right thing for South Australia, my fear is that this very low infrastructure spend will hit us very hard particularly when all these jobs are going to be lost in the Northern and Southern suburbs with the closure of manufacturing of cars.
Presenter: Simon Birmingham, Liberal Senator for South Australia, the message from the State Government has been on infrastructure particularly, we’ve been dudded.
Simon Birmingham: Well there’s a lot of infrastructure work happening in South Australia right now. The Darlington interchange which will see some $198 million spent in ’17, ’18. The Torrens to Torrens part of the North South corridor which will see around $105 million spent over the next 12 months. The Northern connector, which will see around $233 million spent over the next 12 months. We have the Flinders Link project. There are new announcements in this Budget; new announcements like the proton beam therapy facility that Nick just mentioned, support for solar thermal in Port Augustus, a new $100 million …
Presenter: Yeah, he rattles through them, but…
Simon Birmingham: I rattle through them because these are the things that are actually happening, David. And…
Presenter: Yes, but they’re already before our listeners. The question was: why haven’t we got a bigger share, a fair share, a new contribution in terms of transport infrastructure?
Simon Birmingham: We have a very big contribution in transport infrastructure happening right now. Now to say in terms of when you want to look at forward spending, the same question is absolutely asked interstate, as Nick acknowledged before, about the scale of the $90 billion worth of Defence Industry investment that is coming disproportionately to South Australia over the next few years. And so in last year’s Budget, South Australia was unequivocally the biggest winning state of any. And of course yes, this year some of the other states are getting a bit more in some other areas. But again, this is not about state contests from year to year, this about ensuring that we’re investing – as we are – in projects right across Australia. And I think the Turnbull Government is investing in jobs in SA, through Defence Industry investment in particular, but also through a number of these other projects and especially projects and new investments like the advanced manufacturing fund, new investments in areas of energy infrastructure to deal with the instability of the energy grid in South Australia and the problem that’s had for our economy.
Now we’re making the hard yards here, and I just- I’m gob-smacked that Jay Weatherill wants to spend more time, it seems, being the Federal Opposition than he actually spends getting on with his job which is developing good policy and good government in South Australia from the South Australian Government.
Presenter: Mark Butler?
Mark Butler: Well if these are the hard yards, as Simon describes, then I’d hate to see what the soft yards are. There’s nothing in this budget for South Australia other than pre-announced projects, projects that were delivered in some cases a couple of years ago. The North South upgrade to South Road for example, there’s nothing new in that. I mean the Torrens to Torrens, that Simon trumpeted there, was something that we had to drag Tony Abbott kicking and screaming. There’s a range of very important infrastructure upgrades for South Australia and not one of them was delivered last night. Things like the solar thermal plant; well Greg Hunt in a debate that I did with him in the last election campaign, both of us promised to deliver the solar thermal plant to South Australia. We had funding specifically earmarked for it – it’s still a little bit unclear how the Government is going to finance it – but to pretend that Nick Xenophon sort of delivered a new promise from this Federal Government again is a complete re-writing of history.
So I think what it says is not whether the Government is angry at Jay Weatherill because of a talking truth at a press conference with Josh Frydenberg. I think what it says is just quite how much influence Simon Birmingham and Christopher Pyne are bringing to bear in Cabinet discussions about ensuring that there’s a fair distribution of Commonwealth budget investment across the States.
Presenter: Putting that aside- lets put aside South Australia. This has been described as a Labor budget. Debt is up, the debt ceiling is up to $600 billion, they’ve bumped that up. They’re going to bump up the Medicare levy to fully fund your NDIS. There’s Super breaks for first home buyers. Is this a Labor Budget?
Mark Butler: No, it’s not a Labor budget. Of course, imitation is the highest form of flattery, but not when it’s a fourth rate cover band trying to play their songs. I mean there’s nothing particularly fair about this Budget, as much as Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison are clearly trying to re-brand their party away from the horror Budget of 2014 to some new version of fairness. I mean there’s nothing fair about failing to come to grips with negative gearing, which is the biggest barrier to young people getting into the housing market. There’s nothing fair about giving a $16,000 tax cut to millionaires – which this Budget does – while lifting taxes for pretty much everyone else.
Presenter: Do you think …
Mark Butler: There’s nothing fair in making people pay a gap in Medicare for another couple of years.
Presenter: Do you think it’s fair to ask welfare recipients to take drug tests?
Mark Butler: Well, we think it’s important that welfare recipients are given every possible opportunity to get back to work. And that might be one barrier that they have.
Presenter: … No that wasn’t the question, look sorry I didn’t ask you do you think it’s important to give welfare recipients the opportunity to get back to work. God didn’t make little green apples, it don’t rain in Indianapolis in the summer time. So if I can ask you again, do you support drug testing for welfare recipients?
Mark Butler: Well we’ve said that we’ll have a look at this measure and other measures in relation to welfare and getting people back to work. We’ll take our time, it was only released last night and Jenny Macklin particularly will be engaging with relevant groups to talk through this proposal and in due course will make our position clear. And we’ll do that about a range of Budget measures.
Presenter: We’ve got a text- we’ve quite a few texts from our listeners this morning saying; look, I work in a place where I have to be drug tested, I pay taxes that pay for peoples’ welfare. I don’t see anything wrong with asking welfare recipients to drug test. So just on the face of it, do you have any reservations?
Mark Butler: Yeah, I dealt with many, many workplaces where workers were drug tested over the last 20 or 25 years and …
Presenter: [Talks over] So do you have any reservations on that front?
Mark Butler: What I’ve said is Jenny Macklin taking the lead on this, has said that we’re going to take our time to consider all of these welfare measures and make a decision in due course after we’ve talked to a range of groups. And I understand the position that’s reflected in those text messages.
Matthew Abraham: Coming back to you, Simon Birmingham. One of the big bits of this Budget that wasn’t- well it was released before the Budget, was your education package. Why do you have a problem with Catholic schools?
Simon Birmingham: Well we don’t, Matthew. Far from it. We’re providing funding growth to the Catholic education system across the next four years of 3.7 per cent per student. That’s growth well above inflation, well above wages, and means that that system can continue to support parent’s right across it in choosing to access their schools, without the need for fee increases, or without any pressure in terms of the operation of their school budget.
Matthew Abraham: Okay. Let me tell you then – using your calculator – a story of two saints. The first is St Peters Girls Collegiate School, your wife is chair – Courtney Morcombe is chair of the board of governors at that school. The funding for that school in 2017 is going up $98,700, that’s 5.7 million over 10 years. Saint Clare’s – another girls’ school in Canberra, in the ACT – funding is going up $6,000 in 2017, $6,000 for the whole school. Down, over 10 years, $1.609 million. Do you think that’s fair?
Simon Birmingham: All of it calculated on exactly the Gonski needs based model using socio-economic status schools …
Matthew Abraham: [Interrupts] But how could you have socio-economic status calculation that would deliver nearly $6 million to one of the most expensive and elite schools in Adelaide, in Australia for girls, Saint Peters Girls, and what is effectively a Catholic high school in Canberra – Saint Clare’s. And they would have a reduction of $1.6 million on your formula.
Simon Birmingham: So Matthew, the socio-economic status schools are calculated by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, based on where it is that parents live. And of course, the ACT has the highest household income on average of any jurisdiction across Australia. The ACT currently also has a special deal for the Catholic sector that enables them to not use their own socio-economic status score, but to use the Australian average.
So why is there a different impact on a school in the ACT compared with elsewhere? It’s because at present they are using socio-economic status scores that include schools in the Northern Territory, schools in Tasmania, that of course don’t reflect the ACT income at all. So there are different outcomes in the ACT because there’s a very particular special deal. Overall government schools in South Australia will see a far greater increase than Catholic schools or independent schools, like the one you named whose increase is in fact quite below the average for independent schools. But the government sector will …
Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] So they’re getting less than other independent schools? St Peters Girls?
Simon Birmingham: … of 5.6 per cent across the government school sector. Now that’s really strong growth for government schools in SA catering for those of greatest need.
Matthew Abraham: Okay. Mark Butler, originally Tanya Plibersek said they’d fold their cards on this – on what was so-called elite schools. You’re now having second thoughts? You’ve all been to confession?
Mark Butler: No, we’re not about the relatively small number of very elite schools that will actually have their funding reduced under the policy that Simon Birmingham released. I mean we’ve said there’s a prospect of agreement there. But if Simon thinks he hasn’t got a problem with the Catholic school sector, I think he’s failing to listen to the very clear message from the head of those sectors, from the Sydney Archbishop and a range of others, including frankly, a Liberal Party frontbencher who represents the ACT who’s in public saying that he’s got concerns about Simon’s policy and its impact on low fee Catholic schools in the ACT. So, I think Simon has a very serious problem here and that Simon …
Simon Birmingham: Malcolm Turnbull said on AM just before, that he takes a sector neutral approach to school funding. So why is it …
Mark Butler: [Talks over] Well you don’t. Catholic schools seem to be receiving lower funding increases [indistinct] …
Simon Birmingham: [Talks over] No I am- that’s exactly what I want to do, Mark. The policy we are applying.
Matthew Abraham: Well Mark Butler, can we take this back to the bigger picture?
Simon Birmingham: [Talks over] The policies we are applying, Mark, [indistinct] any special deals for any sector.
Matthew Abraham: Labor says that the Government is effectively delivering a $22 billion cut to education …
Mark Butler: No, the Government said that. The Government’s own papers say that this is $22 billion less than the Labor arrangement that we [indistinct] …
Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] So has Labor- Mark Butler, so has Labor committed to spending an extra $22 billion on education above the Coalition’s current promise?
Mark Butler: We’ve got a very strong commitment to the actual Gonski process about needs-based funding. As Tanya Plibersek has said we’ll be outlining all of our spending arrangements over the course of this election.
Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] So is that a yes? You are committed to spending the $22 billion?
Mark Butler: Tanya Plibersek’s been quite clear about this.
Matthew Abraham: Well can you be quite clear. Are you committed to spending an extra $22 billion on top of the Coalition’s current promise?
Mark Butler: We’ve been crystal clear that we do not support the 22 billion cut which Simon Birmingham’s own policy papers …
Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] So you’ll spend it?
Mark Butler: … set out, particularly the impact on low fee Catholic schools and the public school sector, that do all of the heavy lifting in relation to students with special needs.
Matthew Abraham: All you have to say is, yes, we will spend it. Mark Butler, all you have to say is yes, we will spend that extra $22 billion.
Mark Butler: Well, it’s not going to be $22 billion necessarily between now and the next election. We’ll be updating all of our funding commitments between now and the next election. But we’ve been very clear we do not support $22 billion of cuts to school funding and we remain committed to the funding program that we took to the last election which actually reflects the Gonski report.
Matthew Abraham: Okay, let’s finish where we began. Nick Xenophon- South Australian Senator, Nick Xenophon. Will your team support the Medicare increase?
Nick Xenophon: In broad terms, yes, because we need to fund NDIS and that to me is very important. We want NDIS to work, to work well, to deliver what it needs to deliver in terms of an area which was neglected woefully for funding for many years.
Can I just say Mark Butler called the Government a fourth-rate cover band. I’m trying to work out what instrument Simon would be playing with. Would it be drums or the guitar?
Mark Butler: The kazoo.
Nick Xenophon: The what?
Mark Butler: The kazoo.
Nick Xenophon: That’s very unfair.
Matthew Abraham: [Laughs] Would- Simon Birmingham be the bass player wouldn’t he, in the background just thumping it out, Simon Birmingham, Senator?
Simon Birmingham: Well …
Matthew Abraham: I mean come on, if you’re in a band …
Simon Birmingham: [Laughs] I think if I was in a band that might be about where I’d like to be Matt, but I don’t want to speak up my musical talents or abilities at all.
Matthew Abraham: Bass player?
Simon Birmingham: Skills are brought in different ways. But look, this is a very fair Budget. It delivers more in schools, more in health care, delivers absolutely certainty for the National Disability Insurance Scheme …
Presenter: Makes people pay more for their university degrees.
Simon Birmingham: Now the important things that Australians [indistinct] …
Presenter: Can you play an instrument?
Simon Birmingham: No, I wish I could. But sadly not.
Presenter: Okay. Nick Xenophon, can you play an instrument?
Matthew Abraham: Nick Xenophon, please tell us you can play something?
Nick Xenophon: The xylophone.
Matthew Abraham: Xylophone. Mark Butler? Not the bouzouki.
Mark Butler: I use to play drums in a fifth rate cover band called Sharp Edges.
Presenter: Sharp Edges.
Matthew Abraham: Sharp Edges, whoo-hoo [laughs].
Presenter: Was Jay Weatherill on tambourine?
Mark Butler: I prayed to be a bass player.
Presenter: [Laughs] Thank you gentlemen.
Mark Butler: Thank you.
Matthew Abraham Drums, bass guitar and xylophone and kazoo.
We do thank Mark Butler there. National President of the Labor Party. He’s Shadow Minister for Climate Change. He’s Federal Member for Port Adelaide here obviously in South Australia. Nick Xenophon, South Australia, leader of the NXT Party. I really wish he’d get one name – SA [indistinct] …
Presenter: One name.
Matthew Abraham: I know. And Simon Birmingham, Liberal Senator for South Australia, Education Minister.