Interview on ABC Radio Adelaide Breakfast with Matthew Abraham and David Bevan 
Turnbull Government’s plan to transform schools; Delivering real needs-based funding and fixing Labor’s model


Matthew Abraham: And we welcome you to Super Wednesday 2.0. Simon Birmingham, Liberal Senator for South Australia and Education Minister on the dog and bone. Good morning to you. 

Simon Birmingham: Good morning Matthew. 

Matthew Abraham: Sarah Hanson-Young, Greens Senator for South Australia, spokesperson on finance and trade, but somebody who has, of course, I think cut her teeth in student politics on the question of school funding and university funding. Sarah Hanson-Young, welcome. 

Sarah Hanson-Young: Good morning. 

Matthew Abraham: And Kate Ellis, Labor MP for Adelaide. Ditto with a long career interest in education, shadow minister for early childhood development, TAFE and vocational education. Kate Ellis, welcome. 

Kate Ellis: Good morning. 

Matthew Abraham: Kate Ellis, what’s the Labor Party going to do now with all those I give a Gonski t-shirts?

Kate Ellis: Well I think that we’ll start by pointing out what a farce the announcement that Simon Birmingham and Malcolm Turnbull made yesterday was. And the fact that under the announcement that was made yesterday, there will be $22 billion less spent in Australian schools, than under the plan that we put forward and have campaigned for. 

David Bevan: But your hero, David Gonski’s on board. 

Matthew Abraham: He wouldn’t have signed up on how to spend the money if he didn’t think it was enough. 

Kate Ellis: Well David Gonski has said that he’ll do another review. Of course the last review was some two years in the making, hundreds of submissions. The Government hasn’t really explained why another review is necessary. And I think that most Australians would rather they just got on with the job. We have the review that was conducted. We have the funding. And now we have people trying to play clever politics, but at the same time continuing to slash funding from our schools. 

David Bevan: Do you agree it was clever politics?

Kate Ellis: Oh look, I have no doubt that standing up alongside David Gonski, claiming that cutting $22 billion from our schools is somehow delivering upon the promise made to the Australian people …

David Bevan: [Interrupts] Yeah but just the politics of it. Do you agree that it’s really smart?

Kate Ellis: Oh I think it is very sneaky, very clever. 

David Bevan: Well has David Gonski then been duped?

Kate Ellis: Oh I’m not putting words into what David Gonski does, he has …

David Bevan: [Interrupts] No I’m not asking for you to tell us what he thinks, I’m asking what you think. Do you think he’s been duped?

Kate Ellis: Well, I think he’s agreed to do a review. Another review. 

David Bevan: I know that, I know that. But do you think he’s been duped?

Kate Ellis: I think he’s a smart man who can make his own decisions. 

Matthew Abraham: Simon Birmingham, Liberal Senator for South Australia, Education Minister. Are you – by bringing David Gonski into this – playing politics rather than policy?

Simon Birmingham: Well no, what we have done is more than accept the recommendations of David Gonski’s 2011 review. He’s welcomed our acceptance of that. He’s agreed to do a completely different piece of work that looks, not at how much money to spend or where it’s spent, but actually in how it can best be used in our schools to make the biggest difference in terms of improving student outcomes. But look, yesterday, what we saw, was the Turnbull Government deciding to do away with special deals in school funding, to do away with arrangements that treat different states in different ways, different schools sectors in different ways, and genuinely delivering upon David Gonski’s report and recommendations for needs-based sector-blind funding of Australian schools. 

And now Julia Gillard, through her no school would lose a dollar promise, and through all the different deals that were stitched together by Bill Shorten as Education Minister, ended up promising something that was far, far in away from what David Gonski recommended. One of the other authors of the Gonski report, Ken Boston – who of course was a former head of the Education Department in SA many years ago – he described what Labor did as a corruption of Gonski. The reason David stood alongside us yesterday, welcomed what we’re doing, is because we’re doing the right thing to end the sweetheart deals, to end special arrangements and actually approach this and transition all schools over 10 years with real extra money going into the school systems to improve outcomes at the same time. 

Matthew Abraham: Why aren’t the Catholic schools drinking the Kool-Aid then?

Simon Birmingham: Matthew, because of course everybody would ideally like to – if they’ve got a special deal – hang onto it. But what we believe is appropriate is to say that in the case of non-government schools, they’ll all be treated equitably. The same way – in terms of the calculation of their funding entitlements, the same discount that will apply to each of those schools in terms of the capacity of those parents to contribute based on the economic circumstances of those families. The same additional needs-based support though, so that if a small parish school in parts of regional South Australia is operating, then it will receive additional support, because it’ll be a small, rural and regional school, because it will have students from low socio-economic backgrounds, because it may have Indigenous students. All those needs based factors built into the model that ensure – regardless of whether it’s Catholics, Lutheran, standalone, independent, or government – we apply a consistent methodology and approach to funding. 

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, do you remember that light bulb moment when you thought, hang on, I know what we’ll do? Because I’ve been trying to take things to Cabinet for years to clean up this mess – we’ll get Gonski on board. Do you remember that light bulb moment?

Simon Birmingham: [Laughs] Well look, David Gonski has been very generous with his time …

David Bevan: [Talks over] Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yep, yep, yep, I’m sure, but do you remember the moment? Was it your idea, or a staffer, or somebody else in Cabinet said; hey why don’t we just get him in? 

Simon Birmingham: Well Malcolm Turnbull and I have also spent a lot of time talking about how we work our way through this issue and …

David Bevan: [Talks over] Yeah, yeah, but whose idea was it? Come on whose idea was it? Come on. Simon Birmingham, whose idea was?

Simon Birmingham: I give full credit to my Prime Minister, as I rightly should. 

David Bevan: [Talks over] Oh it was his idea?

Simon Birmingham: In terms of Malcolm recognising that there was a good opportunity based on the discussions I’d been having with David and he’d been having with David. That we actually could get to a point where we could deliver what David recommended. And David was decent enough to be able to say; well if you do this in a fair, sensible way, then I’ll be happy to stand alongside you. 

Matthew Abraham: Sarah Hanson-Young, Senator Sarah Hanson-Young from the Greens. The Greens appear to be sort of edging towards supporting this, correct?

Sarah Hanson-Young: Well look, we obviously need to look at the detail and we can’t say at all at the moment whether this is a package that is actually going to deliver for schools or not. But let me be really upfront. I am unapologetically in support of public education and our public school system. Now I don’t want to see cuts to our public school system. 

Matthew Abraham: [Interrupts] But you will wear a package that sees cuts to the Catholic education system on the eastern states by the sounds of it? Maybe improvement here in South Australia and elite private schools. 

Sarah Hanson-Young: Well what I think we need to do is get back to a proper, genuine, needs-based funding model. And that- if we are to do that, that means that some of those overfunded private schools are going to have to take a haircut. That’s being honest about it. I’m unapologetically in support of public education …

David Bevan: [Talks over] So this is ideological for you, not really in terms of student outcomes?

Sarah Hanson-Young: No, it actually is about student outcome. It’s about saying that those schools that need the help the most, need to get it. And let’s stop this argy bargy of politics that has dominated for so long. Every election time, our schools and our teachers and our parents and our children, are bombarded with arguments over: this school’s going to get cut, this school’s going to get cut. Let’s agree that the schools that need the funding, get the funding. Those that are overfunded don’t need to continue to be subsidised further by the public system. 

Matthew Abraham: So you might support this deal? I know it’s early days, but you might support it?

Sarah Hanson-Young: Look it’s very early days and we need to go through the details. But my principles are very clear, we need the funding model fixed. It isn’t perfect, it needs to be fixed and we don’t want to see cuts. 

Matthew Abraham: So you might support it?

Sarah Hanson-Young: I have to look at the detail. We’ve got to spend some time going through …

Matthew Abraham: [Interrupts] You’re not rejecting it?

Sarah Hanson-Young: We are not rejecting it because we want to end this argy bargy, this bun fight, that says every election …

David Bevan: [Interrupts] Oh there’ll be a bun fight. You wait till


Kate Ellis: You wait till we see the hit list. 

David Bevan: Well you wait till the Catholic school sector really gets themselves organised on this one Sarah Hanson-Young. You ain’t seen nothing yet.

Sarah Hanson-Young: Alright look, and I’m sure people are going to cry blue murder if they’ve been having sweet deals that have given – despite being overfunded for years – they’ve continued to bank on getting more funding from the public system. Our public schools need support. Our school students and our children deserve for us as politicians to get it right.

Matthew Abraham: Simon Birmingham here on ABC Radio Adelaide Super Wednesday almost 7.45. Will we have a hit list as Kate Ellis? Well in other words – well you won’t call it a hit list – but will there be a list of all the schools and who’ll get what?

Simon Birmingham: So Matthew, we – and I acknowledged yesterday there are about 24 schools across Australia that will see a small reduction in their funding, usually in the range of about 1 or 2 per cent. There are about 300-odd who have relatively lower growth, not necessarily- not quite real growth in terms of keeping up with inflation. And there are more than 9000 who experience strong, positive, real growth under our proposal. So the vast, vast majority of schools across all sectors – whether they be Catholic, independent or government – will see growth. In South Australia, it’s growth that is across every sector above the national average that is 5.6 per cent growth in funding per student- government school students in South Australia. Now 5.8 per cent growth. There aren’t many household budgets that are growing by 5.8 per cent. Inflations not. Wages aren’t. And this is really significant, real growth that the Weatherill Government [indistinct] for government schools.

Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] Okay. Minister, sounds like you’ve got a very dodgy phone line so I hope that you can stay with us.

Michael Honey is principal of Nazareth Catholic College primary campus and he’s called ABC Radio Adelaide. Good morning Michael.

Michael Honey: Good morning. Who am I speaking to?

Matthew Abraham: This is David and Matthew. Quickly, your thoughts?

Michael Honey: Hi David.

Michael Honey: I think this is a fabulous deal for South Australia because the three Parliamentarians there from South Australia, none of them have said that we’ve been gutted over the last two [indistinct] of funding in South Australia, the lowest funded sectors in Australia over the last eight years and it’s time that South Australia got what everyone else gets everywhere else in Australia. So it is time to end these deals and put the money on the table for South Australians who have missed out for eight years.

Matthew Abraham: So your school, for instance, you believe will benefit from this?

Michael Honey: Every school in South Australia will benefit from this. Every single one because we’re looking at a shortfall in South Australia of some $200 million per annum at the moment. That’s equivalent to – educational jobs – 3000 jobs per year in South Australia we miss out on and everywhere else in Australia gets. And this is the deal that was done between Jay and Julia and is still in force today.

Matthew Abraham: Okay. So under this the Catholic schools will be able to reduce their fees so that children from working class families – who at the moment are excluded from many Catholic schools because of the high fees – will be able to access them?

Michael Honey: This will be a great step in that direction, I can assure you. It may not solve all the problems, but funding is what is pushing up fees. In South Australia we have the highest fees per capita in Australia.

David Bevan: Michael, thank you very much for calling us here on Super Wednesday. That’s Michael Honey, the principal of Nazareth Catholic College primary campus.

Can we move on from Gonski to the universities? Because Michael- Simon Birmingham announced earlier this week a new funding arrangement for universities and students are going to have to pay more sooner. Now, Simon Birmingham, can you tell us … from next year, at what income will the HECS repayments kick in for students?

Simon Birmingham: The proposal is for $42,000, that’s the new minimum threshold which is about 20 per cent above the full time minimum wage. It’s also for a new level of repayment at just 1 per cent for that minimum threshold which when you work that out equates to about $8 a week that we would be asking graduates to pay back on their student debt which is far more generous …

David Bevan: [Talks over] Hang on, hang on. Hang on, Minister, students were told the justification consistently for 20 years has been; you get a degree, you will get an above average income and therefore you should pay something towards your education. Not you’ll get something above the minimum wage. The average wage in Australia, depending on which website you go to, is around $80,000. So why are you asking people to pay at $42,000 something which was meant to promise them an above average income?

Simon Birmingham: University graduates still receive above average wages in Australia, they still are more likely to get a job than non-graduates …

David Bevan: [Talks over] $42,000 though. Why pay it at 42? If they’re getting above average wage, why kick in then?

Simon Birmingham: Because, David, it is essential that the generous student loan scheme we have in Australia is actually made sustainable for the long term. We’ve got $52 billion worth of debt on the student loan book at present. Around a quarter of that is estimated that it will not be repaid unless we change the policy settings. Ours is one of the most generous schemes in the world. Over the ditch in New Zealand students start repaying at $19,000. We’re proposing to simply bring it down to $42,000 at an incredibly modest rate of repayment at that.

Matthew Abraham: Kate Ellis, from the Labor Party, are you going to oppose this?

Kate Ellis: Well what we’ve seen is that this again shows that education just isn’t Malcolm Turnbull or the Liberal Party’s priority. And I think it’s really interesting; when was the last time any member of the Government tried to live on $42,000? We’ve seen that education is in the firing line and time and time again we see that young Australians are in the firing line and just being made to do it …

Matthew Abraham: [Interrupts] But will you oppose it? That was the question.

Kate Ellis: Well we can’t see any reason to support it at this stage. Obviously we’re going to have a look at the whole Budget and we’ll make the Budget reply speech next Thursday night where we’ll set forward some alternatives and our response to some of the major elements of the Budget. But again, I’m just sick and tired of poli-speak and dressing up that this is about priorities and this is about the Government choosing corporate tax cuts where they can find $50 billion, but they’re cutting our universities and they’re cutting our schools. And in response to Michael at Nazareth, I would say that South Australia is actually the hardest hit. Every South Australian school is the hardest hit from this government walking away from the six year agreement.

Matthew Abraham: Sarah Hanson-Young.

Sarah Hanson-Young: Look I think, firstly, the Budget when it’s handed down on Tuesday is going to be a good snapshot into the priorities of this Government. And I think cutting funding to universities, cutting funding and making life difficult for students isn’t how you invest in a clever country and a country that needs to transition into the futures- the new economy. But I do also think …

Matthew Abraham: [Interrupts] But the universities seem to support this. The students don’t, but …

Sarah Hanson-Young: Oh the universities, I think … This government has beaten the universities around the head for years now and they’re exhausted. And that’s the truth of it. Students are going to be copping the brunt here. I think this government is almost unashamedly anti-young person frankly. And I think this attack on students, cutting funding and making- pushing up fees, making it harder for students – particularly to low income families – to get to university. And then dropping that threshold down to $42,000, there’s going to be some students, particularly those studying part time, who are going to have to start paying it back before they’ve even graduated from university and this is ridiculous. When HECS was first introduced the threshold was set at something like $75,000. It has been whittled down further and further and further; $42,000 is going to make it very hard for young people.

Matthew Abraham: Simon Birmingham, just finally, is that going to be the bottom now, 42, that’s it? Do you lock in on that?

Simon Birmingham: Look, absolutely, Matthew. This is a change we believe will make our generous student loan schemes sustainable into the future, ensure that future generations – like all of us on this call and like everybody today – can continue to go to university without facing a single dollar of upfront fees. And that’s why we have to make sure that the student loan system is sustainable into the long term because otherwise a loan book that is buckling under a huge weight of debt at present will at one stage in the future for a government be seen as unsustainable and that’s the last thing I want to see happen.

Sarah Hanson-Young: Except, of course, that your government wants to loan a billion dollars to one of the biggest overseas mining companies, Adani. I mean, you pick and choose who you want to loan money to. You don’t want to loan money to students at a rate that is able to, you know, set them up for the future. You’re not going to tackle housing affordability. But you’re more than happy to give a mates rates to the Adani Coal Mine. I mean, get your priorities right.

Simon Birmingham: Kate and Sarah want to talk about company tax cuts and other things, the reality is we need to make sure that for graduates there are also jobs. And for there to be jobs that are existing Australia needs to be a competitive place that’s attracting international investment, that is actually having growing businesses here. And we are in a global race for capital. You see New Zealand, the UK in recent years, the US plans, France plan to bring down their company tax rates and we will be uncompetitive unless we actually continue to follow suit. And of course many good South Australian business like Haigh’s, like export industries in our wine sector, in our food sector are going to benefit from the changes that have already been legislated.

Matthew Abraham: Minister, you have to leave us and so do our other Super Wednesday participants. Thank you very much for your time. Simon Birmingham, the Federal Education Minister …

Simon Birmingham: Thanks guys.

Matthew Abraham: Kate Ellis, the Labor MP for Adelaide and Sarah Hanson-Young, Greens Senator from South Australia. It’s just gone 8.53.