Interview on ABC Radio Adelaide Breakfast with Matthew Abraham and David Bevan
Delivering real, Gonski needs-based funding for schools

Matthew Abraham: Let’s rip into a super giver Gonski Wednesday, with Simon Birmingham; Senator, South Australian, and the Education Minister in the Turnbull Government. Senator Simon Birmingham, welcome Minister.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, guys.

Matthew Abraham: Kate Ellis, Labor MP for Adelaide. She’s the Shadow Minister for Early Childhood Education and joins us now. Kate Ellis, welcome to the program.

David Bevan: She’ll be with us in just a second. 

Matthew Abraham: Nick Xenophon, leader of the NXT team. Good morning Nick Xenophon.

Nick Xenophon: Good morning.

Matthew Abraham: And I think Kate Ellis might be there right now. Hello Kate.

Kate Ellis: Hello. 

David Bevan: If we can start with Simon Birmingham, the Federal Education Minister and South Australian Senator. Simon Birmingham, are you any closer to finally sorting out a way to fund our schools?

Simon Birmingham: Every day is a day closer, David. But seriously, yes, with the engagement in discussions with the cross-benchers, with the Greens, have all been really constructive. They’ve heard the messages from parts of the education unions have now been saying you should actually engage with the Government and do something about this from the many different advocates, including of course David Gonski himself and members of the Gonski panel that say this is a good proposal, and that people should engage with the Government and it really is to the credit of all of those different minor party players that they are having such constructive discussions, and that hopefully we can settle this and provide certainty for schools, needs-based funding for schools, and additional funding for schools as a result.

David Bevan: What’s the big deal about this? What’s the worst that will happen if it doesn’t get through the Senate? We just save a lot of money, don’t we? It’s not going to make any difference, is it, it’s just the Federal Budget will look a lot better.

Simon Birmingham: Well no, not necessarily, and obviously I’m sure Kate will argue a different proposition that of course is far costlier and completely unfunded. But if it doesn’t get through, then all of the different inequities will remain. So the raw deal that South Australia got by signing onto an agreement with Labor that back-ended all of the funding and so on, would just be entrenched and would just sit there and so South Australian schools will remain underfunded relative to schools in other states. There’s actually really strong growth in funding for Australian schools and South Australian schools in particular, they’d be around $381 million worse off than in this legislation.

David Bevan: It’s not going to help the kids get better educated is it?

Simon Birmingham: Well there’s another part to this and your dead right there Matthew that we need to focus on how the funding is used as well as how…

David Bevan: [Interrupts] …Because you’ve always argued up until now- up until now when you needed everything at your disposal, you’ve argued that throwing more money at education doesn’t result in better education outcomes. This isn’t about that. And if it’s not about that, what’s it about?

Simon Birmingham: So what we’re doing here is we’re fixing the fairness of funding distribution to ensure a needs-based model applies, and that standards across the states and territories has consistency. So we’re also getting David Gonski to get on with doing a second piece of work, which is about how we make sure, then, that as funding grows into the future it isn’t wasted, but is actually used in the most effective, the most evidence based way and were going to put in place conditions to this to ensure the states, territories sign on to the types of reforms David might recommend to lift educational performance in our schools.

David Bevan: Well, Jay Weatherill’s just sent us a text – the Premier – glad he is listening to Super Wednesday. It’s only a raw deal, Simon Birmingham, because they ratted on year five and six of our agreement.

Simon Birmingham: Well all of the deals with different states, different agreements – and even if you [indistinct] them all right to the end – you still have distortions all across the country. You still have some schools of exactly the same needs that were getting up to $2000 or thereabouts less per student than a school in identical circumstances in a different state. Now that just isn’t a fair way for a Federal Government  – a National Government – to fund schools across the country and its those types of inequities and inconsistencies that we’re getting rid of, and that I’m very pleased that, as I say, all of the different parties – with the exception of the Labor party, ironically, is the ones who have argued for so long about needs-based funding. All of the other parties are willing to have that conversation, willing to heed the advice of David Gonski, other members of his panel, independent commentators like the Grattan Institute and the Mitchell Institute, and now increasingly even parts of the Australian Education Union – finally recognizing the merits.

Matthew Abraham: Well Nick Xenophon, are you going to support this package?

Nick Xenophon: Well very close to. Further discussions with the Minister this morning. This is about improving transition time from 10 years to a much lower period, making sure the state and territory governments do their share, there’s the Commonwealth funding- giving extra funding in this, and making sure that we have an independent watchdog to make sure that the plan’s being implemented, that the funding is fair. And also to deal with some of the issues with the Catholic sector who have raised concerns about this. I don’t want the perfect to be the enemy of the good. This will involve a significant improvement in school funding and of course in terms of outcomes David Gonski is looking at that. And that’s the next tranche of reforms to make sure extra money is actually being spent wisely and well to improve educational outcomes.

David Bevan: What’s the story with the Catholic sector? We talked about this yesterday with Chris Uhlmann, the ABC political editor, and I’m just wondering, was there a sweetheart deal that the Gillard Government did with the Catholic sector in order to get them over the line, just like sweetheart deals were done with certain state governments just to get them over the line, so somebody would sign up to Gonski at a difficult time. In other words, the reason why some Catholic schools will be worse off under this deal is because they were given a sweetheart deal and they’re being rolled back. Is that what went on, or something else? Because I’m curious why the independent schools aren’t complaining the way the Catholic sector is.

Nick Xenophon: I think that the Catholic sector- and I’ve spoken to- and as is Rebekha Sharkie said, the main conduct of this bill, it’s fair to say that there were many deals done at the time of Gonski 1.0  that- and that led to a degree of complexity to it. I think it’s a question that once you give someone something, it’s obviously very hard to take it away. And Chris Back – the Liberal Senator who is retiring this week from Western Australia – he has, I think, been lobbying the Government very hard on this and Simon can tell us more about that. But I think that in so far as that there are a number of legitimate complaints from the Catholic sector, it’s a question trying to deal with those, and…

David Bevan: [Interrupts] Well we’ve got a text here, saying; I was robo-called by the CFMEU, that’s one union, last night – this is in Adelaide – warning against Nick’s dirty little deals with the Libs re education. Are you spooked by that?

Nick Xenophon: Well, I feel sorry for all those people that have to get those robo-calls that I think that are probably unwelcome. And it’s completely inaccurate. The fact is we have a situation here, where the Government has already committed to $18.6 billion in extra spending, It’s a matter of improving it to get extra money into the system to make sure that the funding model is fairer and better. And that’s what the overwhelming consensus is.

Matthew Abraham: Kate Ellis, Labor MP for Adelaide, Shadow Minister for Early Childhood Education. Why would the Labor party block this now? Because originally the overtures were quite – if not supportive – at least kind or benign.

Kate Ellis: Well no, we would block this because [call cuts] …

Matthew Abraham: Oh. That’s not us. 

David Bevan: We didn’t do that.

Matthew Abraham: Michael Honey. Now we’ve spoken to him before, he originally welcomed this model as a great deal for the Catholic system. Well, he’s principal of Nazareth College. I hope I’ve got that right, Michael. Welcome.

Michael Honey: Thank you very much Matt and Dave.

Matthew Abraham: What do you think now?

Michael Honey: Well I’ve got to say, I can’t speak on behalf of Nazareth or the Catholic system, but I can speak on behalf of the kids of South Australia. And what I’ve seen is over the last four years, for whatever reason, our kids have been grossly under funded by the Commonwealth, which Simon has already alluded to. But in this deal what we’re offered is because we’re coming off such a low base of Commonwealth funding, which basically means our kids are being beaten with baseball bats by the Commonwealth because we’re coming off such a low base of Commonwealth funding. So the next 10 years, it will take us 10 years to be equal with citizens in the Eastern states. I can’t see why South Australian kids have had to endure this over the last four years, and then the transition to equalisation is going to take 10 years. We should be equal with other citizens right now.

David Bevan: Well you’ve changed your tune a bit, Michael.

Michael Honey: I haven’t changed my tune. 

David Bevan: Well…

Michael Honey: Well, just let me finish. The needs-based funding model I agree with. But what I don’t agree with is the transition. Why should South Australian kids, not Catholic kids, South Australian kids be subjected to the lowest funding over the last four years and then suffer the indignity of waiting 10 years to be equalised as Australian citizens? This needs to stop now. Today we need to make sure that South Australia’s kids get what every other kid gets; the national average of Commonwealth funding. 

Matthew Abraham: Okay, Simon Birmingham, how do you respond to that?

Simon Birmingham: Getting a fair treatment for everybody is exactly what we’re trying to do here and …

David Bevan: [Interrupts] But will it take 10 years to get our kids up to what children interstate are receiving?

Simon Birmingham: It depends very much on each of the circumstances. But what our model does do is for every single one of those 10 years, provides a faster rate of funding growth for states like South Australia and WA and so that eventually every school everywhere is treated in an equal way. Now, under the previous arrangement it was going to take around 150 years for the funding formulas to even get within [indistinct] of evening out. We’re putting in place [indistinct] to try to do that in a much quicker timeframe than what Labor had put on the table. There’s obviously discussions that have been put forward by Nick and others about whether we can do some aspects of that faster and they’re things that I’ve indicated the Government is looking at as part the pragmatic constructive discussions with the crossbench. 

Matthew Abraham: Minister, the problems with the Catholic system that you’re having. Judith Sloan has written in The Australian, this is a couple of days ago – and Henry Ergas. Both thoughtful people I think you’ll agree, and both of the conservative bent, that the formula that you’re attempting to ram through Parliament isn’t system blind and the Catholic education systems understand this. In fact Catholic schools with the same SES – that’s socioeconomic standing composition of students as government schools receive lower loadings and they’re actually penalised if they take more students from lower SES backgrounds. The incentives are in favour of segregation rather than integration of students from a variety of backgrounds which is surely an outcome the Government doesn’t support.

Simon Birmingham: Judith Sloan is dead wrong on that, Matthew, so …

Matthew Abraham: Well is she right if she says government school receive 80 per cent of the new federal funding even though they account for only 65 per cent of the school student population?

Simon Birmingham: To bring all of the government schools up to a 20 per cent share of the schooling resource standard, while we bring all of the non-government schools up to an 80 per cent share of the schooling resource standard, all done consistently and reflective of the historical arrangements that the states are the overwhelming funders of government schools and the Commonwealth is the overwhelming funder of non-government schools, that does cost a bit more to bring everybody up to those points of equal treatment in the government school sector. It doesn’t negate the fact that the highest per student funding in the country still actually flows into the Catholic Education system. The Catholic Education in South Australia will see its funding grow from around $371 million this year to $378 million next year, increasing again to 387 and overall – overall over the course of the next decade would receive some $4.26 billion in estimated funding growing each and every year …

David Bevan: [Interrupts] Well Minister, you’ve had a fair go. Let’s go back to Kate Ellis because the phone actually dropped out while she was starting to speak. Kate Ellis, what do you say to Nick Xenophon – it’s clear he close to cutting a deal with Birmingham and giving him at least some of the votes he needs. Xenophon says let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the good. Let’s get something done.

Kate Ellis: I would make three points. The first is that Nick Xenophon and the Nick Xenophon Team made a very clear pre-election commitment to the people of South Australia and they said that they would settle for absolutely nothing less than the full six years of the original funding deals. If they settle now they will be selling out South Australian schools $265 million over the next two years and every voter should know about the betrayal and the lies that they were told before the last election. 

The other two points I would quickly make is that (1) it is an absolute joke. I mean Simon started by laughing about this, that we now have two days left of the Federal Parliament before we go into the winter break. It is ridiculous that we are letting the Greens, the minor parties try and come up with last minute deals which will impact on how every school in Australia is funded for the next 10 years …

Matthew Abraham: [Interrupts] Well they might be getting more money for the schools. They might be getting more money for the Catholic sector as opposed to just sitting back saying nah.

Kate Ellis: Well no, the Government’s own document revealed that this includes a $22 billion cut. That’s what the Prime Minister’s own document says. 

But the other point that I would just make and the reason why- there is only one party in the Parliament who has a unanimous view on this and that is the Labor Party, that what Simon has just reconfirmed here is that the problem with this legislation- this is about the Turnbull Government walking away from our public schools. The Government themselves are admitting that they want to give private schools 80 per cent of their fair level of funding and public schools just 20 per cent. Now what that will mean is that even after 10 years, 85 per cent of Australian public schools will not be at their fair funding level …

Matthew Abraham: [Interrupts] How come there’s not a mass revolt by public schools apart from the usual suspects, you know?

Kate Ellis: There is. There absolutely is right around the country. What we’re hearing is that representatives from over 90 per cent of schools are opposing this deal and are urging people to do likewise. This is about …

Matthew Abraham: [Interrupts] Well who are the representatives – union reps?

Kate Ellis: Well, it’s not just union reps …

Matthew Abraham: Well they’re just arms of the Labor Party. I mean …

Kate Ellis: We’ve got principals and teachers who- we had principals in tears in the Parliament yesterday. We’ve got the people who each and every day are seeing the impact of what this means. And this is about the Government locking in a two-tiered education system when the whole point of reform was about making sure that every school in Australia, whether it was a Catholic school, whether it was a government school, whether it was an independent school is a great school. That’s what our Parliament should be aiming to do and if this legislation passes we will be further away from that goal.

David Bevan: Well Mr Gonski, he wasn’t crying and he’s backing it. But anyway look – Kate Ellis, thank you for your time. Labor MP for Adelaide. Before that Simon Birmingham, the Education Minister, and Nick Xenophon, leader of the NXT Team in the Federal Parliament. We appreciate your efforts with us.