Interview on ABC Radio Adelaide Drive with Jules Schiller 
Delivering real, Gonski needs-based funding for schools; Murray-Darling Basin Plan

Jules Schiller: Yes, like I said at the start of the show: there’s no maths like Gonski maths. Huge cuts, and at the same time, huge increases in spending depending to which political party you ask. I tell you, if we filled out our tax returns with the same types of maths that are often floating around in the Gonski press releases, we’d probably all be in jail. Anyway, we had Tanya Plibersek on yesterday giving her version of the Gonski 2.0 reforms, and I spoke to the South Australian Federal MP, the Minister for Education and Training Simon Birmingham, earlier today.

Simon Birmingham: Absolute pleasure.

Jules Schiller: Now, Tanya Plibersek the Deputy Opposition Leader was in town yesterday talking about Gonski 2.0, and a lot of it centred around Trinity Gardens Primary School. She said it was going to be $680,000 worse off. You put out a press release saying it was going to be $6.2 million better off. Now, my maths is of a Trinity Gardens Primary School level, Minister, so how is this possible?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we’ve been very clear that there’s really strong funding growth coming into South Australia out of the reforms we’ve put through the Parliament. Now, Labor wants to try and compare them to unfunded promises that the Labor Party have made in previous years, and that’s fine. They’re entitled to have their policies, their promises, and to justify whether or not the nation can afford to pay for them. But the truth that parents at Trinity Gardens Primary School, and in fact, every other school across South Australia should know is that funding will be increasing at their school as a result of the Turnbull Government school funding reforms – the Gonski 2.0 legislation that provides a true application of consistent, fair needs-based funding across the country – and over the next decade, in the case of Trinity Gardens Primary School, that’s an additional $6.2 million of support flowing into just that one school. So, off of what they’re getting in 2017, the trajectory is one of increase; more dollars, more support, and of course from that we want to make sure that it’s used as effectively as possible on the things that will make the best different to student outcomes. 

Jules Schiller: So Minister, when we’re hearing about $2.2 billion cuts for schools around Australia, are we hearing about cuts to the last two years of Gonski which aren’t being implemented? Because it is very confusing to people who are listening. 

Simon Birmingham: Again, reassurance is each and every year there’s more money going into school education, and it’s growing well above wages, well above inflation. In South Australia, really strong percentage growth over the next few years; around five per cent or so mark per student per annum ensuring that we have that good, strong growth. And so, yes, there are promises, as I say, unfunded, made by the Labor 

Party in previous elections, and they can make their comparisons to their promises, but to describe it as a cut when the funding is going up, and to South Australian public schools over the next decade there will be an extra $406 million of federal funding coming into South Australia to support state schools. Now, you listen to Jay Weatherill or the state Labor Party, and you’d be forgiven for thinking, somehow, that Canberra was slitting the throat of the South Australian Government, when quite the opposite is the case with record levels of GST funding, record levels of schools funding, record levels of hospital funding, and growing each and every year, and yet, the Labor Government here, in fact, in the past has taken increased Federal funding for schools and then ripped money out of those schools in terms of the state contribution. One of the core changes that we made, in terms of the legislation we put through just a month or so ago, is to ensure that states can’t cost shift. That, if the Federal Government increases its level of investment into public education, the states don’t get to take that money and put it in their own pocket with the other hand, that we actually want to make sure they maintain their investment as well into the future.

Jules Schiller: Well Minister, she also criticised Gonski 2.0’s treatment of the private schools sector, and she didn’t go to St Peters College yesterday – probably for good reason – because she said it was getting $16.5 million extra that it didn’t deserve since school kids pay – well, their parents – $23,000 school fees a year. Do you think you’re favouring private schools too much?

Simon Birmingham: Absolutely not. The fastest rate of growth under our reforms in South Australia is into the public education system. So, year on year percentage increases are higher for public schools in South Australia than they are for private schools, and so if you look at that it’s around 7.3 per cent growth over the next few years per student per annum in the government school sector in South Australia. That is around 2 per cent faster than for non-government schools, showing that we really are making sure it’s directed where it needs to go, and a school like St Peters College receives, for example, around one-third of the total level of government funding per student than a school like Modbury High School. So when parents choose to opt out of the Government system and go to a school like that, they end up saving taxpayers money. And, of course, that’s rightly as we would expect it to be. It’s a needs-based funding model we’re applying. We’re directing the funding into the schools of highest need, and those who are furthest away from receiving their fair share of federal funding will get the fastest rates of growth under the reforms – hence it’s 4.3 per cent for government schools in South Australia over the next few years, and just 4.7 per cent for non-government schools. 

Jules Schiller: Are you surprised by Labor’s opposition to this? I mean, it’s very vociferous, it’s quite vocal considering it is a Gonski of sorts. 

Simon Birmingham: Well, it’s legislation and reforms endorsed by David Gonski himself, by a couple of other members of the Gonski review panel. I am absolutely astounded at the hypocrisy of the federal Labor Party, who for years have put up green t-shirts and green billboards saying they give a Gonski, then when legislation to implement the Gonski report was brought to the Parliament, endorsed by David Gonski himself, they had the gall to actually vote against it and they continue to campaign against it. By all means, as I say, they can promise to spend as much money as they want. God only knows how they think they’ll pay for it when the nation’s already in deficit. Now, they can promise to spend all the money they want, but they should be supporting the fundamentals of what we have done as a government, which is to implement true, fair, consistent, needs-based funding across the country that ensures funding is calculated based on needs-based principles regardless of state borders, regardless of sectoral differences between one school sector or the other. 

Jules Schiller: You can’t have been surprised by the Catholic opposition though, Minister. I mean, they claim they weren’t consulted in a lot of the Gonski 2.0 reforms. You’ve obviously changed the way the funding is delivered to those schools; do you think you’ve done enough to placate them? 

Simon Birmingham: Well, again we see growth going into Catholic systemic schools around the country at a rate that is faster than wages growth, faster than inflation, so there’s no reason for fee increases. Here in South Australia, Catholic system schools will see a faster rate of growth than in states like Victoria or Queensland, and that’s because, historically, the Catholic system in South Australia got a worse deal under school funding arrangements than the Catholic system did in Victoria or Queensland. So, these are the types of inequities that we’ve tried to iron out by treating Catholic systems equally across the country, and in fact, the non-government education sector equally across the country, so that it doesn’t matter if you come along and change the sign on the school gate from it being a Catholic school to being an Anglican independent school or anything else, the funding, of course, shouldn’t change if the kids stay the same, the family circumstances have to change and the need is to change, and that is what we’ve really sought to put in place here: a true, consistent, needs-based approach. 

Jules Schiller: Minister, while I’ve got you, obviously, Four Corners has set off a big debate about the Murray-Darling Basin. I know you were Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for the Murray-Darling Basin; you’ve got an interest in it. There’s a lot of alarm here over some of the big irrigators who might be taking water out of the system that they shouldn’t and not really complying with some of the regulations; are you worried about it as well? 

Simon Birmingham: I am absolutely, Jules. Look, I spent quite a number of years – both in Opposition and Government – with portfolio responsibility for the Murray-Darling Basin. I think one of the proudest achievements in my political career was ensuring bipartisan support for the Murray-Darling Basin plan and overseeing a couple of years of its successful implementation as a minister, and I really want to see quick answers from the New South Wales Government. They must be satisfactory, and if they’re not satisfactory then further action, clearly, is going to have to be taken, because the types of allegations and suggestions that have been made are outrageous, they do undermine people’s support for and confidence in the Murray-Darling Basin plan, and I can tell you it’s damned hard to convince the other states to work cooperatively on this issue, and you’ve got to make sure every state is adhering to the law, to the letter of it, and that’s certainly what I expect our government will be doing in conjunction with all those other states. 

Jules Schiller: What are the levers that you need to pull then, Minister? I mean, if there doesn’t seem to be a lot of compliance, there doesn’t seem to be anyone getting fined, it just seems to be an honour system, which – for a resource as precious as water – seems to be a little naïve. What levers or what mechanisms do you think need to be set up? 

Simon Birmingham: Well, there are absolutely penalties that can be put in place for individuals who are misusing licences and taking water away. In terms of what appears to possibly be a more systemic nod-and-a-wink to misuse or malpractice of water and water licences, we’ve got to – as Anne Ruston rightly said on 891 ABC this morning – we’ve got to hear from New South Wales in very short time as to their response, and then, if it’s not satisfactory, we’ve got to get all of the states in the Murray-Darling Basin to agree on the type of independent process that has to be undertaken to bring them into order and fix this ASAP.

Jules Schiller: When New South Wales talked about possibly leaving the agreement; I mean, is that possible? Is that something you could see? 

Simon Birmingham: Look, I’d be very surprised, and I think the language from the New South Wales Government today – that I’ve seen, at least – doesn’t seem to suggest that’s at all likely. 

Jules Schiller: Alright, Minister. Thank you so much for giving us your thoughts on Gonski and the Murray-Darling Basin. Appreciate your time.

Simon Birmingham: My pleasure, Jules. Any time.