Interview on ABC Radio Adelaide with Ali Clarke
Topics: Federal school funding for South Australia

Ali Clarke: Look, I don’t know if you’ve heard this little ditty, maybe your child has brought it home. Certainly ours did through their pre-school and early primary school years and it goes something like this: you get what you get and you don’t get upset. Okay? That’s what the teachers- What are you laughing at, Eliza? [Laughs] That’s what the teachers are telling the kids.

Well it appears that, well, it’s not really playing out like that when you look at the Ministers. There is- well the South Australian Government has formally refused to endorse the Federal Government’s school funding package, so that little ditty is not getting a lot of airplay.

Susan Close is the South Australian Education Minister. Good morning.

Susan Close: Good morning.

Ali Clarke: And we also have Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham. Good morning to you.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning Ali and good morning Susan.

Ali Clarke: So Susan Close, are you playing chicken, really playing chicken with the Federal Government here?

Susan Close: Well, what I’m doing is trying to get all of the money I possibly can for all of the students in South Australia. We had a deal that we signed about four years ago, it’s got another two years to run – a six year deal – and under that original deal we would have over $200 million more in those last two years than we’re currently being offered and I’m holding out. I want the money that we agreed- we signed. Two sovereign states- and the Commonwealth government- two sovereign governments sat down, signed a deal for six years; we’ve stuck to it and we’d like them to stick to it.

Ali Clarke: It’s still $200 million that hadn’t been [indistinct] there’s a shortfall there. So I guess to you then, Simon Birmingham, are you playing chicken? Because you’re not really going to hold back $16.6 billion worth of funding to our schools, are you?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Ali, I don’t have a lot of choice in this under the way the federal legislation has been written. If the South Australian Government refuse to sign the very basic statement of principles that is part of the Education Act that requires- is a trigger for me to make payments or for the Federal Government to make payments to the different states and territories. So those principles are there. If the SA Government refuses to sign them, that will in effect be the State Government denying South Australian schools access to around $1.3 billion in federal school funding next year.

Now, I understand Susan is still arguing over the Gillard Government deals that were done and were clearly terminated in the 2014 Budget. But let’s really move on from the 2014 Budget. What we did this year as a government was legislate fair, needs-based school funding across Australia. It provides, into South Australian schools next year alone, an additional $85 million for a total of $1.3 billion in funding. It provides growth in the government school sector of around 7.6 per cent per student. That’s well in excess of any measure of wages or inflation; it’s significant, real growth. And what Susan Close is doing is turning the back of the South Australian Government on getting any of that funding. I mean, it is just reckless in the extreme.

Ali Clarke: Well, Susan Close, if this money doesn’t come through, what’s going to happen to the nearly four million children that are putting their uniforms on right now and heading out the door to school?

Susan Close: Well I just don’t buy that the Federal Government is incapable of giving money for schools that it wants to. It’s constructed a piece of legislation that says that I need to sign an agreement … I had an agreement, so I’ve already got an agreement; they can use that to trigger funding. They can fund outside legislation. It’s their legislation. So it is nonsense to be saying: well, we just won’t fund any schools and they’ll all close. That’s nonsense.

What we’re really talking about is what kind of structure of agreement are we going to have. We believe we’ve already got an agreement and we’re very happy to sit down and start planning for the agreement that succeeds that one, but a couple of pages of motherhood statements is not a meaningful agreement. That’s just a way of making each of the states comply and say: yep, we’re okay with this new version of funding. And we’re not okay and we’re just going to say that. We’re not okay.

And the reason the funding goes up – it goes up a bit under Simon’s new agreement and it goes up further in the current arrangement – is because we know that we need to fund schools better. We know if we want a world class education it costs money and we agreed to that, we signed our deal, there’s two more years to run. And all I’m asking is that the Commonwealth Government accepts that, sees that South Australian schools deserve what we’d already arranged to have, accepts that and funds us.

Ali Clarke: This rhetoric plays out well for you though, doesn’t it, Susan Close? Heading towards an election just months away.

Susan Close: I actually find it quite uncomfortable. I’m not a naturally combative person and I know that there are some people in schools today who are a bit worried because they’ve seen that this Commonwealth Government is threatening their funding. [Indistinct] …

Ali Clarke: [Talks over] So is that why you’ve signed off on $1.8 million on TV and radio and newspaper ads to advertise the schooling system?

Susan Close: As we’ve discussed, making sure that people understand how good local public schools is really important because we want people to actively think about choosing their local public schools. The more diverse a school is, the better quality it is. And we are so proud of our education system and part of what we’re doing at the moment is telling everyone how we’re spending our share of the additional money in those last two years because we’ve stuck to our agreement. We’re escalating how much we’re spending, we just want our funding partner to be there with us doing the same thing.

Ali Clarke: Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham, to you, I was speaking to a mother this week whose child has just been diagnosed as dyslexic and the school has told that mother that there is not any money for- to give this child the best possible support they need and that it seems to be a case in education that if you’re slightly outside of the so-called box, there is not enough funding to go around to make sure that you are looked after and given the best possible education. Is the money that you’re putting up really going to solve that problem?

Simon Birmingham: Well I hope so. I would hope that it really does make a difference to your schools because, as I said, it’s for government schools some 7.6 per cent growth, not just next year but also the year after that and the year after that. And ultimately across SA growth of around $800 million over the next decade in terms of the funding, taking it from about $1.2 billion this year to $2 billion of federal funding over the next decade. And this is what Susan Close is saying isn’t good enough and that she won’t accept or sign on to.

Well, really we have to get a point where the State Government stops endlessly picking fights with the Federal Government just because that’s in Jay Weatherill’s political playbook. But in this case, to think that they are picking this fight in a way that would deny South Australian schools access to $1.3 billion of federal funding next year, I mean will they guarantee to make up the difference if this funding doesn’t flow through? Because that’s the situation where schools would be very, very worried that the State Government’s refusing to sign what even Susan herself described is a motherhood statement – so there’s obviously no problem with the content of it – but her refusal to say I will sign on to that statement will actually mean those payments cannot be processed in time for the start of the next school year.

Ali Clarke: But just the same way, people could turn to you, Simon Birmingham and say: well, come on, you know, work it out between the two of you. You’re the big man with the really, really big purse here. Just work it out and give some sort of leeway to South Australia, get them across the line so this funding can go to the kids.

Simon Birmingham: Well we’ve given enormous leeway. The Budget position that was taken way back in 2014 was for growth purely in line with inflation. Now we’re proposing growth of 7.6 per cent. I mean that is a vast change of position. And let’s not forget, the Federal Budget is still in deficit, the promises that were made by the Gillard Government were clearly unaffordable.

We’ve come a long, long way to provide additional funding into South Australia’s school systems. We’ve done so in a way that has seen other states – other Labor states – already sign up to these principles, so this is not something where every state in the country is rebelling against us now. We have seen clear progress by those who are willing to be clear eyed and rational, the difference is that those states don’t have a state election in March of next year; those states don’t have a history of just wanting to endlessly wage war with the Federal Government. That’s the way Jay Weatherill wants to do it. Everything is a fight with Canberra. Well, really, grow up! Get over it and let’s get on with doing the things that matter here, and in this case ensuring our schools are funded properly and that is why there’s $1.3 billion the Turnbull Government wants to give to South Australian schools next year. That money can start flowing from January and all the State Government has to do is tick off on what Susan herself described as a motherhood statement.

Ali Clarke: Well, look, clearly that’s not going to happen here on this program right now so can you tell me the deadline that this needs to be resolved by?

Simon Birmingham: December 5. December 5 is when the Federal Treasury tells me they need to have all the paperwork signed off to make sure that SA schools start getting paid in January next year.

Ali Clarke: Okay. Susan Close, when will you next be speaking to Simon Birmingham to try to resolve this? And what …

Susan Close: I’m always available to talk to Simon, but there is nothing stopping the Federal Government from funding schools if they want to. They are perfectly capable of funding directly. What they want is for us to doff our caps to our overlords and to tick off on an act of compliance that says it’s okay not to honour a six year agreement that we have with them. And a couple of other states have signed, I happen to know that in signing they have expressed their extreme displeasure at being forced to do this. But what’s different with those states is they haven’t agreed to their six year deal and stuck to their six year deal and we have. So I think we’re in a special position – New South Wales is in the same – where we not only signed early, signed a very clear principled agreement, very detailed over six years, agreeing what we should have in order to fund our schools properly and we’ve stuck to our side of the bargain. So I think we deserve a special attention and the Federal Government, not only to not threaten not to fund our schools at all – which is just ludicrous – but to take seriously our very legitimate claim that we signed an agreement that ought to remain in force. It’s in force today, Ali, it’s in force tomorrow. They’re saying they’re pulling out of it at the end of the year, just don’t. Just don’t pull out of it. Use it as a mechanism to generate funding and give us the funding that we all know we deserve.

Ali Clarke: Susan Close, South Australia’s Education Minister and Simon Birmingham there, Federal Education Minister. Thank you both for your time.

Susan Close: Thank you.