Interview on ABC Radio Adelaide with Matthew Abraham and David Bevan 
Delivering real, Gonski needs-based funding for schools; Finkel Report
14 June 2017

David Bevan: Rebekha Sharkie is the Nick Xenophon team member for Mayo. Welcome, Rebekha Sharkie.

Rebekha Sharkie: Good morning, thank you for having me on.

David Bevan: A pleasure.

Mark Butler, national president of the Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Energy, Federal Member for Port Adelaide, and prolific author with his second book due to hit the … well I was going to say the Big W discount stand, but I’m sure before …

Mark Butler: All royalties going to the Alzheimer’s Australia Research Foundation again. I can tell you, it is freezing over in Canberra and foggy, if you want a weather forecast, but it usually is at this time of year.

David Bevan: Well it’s beautiful here.

Simon Birmingham, Liberal Senator for South Australia; Education Minister, Simon Birmingham. Welcome Senator.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning.

David Bevan: And is it your birthday today?

Simon Birmingham: [Laughs] You are too well informed, David. Yes it is.

Matthew Abraham: And what better way to celebrate your birthday than talking to us?

Simon Birmingham: I can think of … nothing I would rather do.

David Bevan: Alright that’s the first lie of Super Wednesday.

David Bevan: But, Minister, how old are you?

Simon Birmingham: Forty-three.

David Bevan: For real?

Matthew Abraham: Only 43.

Simon Birmingham: It’s a long time since I was the youngest person in the Senate now.

Matthew Abraham: Well you still look like the youngest, but that’s okay.

Simon Birmingham: [Laughs] Flattery will get you nowhere, Matthew.

Matthew Abraham: Senator Birmingham, are you going to get a birthday present as – according to Phil Coorey in the Fin Review – Senate crossbenchers leaning towards Gonski 2.0?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I’m really hopeful. There are at least two clear pathways for our $18.6 billion investment in schools and support for a true needs-based funding model to get through the Senate and we’ve seen, the last couple of days, a couple of other authors of the Gonski report urge the Senate to pass this – Dr Ken Boston yesterday, Kathryn Greiner today, David Gonski, of course, originally – so there are strong voices saying this is true delivery of the Gonski recommendations. And thankfully, the crossbenchers and the Greens are all engaging in really sensible discussions around it; I just wish Mark and the Labor Party would do likewise.

Matthew Abraham: Well, Rebekha Sharkie, is the Nick Xenophon Team on board with Gonski?

Rebekha Sharkie: Well, the Bill’s passed my house and I said that I was cautiously supportive of the legislation. Obviously, today I think we’ll see the Senate inquiry reporting. We have raised with the Minister where we see a couple of weaknesses in the legislation, particularly around the length of time and there not being a requirement for the state governments to increase their contribution. But, look, we’re working constructively with Minister Birmingham and the Government.

Matthew Abraham: So you voted for it in the lower house?

Rebekha Sharkie: I did. In my speech, I think it was fairly well balanced, I talked about Labor’s position and what we saw as weaknesses in what’s put before us at the moment.

David Bevan: We also have Mark Butler; there’s been an outbreak of peace. Or are you going to fire a shot?

Mark Butler: Well I think our position on Simon’s school funding proposals is pretty well known. I think we’ve been arguing the case since it was first released and this morning you actually see a list of the 300-plus schools that will actually lose money next year if Rebekha and other crossbenchers support this package. And it’s not the very, very rich schools that I think people had in mind in Sydney and Melbourne; half of them, more than 150 of them, are public schools in the Northern Territory. Now, I don’t imagine anyone thinks that public schools in the Northern Territory are swimming in riches and should have their funds cut. That is one of the reasons why we’ve been arguing against this proposal and we’ll continue to do so.

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, are state schools in the Northern Territory going to lose money?

Simon Birmingham: No. The Government’s been very clear that we have budgeted some additional funding for the Northern Territory to make sure that there is continued growth in funding for Northern Territory government schools. The only schools that are going to actually see reductions in funding are a handful of non-government schools, a number of other non-government schools will see growth rates lower than the normal indexation, but we’ve absolutely put in place some special provisions for Northern Territory schools – Mark should know that, that has been the Government’s position from day one. And, of course, the only schools that are going to lose are indeed a number of quite well-off independent schools. Ultimately, we are putting the greatest levels of growth – more than 5 per cent, per annum, per student – into the neediest government schools around the country.

David Bevan: Okay. Well the only – on this list that’s published in The Australian – elite school set to lose, in South Australia, there’s only four that I can see at a quick glance: St Dominic’s Priory College at North Adelaide; Portside Christian College in South Australia as well, obviously down at the port I imagine; St John’s Grammar School at Belair; and St Peter’s Collegiate Girls’ School at Stonyfell. This is …

Simon Birmingham: [Interrupts] Those four schools, all of them will see continued growth in their funding, just at a lower rate of indexation. So there’s not a reduction there. And why is that happening? Just to quickly explain …

David Bevan: [Interrupts] Well they may have a different view of that, mayn’t they?

Simon Birmingham: Well I’m very clear there that- I don’t think that they’re contesting at all that it’s a lower rate of growth, but they don’t see an actual reduction in terms of their funding. And even the figures in The Australian demonstrate it still goes up per student, just not as fast as it would have under Labor’s distortions of the Gonski model. What we’re doing there is we’re putting them all on exactly the same formula and treatment in terms of school funding so that it’s done by need across all of those non-government schools consistently. Some get a lower rate of growth to bring them down to a common approach, others get a faster rate of growth to bring them up to a common approach; that’s the point of having one consistent needs-based funding model that over 10 years, we gradually get everybody onto that consistent …

Matthew Abraham: [Interrupts] Mark Butler, looking at this list – now, you’ve singled out the Northern Territory – now do you accept that Simon Birmingham saying; well, we’ll make a special case there? But when you look at the list, is anyone really going to be shedding tears over the vast majority of schools on that list who won’t be actually going backwards – most of them – but they will not have the same rate of growth? Will anyone really – it champions public education – be worried about most of these schools?

Mark Butler: Well the only school I’m familiar with on that list that you just [indistinct] is Portside – which is in my electorate, I’ve visited it many times, I’m very familiar with it – it is not even close to a wealthy school that services [indistinct] there’s high levels of children with disabilities and have extra needs for their funding. So I’m not sure why they would be receiving a lower level of indexation. 

But of course, the other issue for South Australia is that the Government is walking away from an agreement that was concluded some years ago that would continue next year and into 2019 as well, particularly for public schools. Now, this was an agreement that Tony Abbott said in 2013, an incoming Liberal Government would support; this was an agreement that the Nick Xenophon Team said at the last election, they would insist upon being respected by the Government, particularly for years five and six. So funding that is included in an agreement between the South Australian and Commonwealth governments will be taken away from South Australian public schools, in particular next year, with the support unfortunately of the Nick Xenophon Team and they said they wouldn’t support it before the last election.

Matthew Abraham: Okay. Simon Birmingham, if we come back to you. Liberal Senator for South Australia, so far your birthday’s going pretty well; you’ve got Sharkie on side and the Greens are even considering bits of Gonski 2, and you’ve got the other backbenchers – so that’s looking pretty good for you. 

Has your party though, got serious problems, serious problems, when it comes to Finkel and energy? The front page of The Australian today: Turnbull faces revolt on power. Were you at that meeting of backbenchers? Did you get a report from that meeting of backbenchers last night that- apparently it was called to try and convince them to fall into line?

Simon Birmingham: Well I was at most of that party room meeting. The Senate was still sitting and so there were other bits of Parliamentary business to deal with which meant I had to duck out.

Just quickly in response to Mark, I just highlight there’s 33 per cent growth over the next four years for South Australian government schools too.

But in terms of that party room meeting, it was called to actually discuss the review that’s been concluded and completed by Dr Finkel. We had a very good discussion about it …

Matthew Abraham: [Interrupts] Was it a robust discussion?

Simon Birmingham: Well there are strong opinions, as there have been in relation to climate change policies and energy policies for the last decade and this is a really good process that we’ve started, following the receipt of Dr Finkel’s report and of course there’s going to be and have to be good analysis of what he’s recommended, further analysis as to how you would then translate that into policy and then …

Matthew Abraham: [Interrupts] Well one MP told The Australian: Finkel in its current form is dead. And this is basically a test of Malcolm Turnbull’s authority.

Simon Birmingham: Well, look, I think there was absolute consensus in terms of continuing to have this discussion about how we address the issues of reliability and affordability – that people in South Australia know mean that business as usual just cannot continue – and do so in a way that ensures Australia meets its emissions reductions targets as well, and that’s [indistinct] …

Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] Simon Birmingham, many South Australians looking at their power bill, many of them facing maybe 18 per cent – the latest rise by AGL – this must sound like platitudes to them. Don’t you understand that? Do you understand this is why Theresa May is now having to cling to power and is struggling to form a government? The people have had a gutful of this stuff.

Simon Birmingham: Yeah, I understand people are very angry about power bills …

Matthew Abraham: [Interrupts] Well they don’t want platitudes like; oh this is constructive discussion, you know da-da-da-da. I mean, you commissioned- Malcolm Turnbull commissioned the Finkel review. Well what was the point of doing that?

Simon Birmingham: Well the point of doing that is absolutely to inform the policy that we apply in the future …

Matthew Abraham: [Interrupts] But he’s the chief scientist; if he says do something, why don’t you just do it? Why have you got all these instant experts on your backbench?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Matthew, I think people also expect when they elected their politicians that they come to Canberra, that they do have opinions, that they do stand up for their communities, that they do actually scrutinise and analyse things that are put in front of them. Now, the Finkel report is going to be a very important and guiding document in terms of the policy approaches that we apply, but I don’t think anybody expects their members of Parliament to simply receive something and instantly say yes without question. We’ve got to make sure that we get this right so we address what has been a real problem for Australia in terms of energy policies in the past. And we won’t get it right without having proper, consensus-driven conversations, firstly amongst ourselves, actually amongst our constituents and electorates as well, and hopefully across the Parliament.

David Bevan: Is any of this wrong, Simon Birmingham? Liberals and National MPs have urged the Prime Minister to put a priority on driving down prices rather than meeting targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Simon Birmingham: Well, I think we have been absolutely clear – as has Malcolm Turnbull – that you’ve got to solve three issues simultaneously through this policy process. You’ve got to deal with reliability, which of course, SA put, sadly, right on the national agenda through the blackouts; you’ve got to solve affordability, which is a problem in areas across the country, and particularly due to spike in gas prices at present; and you’ve got to deal with the emissions question. And good policy will look at all three of those things, and that’s what we’re seeking to do.

David Bevan: Okay. Rebekha Sharkie – we’ll come to Mark Butler in a moment – but the Nick Xenophon Team member for the federal seat of Mayo on the Adelaide Hills, here on Super Wednesday on ABC Radio Adelaide. What’s your perspective- what’s the Nick Xenophon Team perspective on the Finkel report?

Rebekha Sharkie: Well, obviously, we’d still like to see an emissions intensity scheme. We do see this – Finkel’s report – as a compromise, and I think it’s fair to say it’s a fairly serious compromise, but it concerns me if the Liberals can’t even get on board with this. You know, we’ve sat for years in a policy wasteland around energy. I was talking with universities yesterday about different legislation but they brought up their energy costs, and what we need is a model that will encourage investment and Dr Finkel says that this is markedly better for consumers. And so, I think we need to move on from the status quo.

David Bevan: Does the Xenophon team also place a priority, out of those that Simon Birmingham listed, on price? On getting prices down for consumers?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I think it needs to be about price; it also needs to be making sure that we’re matching what we would do with our Paris Climate Agreement. I think, though, that what we are seeing in South Australia and what we are seeing in Australia is that this lack of action by Federal Government for years now has meant that there’s been no investment in the market and so our energy prices are going up and up. And Dr Finkel says that if we do adopt a clean energy target, that this will benefit consumers as well as benefiting the environment.

David Bevan: Mark Butler, what’s the sticking point?

Mark Butler: Well, you’d have to ask the Coalition party room that we’ve down this road before, unfortunately. And I think we’re in a very dangerous position, given the debate that’s been happening over the last 24 hours in this building. But, you know, the point I’d make, I think, is for the coalition of groups from the Business Council to environment groups, the ACTU, ACOSS, and many others beside, said to us last week – by us, I mean the Parliament – they wanted us to give full and fair consideration to this report. As Simon rightly said, I don’t think anyone expected it to be given a full tick this week, but equally, it shouldn’t have given a full no this week.

And what we saw a couple of days ago is Tony Abbott jump on the bandwagon again doing a radio interview in Sydney, admitting he hadn’t even read the report, but really starting to set a foundation for the campaign we saw in the party room yesterday. And it is critically important that Malcolm Turnbull stare this down. I saw Simon on the TV yesterday very sensibly calling for people to take a deep breath, to study the report, to engage with stakeholders. Because we know from energy groups and experts the biggest contributor to rising power prices across the country now is this policy paralysis that we’ve had in Canberra for too many years. And if we don’t trust Finkel, we’re going to see prices go up and up and up.

David Bevan: Well, why doesn’t the Labor Party just give the Government what they want? Okay, just give them- you’re the Government, you won the election. Give them what they want and if you win the next election, then you can do what you want.

Mark Butler: Because that is exactly what energy groups, and the Business Council and others have said is causing the investor uncertainty. What they want is the two parties to come together [indistinct] …

David Bevan: [Talks over] Well, that’s what I’m saying. Why don’t you- Mark, why …

Mark Butler: No, no, no, no, no. What you’re suggesting is we give them what we want and then we change it after the next election, and then when we lost in the future, they’d change it back again. You can’t do this around 30 year investments, which is what you get in the energy sector. That’s why this report is to be the basis for a bipartisan discussion.

David Bevan: Okay. Well, do you accept ESCOSA’s latest report, which has just come out in the last few days, that the reason we’re paying so much more for power in South Australia is in part because of the Port August- the Northern Power Station closing down, and the intermittency of wind power?

Mark Butler: I haven’t read the report, but what I do accept is that as you see assets like the Northern Power Station; the Hazelwood Power Station in Victoria, which was much bigger again; and a number of other coal-fired power stations over the last few years have been shutting down. There has not been, as Rebekha said, investment to replace those assets that inevitably are going to retire. There will more coal-fired generators close – those that were built in the 1960s and the ‘70s. And what the industry says and what the user groups say, is you need a policy framework to allow the electricity sector to invest in new plants to replace those old plants. They don’t have that at the moment.

David Bevan: [Talks over] Well, it was the policy- but it was the policy framework which has led to the reliance on wind power which ESCOSA said has not worked to bring prices down, in fact, it’s driven out some low-cost power producers only to boost the cost of electricity because of its unreliability. And you’ve had a policy which has not encouraged reinvestment in stable coal-fired production up at Port Augusta.

Mark Butler: Well, the problem is you had an asset leave the market – a very big asset in terms of the percentage of the South Australian market – with no policy to guide its replacement, and that’s the problem. And that’s what you’re seeing exactly in Victoria now is where with prices following in the eastern states – what we saw in South Australia after the retirement of Northern. And that’s the whole point of the Finkel report; how do we get a framework in place to ensure that when stuff is leaving the system it’s replaced by new generation infrastructure?

David Bevan: Mark Butler, thank you. He’s the Federal Member for Port Adelaide. Rebekha Sharkie, she’s the Nick Xenophon Team member for Mayo. And Simon Birmingham, Liberal Senator for South Australia, Education Minister – happy birthday to him at 43.