Interview on ABC Radio Melbourne Drive with Rafael Epstein
Making family payments fairer; Bill Shorten’s hypocrisy sucking up to billionaires; Making child care more affordable, accessible and fairer for families; Child care and rural and regional communities

Rafael Epstein: One of the ministers with one of the most important changes in his portfolio is Simon Birmingham. He’s the Minister for Education and Training; part of the Federal Government, part of Malcolm Turnbull’s cabinet. Minister, good afternoon.

Simon Birmingham: G’day, Raf. Great to speak with you.

Rafael Epstein: Look I want to get into child care but just on the continual attack on Bill Shorten that is pretty personal. Are you comfortable focusing on Bill Shorten’s relationship with rich people while you’re telling young jobseekers they’re going to lose $45 a week? 

Simon Birmingham: Well, all we’re doing is highlighting an enormous amount of hypocrisy from Bill Shorten and the case wherever you look in terms of his history, his background or his current actions. And currently he’s a man who says he wants to help repair the Budget but says no to everything that’s put forward, says he wants to see the economy grow but only proposes new taxes, says he cares about cost of living expenses but supports policies that up the price of electricity and other key household goods and reduce the reliability…

Rafael Epstein: [Interrupts] Forgive me Minister, they do sound a bit like talking points. Is there not some danger in having a go at a politician for having connections to rich people when – let’s be frank – all politicians hang out with a lot of rich people, at the same time as you acknowledge there’s a lot of people losing from your package. A lot of really- people on not much money, losing.

Simon Birmingham: Well I’m very happy to talk about the policy. In terms of Mr Shorten, though, I think he sits there day in, day out sledging Malcolm Turnbull for being wealthy. And everybody knows that Malcolm Turnbull is a wealthy man; he doesn’t need to be in the parliament, he doesn’t need to have a job. He is here because he wants to serve his country. He of course is a self-made man and he was successful in business before coming into politics…

Rafael Epstein: [Talks over] Yeah.

Simon Birmingham: And Bill Shorten sledges, sledges, sledges about that. But of course he’s quite happy to indeed go and suck up to other wealthy people around the country. And that’s really what’s being called out here, a level of hypocrisy that follows through into Labor’s policies but has long been there in relation to the way Mr Shorten conducts himself, way back to when he was a union leader selling out his union members because it suited the people he had associates with. Claiming…

Rafael Epstein: [Interrupts] You say it’s selling out. There’s no adverse findings from the Royal Commission, but can I…

Simon Birmingham: [Talks over] Well…

Rafael Epstein: [Talks over] And I do want to get onto child care but, you accuse him of sucking up and the Prime Minister accused him of having no integrity. I’m not saying Labor’s blameless, right? I’m not saying that at all [laughs]. I just- I wonder if you’re concerned- this is the stuff people hate about politics. I’m sure you know the way the ABC works, all the things that come through on the text. People don’t like this part of politics.

Simon Birmingham: No, I know people don’t. Now politics is robust, it always has been in Australia. It was robust when Paul Keating stood at the despatch box as Treasurer and Prime Minister, it was robust when Peter Costello did so. Many many robust debates have been had in this place over the years that don’t just go to the policy issues but go to the character and integrity of people who seek to lead our nation. And in this case Bill Shorten’s character and integrity is rightly being questioned because you can see hypocrisy writ large all over it in terms of the approach he takes, the fact that he sits there sledging away at Malcolm Turnbull day in, day out. And eventually something had to give. It had to be called out. And that’s exactly what’s happened this week.

Rafael Epstein: Look I will get to your calls on 1300 222 7774. The child care changes I guess have a pretty decent principle behind them which is to means test child care benefits and also to try and send the money down towards those with a lower income. But you’ve got something called an activity test for those under $65,000 a year. Don’t you run a big risk? The very kids that you want to help the most, they’ve got the parents who might fail that activity test. You’d be taking child care away from the most vulnerable, wouldn’t you?

Simon Birmingham: Well Raf, you’ve got that wrong. We have an activity test for those earning more than $65,000 a year. For those earning under $65,000 a year, they do have an automatic entitlement under our proposed reforms for two sessions of care a week that we expect ought to be provided and can be provided. For those earning more there is an activity test that applies which is if you over the course of a fortnight participate for around eight hours or more in the workforce, that will provide an entitlement to 36 hours of subsidy. But it’s not just a workforce test. It can be studying, training, volunteering, four hours per week. So it’s pretty light touch.

Rafael Epstein: [Talks over] Okay, so forgive my mistake around the 65,000 mark. But if you’ve got people- you’re punishing children though if there are people who are for whatever reason unable to meet that activity test, you’re not worried that you’re punishing the child?

Simon Birmingham: No, because we also support universal access to pre-school, so we’re guaranteeing that there are early learning opportunities for young children before they get into the school system. But ultimately in terms of the child care subsidies that are provided, we’re making sure that, as I say, there’s guaranteed pre-school access, there are safety nets there in place for some of the most vulnerable children, and there are absolute safety nets in place for children in any high risk environment to receive even more than the two sessions per week. But when it comes to the payment of child care subsidies, we think most taxpayers think it’s pretty fair and reasonable that somebody is working or studying to justify the taxpayer picking up some of their child care costs.

Rafael Epstein: [Talks over] Okay. For those under 65,000, you’re talking about two sessions. Now I don’t want to get too technical but there’s a lot of people in the child care sector who say well actually they’re not going to get two sessions because of the way you’re structuring the subsidy they receive. Are you guaranteeing that all of those people under $65,000 will get those two sessions? Won’t that cost you more than you have in this bill?

Simon Birmingham: So we’re saying an entitlement of 12 hours per week in those cases. Now I think most people listening would again hear that and say okay, so that’s two lots of six hours, you’re talking about a two-year-old, a three-year-old participating in some type of early learning activity, noting this is a case where mum and dad aren’t working, they’re not undertaking any activities so they’re not having to juggle work hours to drop off or pick up, and that six hours of early learning for a two or three-year-old is a pretty solid session. 

Rafael Epstein: [Talks over] Yes.

Simon Birmingham: Now we are…

Rafael Epstein: [Interrupts] How many child care centres let you have the six hours? There’s a lot you need to put them in for longer, no? Isn’t that going to be an issue for two sessions?

Simon Birmingham: So we’re having discussions continuing with the sector as well as the crossbench to make sure that this does work. What I don’t want is a situation where we’re paying – as is currently the case in some instances – for 11 or 12 hour sessions where close to half of that goes unused and both taxpayer and in some instances parent are losing money in that regard. So we want to make sure that it does work more effectively. We’re also though reducing some of the red tape restrictions on child care providers…

Rafael Epstein: [Talks over] Okay.

Simon Birmingham: …to make this flexibility a bit easier so, right now it is mandated to be eligible to be a provider that gets subsidies and payments, that they must open a certain number of hours per day, a certain number of days per week. Say it’s eight hours a day, five days a week, for around 40 weeks of the year. We’re going to remove the hours per day and days per week requirements so that they can be much more flexible about providing if they want to a niche service perhaps that is really just targeting early learning outcomes in those types of shorter sessions of care.

Rafael Epstein: Cathy McGowan was with us, the independent Member for Indi, yesterday. She thinks there are significant issues. Child care’s different in the bush. Again without getting into details, she thinks you’re effectively going to stop a whole lot of people, many of them her constituents, getting child care. She says that she’s raised concerns with you and you’ve ignored them.

Simon Birmingham: I’m a little disappointed by Cathy’s comments. I’ve been out and visited and spoken with some of her constituents and seen some of the services in action, and we are budgeting for a $110 million a year community child care fund that will particularly be supporting remote services, mobile services, Indigenous services, and we’re sending out individual consultants from PwC to do transition plans with those services to make sure we’re giving them the right amount of funding into the future to be sustainable. For most of these services they currently do not receive support from- or their parents and families don’t receive support through the current Child Care Benefit or Child Care Rebate. We will for the first time bring them into the mainstream child care subsidy framework, where they’ll get child care subsidy. They’ll also probably receive what is known as Additional Child Care Subsidy where their parents are at high need, and we’ll allocate funding out of this Community Child Care Fund. Now, I’ll sit down with Cathy and make sure she understands the particularly latter component, the fund, because that’s not in the legislation per se which might be where her shock yesterday was, but that is budgeted. It’s an ongoing fund into the future and it’s there to make those sorts of smaller services for remote, Indigenous or mobile regional services sustainable. 

Rafael Epstein: Thank you for your time.

Simon Birmingham: Pleasure, Raf. Thank you.

Rafael Epstein: Simon Birmingham’s the Minister for Education and Training in the Federal Government.