Interview on ABC Radio Melbourne Drive with Rafael Epstein
Topics: Liberal leadership; Company tax cuts; Schools funding
Rafael Epstein: The Minister for Education and Training is Simon Birmingham; he is a South Australian Liberal senator. Minister, thanks for joining us.
Simon Birmingham: G’day, Raf. Good to be with you.
Rafael Epstein: Why won’t anybody from Victoria come on and defend the Prime Minister?
Simon Birmingham: Look, Raf, I don’t know what my other colleagues have on; you can hear the bells ringing in the background as I’m talking to you and I’ve been able to squeeze you in today. I’m sure others are all very busy.
Rafael Epstein: The Prime Minister’s safe?
Simon Birmingham: Indeed. The Prime Minister made a gusty decision today by putting his job on the line, but that’s because he knows that Australians don’t like uncertainty or speculation; that’s why he declared the positions vacant in the party room, stood up and re-contested the leadership himself, clearly won, convincingly won, and is now back on the job.
Rafael Epstein: Is he safe?
Simon Birmingham: Yes.
Rafael Epstein: No doubt?
Simon Birmingham: Raf, the PM took the steps today. He showed courage, he showed strength, and he made sure that the type of speculation that was running was dealt with of his own volition.
Rafael Epstein: Do you really believe there won’t be another contest, another vote?
Simon Birmingham: I would certainly hope that’s the case.
Rafael Epstein: But do you believe there won’t be?
Simon Birmingham: I believe that the majority of my colleagues, as they made clear today, want the government to do what the people want, which is to keep working and focusing on how we lower people’s power prices, create more jobs, deliver tax relief, balance the budget – all the things the Turnbull Government’s actually having great success at, and we need…
Rafael Epstein: But those things didn’t persuade 35 people in your party room. That’s the problem, isn’t it? Thirty five’s a lot.
Simon Birmingham: Well, Raf, the PM threw the positions open today, he made it an open contest. Peter Dutton chose to have that challenge. It was voted on. It was decided. Now it is the case that every single person should be working hard in the interests of the Australian people, because that’s what people want, and as a Government we should be out there selling what really is a very strong track record of achievement for our Government, whether that’s record infrastructure investment – and of course your listeners in Melbourne know that very well in terms of the leadership that Malcolm Turnbull has shown in committing to the Tullamarine railway link, the fact that we have driven a very strong economy, which is reflected in the strength of economic growth in Victoria.
Rafael Epstein: I could get all of those things as a Victorian with Peter Dutton though, couldn’t I? I mean, none of those things Peter Dutton would disagree with. Thirty five people think Peter Dutton would sell it better. Doesn’t that mortally wound the Prime Minister?
Simon Birmingham: The Prime Minister put his leadership on the line today and was convincingly re-elected by the Liberal party room and he now gets on with the job, as all of us should. And not just in terms of continuing to deliver the types of policy achievements that we’ve made to date, but also of course making sure that people understand the threat and the risk of the alternative which with Bill Shorten will be: higher levels of tax, lower rates of job growth, higher electricity bills; all the opposite of the things that that our Government has been achieving.
Rafael Epstein: A few policy things if I can, Simon Birmingham, then I will get to people’s calls and texts. I’ll get on to education in a moment.
But the Prime Minister’s heavily criticised for not making up his mind, for dilly dallying. Can you tell me if tax cuts for the biggest companies will be your policy at the next election?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I can tell you that right before the Senate, at almost at this moment, the company tax legislation is being debated and I hope that it will be law before the next election and I hope that it will be.
Rafael Epstein: There’s no indication the crossbench is going to support that. So, if I can, Minister, that’s not an answer.
Simon Birmingham: Well no, actually, Raf, we were surprised earlier today, when in fact the second reading vote on the legislation for the company tax reforms passed the Senate.
Rafael Epstein: A procedural vote and the people involved have said they’re just letting you have the debate.
Simon Birmingham: It moved into the next stage and that means that some amendments that we have proposed, which would excise the big banks from the company tax arrangements, but in doing so would ensure that we then actually have reforms that will deliver more competitive tax rates to a range of Australian businesses-
Rafael Epstein: That’s still not- Minister, forgive me for interrupting again, but it’s still not an answer to the question. Will you have at the next federal election- I think the reason people are upset with the Prime Minister is he can’t just stand up and say: tax cuts for the biggest companies at the next election.
Simon Birmingham: Well, firstly, Raf, we took it to the last election.
Rafael Epstein: I understand.
Simon Birmingham: We took that policy to the last election. We won and for the last two years we have been trying to implement the policy that we promised the Australian people at the last election.
Rafael Epstein: Well, he just junked his emissions policy on Monday – how do I know he’s not going to junk his tax cuts for the biggest companies tomorrow?
Simon Birmingham: We are always listening to the Australian people, always working on policies. And having spent more than two years trying to implement this one, having taken it to the last election, we will think long and hard about what we then take to the next election.
Rafael Epstein: Sorry, I can’t work out if you’re listening to the Australian people or you’re standing by your principles – which is it?
Simon Birmingham: Raf, I think people expect governments to do both. They don’t want a government that doesn’t listen to them. They want a government that listens, yet acts according to its principles. I’ll give you this commitment: we will be taking lower tax policies to the next election than Bill Shorten. Bill Shorten wants to increase the tax rates for small businesses that have already been legislated and passed under the Turnbull Government. He wants to have small family owned Australian businesses paying higher levels of tax in the future than what the current legislation provides for, which the Turnbull Government has put in place.
We will absolutely be going to the next election with lower tax rates for households, for houses, more savings for retirees, and for businesses.
Rafael Epstein: None of that’s an answer to whether or not the Prime Minister’s going to stick by his principle of tax cuts for the biggest companies at the next election. I still don’t know if that’s going to happen.
Simon Birmingham: You can you can keep digging in on that one point. Of course, we will consider-
Rafael Epstein: It’s not a minor point, Minister. You’ve been talking about it for years. The Prime Minister’s junked his main emissions point- he spent a year developing a policy on emissions; he dumped it on Monday. How do I know he’s not going to dump his company tax cut policy? That is the key criticism of your ally, of your leader.
Simon Birmingham: Australians will know absolutely every one of our policies that we take to the next election, and that will include all of our lower tax policies, which will include lower tax policies for business.
Rafael Epstein: So, Minister – forgive me for interrupting again. The policy you know backwards is the school funding policy; if I can ask you about that. The idea of how far down the path are you of using people’s tax records – that’s a recommendation from the experts, but in some way data matching people’s tax records to the private school and using that as a significant input for private school funding. Are you- how interested in that idea are you?
Simon Birmingham: So, we’ve indicated that the Turnbull Government will act on the recommendations of the National School Resourcing Board, which suggests that rather than taking census data for the way in which we identify the needs of non-government schools, we will use indeed tax records and other data matching capabilities that didn’t previously exist in government. We’re in a process at present, having received that report just last month, of working through with both the independent and Catholic school stakeholders exactly how we implement that, what transition arrangements are necessary, what confidence everybody needs to be given in terms of the way in which that data matching occurs so that everybody can see that it is fair, transparent, and more accurate than the current census based data.
Rafael Epstein: Can you give me a sense – it would be the main criteria compared to the census or it would be an equal fifth? I mean, can you give people an idea of how much someone’s declared income would figure into the calculation.
Simon Birmingham: So, the way we fund schools – and this was a historic reform the Turnbull Government legislated last year – is to use the Schooling Resource Standard. It was recommended by David Gonski; trashed, essentially, by the Labor government who instead did 27 different deals, and what we said is that we want to get to a point where non-government schools are funded the same share of the needs-based schooling resource standard, regardless of where they are in the country or what background of those schools and indeed then the same state government schools funded a comparable share across the different states. And now that Schooling Resource Standard, it’s a little complicated but it’s made up of a base funding figure and then loadings for a bunch of need factors – students with disability, students from regional backgrounds, Indigenous students and the like.
Rafael Epstein: Sure. And the income tax is the main thing or not?
Simon Birmingham: No. This is why I’m trying to explain it to you, and I said it’s complicated. The base funding figure for non-government schools is being discounted by the capacity to contribute of those school communities and that capacity to contribute – essentially to pay fees and contribute to the cost – is assessed on the basis of an SES score or socio economic status, and that is informed currently by census data. The recommendation is to shift that calculation of the socio economic status to instead – and it is instead – be informed by the use of data matching of family income.
Rafael Epstein: I appreciate your time, Minister. Thank you.
Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Raf.
Rafael Epstein: Simon Birmingham is the Minister for Education; he’s from the Liberal Party in South Australia where he’s a senator.