Interview on ABC Radio Melbourne with Raf Epstein
Victorian judiciary sentencing; Delivering real, Gonski needs-based funding for schools; Finkel Review

Rafael Epstein: Joining us for Poli-Graph today, the Education Minister Senator Simon Birmingham. Good afternoon.

Simon Birmingham: Hello, Raf. Great to be with you.

Rafael Epstein:   And Mark Butler, who is part of Bill Shorten’s team. He’s the Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Energy. Mark, good afternoon.

Mark Butler: G’day, Raf.

Rafael Epstein:   Now, look, I know you both want to get into your portfolios, I just want to cover off on two news issues with both of you. I’ll ask you to keep your responses brief and then we can get stuck into education and energy policy. I’ll start with you, Senator Birmingham. Representing your Cabinet colleagues, you won’t have heard, but criminal lawyer in Melbourne Rob Stary wants your colleagues Greg Hunt, Alan Tudge, Michael Sukkar, to either resign or step down for criticising some of the Victorian judiciary over terrorism sentences. Did they go too far?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I think it’s a free country last I looked, and even ministers of the crown are entitled to have opinions on such matters, and they were expressing their opinions. 

Rafael Epstein:   You were a little less caustic than them.

Simon Birmingham: Well, look, I can’t say that I’ve followed all of the sentencing decisions of the Victorian courts quite so closely. I’m not a Victorian MP; they are. I get that there’s a lot of public dissatisfaction particularly in Victoria about parole issues, about sentencing issues, and I understand fully as to why colleagues who are elected members of parliament would be venting and expressing the frustrations of their constituents in their electorates. 

Rafael Epstein:   Mark Butler, politicians have to be able to comment on sentences, don’t they?

Mark Butler: Well, look, Simon’s right, it’s a free country and there are limits to the extent to which we want to restrict members of parliament talking, but I think also, on the other hand, politicians are often best left to politics and we leave judges to do their judicial function. I mean, we have a separation of powers in this country that has worked very well, and judges don’t often stray into the area of politics and tell us how to do our job. We have a very important job, whether it’s a member of the legislative wing, or in Simon’s case the executive, and I think we should always err on the side of letting judges do their job. 

Rafael Epstein:   Look, 1300222774 is the phone number. We will be speaking in detail about the Commonwealth settling with nearly 2000 people on Manus Island after 5 o’clock. But Mark Butler, I will start with you. This is a regime that was set up under Labor initially. Do you accept some of the responsibility for the costs of settling that case? It’s going to be 90 million taxpayer dollars. 

Mark Butler: Well, I’m advised that this case is still sort of underway. So, it’s our practice not to comment on proceedings that haven’t yet finalised, but I will say about the Manus and the Nauru arrangements that you’re right; we did set those up in the last couple of months of our Government, after Kevin Rudd had returned to the Prime Ministership, and we did so with the very clear intention of putting a very clear signal to people who would pay people smugglers and get on boats and seek to come to Australia…

Rafael Epstein:   [Interrupts] Is any of the cost your fault?

Mark Butler: Sorry?

Rafael Epstein:   Is any of the cost your fault?

Mark Butler: Well, I was trying to say that they were set up as temporary transit processing facilities. I mean, the intention was to continue to work with the UNHCR – the High Commissioner for Refugees – and negotiate with third countries resettlement arrangements so that people would be at Manus and on Nauru for limited periods of time while Australia worked proactively – as we would’ve done if we were still in Government – to arrange resettlement arrangements into third countries. 

Now, Tony Abbott didn’t take that approach. Under Tony Abbott’s Prime Ministership in particular, those places – Manus and Nauru – became places of indefinite detention. Tony Abbott turned his back on the UNHCR and he did no real work to negotiate resettlement arrangements with third countries. Now, Malcolm Turnbull had a slightly different approach. He came to a resettlement arrangement with Barack Obama, which, after a little bit of difficulty, was backed in by the new President – President Trump. And hopefully that will see a whole bunch of people who have been on Manus and Nauru for very extended periods of time able to be resettled. 

So yes, I take responsibility for our Government having set those places up, but Tony Abbott in particular operated those places with a completely different modus operandi to the one we had in mind when we set them up.

Rafael Epstein:   Simon Birmingham, isn’t it an admission of fault and problems to settle?

Simon Birmingham: No. Legally there’s no admission of liabilities here, but there is an act of responsibility in terms of management of taxpayer resources that, had these matters gone to trial, it would’ve cost likely tens of millions of dollars just through the legal proceedings. And so there’s a settlement proposal here, which is not an uncommon thing in these arrangements. 

But of course, it’s really about trying to undertake what I guess is one of the final stages of hopefully bringing to an end a long saga in relation to the loss of control of our borders that occurred during the Rudd and Gillard governments that saw the huge surge in people in detention. Now, hopefully we are going to now see closure and finalisation of all of these matters and without, of course, any new arrivals having occurred for a number of years now. And with that problem having been brought to an end, we of course can have confidence that hopefully in the future we never, ever see a repeat of these sorts of circumstances ever again. 

Rafael Epstein:   Look, 0437774774 is the text message number. You’re welcome to call and ask a question of the Education Minister and the Shadow Climate Change and Energy Minister as well. Mark Butler and Simon Birmingham, I’m going to flip it around. I am going to ask you, Mark Butler, an education question first if I can. I don’t think the detail will be beyond you. Every member of the Gonski panel …

Simon Birmingham: [Talks over] I have faith in Mark. 

Mark Butler: You might be surprised, Raf.

Rafael Epstein:   No, no, no. Look, every member of the Gonski panel – David Gonski, Kathryn Greiner, Ken Boston – they have all backed what the Government wants to do. They say it’s accountable, transparent, equitable, sector-blind – in fact, Kathryn Greiner says it would be a tragedy if it wasn’t made into law. Why is Labor opposing the very people it asked to have a look at education? 

Mark Butler: Well, look, I accept that some people – reasonable people – can come to a view that getting something is better than the Abbott position, which was to introduce searing cuts, singing cuts in the 2014 Budget. I accept that reasonable people can come to that view. But Labor has decided that we’re not going to give up on the full ambition that we had when we received the Gonski report back when we were in Government in 2012 and 2013, negotiated a series of arrangements with state governments – including Victoria and South Australia – that ran for six years, got Tony Abbott to commit before the 2013 election that he would be on a unity ticket with the Labor Party on that matter. So you know, I understand that people like Kathryn Greiner and Ken Boston and others can take a reasonable view that they’d rather grab something rather than nothing.

Rafael Epstein: But saying something, though Mark Butler, Ken Boston’s direct words – and he used to run education departments everywhere, here and overseas …

Mark Butler: Yeah, including my state.

Rafael Epstein: Yeah right, “the progressive elements in Australian education need to recognise that their argument has been won”. That’s full throated endorsement, that’s not something is better than nothing.

Mark Butler: Well the point we make is that the plan we put in place in 2013 and we made some very hard savings decisions at the time, I was in the Cabinet when we were debating those savings decisions, comes to a very different position over the course of the following ten years than the position Simon outlined a couple of months ago. And we are not going to give up on the ambition that we held for the implementation of this report. We understand the views that Ken Boston and Kathryn Greiner and others have come to. We’ve just taken a decision we’re not going to give up on the ambition of having schools – particularly some of the struggling schools in the public sector and the Catholic sector get to what we think and what we were advised was a fair level of funding over the course of the next several years.

Rafael Epstein: Simon Birmingham, I’d love a response but also whether or not you’re going to address some of the concerns from the Greens, if you can’t get Labor’s votes, you’ll need Green votes and they want an independent oversight body. Are you going to give that to them?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Raf, in terms of a response firstly, look, we are putting in place a nationally consistent approach to schools funding based on need. And the reason that David Gonski himself, Ken Boston, Kathryn Greiner, et cetera, have come out in support of the Turnbull Government’s proposals is because rather than it being a hotchpotch of 27 different deals that were stitched together, it is clear implementation of the national needs based funding vision that their report put in place. And it comes with an extra $18.6 billion in investment, which will be targeted into the schools who need it most to give them the greatest lift in their resourcing. Now in terms of discussions with the Greens and the Senate crossbench, the Turnbull Government’s shown since last year’s election that we’re very pragmatic when it comes to dealing with the Senate to actually get things done because that’s what the Australian people expect us to do. But we’ve also demonstrated we don’t play our negotiations out in public. So yes I’ve heard the Greens calls, we’ll continue to have discussions with them and hopefully we can convince them …

Rafael Epstein: So you’re open to the idea of independent oversight body?

Simon Birmingham: Well we’ve not ruled anything out in that sense. We will keep having those sensible discussions with the Greens, with the Senate crossbenchers and if Labor were to decide to actually come to the party, we would happily embrace discussions with them as well.

Rafael Epstein: You going to get it through the Senate?

Simon Birmingham: Well I believe that there are clearly at least two pathways to do that at present, between the Senate crossbench and/or the Greens, so that’s a good position to be in but obviously we’ve got more discussions to have.

Rafael Epstein: Mark Butler, why oppose the mechanism? I don’t quite understand that, but you’re also opposing the amount. It is an increase in the proportion of public school funding that comes from the Federal Government going to 20 per cent. Why would you oppose that?

Mark Butler: We’ve said we’re not going to give up on the ambition on our commitment to implement the agreement that we got in full. That the position that we put in place in full, we negotiated with a range of state governments, including mine in South Australia, to have funding over the course of six years. Now for many of those states, including my own, next year and the year after are very important years where there was an agreement between the Commonwealth and the state governments for funding that I think amounts to around $265 million in additional funds in year five and six. So in 2018 and 2019 that won’t be here under Simon’s proposal. Now we’re not going to give up on those agreements that were reached between state and Commonwealth governments, that Tony Abbott said at the time he would adhere to if elected in 2013, which a number of the minor parties, including for example, the Nick Xenophon Team, which is important to Simon’s negotiations said at the election last year that they would fight for year five and year six funding. So 2018 and 2019 funding.

Rafael Epstein: But you’re not letting the enemy of perfect be the enemy of the good? And once that mechanism’s in there, you can adjust when and if you get into power. Surely if you both agree on the mechanism and I think you like the idea of the Gonski mechanism, shouldn’t you put it through, bank it, then argue for more money?

Mark Butler: Well there are differences of view between Labor and Liberal about some of the elements of Simon’s proposal. For example, that the Commonwealth would only fund 20 per cent of state schools and would fund 80 per cent of private schools. I think the Government has had to admit that is not an element of the Gonski advice, or the Gonski report that we receive some years ago. I understand it’s a position that Simon’s put into the funding model, but we don’t agree with that one, for example.

Rafael Epstein: Simon Birmingham, what else might you tweak?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Raf, I think your point there is a good one, in that the Labor Party could in essence choose to have their cake and eat it too. They could support the Turnbull Government’s reforms to put in place a schools funding model that is far closer to what David Gonski originally recommended than what Labor applied. Actually we’re taking the difficult decisions that do take funds off a handful of schools, transition some schools down in terms of their funding and apply a consistency across the board.

Rafael Epstein: Less money than what Labor promised.

Simon Birmingham: And then Labor – and then Labor could have gone as they’re saying they’ll do to the next election, promising to spend more but at least it would have been spent and invested in a model that actually is transparent and consistent and needs based rather than simply investing more into a whole bunch of different special deals that get further away from the Gonski visions. So it’s very disappointing there that – and I think if you look at some of the Anthony Albanese comments and subtext of those comments, I think there was clearly an internal debate in Labor that perhaps they should have gone down that path. I think they now look foolish with all of the Gonski panel members out there advocating for this legislation to pass. But thankfully, at least the Greens and the Senate crossbenchers have been more open minded to actually help us to fix this and of course, to, in doing so, deliver more funding to schools who need it, more than $500 million. That’s half a billion dollars of additional funding flowing into Victorian government schools alone over just over the next few years.

Rafael Epstein: Simon Birmingham is with us, he is the Education Minister, Mark Butler is the Shadow Climate Change and Energy Minister. We haven’t even begun to get into the Government’s difficulty in embracing the Chief Scientist’s energy plan. But just on education – Sarah’s text: stop blaming each other, just stop it. It’s infuriating. I’ll get to more questions after we get some traffic with Chris Miller.

[Unrelated item – traffic update]

Rafael Epstein: The Federal Government under the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull wanted to plan forward to a lower emissions future. They asked the Chief Scientist Alan Finkel to come up with a plan. 

Simon Birmingham, if I can start with you and your party room colleagues, the Chief Scientist is essentially saying that under his plan, there’s a better future for coal and prices will be lower. I just wander when your party’s conservative wing is going to drop its ideological obsession with coal.

Simon Birmingham: Well coal, of course, is an important export earner to Australia. It’s an important base load provider of energy around Australia. It is one of the lowest cost components of the energy mix in Australia but we’ve seen a transition and of course, Victoria has seen very abruptly that transition …

Rafael Epstein: [Talks over] It’s not as cheap as gas [indistinct].

Simon Birmingham: Well actually, coal generation is generally cheaper than gas generation, particularly at present where gas generation has seen a real spike in prices and that’s what’s driving a lot of the increase in pricing.

Rafael Epstein: That’s not what the Chief Scientist’s report says. It says that compared with wind, even wind with storage, even without a carbon price, coal’s more expensive and it’s comparable with large scale solar.

Simon Birmingham: Oh yeah well I was only commenting on gas there. Obviously renewables generation, in terms of the cost of generation is negligible. There’s obviously a capital cost in establishing renewable energy plants but the – we shouldn’t simply dismiss coal as not being an important part of our energy mix, because it is …

Rafael Epstein: [Talks over] But it’s very significant – what I don’t understand …

Simon Birmingham: … and it’s very important to the stability and reliability.

Rafael Epstein: … what I don’t understand is you guarantee old coal plants have a better future and you keep prices lower under the Chief Scientist’s plan. I don’t understand why people in your party don’t see that.

Simon Birmingham: Well people in the Coalition are asking a range of questions to understand what is the content and the rationale behind the Chief Scientist’s report to get a better picture and understanding of what some of those proposals are. Because we’re not actually yet debating about here is a specific policy proposal that the Government is suggesting could be implemented. We’re contemplating and assessing a report that will inform the development of future policy and so it is a clear distinction here and so what we had last night was a good discussion and a discussion that was about people getting an increased understanding of the issues and that process will continue whilst we then work behind the scenes on the development of the policy response to hep us deal with the reliability issues and the security of energy that the Chief Scientist has addressed, affordability and our emissions responsibilities and targets.

Rafael Epstein: Mark Butler, I’m sure you’ve got lots you’d love to say about inside the Coalition, which is fine, but …

Mark Butler: No I haven’t really.

Rafael Epstein: … if you accept a benchmark that allows new coal, no one really thinks that’s much of a problem and that might allow the Coalition to pass this. Would you be prepared to have a clean energy target that included new coal fired power plants in theory?

Mark Butler: Well you can’t define clean energy to include new coal-fired power stations. I mean it just makes a mockery of the whole Finkel framework.

Rafael Epstein: You can, it’s just more expensive. It doesn’t mean it will happen but it might mean we get the package.

Mark Butler: So if new coal-fired power stations are clean energy, what’s not? I mean essentially it would mean that everything gets a price incentive to be built, whether it’s coal or gas or renewable energy, it just makes a mockery of it and that …

Rafael Epstein: But a much smaller price incentive, a much smaller price incentive.

Mark Butler: But coming back to your point about really what the reality check on coal from the Finkel report, as you say with a clean energy target that we’ve said we’re willing to discuss in spite of the fact that we’ve been long time advocates of the emissions intensity scheme, it’s a policy that we took, [coughs] excuse me, to the last election. We’ve said we’ll put that commitment aside and we will talk about a clean energy target because Malcolm Turnbull says it’s the only model he’s willing to talk about. 

Now, that has no impost on incumbent coal generators so a generator like Yallourn, which produces about three times as much carbon pollution as a clean gas generator in South Australia, like Pelican Point will be treated entirely equally with Pelican Point. Now, that’s a very significant boost for incumbent coal generators, compared to every other model people thought was probably going to be put in place. There’s also no prohibition on building new coal-fired generators in the Finkel report. Unlike for example, the United Kingdom, or Canada, where you’re legally simply not able to build unabated coal-fired generators, there’s nothing in Finkel that says if you can find an investor to build one, go ahead. But to say that you would rig the definition of clean energy to include unabated coal-fired generation, I think would be a mockery of the whole process we’ve gone through.

Now, I hope I heard Simon yesterday, who is a voice of common sense and reason, I think, about this, everyone just needs to take a deep breath. The business council, unions, energy groups all said in a coalition last week with ACOSS as well, they want people to give full and fair consideration to this report. Not to leap to a response. To study it carefully, to engage with stakeholders and to put aside some of the sort of ideological pre-positioning that frankly both sites might have brought to the table originally. Now, we’ve committed to doing that. We really hope that the sort of – the significant disquiet that seemed to be flowing out of the Coalition party room form last night can be settled down and we can have a reasoned consideration of this over the next several weeks.

Rafael Epstein: Simon Birmingham, is it fair to see the consideration of Alan Finkel’s report as a test of the Prime Minister’s leadership.

Simon Birmingham: No. I mean I think obviously every major policy issue is a test of the Government and we will work through this issue in the steady process that we are. Stage one was commissioning the Finkel review, stage two is now examining its findings and coming to grips with them and working out what the policy response is to the findings of the Finkel review are and that’s the process that is underway and started, really, yesterday with discussions in the Coalition party room.

Rafael Epstein: So you don’t see it as a test of leadership?

Simon Birmingham: No I think this is an important issue. We absolutely recognise its significance in terms of ensuring power is reliable and affordable in the future. And in terms of in terms of emissions and the type of energy mix, I’d really highlight the comments that Alan Finkel himself has made that we should not be seeking to define clean energy by how it is generated. We should define clean energy by the emissions level and the emissions intensity essentially of that energy.

Rafael Epstein: So does that mean you agree with George Christensen, the Queensland MP? He wants the Government to fund new coal-fired power stations. Do you agree with that idea?

Simon Birmingham: Well no, I don’t. I think we have and we want to seek a framework that encourages the private sector to make sure they’re making the investment to replace generation capacity that might exit the market over coming years, as some coal-fired power stations get very old and are closed down over a period of time. We want that to be a much more orderly process than was seen in relation to Hazelwood, which is why one of the recommendations of the Finkel report is a mandatory three year period of notification in that regard. 

But I think Mark before was saying you should not possibly be defining clean energy to include coal. Well, no definition should include any particular generation type of source. The definition has to be about what the emissions levels of it are and of course if coal can happen to generate below those emissions levels, well good luck to it. If gas can, good luck to it. Obviously you would expect that renewables would be, good luck to them. It’s about, though, as Alan Finkel has stressed, the outcomes that you get and the outcomes are achieving the type of emissions levels that we’ve committed to as part of the Paris Agreement.

Rafael Epstein: Not all electrons are created equal apparently. Thanks to both of you, you’ve both stepped in when others were unavailable, so I really appreciate it.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks Raf.

Mark Butler: Thanks Raf.

Rafael Epstein: Simon Birmingham, there, the Education Minister, Mark Butler, the Shadow Energy Minister.