Interview on ABC Radio National Breakfast with Fran Kelly
Delivering real, Gonski needs-based funding for schools

Fran Kelly: Well Simon Birmingham is the Minister for Education and Training and he’s in our Parliament House studios. Minister, welcome back to Breakfast.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Fran, great to be with you.

Fran Kelly: I’m going to come to the concerns of the Catholic schools in a moment. But first off, Senator Richard Di Natale from the Greens says you’ve addressed some of the Greens concerns; how much more are you willing to offer to get the support of the Greens, could it be as much as $5 billion over a decade bringing your Gonski Mark 2 spending to a total of 24 billion?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Fran, the Turnbull Government’s always been pragmatic in its dealings with the cross bench, and that’s what we’ll do to make sure that we get good policy through. But equally, we don’t play our discussions or negotiations out in public. Now, to date, we have simply provided the Greens with a range of information about different scenarios to help inform their discussions. And I’m grateful that the Greens, as with Senate crossbenchers, are engaging constructively with the Government – which is in stark contrast to the Labour Party who checked themselves out of sensible discussion on this debate weeks ago. But we’ll continue those discussions with crossbenchers, with Green senators and hopefully by week’s end we’ll see support for the application of fair, consistent, needs-based funding for schools across the country for the first time in Australia.

Fran Kelly: How much good faith is there in this, though? I notice there is pushback from some of the colleagues on your side. Kevin Andrews has said, quote, to do a deal with the Greens would be madness, we are hell bent on driving our own base away in return for votes to the Greens, in which we’ll never be rewarded at the ballot box. Are the Greens a no-go area for some of your colleagues? Have you been given that message?

Simon Birmingham: No, I think that Liberal supporters and voters are – just as all Australians expect – the Government to get on with the business of governing. And that means working with whomever we face in the Parliament to be able to get good policy through. Policy that, in this case, deals with all the distortions and inequities in schools’ funding, and puts people on a common and level playing field; and that’s what the Government’s seeking to do: put in place what David Gonski and his panel endorsed in terms of their report and indeed, what they have endorsed in terms of the Government’s actual legislation and reforms. And I hope and trust that we can get that done and we’ll work with whomever is necessary in the Senate to do so.

Fran Kelly: Well, have you told your colleagues that? I mean, Kevin Andrews isn’t helping if these are delicate negotiations going on, is he?

Simon Birmingham: Oh look, Kevin is entitled, as every back bencher, to make their comments and I’ll happily have discussions with any of my colleagues. But I am quite confident that the colleagues, our supporters, and all Australians expect the Government to work with the Parliament to get things done – to get its legislation through – and that’s precisely what we’re doing in this regard. And in doing so we’re trying to give effect to what David Gonski and his panel recommended, and to what David Gonski, and Kathryn Greiner and Ken Boston – all members of the Gonski panel – have now endorsed. You know the Turnbull Government school funding reforms have that seal of approval, that tick of approval, from those that wrote the Gonski report, as they have from a range of other impartial and independent stakeholders – the Grattan Institute, the Mitchell Institute, and independent members of the Parliament and the lower house like Cathy McGowan and so forth.

Fran Kelly: Not from the Catholics? I’ll come to that in a moment. Just before I leave the Greens and your negotiations, the Greens leader, Richard Di Natale, says his party will take their time before deciding the final position. How much time are you willing to give them?

Simon Birmingham: Oh look, we hope that these matters can be resolved this week. There’s $18.6 billion of additional funding there for Australian schools – distributed according to need. And we want to get school funding arrangements settled so that schools themselves can get on with planning for next year and beyond with certainty around their budgets. And so that’s why dealing with [indistinct] …

Fran Kelly: [Talks over] Does that mean it needs to be done this week?

Simon Birmingham: Ideally that would the case. And of course, this is something that we announced before the Budget, so we’ve been clear about it for a period of time, it’s been through a Senate inquiry that extended over the course of about a month, and it’s had proper examination, and now it’s the Senate’s turn to get on with its job.

Fran Kelly: Okay. You’re listening to RN Breakfast, it’s 18 minutes to eight. Our guest is the Federal Education Minister, Simon Birmingham. 

Your colleague, Chris Back, retires from the Senate this week. He says he can’t vote for Gonski in its current form, quote, I will not depart from a position for a fair agreement for Catholic schools. That’s what he said on AM, let’s listen.


Chris Back: And, unfortunately, until I’m convinced that the proposals in place will not disadvantage Catholic schools – and independent schools for that matter – then I’ve indicated to the Minister that obviously please don’t make me vote against the Government in my last week in the Senate.

[End of excerpt]

Fran Kelly: It’s going to make it even trickier for you to get those votes if Chris Back abstains or crosses the floor – you’re needing another vote, aren’t you?

Simon Birmingham: Ah, well I’m sure that Chris will work with us. And Chris is a good man, and he is working from a perspective of somebody who has served in Catholic education in voluntary roles on their boards in Western Australia, he has a deep understanding of it. There are technical issues that we’re discussing with Chris, and we’ll keep having those discussions with him, and I am sure that in the end, he will support what is a very significant additional investment in the Catholic education across the country; and that will see funding grow from $6.3 billion this year in 2017 to the eight different Catholic education authorities, growing up to $9.7 billion by 2027 to those eight different Catholic education authorities.

Fran Kelly: All right, let’s talk about that because that’s where the conflict seems to be. Christian Zahra, we heard from him earlier, and Chris Back, seem concerned about the figures, they don’t match up. Some figures from your own department, the Education Department, show that if Gonski 2.0 passes Catholic schools would lose $4.6 billion in growth funding over the decade that would be available under the current Gonski deal. At the same time, Government schools would be $4 billion better off, which seems like a direct transfer from- money from the Catholic sector to the public system. Is that what’s happening?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Fran, there’s a range of different scenarios people are wanting to debate at present. There’s no doubt that…

Fran Kelly: [Interrupts] Well, lets talk about that one.

Simon Birmingham: Yeah, well, sure. There’s no doubt that if our legislation doesn’t pass then there will be less funding available for needy government schools around the country who, if our legislation does pass, will see growth for around 4500 of them in excess of 5 per cent per student, per annum, into the future. And so we really are making sure that we’re putting funding into those schools where it is needed most. Now, I appreciate that there are people who have special deals that were in place in the past and they want to keep those special deals for the future that give them a financial advantage over others. That’s not what the Turnbull Government wants to see happen, though, because what we’re wanting to see occur is an arrangement that provides fair, consistent treatment across all non-government schools, regardless of sector, background, faith or otherwise. We don’t want to see special deals there, just as we want all of the states and territories treated equally without special deals that treat one state advantageously over another. And the Labor Party…

Fran Kelly: [Interrupts] All right, but you are conceding there- you are conceding that the Catholic schools, under your model of Gonski, even though there’s all this extra money going in, they will get less money – around $4 billion or more less money over the 10 years – than they would have got under the current system. So, they say they’re needy, they can’t deal with less money. Are you conceding that?

Simon Birmingham: [Talks over] Well no, no, no, Fran. Look, I’m not conceding those numbers because, in the end, there’s a range of assumptions…

Fran Kelly: [Interrupts] But you’re conceding they’ll get less money over 10 years?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I think Nick Xenophon put it really well over the weekend when he said there are some comparisons that are between apples and hypothetical pears or imaginary pears. And in this case we’re talking about if you had all of the mythical Labor Party money thrown at different arrangements, if you left in place all of the different special deals, well then there might be some giant advantage that exists for one particular sector. 

Fran Kelly: [Talks over] But the problem is…

Simon Birmingham: [Talks over] The truth is the funding is going up and it’s going up from $6.3 billion this year to $9.7 billion by 2027, $3.4 billion extra for Catholic education around Australia, 3.5 per cent growth per student, per annum on average over the decade. More in some states, like Western Australia for example, where you see an even greater growth because the Western Australian Catholic education system was getting a poor deal under existing arrangements relative to, for example, the Victorian Catholic education system.

Fran Kelly: Okay. The problem is, though, these may be mythical dollars but these are mythical dollars that the Catholic school systemic schools at the moment are building into their teacher programs. And when those mythical dollars aren’t there they’re going to have to cut or put up fees.

Simon Birmingham: No, Fran. They’re not going to have to cut and they’re not going to have to put up fees, because funding grows by 3.5 per cent per student, per annum, across Catholic education around the country. So this idea – and this of course is the line the Labor Party’s been running from day one – that somehow there are cuts here when, in fact, Catholic ed., just as government schools, just as independent schools, are overwhelmingly seeing funding grow. 

Over the next few years there are 24 schools around Australia that will see a funding reduction. That’s all. The Government was clear about that on day one. They are a small number of independent schools who will actually see real reduction in their funding. 

Fran Kelly: Okay.

Simon Birmingham: For Catholic education, it’s 3.5 per cent growth over the decade, 3.7 per cent growth per student over the next couple of years. And of course they retain the autonomy to distribute their pot of money across their schools as they see fit, which is an important point, that it’s a growing pot, they keep the autonomy to distribute it amongst their schools.

Fran Kelly: [Talks over] All right. Minister, I’ve got to go but I make the point that they still don’t believe you, seem to believe you, or they don’t understand it. There’s been a breakdown in communication here for a start. Do you concede that?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Fran, what I concede is that people want to keep a special deal in place that gives them a financial advantage. Now, that is not unusual. But of course that is not delivering fair, consistent needs-based funding, which is what the Turnbull Government is determined to do.

Fran Kelly: Simon Birmingham, thank you very much for joining us.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you.

Fran Kelly: Simon Birmingham is the Federal Education Minister.