Interview on ABC Radio National Breakfast with Hamish Macdonald
The Turnbull Government’s child care reforms; Parliamentary travel entitlements

Hamish Macdonald: The Turnbull Government has nominated child care reform as a top priority for Parliament this year. That’s fitting considering warnings families could soon be paying up to $220 a day in child care fees. A report by the Education Department forecasts costs will increase by 20 per cent over the next four years, imposing even greater pressure on household budgets. Senior Shadow Minister Penny Wong says Education Minister Simon Birmingham has some explaining to do.


Penny Wong: Simon Birmingham is the Minister for Education, he’s not the minister for excuses so perhaps he should stop making excuses and instead start to do something about making child care more accessible and more affordable.

[End of excerpt]

Hamish Macdonald: That’s Labor’s Penny Wong. Simon Birmingham is indeed the Minister for Education with responsibility for child care. Good morning, Simon Birmingham.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning Hamish, and happy new year to you and your listeners.

Hamish Macdonald: Likewise, thank you very much, we will get to that story but the news of the day of course relates to Sussan Ley, the Health Minister: she has agreed to pay back four travel claims she made for trips to the Gold Coast. This is clearly an admission that she breached the Ministerial Code of Conduct, isn’t it?

Simon Birmingham: Well I think Sussan’s statement that she issued yesterday makes clear that she understands firstly that the nature of the particular trip that’s been debated recently did change in a sense because she purchased a property while there and so the line between public and private was blurred and what Sussan’s committed to doing is having the Department of Finance undertake an audit of all of her travels to the Gold Coast as well as making these repayments, of course she has apologised. 

I think we need to understand the context in which Sussan Ley works: she’s the nation’s Minister for Health, Minister for Aged Care, Minister for Sport and represents an electorate the size of New Zealand so extensive travel is of course a clear part of her responsibilities but naturally like all of us, she must…

Hamish Macdonald: [Interrupts] Could – sorry to interrupt you – could I get a straight answer on whether she breached the Ministerial Code of Conduct? Yes or no?

Simon Birmingham: Well I don’t believe that that is the case, Hamish, but Sussan obviously believes…

Hamish Macdonald: Why?

Simon Birmingham: … Sussan obviously believes that to make sure there can be no doubt about the authenticity of any of her claims, it’s better to repay some of those costs and that’s what she’s outlined in her statement.

Hamish Macdonald: Why pay them back if there’s no breach?

Simon Birmingham: Well Hamish, I think we are expected to be held to a high standard of accountability and transparency and in this regard, Sussan thinks and believes that it’s appropriate to make some repayments and I can appreciate and understand why.

Hamish Macdonald: Do you think 37 nights worth of accommodation on the Gold Coast in recent years seems a little bit more than usual to you?

Simon Birmingham: Look I would leave that for Sussan to explain, as she has been in response to queries, it’s the nature of the business undertaken there. In the end, as I said, there’s good reason for…

Hamish Macdonald: [Interrupts] Should – but it’s a simple question – do you have questions yourself, would you like to know why she was there that often?

Simon Birmingham: Hamish, my understanding is Sussan will be answering questions from the media later today and I’m sure she will address all of those questions herself at that time.

Hamish Macdonald: And you think she does have questions to answer?

Simon Birmingham: No, look I’m sure – well I’m sure there will be questions, Hamish, so I’m sure she will address those questions when they’re put to her.

Hamish Macdonald: Right, but you’re not interested; you don’t have queries yourself about the level of travel?

Simon Birmingham: Well as Education Minister, I’ve got plenty of other things to have questions and concerns about and that’s where my focus lies on getting on with my job.

Hamish Macdonald: Fine, both Stuart Robert and Bronwyn Bishop were forced to stand down over abuse of travel entitlements, why is Sussan Ley any different?

Simon Birmingham: Well every case is of course considered rightly on its merits and in this case I think Sussan is addressing the issues as they’ve come up and making sure that her record is clear.

Hamish Macdonald: Okay. This report by your department, child care fees will rise by more than 5 per cent a year each year over the next four years. In Brisbane rates will top $157 a day, by 2020 in Melbourne $175 a day, in Sydney $223. Average families clearly being priced even further out of child care. Penny Wong is right isn’t she? The time for excuses about this is over.

Simon Birmingham: Well Penny Wong is right, that the time for excuses from the Labor Party in not supporting savings measures to pass our child care reforms should be over so that we can get implemented changes that are quite significant. We are proposing to abolish the current child care support system, get rid of the multiple different subsidies that apply, introduce a new child care subsidy which for the lowest income working Australian families will see the level of support they receive increase from around 76 per cent of their child care costs to around 85 per cent of their costs, for all low and middle income families, in fact all working families under incomes of around $185,000, they will see the current cap, the ceiling in child care rebate abolished so that no longer do they face a February, March or April cliff that they fall off in terms of child care support. These are significant far reaching changes that will benefit Australian families and the only road block to them at present is Bill Shorten and the Labor Party.

Hamish Macdonald: Why is that though? What about the crossbenchers? Why are you blaming Labor for this?

Simon Birmingham: Because Labor are the ones out there weeping crocodile tears for Australian families of child care while being a road block in relation to achieving reform and savings. It’s not acceptable, Hamish, for the Labor Party to be able to have it both ways, to stand there and say we’re very concerned that families are doing it tough while at the same time being a road block to actually putting in place the solutions. Now we have outlined comprehensive solutions…

Hamish Macdonald: [Interrupts] But as the Government of the day you have to find a way for legislation through the Parliament. I mean that’s your responsibility, the fact that they’re saying well you need to find the savings elsewhere, that’s up to them to do isn’t it? Why is it not you taking responsibility for this?

Simon Birmingham: And we will work hard with all parties across the Senate to try to get our savings legislated and our child care reforms legislated but I don’t think we can let the Opposition off the hook, as I say they come out, they weep crocodile tears, Bill Shorten [indistinct] great concern…

Hamish Macdonald: [Talks over] Sure but this is just – okay you’ve said that, it’s in your press release, we can all find it online, the line about crocodile tears, but if you were serious about getting this through, wouldn’t you unshackle the increased funding from the cuts to Family Tax Benefits?

Simon Birmingham: Well everything that we do as a government has to be paid for. That’s something that we are deadly serious about. This is a significant reform, it costs and invests billions of dollars extra in the future into supporting Australian families and to able to access more accessible, more affordable child care. So they’re significant reforms but they come at a significant cost and we want to make sure of course, like everything we do as a government, that it is paid for. Now the Labor Party and indeed all parties cannot have it…

Hamish Macdonald: [Interrupts] Sure but why specifically shackle these changes to the Family Tax Benefit cuts?

Simon Birmingham: Well this is in many ways a realignment of support for families as well as increasing support particularly for the hardest working, lowest earning Australian families so what we actually are doing is shifting what is a passive welfare payment in terms of Family Tax Benefit to one that actually supports people engaging in the workforce, in engaging in society, in working, training and studying by helping them to access and pay for their child care costs in a much more effective way, one that does leave around 1 million Australian families better off as a result of the reforms we’re putting in place. So there are, I think, great pluses when you look at the overall package put together of indeed shifting from that Family Tax Benefit payment to more support in the child care system and indeed we will work, as I say, with all parties across the Senate but the simplest solution, the simplest approach would absolutely be for the Labor Party to support all aspects of our proposal and that would put in place a much better child care system for the future.

Hamish Macdonald: Alright, Simon Birmingham, just on the Sussan Ley question before we go, you’re effectively giving her a pass on this, that she’s apologising, paying it back, at the same time as the Government threatening people on welfare that they’ll go to prison if they don’t repay debts, do you see how this looks to the Australian voting public?

Simon Birmingham: Look I appreciate nobody, nobody likes to have discussions about politicians’ entitlements, pay, travel, et cetera and they are always unfortunate conversations to have to be having. And all of us, all of us have a very serious responsibility to make sure that what we do is within the rules and of course we are working as a government to implement a comprehensive review of the rules was undertaken last year to make sure that they actually have far better arrangements in place in the future.

Hamish Macdonald: Okay Simon Birmingham, thank you very much for your time this morning.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Hamish, a pleasure.