Interview on ABC Radio National Drive with Patricia Karvelas
South Australian storms; South Australia’s energy market; Future schools funding arrangements; School vouchers

Patricia Karvelas: We’re in the Adelaide studios, and South Australia’s weather emergency still has a way to run, but I suppose it’s fair to say that the political point-scoring began this morning with tens of thousands of people. They were still in the dark, but there was a big debate whether the state’s 40 per cent target for renewable energy makes its energy supply more vulnerable during extreme weather events like this. That’s the question that’s being hotly debated. The Education Minister and Senator Simon Birmingham is a proud South Australian. He joins me now. Welcome.

Simon Birmingham: Hello Patricia. Good to be with you, but unfortunate under these circumstances.

Patricia Karvelas: Yeah, I thought we’d be at the festival. Of course, I was going to ask you some hard questions, but it was going to be in a sort of- a friendly environment. This is…

Simon Birmingham: [Interrupts] I was looking forward to telling you how fabulous the Moon Lantern opening parade was for the OzAsia Festival. What a wonderful event in its tenth anniversary it is, and hopefully of course the event largely still goes on, the many different activities that OzAsia and that those who have come to South Australia, as they do, to enjoy the OzAsia Festival are still getting to enjoy as much of it as they possibly can. 

Patricia Karvelas: That’s right. Well, that festival is being cancelled for tonight. Last night, the same thing. It’s certainly affecting so much, really; commerce as well as people’s just basic safety. You literally flew home into the storm yesterday afternoon. That must have been quite an experience. What was it like?

Simon Birmingham: It was very weird flying in last night. Of course, coming into land over the city of Adelaide – as I come in to land over the city of Adelaide oftentimes, once or twice a week – last night, of course, looking out the window of the plane, you could see the cars on the roads, and that was it, and it was otherwise pitch black, and a very surreal thing that you could otherwise have been flying over a desert location but for those traffic- those car headlights. And I pay tribute to of course first and foremost the emergency services workers who were out there working hard. But also frankly then, in driving from the airport to home, to the fact that people were adjusting and being cautious and careful and making do with the fact that there was not a traffic light, essentially, in the city that was working, and people were having to make sure that they applied all the right courtesies to get through some very difficult situations, and tragically of course large parts of the state, particularly regional and rural areas, are now more than 24 hours without power.

Patricia Karvelas: And it could go into the weekend for these people.

Simon Birmingham: And it could continue for some period of time. I spoke this afternoon with my colleague Rowan Ramsay, who represents most of the rural and regional parts of South Australia, and he’s dealing with people who don’t have electricity, don’t have phones. Of course, there are all sorts of safety implications that come with that for people living in those communities. So there’s a huge human element that is occurring right now, and if the worst of the storm predictions occurs could get worse, and then there are of course enormous economic implications which are starting to unfold with news coming out from Nyrstar, Arrium, BHP, and others about the implications this is having, that even if power gets back on will now last for some weeks and cost many millions of dollars.

Patricia Karvelas: We know a number of transmission towers collapsed yesterday during the storm, but it’s still unclear exactly what caused the statewide blackout. What’s the latest information that you have?

Simon Birmingham: Well, certainly the experts and the energy markets are of course a very complicated beast. But the experts say that the loss of transmission meant that there was a massive drop then in availability of load and that certain automatic factors triggered various shutdowns. Now, there will be thorough enquiries and investigations into exactly what happened. It seems inconceivable that the loss of some transmission towers 250 kilometres north of Adelaide can then cause a blackout for the entire state of 1.7 million people and areas that you would notionally expect to be powered by other generation facilities, including facilities much, much closer to the city of Adelaide.

Patricia Karvelas: Okay. It’s not even been 24 hours, and we’re about to see a second storm that could be worse hit. I wonder why so many of your colleagues have jumped to judgment and made comments about renewable energy in this climate without the facts, without the investigation. Why politicise something that’s unfolding?

Simon Birmingham: Because this is not an isolated energy problem for South Australia this year or in recent times. Now, the causes and the issues here might be somewhat different, but it’s become apparent through various events over the last year or so that South Australia has essentially the highest-priced and least reliable energy in the nation, and this is a growing problem for the state. It was only a matter of months ago where it was revealed- in fact, weeks ago, I think, where it was revealed that the state’s Treasurer and Energy Minister had had to plead for a mothballed gas-fired power station to be switched on to avert economic crisis for some of our major employers in this state. So we can see that there are real problems in the energy markets in SA, and this crisis is shining a spotlight on problems, some of which may not be related to this crisis itself, but which are…

Patricia Karvelas: [Interrupts] So you’re trying to start a conversation that might not be related? 

Simon Birmingham: It’s a very …

Patricia Karvelas: [Interrupts] During a crisis?

Simon Birmingham: Patricia, I think people logically start talking about what the issues in the state’s energy market are, and there are real issues for a state that has some of the highest-priced and least reliable energy in the nation, which of course is a state that also has some of the highest unemployment in the nation and desperately needs to attract more investment, more in jobs, and this is not helping.

Patricia Karvelas: The experts have said that the Renewable Energy Target played no role in yesterday’s incident. Do you accept that?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we’ll let all of the evidence unfold in that regard.

Patricia Karvelas: [Talks over] So you don’t accept it at this stage?

Simon Birmingham: Well I think in terms of the effective operation of South Australia’s energy market, the fact that this state has had an ad hoc, much higher, and poorly planned or little planned at all separate Renewable Energy Target from the one we apply nationally under a very carefully planned regime has clearly driven those factors that see us having some of the highest-priced and least reliable energy. Now, it may not be a factor in this crisis, but it certainly was a factor when the Energy Minister had to plead to get emergency power switched on within the last couple of months. It’s certainly a factor in some of the other [indistinct] issues we face.

Patricia Karvelas: So it might not be a factor in this crisis, but you still think it’s appropriate that while people- you just described them, in regional areas in South Australia, are without power, could go into the weekend, to be starting this debate. I’m not saying you- you’re not entitled to have a debate-

Simon Birmingham: [Talks over] I’m not saying-

Patricia Karvelas: -it just seems to me, perhaps, poor timing.

Simon Birmingham: I’m not saying for a second, Patricia, that we should be seeing one iota of resources diverted away from dealing with the crisis. That is the first and most important element that should be occurring. But people, of course, rightly, logically, when they were sitting at home in the dark in Adelaide last night, and elsewhere around South Australia-

Patricia Karvelas: [Talks over] But it wasn’t caused by the Renewable Energy Target.

Simon Birmingham: -leapt to the questions of saying why is this happening-

Patricia Karvelas: [Talks over] But it wasn’t-

Simon Birmingham: -why is this- why is this not only-

Patricia Karvelas: [Interrupts] Simon Birmingham, you just said it was not caused by the Renewable Energy Target.

Simon Birmingham: But Patricia, you might say, ‘why is this happening?’. Your second question is going to be why has this seemingly happened before, why does this state have such high electricity prices, why is this a reoccurring pattern of a lack of reliability in this state in terms of the energy security in South Australia. So there are a lot of questions that people logically jump to and do start asking quickly. Of course, every ounce of resource that can be there should be dedicated to getting power back up and running, ensuring public safety, dealing with the crisis that’s there. But that’s not to say that South Australians aren’t already asking lots of questions about this matter and all of the other ones related to our energy market, and they have every right to ask those questions and expect that politicians and others won’t just hide behind the veneer of saying well, I’m sorry, in a time of crisis we shouldn’t talk about that. If people are asking the questions we should be open enough to answer them as long as it’s not [indistinct] resources.

Patricia Karvelas: [Talks over] But the causal link- the causal link doesn’t exist. The Renewable Energy Target has not caused the power blackout.

Simon Birmingham: Well, there are some factors in relation to the reliance on renewable energy that I hope full and thorough investigations will deal with in terms of the speed with which and the process with which power is actually returned to the grid. So when the whole state was in complete blackout last night listening to the head of ElectraNet, one of the key parts of the transmission elements, on radio this morning, he was explaining that to get that back up and running they had to rely on all of the traditional forms of base load energy to actually get things running again, that wind was the last element they could bring back into the grid because of the unreliability of it. So there are elements there in terms of how you recover from a blackout situation like this where the reliance on renewable becomes a factor to consider as well. So let’s not say it’s completely detached, but I think the bigger question as to why South Australians are asking the question is maybe not this event, but because this is not the first energy crisis South Australia has faced si-

Patricia Karvelas: [Interrupts] Well there’s no doubt that South Australians are entitled to ask a whole lot of questions at the moment, I don’t think anyone would be disputing that as a concept.

If you’re just tuning in to RN Drive, my guest is the Education Minister and the South Australian Senator Simon Birmingham. Simon Birmingham, Independent Senator Nick Xenophon has called for an independent inquiry into what caused the blackout. Is that something you’d support?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the State Liberal Leader Steven Marshall has also been calling very strongly for that today, and I expect we will see fairly full and thorough investigations. There are automatic investigations that are triggered from an event like this, but if there is something above and beyond that, well, details of that will be sorted out once the Energy ministers themselves have time to catch their breath after the crisis has passed.

Patricia Karvelas: If you’re just tuning in to RN Drive 0418226576 is the number you can text on if you’ve been watching this debate unfold today. Of course, people in South Australia are actually dealing with a very real emergency right now. Of course they’ll be asking questions, but I’m sure they’ll be making immediate plans about their own safety and their own homes and getting home, but across the country there’s bigger debates being had. 0418226576. 

I want to change the conversation into your portfolio, because you said something really interesting and, I think, quite significant on Q&A, our sister TV program on Monday night, where you said that perhaps some private schools are funded overly- overly funded, which- which you don’t usually hear from a Coalition Minister. Do you stand by those comments?

Simon Birmingham: I stand by the comments. To make sure they’re put in clear perspective, because I said a little more than just that, I’ve been highlighting over the last couple of weeks the fact that our 27 different funding deals that we inherited in relation to schools set up a range of inequitable arrangements and we do have circumstances in Australia where in some states Government schools of an identical nature to Government schools in another state, in terms of their demographic composition and the needs they have in those schools, receive different levels of Federal funding. The same thing applies in relation to non-Government schools, that you can get a non-Government school, Catholic or independent, in one part of the country that is receiving a completely different Federal funding deal to an identical looking non-Government school elsewhere in the country. 

So relative to others, some of them are over-funded and there are inequities built into the school funding system. And what I want to work through is a system that in the long run- we can implement one that is- where funding is delivered demonstrated to need, where equity is actually achieved in a better way in terms of treatment across different state borders, and that we actually are also leveraging record funding to get better school improvement results.

Patricia Karvelas: Well, I spoke to Tanya Plibersek just this week, and she suggested that there’s a secret hit list. Is there a hit list or will there be a hit list?

Simon Birmingham: There’s definitely not. What, of course, I’m trying to work through, starting with meetings last week with State and Territory Education ministers, as well as discussions with non-Government school authorities, is how we can develop a school funding model for the future that takes our record growing funding in schools, distributes it fairly across the country, according and influenced by need, equitably across states and territories and leverages real reform. Now, when I get to the end of those discussions, we will hopefully be able to present a model to the Australian people that clearly does show how you can do it and what the impacts are on individual schools or school systems across the country.

Patricia Karvelas: I want to ask you more of a philosophical question, if I can. Are you frustrated by this kind of language of ‘no school will be worse off’. It was the Gillard Government that embraced it, I think they’ve been stung, I mean, I’ve watched this area for a long time, as you know, I think they’ve been stung by Mark Latham’s- you know, his real hit list of schools that would lose money. They didn’t want to go there again, so no school was to lose any money. Is that really sustainable in our financial situation, that no school would lose money? Shouldn’t some schools that, you know, that people- that are dripping with privilege, lose some money? Isn’t that reasonable?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we got to the point on Q&A of the comment being made on Monday night because I emphasised to the person who asked me the question that I had been very careful, ever since becoming Education Minister and dealing with the budget challenges we have, to not repeat those Gillard Government words that no school would lose a dollar. Because I want to make sure that we are running an equitable system that doesn’t rely on deals that were done, whether they were done by Bill Shorten when he was Education Minister, with different premiers, bishops, or others around the country, or whether they date back to the Howard Government days that are still entrenched in sweetheart arrangements that may have been rolled over by the Gillard Government. I want to make sure that future funding models have greater transparency, greater consistency, and are built around principles of equity for the future. And so that’s why I’m being very careful in how I approach this issue. 

Now, school choice is a big part of Australia’s education system, I respect the choice of parents to send their children to non-Government schools or to Government schools, and the Turnbull Government believes that every Australian schoolchild deserves Government funding and support. This is not about taking funding away from the non-Government sector, it’s about making sure that we don’t have lots and lots of different deals that mean the same schoolkid from a similar-looking family attending a similar-looking school gets different treatment based on where they live.

Patricia Karvelas: I read the editorial in The Australian newspaper today. It attacked you for your comments on private schools and it suggested that you should revisit an idea- I think you were a backbencher when you first raised it, of a voucher system for education instead. It’s a controversial idea, I know the teacher unions have never liked it very much. Is that something you would embrace?

Simon Birmingham: [Laughs] I guess they may have had a go at me, it’s-

Patricia Karvelas: [Talks over] They certainly did, I’m sure you read it.

Simon Birmingham: Plenty of people have a go at the Education Minister, and all politicians… thick skin. They quoted from my maiden speech, in fact.

Patricia Karvelas: They did.

Simon Birmingham: And what I said in my maiden speech was to encourage a state or territory or a region to have a look at a model like that. It could only be led by a state or territory because the states are actually the ones who fund different schools that are in their state. They carve up the money, they provide the [indistinct]…

Patricia Karvelas: [Talks over] So you’re saying it’s up to them. But philosophically, do you still support that?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I think it has enormous practical challenges in a system like Australia’s. I support making sure that funding is distributed according to need, and you can absolutely structure a system like that to do so, but the model we have is one of shared funding responsibilities. The Commonwealth pays a proportion of school cost in Australia, the states and territories pay a proportion, and that means we have to work, really, within the type of arrangements we currently have. I just want to make sure they’re simplified significantly so they can be equitable and needs based in the future. 

Patricia Karvelas: Simon Birmingham, thank you so much for coming in. How are you going to get home? It’s not safe out there.

Simon Birmingham: [Laughs] Well I’m going to hop in the car, hopefully pick my daughter up from ballet and get home promptly.

Patricia Karvelas: Okay, well, take care because it is an ugly situation out here in Adelaide. Thank you so much. 

Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Patricia.

Patricia Karvelas: And that is the Federal Education Minister, a proud South Australian, Senator Simon Birmingham.