Interview on ABC Radio National Drive with Patricia Karvelas
Prime Minister’s speech to the House of Representatives; Cory Bernardi; Delivering more affordable, flexible and accessible child care for Australian families

Patricia Karvelas: The Government began the job of selling its changes to child care and welfare funding today. In all, the wide-ranging omnibus bill is a saving of $3.8 billion to the budget bottom line. This of course relies on the Government’s ability to convince the Senate crossbench, which has grown by one after yesterday’s defection by Cory Bernardi. So, you know, the job is just a tiny bit tricker. Senator Simon Birmingham is the Minister for Education and Training. Welcome back to the program.

Simon Birmingham: G’day Patricia, great to be with you again.

Patricia Karvelas: Before we get to the omnibus bill, as we’ve just heard, the Prime Minister got pretty personal in Question Time today. Now, I know you’re in the Senate but I reckon you haven’t missed this one. He called Bill Shorten a sucker, a sycophant, a social climbing sycophant; actually, it was very specific. What is a social climbing sycophant and why did the Prime Minister say that?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Bill Shorten has had his fair share of insults for the Prime Minister over a very, very long period of time and really Bill Shorten is somebody who tries consistently to walk both sides of the street simultaneous. And whether that’s back in his union days when he would pretend to be out there standing up for the worker whilst actually selling out cleaners in the wage negotiations he did and actually building a very powerful political support base amongst very wealthy Melbournians and people around Australia; or whether it’s more recently in terms of pretending that he cares about fixing the budget, but of course opposing every possible measure that’s ever put up to deal with budget repair; or whether it’s the lies during the election campaign about Medicare and the approach that the Government was taking, that he just blatantly pushed out there in the final weeks of the campaign. There’s plenty to highlight in Bill Shorten’s character …

Patricia Karvelas: [Talks over] Sure, but I haven’t heard the Prime Minister …

Simon Birmingham: … that demonstrates he is not capable and not a …

Patricia Karvelas: [Interrupts] I haven’t heard the Prime Minister talk like this before. Why did he get so aggressive and are you fearful that the public will turn off from that kind of aggression?

Simon Birmingham: I think Australians have seen over the years from Paul Keating and Peter Costello and many successful leaders that parliamentary debate gets robust at times but that doesn’t mean you can’t get on with applying good policy. And the Prime Minister, I can tell you, spent the vast majority of today focused on the reforms we’re implements around child care and a fairer, better system to make child care more affordable and accessible, improvements to paid parental leave …

Patricia Karvelas: [Talks over] We’re going to get to all of that so I’m going to …

Simon Birmingham: … those are the things he spent his time focused on. Yes there was a speech in the Parliament.

Patricia Karvelas: … I’m going to press stop on you saying that. There was a speech in the Parliament.

Simon Birmingham: [Talks over] There was a speech in the Parliament too.

Patricia Karvelas: That speech in the Parliament, though, are we going to hear more of those speeches?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I guess that depends whether the Labor Party wants to engage in constructive debate in the Parliament or whether they’re just going to keep playing stunts and tactics, in which case the Prime Minister, of course, has to respond to those stunts and tactics …

Patricia Karvelas: [Talks over] So the gloves are off?

Simon Birmingham: … as they disrupt the operation of the house. So, the test really falls at the feet of Bill Shorten and the Labor Party. Are they here in the Parliament to be constructive for the good of the nation or are they just going to take cheap shot after cheap shot at the Prime Minister? Are they going to disrupt everything, oppose everything, be negative? In which case, of course, as a Government, as the leader of the Government, we will fight back and argue our case and highlight the flaws in Bill Shorten’s character.

Patricia Karvelas: On Facebook, a commenter suggests that Malcolm Turnbull is taking out his anger at Cory Bernardi on Bill Shorten. Is there a grain of truth there?

Simon Birmingham: [Laughs] Not at all. I can be quite confident that Malcolm Turnbull moved on from Senator Bernardi’s actions of yesterday and, as I said, today overwhelmingly he was focused on the policy issues the nation faces. But we saw the Labor Party come in, undertake stunts in the House of Representatives to suspend standing orders, to disrupt proceedings so that we couldn’t get on with debating the matters of the day or have a proper Question Time or all those sorts of things, as well as all of the cheap shots that Bill Shorten tells…

Patricia Karvelas: [Talks over] Okay. Do you like this version of the Prime Minister?

Simon Birmingham: … in labelling Malcolm Turnbull Mr Harbourside Mansion and so on.

Patricia Karvelas: [Talks over] Do you like this version of the Prime Minister?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Malcolm Turnbull, as he’s openly acknowledged before, is self-made, is wealthy, but of course he gives a lot back to society. He doesn’t need to be in the Parliament to earn a living by any means. He’s here because he wants to get things done for this country and yes he gets frustrated when Bill Shorten and the Labor Party get in the way of that happening.

Patricia Karvelas: Do you like this version of the Prime Minister, the angry Prime Minister fighting back?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I like the fact that the Prime Minister is willing to fight for what he believes in, will stand up to the Labor Party when they unfairly attack him, unfairly attack the Government, but most importantly when they unfairly, unreasonably get in the way of us getting the job done of providing better policy for Australia. And I know that’s what the Prime Minister is most passionate about.

Patricia Karvelas: But you’re angry at Cory Bernardi, aren’t you? You said his decision to leave the Liberal Party is a dog act. Is it a dog act?

Simon Birmingham: Well, of course it is. It’s a betrayal of the 345,000 plus South Australians who voted for the Liberal Party at the last election. They chose to vote Liberal, they didn’t vote for One Nation, they didn’t vote for the anti-Muslim Liberty Alliance, they didn’t vote for Family First; they had a raft of choices on the right of centre of politics. They chose to vote for the Liberal Party, they elected four Liberal senators, they rightly expect that those Liberal Senators will serve out their terms as Liberal senators. But it’s an act. My words were very specific there. The action of Cory was an appalling act of betrayal for those voters and supporters of the Liberal Party but we get on with it from there, he’s obviously staying put …

Patricia Karvelas: [Interrupts] You’ve never really got along with Cory Bernardi. You come from totally opposite sides of the party. Are you secretly glad to see the back of him? Because you’ve been factional rivals.

Simon Birmingham: I would much rather have more Liberals in the Parliament than not and I am very saddened for our supporters, for our party members, for our voters that he has undertaken this defection. But I’ll do what I’ve always done which is get on and work as constructively as we possibly can. He’s obviously going to keep this Senate seat for himself for this term of Parliament and we will have to get on and work with him now as a member of the crossbench.

Patricia Karvelas: I do want to ask you a couple of questions about the bill but one final question on this …

Simon Birmingham: [Interrupts] That would be really good.

Patricia Karvelas: Well, come on, give me a go because there’s other issues too. What Cory Bernardi is complaining about is effectively the conservatives are not getting their voices heard enough in the Coalition. Now, you’re from the other side, you know, you’re from the progressive wing of the Liberal Party. How do you understand this kind of friction? Is it true that the conservatives are being marginalised?

Simon Birmingham: Well, let me analyse a little but of what Cory did and said in his rationalisation yesterday. He was asked about policy differences and he could barely spell out one single policy difference. He argued largely that he made this change because of people drifting to minor parties at the last election. Now, ignoring the fact that the vast majority still supported major parties, it’s a bit illogical to say your solution to people drifting to minor parties is to set up yet another minor party. Now, they’re his arguments, it’s up to him to defend, but I certainly think the broad church of values of the Liberal Party that since Robert Menzies founded it has been an amalgam of liberal values and conservative values that sometimes causes tensions but does mean we bring a pragmatic sense to Government that represents a broad range of views in Australian society, I think all of those opinions and views are well and truly heard in the current Turnbull Liberal-National Government.

Patricia Karvelas: If you’re just tuning in, Simon Birmingham the Minister for Education and Training is my guest. To the omnibus bill and the childcare changes, you’re cutting Family Tax Benefits to pay for these changes. Labor say this will reduce payments to one million families. Is that right?

Simon Birmingham: Well, no it’s not right because the Labor Party have conveniently decided they’ll only calculate their sums based on the Family Tax Benefit changes and they’re ignoring the changes we’re making to the child care system. And so let me give you a couple of examples of family circumstances. Take a family earning $80,000, two parents working, two children in child care for three days a week, that family will be close to $3000 better off per annum under our changes, net of the Family Tax Benefit changes and the childcare changes.

Similarly, a single income family, a single parent earning $50,000 per year with two children again in child care for three days a week will be around $2500 better off, net of all of the different permutations here. That’s on top of the fact that they will receive, if they don’t have generous employer-subsidised paid parental leave, they’ll receive now an additional two weeks of paid parental leave. These are highly progressive changes we are proposing to better target child care assistance and paid parental leave assistance to families earning the least but working the hardest in Australian society.

Patricia Karvelas: The amount being spent on these reforms has been revised down from $3 billion to $1.6 billion. That’s a pretty big change. Why?

Simon Birmingham: There’s no change from that from what was released back in the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook at the end of last year. There was an update to the annual costs of childcare payments, not just post-these changes but in fact the costs applied for this year and next year as well while we’re still in the old system of the child care model. The reasons for that are two-fold: some of it are some technical, departmental modelling changes, the other aspects are simply that the compliance measures we’ve introduced around Family Tax Ben- not Family Tax Benefit, family day care in particular, those compliance changes are yielding a better return than we had anticipated. They’re being more effective at stopping the rorting of some services or by some services that we have seen. 

So, that’s good news but there’s not a single change to the element of the childcare reforms we’ve proposed before that has occurred. So, there’s no change there in terms of the benefit for actual families from the child care reforms we’re proposing.

Patricia Karvelas: [Talks over] I just want to go to some of the issues that I know the sector is deeply concerned about – and I’ve spoken to people in the sector this afternoon – on the child care safety net. For those that don’t meet the Government’s work activity test, eight hours per fortnight and under $65,000 income, you’ve halved the number of child care hours subsidised per week from 24 to 12. This potentially affects the most disadvantaged children in our community. Why cut this end of the scale. Why not trim benefits from higher earners and maintain this safety net?

Simon Birmingham: Because many of those hours are being paid for by taxpayers, and to some extent parents, without actually being utilised because of the way it’s currently structured. We’re committed to doing what the sector and experts advise us is optimal which is ensuring two days, two sessions of care per week for children in vulnerable circumstances, for children in very low income families to make sure they can access that care.

So, we’ve shifted from 24 hours of care, which is frequently currently gobbled up purely in two days even though children are certainly not there for 11 or 12 hours per day. We’ve shifted that in a proposal to 12  hours, which we believe two six hour sessions of care for a three-year-old for early learning purposes is probably about right.

Patricia Karvelas: [Talks over] The child care sector wants 15 hours. Will you consider that?

Simon Birmingham: I have flagged publicly that we are certainly considering those proposals from the sector, discussions with crossbenchers and others to make sure that we do have confidence that those two sessions of care can be delivered.

Patricia Karvelas: So can I be clear, at the moment it’s 12 hours. You are currently considering changing it to 15 hours?

Simon Birmingham: That’s right. Look, we are looking at the concerns that people have raised and we’re certainly having those discussions and I had further discussions with a number of the major child care organisations and providers today to make sure that what finally goes to a vote in the Parliament guarantees those most vulnerable children will get that access to two sessions of educational development and opportunity per week. In addition, of course, to the universal preschool entitlement that we have in place.

Patricia Karvelas: Will the Government consider increasing access for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children to three days and secure the future of these services? That’s another issue that the sector says they’re very concerned about in this bill. 

Simon Birmingham: Well, there are two separate parts to that question. In terms of providing a differential in the number of days, that’s not really something in this context we’re looking at. I’d rather, if we’re looking at allocation of hours or services for targeted children who are in an at-risk circumstances or in disadvantaged circumstances, that we do that across the board and considering Indigeneity would be a factor there, but not a single factor. However, in terms of the particular Indigenous services that exist in remote Australia and elsewhere, who have historically been shut out of accessing the child care subsidy or the child care rebate, we want to bring them into our new model, our new child care subsidy model, so those Indigenous families for the first time ever will be able to access the new child care subsidy. But, importantly, we know they will need some additional support out of the $1 billion safety net that we’ve budgeted for, and again I’m having those discussions with their representative bodies to make sure we can guarantee those important services, successfully make the transition, and have the ongoing additional support they need to survive into the future.

Patricia Karvelas: I’ve obviously had too much of a good time interviewing you, so I’ve gone over time, but I have one final question because I think this is really important.

Simon Birmingham: [Laughs] We could keep going all show Patricia.

Patricia Karvelas: [Talks over] We could go. I could ask you about this policy all night. But I will ask you about this element: if the bill passes, unemployed people under 25 have to wait four weeks extra before being able to claim welfare. Now, this was one of the zombie measures from the 2014 Budget. It has been adjusted a little to a lower wait. It was originally six months, now it’s four weeks. Why are you putting this policy, which many people see as toxic, back into the bill?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we have put forward in this bill a whole range of unlegislated measures that we are doing our best to try to legislate through the Parliament because we still need- it was providing extra support for low-income families in child care, extra paid parental leave for people who don’t get it from their employers, as I say, very progressive reforms. We still do need to make some savings to deal with the budget deficit issue and proposals like this that are modest in circumstances where people are job-ready, so there’s a test there that has to be applied and of course with consideration around other safety-net elements, are reasonable propositions, when in many, many cases those young people [indistinct].

Patricia Karvelas: [Talks over] Okay, would you consider taking that out of the bill because I know there’s a lot of concern about this?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I’m not going to trade away aspects of the bill on your program. We will of course have our discussions with the crossbenchers and others, the Labor Party if they realise the very progressive elements to our child care reforms and to our paid parental leave reforms, but otherwise with the crossbenchers we’ll have those discussions..

Patricia Karvelas: [Talks over] But you’re open to negotiation on changing them?

Simon Birmingham: The Turnbull Government’s shown that over the last six months that we want to get things done. We’re not just going to stand on our principles around everything, so that’s how we’ve managed to get many of the stalled reforms of other savings measures as well as the Building and Construction Commission reforms and so on through the Parliament at the tail end of last year. And we of course maintain that attitude, that we want to get progress but we will make sure we get a deal that delivers as much to the budget bottom line as possible whilst putting in place our better, more affordable, more accessible child care model.

Patricia Karvelas: We’ll see how it lands. Thank you for your time.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks so much Patricia.

Patricia Karvelas: That’s Senator Simon Birmingham, the Minister for Education and Training.