Topics: Marriage equality survey and campaigns; Higher education reform; Tony Abbott’s travel

Patricia Karvelas: While controversy rages about the campaigning around the same sex marriage survey, a leading constitutional expert doubts whether it will go ahead at all. The survey’s currently subject to a challenge in the High Court which will be heard next week. Dean of the Law School of the University of New South Wales Professor George Williams says it could be a tough one to win.


George Williams: Don’t be surprised again if the Government emerges with a victory on this. It would seem unlikely the court will permit the government a back door means of avoiding the clear line of authority by which the court has said you must have explicit parliamentary authorisation for the expenditure of taxpayers’ money.

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Patricia Karvelas: Simon Birmingham is the Minister for Education and Training and joins us on RN Drive. Minister welcome.

Simon Birmingham: Good afternoon Patricia.

Patricia Karvelas: So this time next week, there could be no survey. What’s plan B?

Simon Birmingham: Well Patricia, let’s let the High Court bring down its judgement. Everybody is entitled to have an opinion about what they think the court may or may not do, but I’ll give the justices the right to bring down their judgement. The Government all along has indicated that we have confidence in our position or we wouldn’t have proceeded down this path, that there is clear statutory authority for the Australian Bureau of Statistics to undertake this type of activity. There are clear appropriations in place for them to be funded to do so and that therefore really this should be business as usual. So we will though, await the High Court finding in the meantime, we want to of course encourage Australians to participate and I, of course, have been strongly encouraging Australians to vote yes.

Patricia Karvelas: Okay, but will the only option left on the table be a conscience vote if it’s struck down?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I’m not going to get ahead of the court. The Government’s got a process in place…

Patricia Karvelas: But you must have war gamed this? I mean any government would.

Simon Birmingham: Look, as I said, it would be inappropriate to talk about the hypotheticals of what the court will find. If the court upholds the Government’s position to undertake the postal survey as we expect it will, then of course, on we go, we get this done, and hopefully it provides an outcome by the end of the year that allows for the legalisation of marriage between people of the same sex in Australia.

Patricia Karvelas: Has the Government been a bit loose with its language though? I’ve heard ministers refer to it as a ballot. Of course, if it’s seen as a ballot the High Court I imagine would look at it not very favourably. It’s not meant to be a ballot because, of course, the Senate has struck down a ballot. Your language on this has been rather loose hasn’t it?

Simon Birmingham: The court will look at the legal questions put before it and the legal questions before it won’t be what type of political rhetoric is used, legal questions before it go to issues of the funding of or legitimacy of the ABS undertaking this work. As I said, the Government has been clear all along that we believe that there is clear parliamentary authority for the ABS to undertake this type of postal survey, that of course it has occurred in the past at large scale in relation to the national anthem and that the appropriation that is being used is a mechanism that has been used previously by Labor governments and others.

Patricia Karvelas: One of the mothers in that TV ad from the Marriage Coalition which has caused quite a stir, says that her son was told that he could wear a dress next year if he felt like it. Now the principal of the school from Frankston High has told Triple J’s Hack program that that claim is incorrect. Have you gone and done your own research as the Education Minister to find out who’s right?

Simon Birmingham: Well no, and I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to start randomly ringing school principals in system that, as the federal minister, I don’t administer. Obviously if the state authorities in relation to that particular school wanted to talk to the principal, and I imagine the principal probably spoke to some in their department before commenting in the media as to the voracity of the claims then they would have engaged in that process. But look, I note the principal has said the claims are false. I’ve said today that I think the relevance of the matter is not there and that this is trying to conflate, yet again, other issues with what is a very simple question being put to the Australian people about whether or not the law should be changed to allow same sex couples to marry. That’s it, and the idea that from that there’s going to be some revolution of what is taught in our schools is patently ridiculous. We have a national curriculum that will be continue to be taught. Faith-based schools will be able to teach what the definition according to their faith of marriage is, just as they can now; they will be able to keep doing so in the future.

Patricia Karvelas: So do you think that that advertisement is deceptive?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I think that the advertisement is absolutely conflating issues that are not germane to the question that is before the Australian people as part of this postal survey. It is trying to take the debate in a different direction of which there is no real validity to drag that debate to, and look it is flying – it is putting a kite up a flagpole that has no reason to be there and would not occur in the future.

Patricia Karvelas: So in your ideal world will you be part of a government that tries to legislate for these kind of advertisements if they have claims that are false – in your view, because you’re saying these claims are false – that they don’t go to air?

Simon Birmingham: I think it’s very difficult to legislate for the types of things people say or claim in the context of a political debate. Now, there’s been talk about – if the High Court upholds the validity of the postal survey – there has been talk about there being some mirroring of electoral laws being put in places as protections around this.

Patricia Karvelas: Would you like to see that?

Simon Birmingham: But, let’s have a think about just how strong electoral laws are. Bill Shorten went to the last election claiming that the dismantling of Medicare was nigh. Of course, that was complete rubbish and a complete lie and he got away with it.

Patricia Karvelas: And you’re outraged. You have been outraged about that. Your Government has just talked about it wherever you can.

Simon Birmingham: We have and we are. And he ought to be held to account.

Patricia Karvelas: So are you equally outraged?

Simon Birmingham: He ought to be held to account for it, but there’s no real stropping it from happening, Patricia. This is the…

Patricia Karvelas: But you’ve tried to actually stop it form happening. Ever since that election you’ve been seeking to change laws to stop that happening again.

Simon Birmingham: There are issues in relation to the misleading text messages that were sent out that looked like they came from Medicare itself from the Government. That’s different in terms of clear authorisation. Those types of rules which you would expect to apply versus whether or not you can actually stop people in their campaign material saying misleading things. That is far more challenging because it quickly becomes a contest between lawyers at 20 paces arguing about whether or not such things are misleading. Now, I think it’s right in a political context that we move swiftly to call out misleading statements. I’ve done that today as the Education Minister in relation to this matter, as have other participants, and hopefully that sets the record straight.

Patricia Karvelas: If you’re just tuning in, this is RN Drive and my guest is the Education Minister Simon Birmingham. To your portfolio, you say about a quarter of the $50 billion in unpaid student loan debt will go unpaid; so that’s what, $12.5 billion. What is the Government going to do to claw back the money?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we have a number of measures that were announced in the budget this year, that seek to make higher education funding more sustainable in Australia. Funding and expenditure on higher ed’s has grown by around 70 per cent, just in relation to teaching and learning costs at universities since 2009; a rate far, far faster than economic growth or revenue growth into government, and so a number of changes we’ve proposed. In relation to the HECS or HELP scheme, we have proposed that there should be a new, slightly lower commencing rate for repayments, a lower threshold. Consistent with that, there should also be a new lower repayment rate that goes along with that, of one per cent. The result of that is that people would trigger payments at a very low level of $8 a week once they’re earning around 20 per cent more than the minimum wage and that escalates up, and we’ve proposed equally some increase in repayment rates for people earning six figure salaries at the top end so that we get university loans, student loans, paid back faster, more comprehensively and bring down not only the risk to the taxpayers of a major blowout in in our loan book, but also, importantly, preserve what is one of the best systems for funding university students anywhere in the world. Our income contingent loan scheme that was developed under the Hawke Government is a global exemplar of best practice in providing opportunities for students to go to university …

Patricia Karvelas: Sure but Minister …

Simon Birmingham: … with no upfront fees and we must preserve that for the future.

Patricia Karvelas: Minister, the chairwoman of the peak body Universities Australia Margaret Gardner has suggested some tertiary institutions might be at risk of collapse if the government’s funding cuts go ahead. Are you willing to take that risk? A collapse of tertiary institutions?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I think there is an awful lot of excessive chest beating coming from parts of the university sector to try and defeat these changes. Now, I appreciate nobody likes to see even the rate of their funding growth slowed, which is what we’re talking about here; that universities will see funding growth under our reforms of about 23 per cent over the next four years. Plenty of businesses in Australia would love to have the certainty that their funding would grow by around 23 per cent, and yet universities are claiming that that would be insufficient for them. I think the claims that there would be closures or the like as a result of the application of a modest efficiency dividend to just one part of their income stream is clearly an excessive claim …

Patricia Karvelas: Okay, but you still have to get this through the Senate, you have to convince the crossbench. How much room do you have to 2.5 per cent efficiency dividend?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we’ll continue having conversations with the crossbench.

Patricia Karvelas: Are you willing to negotiate to make that a lower efficiency dividend? Because clearly they are being very heavily lobbied by the universities. You’re going to be uphill battle getting this through.

Simon Birmingham: Look, the university are like any vested interest group in such debates. They’re seeking to preserve as much revenue as they can and I understand their ambitions. We think that it’s important that the level of funding they get is sustainable for the long term so that we can preserve not only the right of students to go to university with no upfront fees, but also a demand driven system that has given universities the freedom and autonomy to enrol as many students as they want in whatever disciplines they want. We want to put some performance arrangements around that so that they are truly accountable for the outcomes of their students but – and we think it is not at all unreasonable – the taxpayer to simply take per student funding down a little bit but still above what it was in real terms in 2011, above what it was when they were enjoying or undertaking significant growth in enrolments in previous years. This is not about in real terms taking per student funding down to anything that is dramatic. It’s just about pegging it back a little bit relative to the growth that has been experienced over recent years.

Patricia Karvelas: Minister, I’m about to let you go, but firstly, one last question …

Simon Birmingham: [Laughs] This sounds like a doozy.

Patricia Karvelas: Yeah. Is Tony Abbott’s travel bill modest? That’s what he says.

Simon Birmingham: [Laughs] I’ve seen some headlines about, I can’t say I’ve bothered myself looking at the story.

Patricia Karvelas: I can help you – I’m here to help, that’s the sort of woman I am.

Simon Birmingham: You are, there you go, always helpful Patricia.

Patricia Karvelas: One hundred and twenty thousand dollars, $120,000. You’re talking about clawing back debts, $120,000 last year to taxpayers.

Simon Birmingham: Oh look, Tony Abbott is a former prime minister, still a serving member of Parliament. As long as the travel he was undertaking was undertaken in accordance with parliamentary rules…

Patricia Karvelas: But would you describe it as modest?

Simon Birmingham: … and entitlements and appropriate.

Patricia Karvelas: But would you describe it as modest?

Simon Birmingham: Look it’s a – it’s a travel bill, no I wouldn’t say is modest. But of course is it warranted? Is it justified? Is it within the rules? Tony says it is. I take him at his word.

Patricia Karvelas: Thank you so much for your time.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you.

Patricia Karvelas: That’s Simon Birmingham, he’s the Minister for Education and Training joining us on RN Drive.