Interview on ABC Radio National Drive with Patricia Karvelas
Same-sex marriage plebiscite; Omnibus Savings Bill measures; Superannuation reform; Schools funding
13 September 2016

Patricia Karvelas: It’s been a big day in Parliament and it’s still going. So far today, the Government and the Opposition have agreed on a deal to pass some $6 billion in savings measures. Cuts to Newstart and dental health have been replaced with axing the Baby Bonus, but some cuts to ARENA and the Energy Supplement remain. In other news, the Government has also announced the details of the same-sex marriage plebiscite with $7.5 million in funding for the ‘yes’ and the ‘no’ sides, they both get an equal amount; $15 million all together. My first guest is the Minister for Education and Training, Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham. Simon Birmingham, welcome.

Simon Birmingham: G’day Patricia. Great to be with you.

Patricia Karvelas: Your WA Senate colleague Dean Smith says this plebiscite is so abhorrent he’ll cross the floor or abstain from voting. You’re one of the earlier supporters of same-sex marriage, how do you feel about that opposition? He calls it ‘abhorrent’, it’s a very strong word.

Simon Birmingham: I understand Dean’s concern and Dean has outlined a very thoughtful and philosophical objection to the plebiscite on the basis not so much of many of the debates you hear from the Labor Party but about an issue around the primacy in a sense of the parliament in a parliamentary democracy. Now, I appreciate Dean’s arguments, I think in the end what Dean has missed in that space is that there is an enormous opportunity and I think now an expectation in the Australian people to have a say and a say that can give legitimacy and acceptance to a change to our marriage laws and that is what I hope we will see now, that on 11 February next year we will see a vote occur, I hope and trust that it is a yes vote and that from that there is acceptance, legitimacy, and an embracing of marriage equality across Australia.

Patricia Karvelas: Each side will be given $7.5 million for advertising, what specifically can that pay for?

Simon Birmingham: Well, that will be for communications advocated by the yes case and the no case. Those communications or advertising will be developed by separate committees for the yes and no case but importantly there is a safeguard mechanism that sits atop that which is that it is government-funded advertising and it will be subject to the same approvals process by a cabinet subcommittee that oversees all government advertising to make sure that it is relevant to the question that is being asked and appropriate to be funded by the Government.

Patricia Karvelas: The Advertising Standards Bureau has today said advertising will not be bound by regular advertising standards, requiring truth and accuracy. What guidelines will there be to stop inaccurate advertisements?

Simon Birmingham: So Patricia, I think it’s important to separate advertisements or campaigning that is publically-funded from that which other organisations undertake out of their own resources. So, the publically-funded components that the official yes or no committees would be supported to deliver will have the safeguard mechanisms I spoke about before that we can give- we can have confidence that will mean any communications are relevant to the question and appropriate to be funded by the public purse.

Patricia Karvelas: Do the ads have to be truthful?

Simon Birmingham: [Talks over] What other … yes, indeed.

Patricia Karvelas: Okay, so let me give you a scenario. I know that some have argued that gay people who have children, same-sex families are creating a ‘stolen generation’, would that be allowed in advertising?

Simon Birmingham: I don’t believe that’s the type of pejorative approach or the type of approach that would fit within the publicly-funded component of a campaign. Of course what entities choose to do outside of anything that’s publically-funded with their own resources in their own time is really then their own matter subject to any of the other normal laws of the land so it’s appropriate and important to separate and distinguish between that publically-funded component and the areas of campaigning that people engage in…

Patricia Karvelas: [Talks over] Okay, so you’re saying no public funding …

Simon Birmingham: …on a day to day basis as they already are.

Patricia Karvelas: So, you’re saying no public funding should go to ads which say that gay parenting causes a stolen generation?

Simon Birmingham: No, I don’t believe that that would be an appropriate use, an appropriate dealing with the question.

Patricia Karvelas: [Talks over] Alright, I’ll give you a toned down version of the same concept which is ‘all children need a mother and a father’. Would that be accepted? Would the taxpayer be able to fund that?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Patricia, I think that would depend very much on the context in which an ad is presented and the way in which all of that is developed so those things will have to be considered of course on a cases by case basis.

Patricia Karvelas: [Talks over] So, that might make it? That might make it?

Simon Birmingham: Patricia, we’re really working through hypotheticals that take a couple of words without seeing…

Patricia Karvelas: [Talks over] I’ve got to take issue with that.

Simon Birmingham: …an entire ad.

Patricia Karvelas: Absolutely.

Simon Birmingham: Without seeing an entire ad …

Patricia Karvelas: Haven’t seen a whole ad, but …

Simon Birmingham: …it’s hard to form a judgement.

Patricia Karvelas: …the reason I’m saying it is because we have heard all of these arguments. This debate’s being going on for a very long time. I don’t think anything I’m saying to you is new to you, you’ve heard it all, I’ve heard it all, most of the listeners would have heard a lot of these arguments, so we can actually – they’re not hypothetical, we know what kind of arguments will be made and this is where people want to know where the taxpayer money will go, so…

Simon Birmingham: And Patricia, we know what kind of counter-arguments ought to be made there which is that, of course, state laws in many jurisdictions around Australia have already adopted to allow same-sex couples to adopt children, have already changed to allow same-sex couples to access IVF, all of those types of changes mean that debates about the construct of families in my view have well and truly of course moved on and I think that will be appropriately exposed in any conduct of a plebiscite as well. When we actually can demonstrate that this is a debate purely about marriage, not about the construct of peoples’ families which take all different flavours already right around the country and which we should support and embrace. This is purely about the definition of marriage and whether the traditional definition that has existed for a long period of time should have the large change occur to accept same-sex marriages as part of it.

Patricia Karvelas: If you’re just tuning into RN Drive, my guest tonight is the Minister for Education and Training, Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham. 0418 226 576 is the number you can text me on and join the conversation, what do you make of the $15 million in public funding and the plebiscite which is scheduled on February the 11th, of course if it passes the Parliament. Another example I have which very much actually overlaps with your portfolio is something that we heard this morning on RN Breakfast from Lyle Shelton, the issue of Safe Schools, that that may be an argument that they make, that there is, you know, the slippery slope argument related to the Safe Schools materials. Would they get public funding if they wanted to talk about things like Safe Schools?

Simon Birmingham: Well, my view is that anything that public funding is applied to would have to be relevant to the question that is being asked and I don’t think a debate there is relevant to the question that is being asked which is a straightforward, simple question of the Australian people about whether or not Australian law should be changed to allow couples of the same gender to marry. That’s a straightforward question and it doesn’t relate to the types of programs that may or may not be run in schools around the country.

Patricia Karvelas: Okay, there’s another thing I heard today from the Special Minister of State Scott Ryan, he said that TV stations would have to run both sides’ ads. So, for instance, let me pretend I’m Channel Nine, I’m running Channel Nine, I have a particular position, I don’t want to run the, let’s say, the yes case campaign ads, Channel Nine would be forced to play them if they wanted to play the no side. Do you think that’s fair? Why shouldn’t a TV station be able to make their own decision about that they want to run?

Simon Birmingham: TV stations may be private entities but they are occupying public airspace in terms of their bandwidth, they have certain responsibilities that apply in standard election or referenda contexts and it’s only appropriate that we should expect the same standards and expectations of that in an election campaign, they cannot choose to refuse ads from a political party that wants to legitimately place them, they have to give equal opportunity and access. What we’re trying to do in structuring this plebiscite is so far as possible mirror it upon standard procedure for the public to engage in these types of votes and this is just another element of the standard practice and procedure.

Patricia Karvelas: You support same-sex marriage, you were the first one to go on the record to support same-sex marriage before many of your colleagues agreed with you, how active …

Simon Birmingham: [Interrupts] A long, long time ago, now, too.

Patricia Karvelas: I know, I was so much younger, so were you. How active will you be in arguing for a yes vote? Will you be, you know, on the trenches involved in the campaign, handing out leaflets, whatever people do?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I’ll – there’s no qualms from me about saying that I’m voting yes, that I will support the yes campaign in sensible ways. I expect people will want me to get on with my job and stay focused on work as the Minister for Education as well, but so far as I can walk and chew gum at the same time, I’ll do what I can to help out.

Patricia Karvelas: If the plebiscite fails- if the plebiscite fails in terms of the enabling legislation, you can’t get it through, that Labor decides – they haven’t yet, although they’re making it pretty clear that they’re leaning this way – that they won’t support it, is it completely dead in this current term of Government?

Simon Birmingham: Yes, Patricia, I expect it is, and really it falls back on Mr Shorten and the Labor Party, the Greens and others who have advocated for this change for many years, some of them longer than me, some of them not as long as I have. But it falls to them to think long and hard about whether they want to deny the Australian people to have a say and to delay this issue for another few years at the least. And I hope that they will give real consideration to the fact that if we have a successful vote of the Australian people, it will give legitimacy to the change. It will mean there’s acceptance of the change, and it actually can be a really positive change, not just for gay and lesbian Australians, but for all Australians, in ensuring that these changes to our marriage laws are accepted and embraced.

Patricia Karvelas: I want to move to the Budget if we can. A key change that was struck in this deal today was that this decision to scrap the Baby Bonus-  it’s a Labor idea. How willing are you to embrace other Labor savings measures, given you’ve supported this one?

Simon Birmingham: We’ve said that we want to make this Parliament work, and so that is exactly what we have done today. We’ve successfully negotiated with the Labor Party to secure more than $6 billion worth of savings measures. Overwhelmingly, they are savings measures that the Coalition had advocated and had put on the table. We welcome the fact that although Labor has not supported some that they took to the election, they have chosen to support some that at the election they said they opposed. So in the end, that has netted out. Yes, there’s one element that was not a savings measure from the Coalition but a proposed area of new expenditure that we have also included as a measure that will now not be proceeded with. That shows Malcolm Turnbull’s willingness and the Coalition’s willingness to make this Parliament work and to put the primacy on our absolute obligation to achieve Budget repair and to work with all parties across the Parliament to do so, and today is a very big win for the Government in achieving that.

Patricia Karvelas: Is the superannuation deal next? Is that the next area where you’re going to try and strive for a compromise, where you’ll give a little bit to Labor and take, and get to some sort of centre position?

Simon Birmingham: Well, far be it for me to pre-empt what the Treasurer and the Minister for Revenue might speak about next in terms of …

Patricia Karvelas: [Interrupts] Would you like to see that happen?

Simon Birmingham: We will bring that issue to a conclusion very shortly as well, I’m sure. And again, there are issues to work through which we’ll work through sensibly, but importantly, we want to see those superannuation reforms which in totality achieve not just a capacity for some budget repair, but importantly greater support for lower income Australians in terms of their superannuation; greater support for women returning to work to be able to catch up in their superannuation contributions; greater support for small business people in making superannuation contributions. There’s some really positive elements to that super reform agenda that shouldn’t be lost in the debate about one or two slightly contested issues that are really about trying to achieve the equity equation of not allowing or enabling Australians to manipulate superannuation and retirement savings as a vehicle for estate planning or wealth transfer to the next generation.

Patricia Karvelas: But is this the new model for future budget negotiations? It’s been described as a ‘budget emergency’. Is this the kind of way that a Government run by adults looks like, where Mathias Cormann and the Treasurer gets together with Chris Bowen and Jim Chalmers and a deal is struck, just like we saw today? Is this the Parliament at its best?

Simon Birmingham: I think it will be a ‘horses for courses’ circumstance. There will be occasions where we can manage to deal with the Labor Party, and we hope and trust that this isn’t just a once-off, that Mr Shorten and his comments early on that he will work cooperatively in the Parliament actually hold true. We’re not seeing a lot of that on the Parliamentary floor at present; there’s plenty of game-playing from the Opposition to delay things progressing through the Parliament, but we welcome the fact that he has dealt cooperatively with us on this one issue, and we hope it happens again. But on other occasions, we’ll have to work with the Senate crossbench. Hopefully there might even be occasions where we can work with the Greens in areas of shared agenda. We will work cooperatively with the people that the Australian people have elected to the Australian Parliament, and that really is of course what I think all Australians expect us to do to achieve positive outcomes, including Budget repair.

Patricia Karvelas: On your own portfolio, you’re working with states and territories to secure a post-2017 funding deal for schools. Now, that’s coming closer than all of us- well, hope, because the year’s just going away. Post-2017 isn’t very far away. The Education Council meets next Friday. How close are you to a deal?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we gave a commitment through the Council of Australian Governments that we would settle these matters through the Prime Minister and the State and Territory Leaders at the COAG table in the first half of 2017. So that’s the timeline that we’re working towards. What will happen next Friday in sitting down with State and Territory ministers is I’ll start to talk about some of the principles that will guide the Coalition’s funding distribution. In the budget this year, we committed increased funding for Australian schools that will see the Federal Government spend $16 billion this year in 2016 growing each and every year over the forward estimates to more than $20 billion by 2020. I want to talk to the States and Territories about the principles for the distribution of that growing pot of schools funding. I want to talk to them about some of the inconsistencies that exist in some of the funding models at present and hear their views and priorities for how we strip away some of those inconsistencies to get a better, clearer, needs-based funding model in place in the future, rather than the 27 different funding models that we inherited from the Labor Party. And I want to talk to them about how they would prioritise the important reforms to what actually happens in schools. Because it’s not all just a question of how schools are funded. 

It’s important to talk about the priority reforms which we outlined in the election campaign around ensuring greater and earlier identification of students who may have reading challenges and literacy challenges to enable early intervention; increased aspiration for school leavers in terms of their numeracy and literacy skills; supporting and rewarding our most highly competent and Lead Teachers in schools to ensure they stay teaching in the- in our schooling system. So a range of different reform options that we outlined which will also be a big part, I hope, of the conversations with the states and territories, and I hope they will come constructively to the table, making real suggestions that aren’t just a plea for yet more money, but are suggestions about how we can better distribute the money we’ve got, and how we can really ensure it is used effectively for the benefit of Australian schoolchildren.

Patricia Karvelas: Simon Birmingham, many thanks for your time tonight.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Patricia. A pleasure.

Patricia Karvelas: And that’s Liberal Senator for South Australia and the Minister for Education and Training, and Simon Birmingham joining us tonight.