Interview on ABC RN Drive with Patricia Karvelas
Topics: South African farmers; Cambridge Analytica; Catholic school funding; South Australian election

Patricia Karvelas: Tony Abbott has put his support behind Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton’s call to bring white South African farmers to Australia. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop rejected the idea of any visa assistance over the weekend, while the South African Government has demanded an apology. Speaking on commercial radio, Tony Abbott has had this to say today: if the boot was on the other foot, we would call it racism of the worst sort, and I think we should acknowledge this as a very, very serious issue of justice and fairness, and I think Peter Dutton was absolutely right to say that under our humanitarian immigration programme there ought to be a place for people who are being persecuted this way.

Simon Birmingham is the Minister for Education and Training, he joins us now. Welcome to the programme.

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

Patricia Karvelas: So what’s your view? Should white farmers from South Africa be given special assistance through our visa programme?

Simon Birmingham: Well, where persecution is occurring, then any individual regardless of the colour of their skin or their background is absolutely able to make application through our humanitarian programme. Australia will take around 18,000 people through the humanitarian programme this year in as new permanent residents. On top of that is of course has been filling the 12,000 places of Syrian refugees. And yes indeed, there may well be people in this category in South Africa who would qualify and may wish to consider applying.

Patricia Karvelas: Foreign Minister Julie Bishop rejected the idea yesterday. You don’t agree with her?

Simon Birmingham: I’m not sure that that’s a correct appraisal of what the Foreign Minister said. In the end as long as people meet the criteria, then as I said, it doesn’t matter what the colour of their skin is, what their race, nationality, religion or otherwise is. This is a humanitarian programme in which it is based around persecution and providing people with safety from persecution. Ultimately, the grounds for that are very clear. One of the reasons as a government, of course, that we have implemented the tough border controls that we’ve put in place is to get away from our humanitarian programme simply being filled by people who can afford to buy their way to Australia, and instead make sure that it is filled through the proper processes of individuals who are most needy and most worthy and most suitable, applying and filling those …

Patricia Karvelas: So you’re saying that they can apply if they want, but ultimately our programme shouldn’t change. We shouldn’t give them a special visa category or bring them in in any specific way?

Simon Birmingham: Certainly we are not looking for any special visa category. What we are looking for here and looking at here are questions of individuals who may have been persecuted. In those instances, do they fit the criteria and if so, then they should be treated just like anybody else.

Patricia Karvelas: Some people might be wondering why we are getting involved in South Africa’s problems, perceived or otherwise. Why are we talking about this specifically? Is this a particularly acute issue? Why has this come up now?

Simon Birmingham: Because I think it has got some attention because the Minister for Home Affairs was asked a question specifically about it, and interviewers like your good self, Patricia, tend to like politicians to answer the questions that they’re asked. Ultimately, Australia in its acceptance of people under our humanitarian programme accepts people from all manner of different conflicts, situations, difficulties around the world. If that means …

Patricia Karvelas: But do you support a non-discriminatory immigration and refugee programme though?

Simon Birmingham: Well, absolutely. That’s what I’ve described before. That is the policy of the government. That will remain the policy of the government. But what you’re saying there by getting involved, if simply taking people or outlining the fact that individuals in some conflict circumstances, in some areas of persecution, may qualify for a humanitarian visa under our very generous arrangements is getting involved, well I’m not sure that’s really the case. I think it is simply offering a lifeline to individuals who face persecution, who are in difficulty, and who would qualify the same as anybody else under the humanitarian visa arrangements.

Patricia Karvelas: Just on another issue, Facebook has suspended election data analysis company Cambridge Analytica over allegations it harvested the profiles of more than 50 million users – crucially, without their permission. This time last year, the Liberal Party met with Cambridge Analytica. Did the party engage their services?

Simon Birmingham: No. My understanding is that the party does not have any relationship with this company.

Patricia Karvelas: Representatives of the Liberal Party, government staff and Parliamentarians including the Veterans Affairs Minister Dan Tehan met with Cambridge Analytica. You’re saying that was a meeting but not a formal arrangement with the Liberal Party?

Simon Birmingham: The advice I have, and I am not a campaign director of the Liberal Party …

Patricia Karvelas: I know.

Simon Birmingham: But the advice I have is that a statement has been released by the campaign officials or director indicating the party does not have a relationship with this company.

Patricia Karvelas: What is the government doing to investigate whether Australian users are caught up with this alleged data mining, because this is a huge issue for people and so many Australians are on Facebook. This is a pretty alarming story, isn’t it?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I have no doubt that if there are risks to Australians that authorities would take a look under the provisions of the Privacy Act. Those provisions apply very clearly in terms of what is protected and prevent entities from providing information that is protected to political parties, and so if there is an offense there I would expect that it would be investigated and looked at. Clearly, if there are allegations to be made – and it’s hard to tell from the questions the Labor Party have asked to date whether they’re making an allegation or just trying to create a smear – but if they have an allegation to make, then they should make it so that it can be properly investigated.

Patricia Karvelas: Just very much in your portfolio – and I want to get to the South Australian election, which feels so long ago already now but the results just came through Saturday night – but just on Catholic schools. The Catholic education sector poured resources into the Batman by-election to support Labor, writing letters to families with children at Catholic schools, robo-calling homes. Their message was that Labor was the party to vote for if Catholic schools funding was to be properly funded. How are you expecting this to work at a Federal level? Are you concerned about the intervention here?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I think Australians will be concerned at the fact that Bill Shorten appears to have abandoned all principle when it comes to school funding. That far from standing by the Gonski principles of needs-based funding, he is instead now advocating a return to special deals here, or vote-buying exercises over there, and I think that Australians across the board – including many people in Catholic education and parents of children in Catholic schools – would be concerned that there was a lack of principle, a lack of consistency behind this. And also I’d encourage them to look at the detail of what Mr Shorten’s promising, because he might be throwing a couple of years’ worth funding on the table, or claiming to, but there’s absolutely no certainty beyond that as to what on earth he’s proposing, whereas the Turnbull Government has put in place clear, consistent, needs-based funding arrangements that apply a formula based on the need of different schools and is very transparent. We’re working to make sure that the data that underpins that formula is of the best integrity possible, and there’s a review into aspects of that which was asked for by Catholic education. I’m very pleased that across most of Australia, Catholic education authorities seem to be engaging very constructively with the government in terms of that review process.

Patricia Karvelas: Tony Abbott was on the radio today. I mentioned that, but he had a lot of things to say – including on your portfolio. He says the government should rethink the funding policy when it comes to Catholic schools given what’s happened in Batman. Will you reconsider?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the Government is committed to school funding based on the principle of need, and school funding that applies consistently rather than simply politicking and vote-buying from school funding. So we are already though addressing what is the main principled concern that has been raised by Catholic ed, and that is the calculation of the socioeconomic status and the way that impacts then on school funding, because essentially for non-government schools we discount the amount of money they receive based on what’s assessed as the capacity to contribute of the school community. So wealthier schools receive less money, less wealthy schools in general in terms of their school community will receive greater support, and that’s about empowering as many Australians as possible to make a choice around their schooling so that they can choose to access non-government education. If they are from a school community with lesser means they’ll receive greater support to do so. We’re reviewing the data that underpins that to make sure that is as credible as possible in the future, and we’re doing that through an independent board as was recommended by David Gonski. That board has representation on it from the National Catholic Education Commission, and I’m sure it will come up by June as it is scheduled with sound findings the government can look at and act upon.

Patricia Karvelas: Just on the South Australian election, if you look at the results they weren’t as good for the minor parties: SA Best, Nick Xenophon’s Team, and also the Australian Conservatives. Just on the Australian Conservatives’ part, I mean they also ran in Batman and South Australia. What kind of electoral force do you expect them to be going forward? You feeling a bit more confident about the Coalition brand up against this right-wing split, now that we’ve seen the South Australian election play out?

Simon Birmingham: I think what we’ve seen if I look at the contests where the Liberal Party’s been in the field- and people can talk about Batman all they like, but essentially it was a Labor-Greens contest and the government decided not to waste resources, time or energy in contesting that ballot because ultimately the Labor Party’s held that seat since I think it was 1936, and I’m surprised there’s so much crowing going on about managing to hold on to a seat that they’ve held for more than 80 years already. But where the Liberal Party’s been in recent races and the Conservatives have as well, such as the Bennelong by-election last year or the South Australian election this year, the Conservatives’ votes has largely come, in the case of NSW, at the expense of the Fred Nile party, and in the case of South Australia, at the expense of the old Family First Party. In fact in SA, they got even less than Family First has gotten historically, so what we seem to be seeing there is that this new party is basically taking the votes of other long-established right-of-centre Christian-based parties. That’s probably to be expected, but it does not appear to be attracting the Liberal vote in any particular way.

Patricia Karvelas: Before I let you go I’m just going to revisit an issue we’ve gone to, mainly because I’m being inundated with text messages from our listeners who are clearly concerned. On this relationship with this group I asked you about, Cambridge Analytica, you said that the Liberal Party has no relationship with this group. But has it in the past?

Simon Birmingham: Not to my knowledge. Certainly we’ve just had an election in South Australia, and I’m assured that there was no engagement of them in relation to activities in that election. So far as I’m aware, that’s not the case, and as I said before the privacy law applies in a very clear manner, and we would expect that if there have been breaches of the privacy law that they would be thoroughly investigated by the appropriate authorities.

Patricia Karvelas: Minister, thank you so much for your time.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you very much, Patricia.

Patricia Karvelas: Simon Birmingham is the Education Minister.