Interview on Sky News AM Agenda with Kieran Gilbert
NAPLAN; Same-sex marriage

Kieran Gilbert: Good morning and welcome to the program. One of the most senior moderates in the Government and a long-time supporter of marriage equality – Senator Simon Birmingham, the Education Minister – is urging those considering crossing the floor and bringing on a parliamentary vote on the issue to consider the consequences. This is in the context of the warnings by the leading conservative, Senator Eric Abetz, of grave issues for the authority of Malcolm Turnbull and the Government if those members of the Liberal Party choose to cross the floor and bring on a parliamentary vote.

So, a significant intervention by Simon Birmingham this morning – one of the closest supporters and advisors to Malcolm Turnbull within the Government, and as a I say, one of the most senior moderates in the Cabinet – urging his colleagues to consider the consequences for the Government if they choose to cross the floor, saying they’ve got the right to do so but they must think about the consequences – and grave consequences, if you listen to Senator Abetz – if these individuals choose to cross the floor and vote with Labor and the Greens.

The full interview now with Simon Birmingham. I began by asking the Education Minister about the latest NAPLAN results.


Simon Birmingham: Well Kieran, Australia does have a high performing education system by world standards. We see some positive results in these NAPLAN indicators in terms of improvements in reading and numeracy skills in particular; especially strongest improvement in some of the early years – in primary school years. So that’s very encouraging and provides a better foundation to build on for the future. But equally, some worrying results in terms of the decline in writing skills that we really need to hone in on, work out what the cause is there and how we can best turn that around for the future.

Kieran Gilbert: And let’s look specifically at the decline in writing. What do you put that down to, given the improvements elsewhere in reading and numeracy?

Simon Birmingham: Well Kieran, I’ll really seek some expert advice around what’s happening in classrooms, why it is that people think that the writing performance has declined. There’s a slight growth in some places. New South Wales has strong results right across the board, including some positive results in writing; other states see a decline in writing skills and poorer results elsewhere. So there are lessons we can learn by honing in on jurisdictions that are getting it right in certain ways.

Of course, we’re now applying consistent, fair, needs-based funding for the future, and the challenge is to use that record needs-based funding in the most efficient way possible to get the maximum bang for our buck in classrooms. Already the Turnbull Government has delivered improvements in teacher training. At our universities, we will have guarantees in the future that teachers will have minimum literacy and numeracy skills, that we’ll get more specialist practice into our classrooms – specially trained teachers in writing, in English, in maths, in sciences – particularly into our primary schools.

The next wave of reform will come from the new Gonski review that we’re now undertaking, which will form the basis for next year’s agreement with the states and territories to guarantee funding in the future is used as efficiently and effectively as possible to lift student outcomes.

Kieran Gilbert: Yeah, and obviously it takes time for that funding – that increased funding – to flow through to improved numbers because, as you say, teacher quality and quality training of teachers is so pivotal to the in-classroom outcomes.

Simon Birmingham: Improvement in our schools is a never ending challenge. We have to make sure that each and every year into the future we’re striving for better and better results, because that’s how as a nation we continue to be competitive with the rest of the world, and to give students the skills not just in these basic indicators that NAPLAN rightly measures around reading, writing, numeracy skills, but also in terms of technical skills, the STEM subjects in science and engineering and technology, as well as in terms of their resilience, adaptability, capacity to collaborate – all the type of rich skills that for final school leavers going into to further study in the workforce we expect them to have and they will require to be able to succeed in a changing global economy and environment.

Kieran Gilbert: And while there have been some setbacks, as you say, in writing – some of the states also static in some of the other areas – but over all the 10 years, even the Northern Territory well behind the national standard, but there has been improvement there across that decade.

Simon Birmingham: Kieran, I think it’s important that we do, as you rightly indicate in that question, celebrate some of the successes we have here, that there is a real indication that across the country some of the return to teaching of phonics in some states, the real basic focus on developing literacy skills in the early years, has been having a positive impact. We want to keep working in those areas where we can see gains. Of course, it is a good, positive indicator if you’re getting better year 3, year 5 scores in relation to reading and numeracy, that that provides a strong foundation upon which to build.

And so it’s not just about highlighting or focussing on the problems in relation to writing. We’ll take that seriously, we’ll get on and address it, but it is also about recognising the successes, seeing how they can then be duplicated and replicated across other schools and other school systems that haven’t seen the same types of improvements, so that across the board we lift performance right around the country. Every state, every school, high performing, low performing, we expect them all to really move the bell curve up and that’s the ambition for the future.

Kieran Gilbert: And Minister, finally on another matter. I’ve got a few questions I want to ask you about the issue of same-sex marriage and this debate within the Coalition. What’s your message to colleagues like Tim Wilson and Trevor Evans of Brisbane, Warren Entsch, in terms of their consideration of crossing the floor on this matter? Would you urge them not to do that?

Simon Birmingham: Look, the Government has a clear policy and that’s to give the Australian people a say, and I think it is preferable if we all stand by that, work together to find the best possible way to give the Australian people a say as soon as possible. That of course could happen most simply, most easily, if the Senate and the Labor Party got out of the way, let us enact the policy we took to the last election to let Australian people have a vote on this issue. Then the Parliament can have a free vote, then we can get this over and done with, and I expect that that would see same-sex marriage delivered by the end of the year, but it would be delivered in a way that had the consent, the endorsement, the support of the Australian people, which would really make it a positive, unifying change, rather than a potentially divisive one.

Kieran Gilbert: Would you accept a postal plebiscite?

Simon Birmingham: Well, there are a range of different ways you can look at trying to give the Australian people that say, and I think we should explore all possible options to give the Australian people a say, to make sure that that occurs as quickly as we reasonably can. The simplest way, the fastest way, would of course be for the Labor Party in the Senate to get out of the way and let the Government deliver on the policy we took to the last election.

Kieran Gilbert: Senator Eric Abetz, conservative former Leader of the Government in the Senate, said if these individuals were to cross the floor that it would be a grave issue for the authority of the Government and for Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership. He’s right, isn’t he?

Simon Birmingham: Well, it’s always been a tradition of the Liberal Party, a right in the Liberal Party, for individual members to exercise their conscience from the backbench if they choose. Unlike the Labor Party, we don’t toss people out or punish people from the backbench if they choose to cross the floor, and we should defend that right of Liberals. It is one of the defining differences between our two parties. But equally, it is of course a right that people should exercise carefully, and with caution, and with consideration for all of the consequences, and therefore I would urge everybody to think about the policy we took to the last election, to work as hard as we possibly can to ensure that that is implemented if it possibly can be.

Kieran Gilbert: There is the risk, as Paul Kelly writes today in The Australian, that some of your colleagues might even defect to the crossbench if this vote were to be successful and those four members of your own party – at least four – cross the floor.

Simon Birmingham: Well, Kieran, that would be completely ridiculous. Let’s keep our eye on the priorities, which I know the Prime Minister, the senior members of the Government, the Cabinet are doing, and the priorities for the nation are ensuring that people have jobs and opportunities and a stronger economy in the future, and that we keep of course our nation safe in the face of terrorism. And just in the last couple of weeks, with the aviation threat we’ve seen, that is very real.

People need to make sure that they stand as one in dealing with the real challenges and threats the nation faces in the future, keeping us safe, creating jobs and opportunities. Just yesterday, the Prime Minister was out there with Michaelia Cash with another 10,000 internship job opportunities, to work experience opportunities for young Australians, created through our policies – the new PaTH program. These are some of the really positive steps. Of course, the security challenges are being addressed successfully, thankfully, through the hard work of our security agencies, but we’re not standing still there in continuing to make those improvements. And these, of course, are the things that bind us together as a government and that I am confident will continue to bind us together as a government, focussed on the long-term interests of the nation.

Kieran Gilbert: Education Minister Birmingham thanks for your time. Appreciate it.

Simon Birmingham: Pleasure, Kieran.