Interview on Sky News AM Agenda with Kieran Gilbert
Topics: Fairfax Ipsos poll; Same-sex marriage; ensuring higher education is sustainable and promotes excellence

Kieran Gilbert: … latest Fairfax poll. It’s interesting in the sense that Mr Turnbull, again extending his lead as preferred Prime Minister in this survey, but it’s not showing up in the party vote. Why is that?

Simon Birmingham: Well, look, Kieran, that’s something for the analysts to speculate over. From our perspective as a government, Malcolm Turnbull’s focussed very much on continuing efforts around job creation – 240,000 jobs that have been created. In addition, of course, tackling issues like the energy crisis that faces many households, a situation where cost of living pressures, pressures on businesses are real. Malcolm Turnbull’s coming up with practical solutions and policies to address that, while Bill Shorten postures and approaches it with hypocrisy from the sidelines, taking approaches like, of course, in the one instance, saying he wants to see reform, but then when the Government brings legislation to the Parliament to change the way the energy market works he simply refers it off to a Senate committee and creates further delays in terms of the delivery of the solutions that can drive down prices of power.

Kieran Gilbert: But before we get to some more discussion on that, because it’s not all smooth sailing for the Government on that front, specifically on this poll, we always hear the old adage – I think it was from Bill Clinton’s days – it’s the economy, stupid, is the key phrase. Are you encouraged by the fact that you’re seen as the better economic manager by more than 10 per cent? That must be at least one bright spot in this poll.

Simon Birmingham: Well, Kieran, it’s a pretty strong contrast really between a Government that has policies that are about growing the economy and creating jobs and creating an environment where we hope that will translate into wages growth for Australians, versus an Opposition who has a raft of new tax measures – around $150 billion. I mean, the contrast for the next election when it comes is a very stark one. Labor wants to have higher taxes on wages, houses, on small businesses, on investments, on energy. On a range of fronts, you will see a Labor Party that is going to put up costs and prices across the economy, which is bad for growth, bad for jobs, bad for investment, versus a Coalition who in very difficult times in terms of global uncertainty, in terms of the budget deficit that we’re still working through, but we’ve demonstrated an ability to create jobs, create a couple of hundred thousand-plus jobs, and that is of course because we keep our eye on the ball on the things that matter, especially in relation to the economy.

Kieran Gilbert: You’ve got the AGL chief, Andy Vesey, in town meeting with the Prime Minister and the Energy Minister today, but just going to the Government’s record on this issue, one of the big problems, the gripes when you talk to the industry, is the lack of certainty. At the heart of that is the clean energy target proposed by the Chief Scientist, yet the Government hasn’t responded to it, and the Nationals – your junior Coalition partner – at the weekend voted at their national conference that they would oppose any type of a clean energy target. So where does that leave the Prime Minister and Minister Frydenberg in terms of that key mechanism for the industry?

Simon Birmingham: Well, work on that recommendation out of Finkel continues, and we will make sure that we do all of the analysis that is necessary to make a decision that is in the interests of Australian consumers, households, businesses, in terms of the way in which any clean energy target or similar policy could be structured if it’s to be [indistinct] …

Kieran Gilbert: [Interrupts] And will the Nationals just have to get out of the way?

Simon Birmingham: We’ll go through all the usual processes in Government in terms of matters going through Cabinet, going through the party room before they’re brought to the public and Parliament, and that’s as people would expect us to do. There are many other things we’re getting on with doing in tackling the way in which the retail market works, in tackling the way in which the network and distribution systems work, in tackling generation issues.

Kieran Gilbert: [Interrupts] So were the Nats premature then in their position at the weekend given where you said this is, a work in progress basically?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I’ve been to many party conferences over the years and many motions get debated at party conferences. We’ll of course hear the views of our membership, but we’ll also be very mindful about what is in the best interests of Australians, to ensure affordability and reliability in the energy markets in the future. What that requires is for us to keep on working on keeping baseload dispatchable power systems, like Liddell, open for as long as possible, and that is of course a key part of the Prime Minister’s discussions today. We will keep a focus on how we can keep that major generator going longer, to make sure we have reliable power, cheap power, affordable power coming into the energy market, whilst of course pursuing new investments around areas like Snowy 2.0, other projects around the country that can also give us dispatchable power when we need it.

Kieran Gilbert: Alright. Now, this other issue that’s dominating the focus at the moment, certainly for the next few months, is the campaign on same-sex marriage. The Prime Minister spoke at an event in Sydney yesterday. Is he deciding to take a more prominent role in the campaign now?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the Prime Minister’s simply standing up for what he’s long believed in. Now, as he’s made clear, he urges all Australians to take this opportunity to participate respectfully, to have their say, to send their survey form back. But yes, he’s absolutely been a long-standing advocate for same-sex marriage. He is of course an advocate for a yes vote, which is what I personally hope we see come out of this process too.

Kieran Gilbert: Because if he’s not campaigning he can’t claim any credit, can he? So Mr Shorten claims the credit, and if it goes down, well, we know who cops the flak.

Simon Birmingham: Well, Kieran, the Prime Minister’s position on this has been known, clear and consistent, far longer than Mr Shorten’s.

Kieran Gilbert: On the higher education issue, you’re going to, again, try to get these reforms through the Parliament – a big challenge for you as the Education Minister. Is it a bit rich for the universities to be complaining about this efficiency dividend and tying I think it’s half a billion dollars in funding to performance when they’ve spent $300 million last year apparently, according to numbers out today, on advertising – 1.7 billion over seven years on advertising?

Simon Birmingham: Over the last few years, since around 2009, universities have seen revenue growth of about 70, 71 per cent. They’ve seen their revenue per student grow at about 15 per cent, compared with costs growing at about nine per cent. So we know from the evidence that there’s been enormous growth in revenue funding, and of course enormous opportunities for efficiencies to be achieved as they get greater economies of scale by record numbers of students and revenue growing faster than cost growth. What we’re proposing is to make a contribution towards repairing the budget deficit, that uni’s face a slightly slower rate of growth over the next four years – funding growth that would still accord, in terms of taxpayer-supported growth, around 23 per cent growth over the next four years. Now, pretty much any small business around the country would love to have that sort of certainty, that sort of growth projection, and there’s nothing for universities to fear out of the changes we’re proposing.

Kieran Gilbert: [Interrupts] On this advertising spend, though, they would argue, I guess, if you put yourself in the shoes of vice-chancellors, they would argue that under this demand-driven system which has been in place for the better part of a decade now, that they need to advertise their wares in order to attract students, hence this multi-million dollar, hundreds of millions of dollars they’re spending on advertising.

Simon Birmingham: Universities are afforded enormous autonomy, and within that they need to be responsible for every single taxpayer dollar, every single student dollar they have, and make sure that they are spending it in the most reasonable and responsible ways possible. Now, that’s for vice-chancellors to justify. They get that autonomy and we want to maintain a system where they can choose to enrol as many students as they see fit, as long as they are accountable for it and as long as we’re doing it in a way that is sustainable for the long term of the budget. There’s no point enrolling lots of students if there aren’t jobs for them, if the deficit’s too high and taxes are having to go up. They’re the types of things we want to avoid. We want a system that is sustainable for students as well as the taxpayer well into the future.

Kieran Gilbert: Minister, appreciate your time. Thanks so much.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Kieran.