Interview on Sky News Live AM Agenda with Kieran Gilbert
Newspoll; National Energy Guarantee; School funding




Kieran Gilbert:             Minister, thanks so much for your time. Parliament back this week, a huge parliamentary sitting after the winter break and not the best news when it comes to the latest Newspoll to start the sitting.


Simon Birmingham:     Well Kieran, the government’s focus for parliamentary sittings is what it always is, which is ensuring that we keep working towards the delivery of the stronger economy that we’ve managed to build over the last few years. And it’s a stronger economy that’s allowing us to bring the budget back to balance, to give tax relief to Australian households, to provide for a more competitive environment for Australian businesses to attract investment; to ensure that as a government we keep building on the things that have given us record jobs growth during our time in office and particularly over the last 12 months. These are the fundamentals.


Kieran Gilbert:             But you’ve got a few barnacles- a few barnacles you need to deal with, whether it be company tax or in your own area of school funding. Some areas that need to be mopped up right now, not the least of which the energy deal as well, which you’ve got to get through the party room tomorrow.


Simon Birmingham:     People expect a government to keep focusing on policy and that’s exactly what we will do as a government. In the energy space, we of course have already delivered significant reforms in energy markets, reforms to the way in which transmission grids are regulated, reforms to the way in which households are given better, clearer information around their energy pricing. And our National Energy Guarantee is about providing savings to households that are modelled in the order of $550 per Australian household. That’s a big saving.


Kieran Gilbert:             And do you feel comfortable with where it’s at – that as a cabinet minister, do you feel comfortable that Mr Frydenberg has got the support of the Coalition party room on that, enough support to get this through?


Simon Birmingham:     Malcolm Turnbull and Josh Frydenberg have done an incredible job in steering this through the states and territories, despite some of their politicking along the way. We’re making steady progress there and I believe every member of the Coalition party room wants to see lower energy prices, more reliable energy and the NEG is going to give us that – lower energy prices, more reliable energy. That’s why it needs to be backed.


Kieran Gilbert:             But there are some in your party room that will never be satisfied by this proposal.


Simon Birmingham:     Well, let’s wait and see, Kieran.


Kieran Gilbert:             Do you concede that?


Simon Birmingham:     No, I don’t concede that. My view is that everybody in the Coalition party room wants to see lower energy prices, more reliable energy. The National Energy Guarantee will give us lower energy prices in the order of $550 per household and more reliable energy, whilst also meeting Australia’s emission reductions obligations. This is a very good strong policy solution. It ought to have everybody’s support and it is certainly a policy that we will be moving ahead with because we want to make sure that Australians get relief in terms of their power bills, that…


Kieran Gilbert:             [Interrupts] But it’s going to be supplemented as well, this policy, the NEG-plus is the way it’s been called within the government as- to the government’s response to the competition watchdog, which says there needs to be government underwriting of new dispatchable sources – whether it be gas or coal. And that’s really the- that’s the effort to try and placate some of your colleagues, isn’t it?


Simon Birmingham:     Well, we’ve pretended there was one silver bullet to the energy market. That’s why we already acted in terms of ensuring that the way transmission markets are regulated stops gaming. It’s why we already acted in terms of gas prices and brought down gas prices through clear regulatory powers that were put on the table. It’s why we already acted in terms of making sure energy retailers provide more information to households and make it easier for people to get the best possible plan. It’s why we’re acting on the NEG and yes, it’s why we commissioned the ACCC report into the energy markets and we will act on that ACCC report as well. That is…


Kieran Gilbert:             But again, is it going to be- basically the policy won’t detail that it has to go to coal, that it will be agnostic as the Prime Minister puts it? Or will the government say we will underwrite a new coal plant because that’s what some of your colleagues want?


Simon Birmingham:     The approach of the NEG is technology neutral. It doesn’t go about picking winners because picking winners is what’s driven up power prices in the past. And indeed when it comes to the ACCC’s recommendation, it’s clear that it’s not about picking winners and it’s not about lump sum capital investments upfront. It’s about ensuring that if need be there is an underwriting mechanism as such, where take-off agreements are struck for investors in new energy to have certainty that there will be buyers at a minimum price for that new energy. Now, we of course will approach that with the same confidence and the same priorities as all of our energy reforms, and that is the priority of what will it deliver – lower prices for Australians households and businesses. The NEG will deliver lower prices for Australians households and businesses and we’ll act on the ACCC report where it delivers lower prices for Australians households and businesses.


Kieran Gilbert:             An ongoing political headache in your area of responsibility is school funding. John Howard last week – he was opening two residential colleges at a Catholic college in Sydney – and he said,


“My earnest hope and wish is that the Catholic education system continues to receive, from governments of all persuasions the support and fairness and justice to which it’s undoubtedly entitled.”


Was that a swipe at you, suggesting that they haven’t maybe been receiving that justice and fairness at this point?


Simon Birmingham:     Well, I agree 100 per cent with those words. And that’s why we’re already providing funding growth to Catholic education in the order of nearly $3 billion over the course of the next decade. It’s why we also acted last year in relation to concerns about the way Socio-economic Status scores are calculated, which impact on the funding of non-government schools. We got that independent report back just last month and I’ve had multiple sessions of consultation and discussion with Catholic ed and independent school stakeholders right around the country. And we’re continuing those so that we can act on that report and deliver ongoing funding growth and certainty to all school systems across Australia…


Kieran Gilbert:             But if Mr Howard says that, that he wants fairness and justice for that sector, he obviously doesn’t feel that you’ve provided it to this point. He’s had a dig at you, obviously.


Simon Birmingham:     Well, I’m certainly not going to put words in John Howard’s mouth. I agree with Mr Howard that we want to see and we are delivering growing funding to Catholic education, there were concerns about the SES methodology, we’ve acted on those concerns by getting a thorough independent report. That’s recommended some changes; the Government’s intention is to act on those changes…


Kieran Gilbert:             And more money, more money.


Simon Birmingham:     Well, those changes would result in more money. But we’ll also stick to our principles which is that school funding ought to be based on need, ought to be applied consistently without fear or favour to any particular sector, that’s why we’re now working through the detail of how we give effect to those recommendations to change the SES scores, any other associated issues that need to be dealt with at the same time. And that, of course, is part of not only delivering fair needs-based funding for schools but also a record and growing sums to all Australian schools, record and growing sums into our public schools, into our Catholic schools and into independent schools.


Kieran Gilbert:             Because if you move on the Catholic front – which quite clearly you are going to do that – you then have to also placate the independent schools who don’t want to be disadvantaged, that’s the bottom line. So you are going to have up the pool of funding here quite substantiality, aren’t you?


Simon Birmingham:    Well, any change to the funding formula in terms of the way SES scores are calculated for non-government schools has a potential impact on all non-government schools. That’s why in receiving recommendations to make changes to that formula, we want to be careful in our consultations, work through that deliberately and carefully and methodically with each of the stakeholders; that’s exactly what we’ll keep doing. But we will also deliver a response. As I said when I released this report publicly a month ago, we’ll respond within – I then said – the next few months, we’re making sure we dot our Is, cross our Ts, so that we can deliver fair needs-based funding, record in growing funding to all Australian school sectors and indeed, ensure that that school choice, which many parents across Australia relish, is available whether it’s a Catholic school, an independent school…


Kieran Gilbert:             Because if you don’t get that good will from the Catholics for example, we see the ongoing intervention in the political process, they don’t feel they’re happy with the funding arrangements, that is not the scenario you want going into a federal election next year, is it?


Simon Birmingham:     Well, we want to deliver on our policy intentions…


Kieran Gilbert:             You need that sorted, don’t you?


Simon Birmingham:     Well, we want to deliver on our policy intentions, Kieran. The policy intentions are about ensuring, for the first time ever in Australia’s history, that school funding is applied consistently, fairly based on need, applying the same methodology to all different schooling sectors and ensuring that we actually deliver it in a way that also then drives reforms and improvements in our schooling sector. Now, the other important thing we’re doing right now is negotiating with the states and territories around school reforms; better steps in the curriculum, better tools and support for teachers, the types of things that will actually lift student outcomes and make sure that the record and growing funding we’re putting in is also delivering the best possible outcomes for our students.


Kieran Gilbert:             Why do you think – just finally, back to where we started – the Prime Minister’s taken a hit in today’s Newspoll, with his approval rating down six points?


Simon Birmingham:     Kieran, commentators can commentate on the ups and downs of polls. Today’s poll in terms of the 2PP is unmoved as it has been for weeks. What we will focus on next year when we get to the election is the choice Australians face. And it’s a choice between a Turnbull government committed to lower taxes for household, tax relief, continuing jobs growth and delivering on essential services, or Bill Shorten – who has a plan for more than $200 billion of extra taxes on wages, on houses, on savings, on investments, on businesses, things that will cripple Australia’s economy, that jobs growth, and will ensure there isn’t the revenue in the future to deliver those essential services.


Kieran Gilbert:             Minister, thanks so much. As always, appreciate your time.


Simon Birmingham:     Thank you, Kieran.


Kieran Gilbert:             The Education Minister Simon Birmingham this morning.