Topics: Same sex marriage;tertiary subsidies for domestic New Zealand students; academic freedoms; superannuation

Samantha Maiden: And joining us now live is the Education Minister Simon Birmingham to discuss that story that we were talking about in relation to New Zealand and also the same-sex marriage debate as well. Let’s start with that. What is the plan C if the High Court rules that the Government cannot proceed with this postal survey?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Samantha, I’m not dealing with plan C. The Government has a policy and a plan. We expect that we will have our policy upheld in the High Court and we’ll get on with giving all Australians a say on this matter.

Samantha Maiden: Is it fair to say, though, that you would expect the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to hold firm to his election promise that he would not proceed with a vote in Parliament until a plebiscite was heard, even if the High Court struck this down?

Simon Birmingham: I think you’re trying to draw me into the same question you asked before. We’re not going to start hypothesising about what will or won’t happen. We have confidence in the Government’s position. We of course are defending that in the High Court and our expectation is that next week the process will start in terms of the distribution of the survey forms and that all Australians will get to have their say.

Samantha Maiden: You’ve already printed them presumably, haven’t you?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I’m not the Minister responsible for the ABS, but I imagine that they have this well in hand in terms of being able to meet the timelines that are set down.

Samantha Maiden: I don’t want to labour the point, because I get the fact that you don’t want to do a hypothetical, but critics of the Prime Minister have always suggested that he is essentially an unwilling participant in this plebiscite and that he would be itching to find an excuse to junk that election promise and just go to a free vote in Parliament. So if you don’t explain what plan C is, if you don’t say no the Prime Minister is rock solid on this, it leaves the door open, does it not, that if this matter was returned to Cabinet, the Cabinet could say, okay, well now we really have tried everything, let’s just have a free vote in Parliament and get it done?

Simon Birmingham: We’re before the High Court right now defending the Government’s policy and position of giving Australians a say, and the very action that we’re taking in terms of this postal survey that we are defending in the High Court indicates that the Prime Minister is clearly doing everything possible to resolve this issue by giving Australians a say on it.

Samantha Maiden: Okay. What about Jacinda Ardern? What is going on with these New Zealanders? They’re very feisty at the moment. Do you think they have a point though, that if we’re going to make them pay more, why shouldn’t our students pay more in New Zealand?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I want to make sure that people understand what the Australian Government’s policy is. At present, under existing arrangements, New Zealand students can enrol in Australian universities. They receive the Commonwealth subsidy for their position or their place, but they can’t access any of our student loan schemes. So in fact, they face upfront fees to be able to study in Australian universities. This has long been a source of some concern, particularly for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds or otherwise who just can’t afford to pay those upfront fees. So what the Government’s proposed to do, in a sense, is to reverse that; that we’ll no longer provide a taxpayer subsidy for New Zealand students, but we will provide the opportunity for them to put their fees on the student loan scheme – the HELP or HECS scheme, as many of us would remember it as being – so that they don’t face any of those upfront barriers in future, and they’ll pay back under the same generous terms as any Australian student.

Samantha Maiden: Well, you and I entered university just- we’re the bunnies who had to start paying, but I think, to be fair, we don’t pay as much as you are making students pay these days. What about what else is going on in universities? Today we had this report that a Sydney University lecturer is some sort of North Korean sympathiser. What’s your reaction to that information that’s been published about Tim Anderson?

Simon Birmingham: Well, this is an academic who has form in sympathising with dictators the world over. He has sympathised with the Assad regime in Syria; he’s now in North Korea, or has recently been in North Korea sympathising with the North Korean regime. I mean, it’s an embarrassment to the university, to academia generally, to have somebody out there who is not just engaging in free debate or free speech, but is taking outrageous positions in support of regimes that murder their own people, that pose a threat to world security. And frankly, you really have to wonder how it is that this guy can continue to be justified as an employee of one of our leading educational institutions.

Samantha Maiden: So you think Sydney University should sack him?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Sydney University has to work through all of their employment conditions and arrangements, but I cannot see that this figure, who has brought ridicule upon the university and Australia’s academics, adds any value to free speech or debate at the university. All he seems to do is attract controversy.

Samantha Maiden: You’ve had a couple of tough things to say about universities recently. They like to cry poor, but you argue in a lot of cases they’ve never had it so good. What’s going on with the superannuation entitlements from workers at university? Most people would – their eyes would water at the thought of getting 17 per cent – it’s almost as generous as politicians’ super, some would argue.

Simon Birmingham: It’s actually more generous than current politicians’, Sam.

Samantha Maiden: So what needs to happen there, do you think?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I think universities need to make sure they’re as efficient as they possibly can be. Ultimately they are majority-funded by taxpayers, and that is why we’re trying to encourage unis down a pathway of reassessing their operations, these type of …

Samantha Maiden: [Interrupts] By tearing up their enterprise bargaining agreements?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we’ve seen Fair Work Australia in relation to Murdoch University in WA give them an approval to restart negotiations with essentially a clean slate, and that’s a positive particularly for that university’s circumstances. But overall, unis should be seizing the opportunity to be as efficient as they possibly can be with the taxpayer money they get, the student funding they get, and ultimately to be focussed on how they guarantee what is the continuance of outstanding research, outstanding student results. We want to keep driving them to do even better in the future.

Samantha Maiden: Okay, and just before we go, any light alarm at the fact that Bob Katter is heading around to Tony Abbott’s office today, he tells us, to have a meeting with him and that he thinks he might be the Prime Minister again before the next election?

Simon Birmingham: Look, Bob’s entitled to have whatever discussions Bob wants to have. I’m confident that Malcolm Turnbull will keep delivering the leadership Australians want to see in relation to energy security, national security, economic growth, and creating record numbers of jobs, as our Government currently is.

Samantha Maiden: Alright. Thanks a lot for your time this afternoon, Simon Birmingham.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Sam.