Interview on SKY News To The Point with Kristina Keneally and Peter Van Onselen
The United States’ immigration policies; Australia’s Syrian refugee intake; Year 1 national literacy and numeracy check; Higher education reform 
01:37 PM

Kristina Keneally: Pete, we might now go to Simon Birmingham, the Minister for Education. He’s joining us out of Adelaide. Happy new year to you, Minister and before we get into the meaty policy details and political issues of the day, I just have to thank you very much for your support for our bid for the Logies in 2017. You were an endorser of this fine program To the Point. We don’t know yet if we’ve won. I’m concerned the election might be rigged by the communists but you never know, so thank you Simon for your support.

Simon Birmingham: [Laughs] Well it’s – happy new year Kristina to you and Peter and we can just only hope that the Russians don’t choose to intervene in this election process as well.

Kristina Keneally: I wasn’t – when I said communists, I mean the ABC. No I’m kidding, I’m kidding.

Simon Birmingham: [Laughs].

Peter Van Onselen: Minister, you’re not going to get an easier run from me for supporting our bid for the Logies, because you should well know I’ve got no interest in going and I was actually campaigning against us deliberately. So let’s launch straight in in the …

Kristina Keneally: [Talks over] Minister I am always undermined from within. I’m always undermined from within.

Simon Birmingham: I’m sure that’s just a tactic on your behalf, Peter.

Peter Van Onselen: Nah, no tactic. I couldn’t think of anything worse than going to the Logies. So with that, let me just get straight into you – what is going on? You are meant to be a small ‘L’ liberal, the Prime Minister at least in some vague terms, still has some penchant for that philosophical worldview. Why won’t he have the courage to condemn Donald Trump on a policy script that I reckon if I got him strapped up to a lie detector test, he would clearly not support?

Simon Birmingham: Well Peter, it’s not our job to run around condemning the domestic policy decisions of other governments. It’s our job to set the domestic policy for Australia. And our policy, the policy under the Turnbull Government, as it has been under successive governments and will continue to be, is a non-discriminatory immigration policy where we don’t discriminate on the basis of nationality or race or religion or any such factor. Where we do run a really strong set of safeguards over any application for visas to make sure, of course, that we don’t admit people to Australia who could be national security risks, domestic security risks, at risk of overstaying their visa or the like. So I think we have a world’s best practice program in place. We’re proud of it and will advocate for the merits of our system. What other countries do of course is the business of those countries but we will say that we’ve proudly got one of the best systems in the world, without the need for such discriminatory practices.

Peter Van Onselen: Alright you say, well … interesting that you’ve called them discriminatory, I don’t disagree on that but let me ask you this – as a matter of simple logic, you say, probably quite rightly at a diplomatic level, that it is not our job to comment on their sort of sovereign decision making. By definition therefore, you’d be critical, I assume, of the British Prime Minister who did commentate; the German Chancellor who did commentate; the leaders of France and Canada, whom have also commentated. You’d say that they’re doing the wrong thing, wouldn’t you?

Simon Birmingham: Each leader has to make their own decision as to how they undertake their discussions and negotiations at a diplomatic level. You just had before I came on air, the Prime Minister and Peter Dutton talking about the fact that Australia will continue to successfully implement a range of agreements that we have in place with the US. But in particular, in this case, working through one in relation to refugee resettlement, getting rid of the legacy population of individuals who came to Australia or tried to come to Australia during the Labor years, ensuring that they are successfully resettled, wherever possible, including in the United States. 

It’s important that we can continue to cooperate in those areas and then we shouldn’t allow commentary on other matters to get in the way of us getting on with what is in the best interests of Australia. Now of course, as the PM equally said, if there are circumstances where Australian citizens who might be dual citizens of other nations find themselves caught up in these instances, then we’ve made very clear that our consular officials and diplomatic officials will be doing what people would always expect and that is advocating first and foremost for the interests and wellbeing and welfare of Australians.

Kristina Keneally: Minister Birmingham, let’s talk about domestic fallout from this then, if we’re not going to talk about what foreign leaders are doing. George Christensen has called for Australia to stop its Syrian refugee program and to implement a program not dissimilar to that that Donald Trump has, the kinds of bans that Donald Trump has. Given the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull’s comments just now, would you expect that George Christensen and others in the Coalition should stop issuing those types of calls?

Simon Birmingham: Well I’m sure George will keep saying whatever it is that George wants to say but on that, he’s wrong. And we should be proud of the non-discriminatory policies that Australia has. The fact that we do successfully apply them in a way that keeps Australia safe and secure, that we have safe and secure borders as well, and that we will stick wholeheartedly with the policies that do ensure we maintain secure borders, that do keep Australians safe but also ensure as a national that we can be proud of the types of non-discriminatory policies that we apply that continue to help make us a successful tolerant, multicultural nation.

Kristina Keneally: Can we turn to your portfolio? Minister, you’ve announced that the Government’s seeking to implement an assessment of students in year one and the literacy component of that assessment will focus on phonics. What can we help to learn from the assessment done so early in the student’s career?

Simon Birmingham: Well early on is indeed when you expect a number of the very basic foundational skills to be established. So in terms of phonics, the learning of the sounds in the alphabet, the 26 different sounds of the alphabet but then the 42 different phonetic letter sounds that are essential to be able to construct words or deconstruct words, for children to work out how to read them as one of the many skills in relation to developing good, sound literacy skills, well they are important things to be developing in that first year or two of a child at school.

Left until a child is in year three and getting on to being eight or nine, if there are problems that haven’t been identified until then, intervention becomes so much harder and the likelihood is that child is so much further behind. That’s why so many dyslexia advocates in particular have been calling for this type of skills check to be put in place at an early level for many, many years because they know that you can get much, much earlier identification, intervention, and therefore assistance to help ensure that the early years of a child’s education are successful which then enables them to be successful for the rest of their schooling.

Kristina Keneally: Minister, there seem to be two competing schools of thought when it comes to teaching children how to read. You know, the whole language approach and the phonics approach. Are you hoping to incentivise schools in Australia to use phonics by having the test focus on that?

Simon Birmingham: We have seen in the United Kingdom where they introduced a phonics skills check a number of years ago, an increasing number of children who are successfully passing that skills check and demonstrating they have the skills which obviously does mean that teaching practices and so on in schools have been influenced by the application of the check. It’s been running tandem with making sure that there are clear materials and resources for teachers to use, opportunities for teachers to get the skills they need to deliver that and looking at that comprehensive package is why we’ve appointed an expert panel with a principal who’s applied this in his own Victoria government school already, with a teacher, with dyslexia experts, a speech pathologist and the like so that we can make sure it’s a comprehensive picture that absolutely influences what goes on in the schools to ensure children learn these basic core skills which are so important to having the foundation to build the rest of their education upon.

Peter Van Onselen: The university sector, Minister, it is still half pregnant and has been for a very long time now. Capping of places is gone but deregulation was thwarted when your side of politics put it up shortly after winning the 2013 election. So, as I say, literally for years now we have a half pregnant higher education system. It’s unsustainable, isn’t it? When are you going to be able to do something to get passed this impasse?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we went through a process last year of releasing a policy discussion paper, taking submissions, putting in place an expert panel who I’ve been working with in relation to that as well as much broader consultations than just that panel. And pretty soon we’ll be finalising where we go to with higher education reform, firstly to make sure it’s affordable and sustainable for the taxpayer, secondly to make sure that we are incentivising universities to perform at the highest quality in terms of decisions they make about enrolment practices, how many students they enrol, what they enrol them in, holding them accountable for the outcomes of those students in terms of them successfully completing their courses to a high standard and having good strong employment outcomes. There are, I think, a number of different things that we will be able to do and we’ll be having a lot more to say about that over the first half of this year.

Peter Van Onselen: But Minister, obviously I haven’t seen and am not privy to what has gone on with that higher education panel that you’ve put together but we’ve been around this road before, we’ve had these sort of expert reports, these panels, these collaborations and impasse upon impasse upon impasse has always been the result. Isn’t it high time that the two major parties sat down together at the start of the process and then worked together throughout the process so that what comes out the other side is a sausage that both sides of politics are going to sit down and have a barbeque with?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I will be very happy to work with my shadow counterpart and I hope that the Labor Party will be sensible about the type of directions we could take.

Peter Van Onselen: [Interrupts] But they won’t. We know they won’t, Minister – I’ve got to interrupt – we know that they won’t in the same way that this has happened time and time again which is why, surely, a procedural change was necessary here, not just another panel keeping Labor out of it but actually sitting down with them from the start so that they don’t have an excuse just to look at the final product and say, you know what, we don’t like that, here’s our policy instead.

Kristina Keneally: And Pete, can I just add in there, there are students who are starting uni today, and I’m the mother of one, who were in year eleven when the fee deregulation was announced. How long do they need to wait to know what their fees will be throughout the course of their university career? I mean, this is getting quite frustrating for many people in this sector.

Peter Van Onselen: Yeah, and it’s not your fault Minister. It’s not your fault. Labor, I would argue, are being very obstructionist here but in a sense where I throw a bit of blame back at the Government is you get to a point where when it’s half pregnant you’ve got to do something so you need to start to try to find some albeit probably inelegant response which includes them early so that they can’t just keep on blocking this.

Simon Birmingham: Well, Peter, I’ll take the advice in that regard and make sure that we are absolutely – as I would’ve intended to do anyway – engaging with the Labor Party when it’s appropriate to do so. We’re absolutely testing a whole range of policy responses with the university sector and other key stakeholders so that we make sure we come up with something that doesn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater in terms of dramatic changes to the current funding model for universities or to the current allocation of places for universities. Because it is important that we have world-class universities, that we don’t go back to an era where simply government bureaucrats sit in a dark room and randomly allocate places in different courses to different universities; that wouldn’t be a step forward either. We have to find the right time of mechanisms to hold universities accountable for the places they offer, the students they enrol, and ensuring the success of those students. That’s what we’re trying to come up with the framework for at present and I’ll be very, very happy to sit down with Tanya Plibersek and hope that I get a far more sensible engagement on that than I necessarily get when it comes to school reform issues that Kristina and I were discussing before.

Kristina Keneally: Alright Minister, unfortunately that’s all the time we’ve got this afternoon, but thanks for coming on To the Point. We’ll have to get you back to talk about childcare, school funding, a whole range of other issues, but thanks for your time today.

Peter Van Onselen: Thanks for your company.

Simon Birmingham: Any time, a pleasure. Cheers.