Interview on Sky News with David Speers
Delivering real Gonski needs-based schools funding; Higher education reforms; Christopher Pyne

David Speers: The Treasurer there talking up what the Government’s done with the Gonski 2.0 school funding reform that’s passed through the Senate of course last week. They’re on a bit of a victory lap around the country selling the benefits of this to various schools, states, territories, etcetera. And it brings me to our first guest this morning, the Education Minister Simon Birmingham, who’s also making his way around the country. He’s in Sydney this afternoon from where he joins us. Thank you very much for your time, Minister. I just want to go straight to the point about the Northern Territory because there has been the concern raised. I know there’s a bit of transitional funding you put in at the last minute to help the Northern Territory, but some of their Government schools were due to go backwards while schools like Geelong Grammar, King’s School and so on are getting a whole lot more. Why is that?

Simon Birmingham: Well, good afternoon David, and thanks for the time. Look, Northern Territory schools were never due to go backwards. We always made sure that there would be growth in terms of the Northern Territory, and we’ve made sure that growth will continue into the future where the Northern Territory will receive a higher share of the Gonski schooling resource standard than anywhere else in the country. Per student funding in the Northern Territory will be around 40 per cent higher on a per student basis than the next closest state or territory. 

So, there are unique and special circumstances that I’m sure all of your viewers would appreciate in terms of education in the Northern Territory, unique and special circumstances in terms of disadvantage in the Northern Territory, and we’ve made sure that they are catered for well into the future.

David Speers: But just on Geelong Grammar, it’s getting $16 million more over the decade. King’s, $19 million more over the decade. How is this? Why is that justified?

Simon Birmingham: And public schools across the country are getting billions of dollars more across the next decade. So again, this is what happens when you put in place a consistent needs-based formula. There are some elite independent schools who are literally going backwards in terms of their funding. Others are getting a small increase. Some are getting different levels of increase. The bulk of the funding growth though, around 6.4 per cent per student per annum over the next few years goes into Government school systems. Non-Government schools receive funding growth around 4.9 per cent, so clearly less than what is going into the public education system. Again though, what we’re doing is applying a consistent approach based on David Gonski’s needs-based principles, and that’s the important thing here. That yes, it’s easy if Tanya Plibersek wants to run around the country playing the politics of class envy and pointing to an elite school here or an elite school there. We have taken the difficult decision that Julia Gillard never had the guts to do to say some schools will lose a dollar, but ultimately that we want to provide a consistent approach across the country, and under that needs-based approach the greatest growth into the neediest schools. 

David Speers: Now as you say, Tanya Plibersek, Labor are continuing to fight against what’s passed through the Parliament last week. Can I take you then to Tony Abbott’s reaction to all of this. He says after your legislative win on Gonski 2.0, the risk with compromises to end policy wars is that the war doesn’t actually end, the battleground shifts. He’s right about that, isn’t he? You’ve still got a battle on your hands?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we had number of problems that we had to fix and address. There were unaffordable promises made by the Gillard Government back in 2013. There was a Budget position taken in 2014 without real clarity as to how it would be implemented, and of course there are a bunch of inconsistent deals, 27 different arrangements and special deals across the country that treated schools and states and sectors and systems quite differently, and created disadvantage relative to one another.

So what we’ve sought to do is fix all of those problems. Now, the Labor Party can continue, if they want, to run a campaign of saying they we want to reinsert some sort of special deals, of saying they’re going to spend a whole lot more money, but if they’re going to do that, then it’s incumbent upon them to now do a couple of things: to firstly say how on earth they’re going to come up with the extra funding that they’re proposing to spend. Where will it come from? And, secondly, to be quite clear as to how it would then be distributed. Are they going to reinsert a bunch of different special deals again? Will they, again, disadvantage the schools of Western Australia relative to the schools of New South Wales? Will they disadvantage one part of the non-Government sector relative to another part? I mean, these are the questions that Tanya Plibersek and Bill Shorten need to answer if they’re going to keep this up, because what we’ve put in place is something that leads to consistency, equality, fairness, based on what David Gonski recommended six years ago. 

David Speers: Well, you’re not only being criticised by Labor, it seems by Tony Abbott as well, but of course the Catholic sector too. Now, you have accused some elements of the Catholic education sector of, quote, clearly not telling the truth. Which elements are they? 

Simon Birmingham: Well, David, what I said there was that parts of a campaign that were run during the debate had elements of untruth to them, and that was when we saw claims of widespread fee increases, when of course last week, pleasingly, the Archdiocese of Sydney informed all their schools that there would be no abnormal fee increases for the next three years out of the legislation that had passed. So I think that, really, was a demonstration of setting the record straight.

David Speers: [Talks over] What about Victoria?

Simon Birmingham: I really want to work- well, if Victoria sees 3.5, 3.6 per cent growth on a per student basis on average in Catholic education across the State there- again, no particular need for dramatic fee increases, given that [indistinct] funding growth relative to current low levels of inflation and wages growth. Now, I want to make sure that we respect the hardworking parents of students in public education, who invest their savings, their funds to choose a Catholic education, the hard working teachers and principals, and get on and work constructively with the sector because across each of the States there is strong growth in funding. These changes, as well, bring some sense of equality across the different Catholic education systems. Just yesterday, I was in Western Australia where they’re seeing growth closer to 4 per cent per student, per annum, faster than, say, in a state like Victoria, because the West had got a bad deal previously. So, again, even across those different Catholic ed systems, we’re trying to get everybody to a point where they’re treated fairly and consistently based on the need of each of those sectors around the country.

David Speers: Now you’ve got this one through the Senate, the next battle for you is the higher education reform. Today we saw at the National Press Club, the Chair of the Group of Eight leading research universities, scathing in his criticism of this package that you’ve put forward that’s currently being considered. He says it’s contradictory, incoherent, detrimental to Australia. We did see you put an additional $5 billion in to get the Gonski package through. Are you willing to open a wallet to change what you’ve got on the table at the moment in terms of higher education reform?

Simon Birmingham: David, we’ve had great success over the last 12 months in seeing vocational education reforms passed through the Parliament, our child care reforms passed through the Parliament, and now our schools reforms passed through the Parliament. Yes, we’ll now move on to having a look at higher education issues. But there have been rivers of gold, really, flowing into higher education over the last few years since the demand driven system was put in place. Enormous growth, 71 per cent growth in funding just for teaching and learning in our universities, running at twice the rate of economic growth.

David Speers: [Talks about] What about research, though, what about research? [Indistinct] you’re ignoring research [indistinct] in the equation here. 

Simon Birmingham: Well the Turnbull Government put around an extra $1.1 billion under the National Innovation and Science agenda into research-type investments. There’s continued strong investment in research under our proposals in the future. Our higher education reforms do not touch research funding at all. Instead what they propose is a slightly slower rate of growth in the overall funding to universities over the next few years. You know, even if our reforms are fully implemented by the Senate and passed through in their entirety, there will still be some 23 per cent growth in terms of revenue into universities over the next few years, subsidised and supported by the taxpayer. That’s a very strong level of growth coming off of, as I say, 71 per cent growth since the demand-driven system came in at twice the rate of the economy. So I understand that universities want to cling on to every dollar they possibly can, but in terms of addressing the budget situation we have, in terms of ensuring that in future, every Australian student can have the opportunity to attend university without fear of upfront fees with one of the world’s most generous student loan schemes, then we need to put a bit of extra sustainability into the budget situation of higher education funding. And these are actually really quite modest reforms that seek to give that long-term sustainability and should not disrupt the operation of our very successful world-class universities.

David Speers: Just finally, Minister, can I take you to what’s going on internally in the Government at the moment? Your factional ally Christopher Pyne was caught on tape, of course, on Friday night at an event that you would normally be at – I understand you weren’t there – the Blank Hand dinner. He was boasting about the Moderates being in the winners’ circle. Is that how you see it?

Simon Birmingham: Ah look, I think that the Australian school students and schools are in the winners’ circle at present thanks to our reforms. I think that …

David Speers: [Laughs] [Talks over] Nice try. [Indistinct]

Simon Birmingham: … in terms of school business there in the winners’ circle, thanks to the Turnbull Government’s reforms- well, you know, I don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on the internal politics of the Liberal Party nowadays. I’ve got a full plate as the Education Minister. We’ve been getting things done in the portfolio. And frankly, every single one of my colleagues should be focused, if they’re a minister, on their job as a minister in terms of selling the achievements of the Government and the reforms in their portfolios. If they’re [indistinct] …

David Speers: [Talks over] Is that Christopher Pyne was doing on Friday night?

Simon Birmingham: … contributing constructively to the policy debate.
Ah well, look, I don’t want to reflect on comments taken from a private dinner. I understand it’s very titillating for the media and commentators to have a secret recording of comments at a private dinner, but ultimately, you know, what we all need to do is get on with the job at hand. And the job at hand for us …

David Speers: [Talks over] But some of your colleagues [indistinct]

Simon Birmingham: … is the matters that matter- things that matter to the Australian people.

David Speers: Okay, sorry to interrupt, but some of your colleagues [indistinct] about this. And some of them, as you’ve seen, want Christopher Pyne, they want George Brandis, they want Marise Payne removed from the Cabinet. They want more Conservatives in there to replace them. What do you say to that?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I think what we need is a good approach in terms of selling our reforms, focusing on the policy challenge of the future. And whether you’re a Cabinet minister of a backbencher, every single one of us need to be pulling our weight in that regard, and that’s where the Australian people rightly expect the focus and attention of Government to be.

David Speers: Has this Government shifted to the left?

Simon Birmingham: This Government is about doing things that are in the interests of the Australian people. Australians aren’t interested in right or left ideologies or any of that sort of argument nowadays; they’re interested in government practically addressing problems and challenges for households who have real cost of living pressures, real concerns about the economy and job security, real concerns about the quality of education or the availability of health care. And what we’ve demonstrated is that we can fix schools funding, that we can sustainably fund Medicare, that we can deliver the NDIS, that we can put in place enterprise tax reforms to encourage investment in small and medium businesses to create for the future. We’ve got a really strong platform of achievements to sell, and that’s what we’ve got to keep doing as a Government.

David Speers: Education Minister Simon Birmingham, I appreciate your time joining us live from Sydney this afternoon. Thank you.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks so much.