Interview on SKY News with Kieran Gilbert
ABCC; Murray-Darling Basin; The Turnbull Government’s agenda; Future schools funding arrangements

Simon Birmingham: Kieran, there continue to be discussions, and Michaelia Cash has been working incredibly hard with all of the crossbenchers to make sure that we do achieve the types of reforms we need to clean up workplace corruption, and particularly construction industry corruption and malpractice. We know that the building and construction sector is one of Australia's biggest employers, about the third largest employer, supporting more than one million jobs across the country, and it's critical that that sector works at optimal productivity …

Kieran Gilbert: [Talks over] But is this a classic horse trade between the water flows that Xenophon's worried about into South Australia through the Murray-Darling, and therefore you're giving him a wink and a nod in relation to that to secure his vote on the ABCC?

Simon Birmingham: No, because the important part to realise about the water debate that's occurred over the last week is the Government has never proposed any changes to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. Really what happened is because the states have been failing to get along in terms of aspects of its implementation, there became concerns about really that cooperation of the states, and we will work very hard to make sure the plan is implemented in full, on time, and we bring the states effectively back to the negotiating table.

Kieran Gilbert: [Talks over] But didn't Barnaby Joyce, the Deputy Prime Minister endorse the views of the eastern states in that regard?

Simon Birmingham: Barnaby sought to put on the table at the Ministerial Council meeting the differences that were there, the challenges in getting the plan fully implemented because of those differences of opinion, and what we have to do is double down and make sure that we give absolute leadership to the delivery of that plan, and that's exactly what we will do. That's what Barnaby will do, it's what the whole Government will do, but of course it makes no difference in the sense that there is nothing to change in relation to the plan. We've always been committed to its full implementation, and we will [indistinct] …

Kieran Gilbert: [Talks over] But Barnaby Joyce hasn't blown up – he hasn't blown up your prospects of getting this building watchdog through, by the looks of it, now that Xenophon has been – got back into the tent, so to speak.

Simon Birmingham: I'm confident that Nick Xenophon will work sensibly through the issues around the ABCC. It seems as if the Xenophon Party does appreciate the high levels of corruption in the building sector, that we do need to have greater productivity, because it underpins so much else that occurs across the rest of our economy. And so I'm really hopeful that we will see that type of progress, which coming on top of, if it occurs, the Registered Organisations Commission win of last week, our work already through the Senate to protect volunteer firefighters, to deliver our tax cuts shows a government that is getting on and implementing its agenda.

Kieran Gilbert: [Talks over] Well sure, you've had a couple of wins, but then distractions like Tony Abbott again, one hour interview here on Sky News yesterday with Peter Van Onselen and Paul Kelly, how does … what's the reaction inside Cabinet and the Government on that?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the reaction is we're all getting on with our jobs. Tony is …

Kieran Gilbert: [Talks over] So ignoring it?

Simon Birmingham: Tony is welcome to do interviews, as we expect all members of the Coalition Party Room to get out there and help to sell the Government's message, and Tony was emphasising the importance of a number of the types of reforms we've been pursuing, and things like the Registered Organisations Commission, which failed three times in the last Parliament to get through have now been legislated in the life of this parliament, and that's the type of progress we're making.

Kieran Gilbert: So is it fair for all MPs to be issuing ultimatums as well, that they'll continue to speak out unless they get promoted?

Simon Birmingham: Tony was simply stating a matter of fact there, that of course backbenchers have some greater liberties than members of the frontbench do, but ultimately I believe that every single member of the team, including Tony, is pulling their weight, helping the Government to progress its agenda, and progress its agenda we are doing very successfully.

Kieran Gilbert: A report out today by the Grattan Institute – very interesting reading, this. It suggested you can use the same funding envelope that you had in the 2016 Budget, improve and lift the standards of those schools that are less resourced, and only three per cent of schools will be worse off, those that are overfunded to this point. This seems a no-brainer.

Simon Birmingham: Well this report is a really welcome contribution to the schools funding debate, because firstly it emphasises you have to look at where and how you're spending money. It talks about teacher quality and raising the standards for teachers, and that's something we've been talking about consistently, that you shouldn't just discuss how much money there is, you have to talk about how it's best invested and spent. But secondly, it does highlight that Labor's scare campaign, and the hysteria coming from some states is misplaced, that we are growing funding in our schools, and that with the right approach to the distribution of that funding, we can get good, fair, equitable outcomes, and I would really call on Bill Shorten and the Labor Party, but particularly the states to come to the table in a constructive way to talk about how we use our record growing levels of school funding to get the best possible outcomes.

Kieran Gilbert: Yeah, well absolutely. It said also though, finally, internally there's something that you've got to argue, because there has always been an argument that no school should be worse off – surely those that are being overfunded, three per cent of the best resourced schools in the country should take a little bit of a hit here in terms of government resourcing.

Simon Birmingham: Well I've been talking for a little while about the importance of making sure that we get to a point where every single school is funded under consistent arrangements by the Federal Government. We do have a ridiculous situation at present under the 27 different funding agreements that Bill Shorten and the Labor Party left from his time as Education Minister, that a kid in one school in Australia can be funded by the Federal Government to a different level of a child in a demographically identical school elsewhere in the country gets in terms of Federal Government funding. Plus we have a whole bunch of historic deals grandfathered in that do create lots of different inequities. So getting to a point where we apply the same type of model …

Kieran Gilbert: Sure.

Simon Birmingham: … is I think an admirable objective and one I hope the states again can support us on.