Interview on Sky News with Kieran Gilbert
Topics: Barnaby Joyce; Closing the Gap report; Company tax rates

Kieran Gilbert: First, though, to the Education Minister Simon Birmingham. I spoke to him this morning about the education targets within the Closing the Gap report. I began, though, by asking him about the ongoing controversy around Barnaby Joyce, what’s his assessment of Labor questioning Mr Joyce over particular taxpayer expenditure.

Simon Birmingham: Kieran, look, this is a very sad personal situation and it’s one that I’m sure all parties would wish wasn’t being played out in the national spotlight. In the end, there are lots of whispers being mounted, it seems, but very few real substantive allegations that I’ve seen that are being made. Mr Joyce has, I think, handled himself appropriately. All government staffing matters have gone through all the normal processes, and in the end what we have here is just a family breakdown, and that’s something that they ought to be given the time to deal with in private as is appropriate.

Kieran Gilbert: Yeah. They’re not uncommon, sadly. And as you said, very difficult time for many of the people around that circumstance. But in terms of the taxpayer expenditure, should the government detail all the information so that it can be cleared up and the hearsay is put to one side?

Simon Birmingham: Everything is detailed, Kieran. I mean, there’s a lot of transparency around government expenditure when it comes to staffers who are employed and the salaries of those staffers. When it comes to travel and travel allowance and all of those sorts of claims, they’re all published in the usual way and these have all been published in the usual way too.

Kieran Gilbert: So you feel enough is being done to clarify that at this point, because as you’ve heard from Tanya Plibersek yesterday, Labor’s continuing to raise some questions, some doubts about that.

Simon Birmingham: Well, they’re trying to create a whisper campaign or a smear campaign. I’m not actually sure what Labor’s real allegation here is. As I said, staffing details are made public, travel details are made public. All of these areas of information are published in the normal course of events, and there’s nothing that’s being hidden.

Kieran Gilbert: In terms of the Prime Minister’s–the office involvement in this, it’s only administrative to tick off the appointments. Is that basically the extent of it in terms of the Prime Minister’s office and any involvement it might have had in terms of approving the change of office of the staff member concerned?

Simon Birmingham: Well, yes, there are certain administrative steps that are undertaken. All of those usual practices were followed, as is always the case. Now, in terms of the movement of staff, everybody should remember that when Matt Canavan stepped down from the Ministry, there was no replacement minister appointed, and it’s not unusual in those circumstances that staff would have been re-deployed across the government to continue doing their jobs in different ways.

Kieran Gilbert: In relation to the first move out of Barnaby Joyce’s office, though, of the young woman concerned, is there some issue that needs to be clarified there in terms of having to find a job outside of the Deputy Prime Minister’s office?

Simon Birmingham: Not that I’m aware of. Again, it’s not unusual for staff to move between different offices, and in this case, moving between one National Party cabinet Minister’s office and another National Party…

Kieran Gilbert: You can see that’s not a great look, though? Given the story around that couple?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Kieran, I acknowledge that the Labor Party appears to be trying to create some sort of whisper campaign here, that they are trying to suggest that there is something that’s been hidden, when in fact it’s all there transparently on the public record.

Kieran Gilbert: What about the- and we’ll move on in a moment, but the number of areas being raised today in terms of whether or not it’s all been dealt with in terms of appropriate transparency. The apartment in Armidale; if that was rent-free, is that a donation, then?

Simon Birmingham: My understanding is that that’s been declared, but I haven’t gone and personally checked those matters.

Kieran Gilbert: Okay. So if it’s declared, then it’s fine.

Simon Birmingham: If it’s declared, if it’s a personal gift, then it would be usually be declared. If it hits certain thresholds, which I would imagine that would.

Kieran Gilbert: Okay. Let’s turn our attention to some substantive matters in terms of our national discourse and the Closing the Gap report. Some progress on education fronts, but not across the board. In terms of completion rates for Year 12 it’s improving, in terms of early childhood, also improving, but some other areas falling back.

Simon Birmingham: So in an area of great policy importance, in terms of Closing the Gap, and we do see this year some encouraging movement that three of the targets are now more or less on track, and that’s encouraging to see that degree of improvement compared with last year. Really importantly, we see a halving in relation to childhood mortality rates since 2011, the biggest improvement that there’s been, and that’s really very encouraging, as well as in my portfolio area, yes, improvements in relation to early childhood education and Year 12 completion rates. And again, they’re very encouraging areas of progress. But there’s still an awful lot to be done. We acknowledge that, and we acknowledge they were ambitious targets to start with, and of course we’re going to keep working, importantly, with the states and territories to keep at the job, and to make sure that new targets that are set are also ambitious but achievable, and that we work towards…

Kieran Gilbert: One of the areas–literacy and numeracy is not being met, but also school attendance, which I guess flows into the other two issues as well. Why is that?

Simon Birmingham: Indeed. School attendance, as a government, we’ve put a lot of effort into literally employing people in certain locations to go and build relationships with families, to pick children up, and to make sure they get to school. Now, we can’t do that as a federal government, though, everywhere across the country, there’s got to be a big effort, as well, from the states and territories to do so, and to make sure that the record and growing amounts of funding that they’re receiving are deployed to really lift attendance not just in schools but also in preschools.

One of the things I’ve called out recently in our extension to preschool funding for the states and territories is that we might now be achieving near universal records in enrolment, but enrolment differs dramatically from attendance and participation. And you’ve really got to focus in on that, particularly in disadvantaged cohorts.

Kieran Gilbert: The Australian refers to $130 billion being spent in the eight years to 2016. Is that sort of expenditure, is that reasonable for the aims, the targets of what you’re trying to achieve here?

Simon Birmingham: Well, there’s lots of expenditure, of course, across different portfolios; health and education–as we’ve been discussing–as well as more directly in Indigenous affairs, and other policy settings. So, you have to recognise many of these are basic services that we deliver to any Australian regardless of where they live, whether it’s in the suburbs of Sydney or a very remote community. And we, as all Australians would, expect those services to be available. But then, of course, it’s making sure people are participating and the services are making a difference, and that’s where we have to double down once more with the states and territories, acknowledge where we’ve had successes, acknowledge that the successes in childhood mortality, the successes in early childhood education, in Year 12 attainment are positives, work out how we build on those successes, and address the gaps elsewhere.

Kieran Gilbert: And finally the BHP chief Andrew Mackenzie joining a number of other CEOs of major companies, urging the Senate to pass the company tax cuts. Would it be easier if they went a step further and detailed the extent to which these organisations would deliver pay rises for their employees, for example?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Kieran, I think – as I said to you last week – we would always welcome companies coming to the table and making clear how the benefits would flow through to their workers. And in many ways that’s what we’re seeing today, that Australian businesses are being …

Kieran Gilbert: Should they be more explicit in terms of exact numbers and that sort of thing?

Simon Birmingham: Well look, that’s up to companies as to how they make sure they convey that message to their staff, and to the public, and to the Australian Senate. But they are very clear that there would be wage rises, there would be pay bonuses were there to be a cut in the company tax. The Government has said this all along that the real dividend for people from a company tax cut flows through to employees, as well as to the broader economy, and Australian businesses are reinforcing that too, and the Senate should heed that.

Kieran Gilbert: Minister, thanks so much for your time. Appreciate it.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Kieran.