Interview on SKY News with Kieran Gilbert
Same sex marriage plebiscite; Energy security; Protecting volunteer firefighters; VET Student Loans eligibility; Higher education reform
08:37 AM

Kieran Gilbert: Let’s go now to some local politics. I spoke to the Education Minister Simon Birmingham earlier this morning on a range of issues including the- well, the prospect that the plebiscite – the Government’s promise for a plebiscite on same-sex marriage – looks very much likely to be blocked in the senate this week.

Simon Birmingham: Well this has been weeks and weeks if not months of game playing by Bill Shorten and the Labor Party and, I look forward to them firstly actually making their position clear, which it has not been for a long period of time. But secondly I still hope that they will recognise the most efficient and effective way to deal with this issue consistent with the policy the Government took to the election is to support the plebiscite bill, and we could have the plebiscite undertaken by February next year. Gay marriage then supported and legislated by March next year if that is the will of the Australian people, and the issue is done with and indeed the issue then is resolved with the mandate, and stamp of authority and approval of the Australian people.

Kieran Gilbert: That’s true, and for many people that’s a compelling argument that you would have the authority of a policy that you took to the people but then also a plebiscite of the people, however, it doesn’t appear that the groups advocating marriage equality have been convinced, so then isn’t Bill Shorten right to be pursuing this approach which he too took to the election?

Simon Birmingham: Well I think we have to recognise the Government could not have been clearer going into the election campaign, but it’s not only just about the Government’s position. I think it is also about the support that will exist for same-sex marriage after a plebiscite, and if we actually have that support and that stamp of authority and approval from the Australian people, we can guarantee this will be a positive, accepted, embraced reform right across the nation. If this is left to a vote of the Parliament, then I have no doubt it will still be hotly contested in many different quarters, and not have that type of embrace and positive approval that I would like the topic to see.

Kieran Gilbert: As a South Australian senator I want to ask you as well on an issue before we get to your area of responsibility in education, where there are some developments today but, on renewable energy, it looks like 45 per cent of people according to a Newspoll today, willing to pay extra for renewables but not a lot more. Is this the Government picking up that sort of sense within the community that support for renewables – or at least paying for them – has waned?

Simon Birmingham: Well the Government recognises there are three factors to consider when it comes to renewable energy or the energy market generally. The first is security of supply, you’ve got to keep the lights on. The second is affordability, you’ve got to make sure that it is actually affordable for industry to operate in Australia and create jobs in Australia. And the third is emissions in terms of meeting the targets that our government has set and committed to at a global level. Now we’re confident on the last of those issues that the policy settings we have in place federally through our Emissions Reduction Fund, through our well-considered renewable energy target at the federal level, do deliver the emissions reduction targets that Australia has committed to globally. 

On the other factors though, affordability and reliability, they are absolutely compromised and questioned by the virtue of states going off on hotch-potch different schemes and targets of their own, and I’m very pleased to see the work now to be led by Alan Finkel the Chief Scientist, in having a look at the national electricity market and ensuring that we really get down to those issues of affordability and reliability.

Kieran Gilbert: But far from reining them in, the experts at the climates- Climate Council and elsewhere have argued that the Federal Government needs to move more in the direction of the state targets, the more ambitious state targets if we’re going to go anywhere near reaching our targets as committed to by the Prime Minister in the Paris agreement.

Simon Birmingham: Well, as a South Australian in the state that has been demonstrated to have the least reliable but most unaffordable, most expensive electricity in the country, I would be very concerned about anything that was ill-considered in that direction. South Australia is the state that has moved ahead of the pack in terms of wind generation, in terms of its overall reliance partly on renewables and also on then importing base load energy. Energy that can actually provide stability in terms of the frequency in the market. What we saw from the release last week of the energy market operators report is there are a range of different factors that aren’t given due consideration in some of the state policies, such as maintaining stable frequency as an important factor in energy supply, which is something that wind power is not able to do compared with other more synchronous forms of energy sources.

Kieran Gilbert: Let’s look at some other issues. The industrial relations bills- well the first significant one – the CFA bill – to go to the Parliament this week. Are you hearing from the crossbench that this is likely to get through? Because Labor doesn’t look like it’s going to support that measure. 

Simon Birmingham: Well we’ve had very positive discussions and Michaelia Cash has been very engaged in discussions with the crossbench. It is a test for Bill Shorten, this bill, as to whether he is beholden to the unions just like Daniel Andrews is in Victoria, or whether he is actually willing to stand up for doing what is right in supporting volunteer firefighters. But ultimately if he’s not willing to do that and the Labor Party stands beside their union mates rather than volunteer firefighters, then we’ve done the groundwork with those crossbenchers and I hope and trust that Michaelia’s hard work will pay off in support for the volunteer firefighters in Victoria. 

Kieran Gilbert: Now to the education matters around today and there are quite a few. You’ve announced what courses of the- just under 350 VET Student Loans courses will remain in place, are you- well, can you give a guarantee now that this will end the rort?

Simon Birmingham: I’m very confident that our decision to end Labor’s failed VET-FEE HELP scheme and build a new program from the ground up that has tough barriers to entry for providers, it has loan caps in place that are in line with the cost of delivery for those courses, strong student engagement measures, ability to cap providing numbers in terms of in student enrolment numbers and then the decision we’re making which we’re releasing details of today about eligible courses being more tightly aligned to those of employment needs, will ensure the new program is much more robust, much more foolproof, has taken a belt and braces approach to the safeguards than Labor’s old program and the decision we’re announcing today is 340-odd different courses that will be eligible determined by their placement on at least the skills needs list in two different states or territories. This is a sensible approach. Still sees the vast majority of potential enrolled areas covered but gets rid of a lot of fringe or lifestyle courses or courses that frankly just looked open to rorting.

Kieran Gilbert: And so those course are all gone, is that- there’s nothing in here that would be perceived in those terms?

Simon Birmingham: Consistent with the consultative approach we’ve taken to date, there’ll be a two week period for comment in relation to these courses so that if we’ve missed something then we can make sure that it is reconsidered. I want to make sure that we support employment outcomes from the vocational loans program. That’s what people I think expect us to do, to ensure that where we are putting taxpayer money on the line to support students, that taxpayer money is supporting those students to optimise their chances of getting a job or a better job in the future.

Kieran Gilbert: What about those students that have just wasted time, dollars as well of course, but their own time as they try to build towards a career. There must be enormous frustration, is there any recompense for those individuals?

Simon Birmingham: [Indistinct] that we are supporting students under the current schemes to grandfather through if they want to continue their studies, or of course they can choose to take a different pathway under the new programs. That’s really a matter for those students. We’ve been building over a period of time now better information for students that’s available on the MySkills website to allow them to compare not just providers, but courses, by student satisfaction, employment outcomes as well as price and all the other factors that I’ve urged students to consider.

Kieran Gilbert: Finally the higher education expert panel that you’ve established of chancellors, others in the industry, to look at the reforms and then try I guess build some sort of consensus, but you haven’t included students in this- weren’t they the problem last time in building the opposition to the Government’s reforms under Christopher Pyne as minister?

Simon Birmingham: Well Kieran we’ve taken more than 1000 different submissions on this, many of which have come from students and we’ll be undertaking further consultations as part of the work that I will be doing alongside of this expert working panel and that will include student bodies as part of that feedback loop. So, they’ll absolutely be part of the process. But the four individuals who I’ve asked to work with me on formulating the future policy in its design, are people who have worked extensively on higher education policy previously, understand the role that government funding incentives play in terms of the behaviour of universities, the enrolment decisions of them and the pressures they currently face, the challenges to maintain global excellence and I think they are four eminently qualified Australians to  [indistinct]…

Kieran Gilbert: [Talks over] Do we really need another panel though. When Christopher Pyne had [indistinct] panel it seemed that [indistinct] so many panels [indistinct].

Simon Birmingham: Yeah I’ve been pretty clear Kieran that this is not about producing another report. It won’t be producing its own report, its own [indistinct]…

Kieran Gilbert: [Talks over] This is the policies?

Simon Birmingham: These are four people who will work alongside me on the recommendations that I then take to the cabinet that lead in to our policies. So this is very much [indistinct]…

Kieran Gilbert: [Talks over] [indistinct] proof of that when we have that policy to cabinet?

Simon Birmingham: The Government’s still working towards ensuring that we have policy out there by early next year, such that any changes can take effect from 2018. So continuing the steady process of reform since I took over in this space.

Kieran Gilbert: Minister, I appreciate your time. Thank you.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you Kieran.