Interview on Sky News with Patricia Karvelas
Topics: Delivering real Gonski needs-based schools funding; Victorian judiciary
Patricia Karvelas: Waiting in, from, I believe, Adelaide, is my guest, the Education Minister Simon Birmingham. Simon, welcome.
Simon Birmingham: Good evening, Patricia.
Patricia Karvelas: Congratulations on getting this through. You were hoping you would end, or at least neutralise the school funding wars. But the war looks far from over; not only are Labor, as you just heard, and the AEU planning to keep campaigning, but also the Catholic schools. You must be worried?
Simon Birmingham: I’m not worried Patricia. I’m confident that as schools see the increased funding flow through to them, around $2300 per student on average across the country, more for students in high needs areas, less for some schools that, historically, have received a better deal, but ultimately it will be growth, very fair growth, targeted where it’s needed most, I think people will see that this is a very good, fair model. A real implementation of David Gonski’s recommendations, which were not, as Andrew just tried to airbrush them, some type of recommendation that the Federal Government should go off and talk to the States and sort it all out. There was a very prescriptive approach taken by the Gonski report, recommending a needs based funding model with a base schooling resource standard, a range of different loadings to be applied, and that’s exactly what the Turnbull Government is now getting on and doing, and ensuring that, over the course of the next six years, all schools who might not have been receiving a fair enough deal form the Federal Government get that, and over the next ten years, those schools who might have been receiving a slightly overly generous arrangement from the Federal Government are brought back so that, within ten years, we have fair, consistent application of needs based funding across the country.
Patricia Karvelas: Your colleague, Christopher Pyne, has called the Catholic sector dishonest today. Have they been dishonest? Do you agree?
Simon Birmingham: Well, let’s have a look at the facts. And on Friday I was very pleased to hear that the Archdiocese of Sydney, now that the legislation has passed, put a statement out to their parents indicating that there should be no abnormal, out of the ordinary fee increases for the next three years. I think that demonstrates that what the Government has been saying all along is, in fact, the truth, that there is clear funding growth going into Catholic education authorities in every State, and that across those States they should be able to manage their systems, continue to provide a really valuable, high quality education in Catholic systemic schools, without needing to significantly adjust their fees or put them up above normal cost pressures.
Patricia Karvelas: But Christopher Pyne called them dishonest. You don’t think they’ve been dishonest?
Simon Birmingham: No, well I think that …
Patricia Karvelas: [Talks over] [Indistinct] pointed to one example, but …
Simon Birmingham: Well I think that some who may have claimed that there would be these huge fee hikes and so on obviously have been proven wrong given that the largest Archdiocese in the country, the Sydney Archdiocese, has now made clear that there will be no unusual shift in fees over the next three years, that it will be contained to usual adjustments by each of their schools.
Patricia Karvelas: If the …
Simon Birmingham: [Talks over] The facts speak for themselves there.
Patricia Karvelas: Alright. But is it unhelpful that Christopher Pyne calls them dishonest? All the headlines today running that the Catholics are essentially liars. Is it particularly smart politics to call them liars?
Simon Birmingham: Well look, Christopher was asked some pretty pointed questions about the campaign that’s been run, and there’s no doubt there was a campaign that was run- elements of which were clearly not telling the truth. And I’m pleased, though, to see that, as we’re now entering this post legislation period, the facts are coming through, and the facts are that there’s growing funding for Catholic education in every State, and out of that growing funding they retain the autonomy- in fact, they now have enhanced autonomy in many ways under the legislation to be able to distribute across their schools as they see fit. And that means that there should be no reason for fee increases. And in Sydney it’s clear that they’ve already stated now that there will not be abnormal fee increases.
Patricia Karvelas: Okay, and that’s in Sydney. If Catholic school fees increase substantially in other places, you know, it’s a big country, will you take responsibility? Because they say you are responsible for the way you’ve changed the funding model.
Simon Birmingham: Well there should be absolutely no need for that. As I say at a minimum across the different states of Australia there’s 3.5 per cent per student funding growth going into Catholic education over the next few years. That’s the minimum that’s occurring which means that theoretically in a state like Victoria where that minimum occurs, they should be able to give every one of their schools if they want next year exactly the same funding they got this year plus 3.5 per cent barring any changes of enrolments. Other states get faster rates of growth. That is because even across different Catholic education systems around the country, just like with the case with state systems, just like the case with independent schools, everyone was starting from a dog’s breakfast of different arrangements and we of course are getting them all to a common treatment under the needs based funding model and that means a few years of differential growth rates to get them all to the same landing point in six years time at which stage then everybody is treated equally with the same indexation into the future based on their own individual need and circumstances.
Patricia Karvelas: Tanya Plibersek says that Labor will outline how it will fund that extra $17 billion that it plans to spend on schools, but we still don’t know how you will fund this extra $5 billion you found through your negotiations. Should we expect more cuts in the education portfolio?
Simon Birmingham: No. We outlined all of the different aspects of the education portfolio, of course as our government does at each budget update and the next one being MYEFO later this year. We will clearly demonstrate how it is that additional spending commitments made have been paid for. I’d emphasise on the spending front that essentially in committing to schools reaching their target share of the schooling resource standard sooner, there are some cost pressures that we have agreed to meet over the next few years. But in the long term in a structural sense for the Budget from 2027 onwards there are no additional costs to what our initial model proposed. So we’re very mindful there of not worsening the long term structural budget position on the way through, but agreed yes to bring forward meeting the share of the schooling resource standard four years earlier than we proposed. Now, in terms of the Labor Party …
Patricia Karvelas: [Interrupts] Either way $5 billion is not small change as you know. Before you get to your Labor Party rant let me take you back to $5 billion which is not small change and we both know it. You clearly will have to make some substantial cuts as you say in the next Budget update. Where should the cuts come from? I mean you need to be honest with people about how you’re going to fund this.
Simon Birmingham: Five billion dollars over the course of the next decade is still a significant sum of money. It is spread over ten years, and it is of course part of a very large school funding budget on an annual basis. So you need to keep in perspective I guess that when you’re talking about adjustments to school funding they will always be quite significant sums. But we will demonstrate as we always have how it is that we will make sure this is paid for without impacting on our commitment to have the Budget back in surplus within the next four years as we’ve projected in the current Budget.
Patricia Karvelas: Tanya Plibersek says that some schools like Kings will be, you know, I think what, $16 million better off, but state schools in the NT where of course lots of disadvantaged Indigenous students study will be worse off. How is that fair?
Simon Birmingham: Well Tanya Plibersek’s playing a great game of class envy and class warfare there. Kings school is a big school. We of course are treating it exactly the same under the needs based model which sees parents there have their fees assessed or the Government funding assessed against the capacity to contribute arrangement which means government funding is deducted to that school based on the socioeconomic circumstances of the families attending it. And that of course does not occur in terms of our funding to government schools such as those in the Northern Territory who will still see funding growth, who in fact is the one instance, the one circumstance where we agreed from the outset to treat them outside slightly of the overall consistency arrangements, that the Northern Territory is a special circumstance, it will continue to receive funding higher than the 20 per cent share of the schooling resource standard that other states and territories will receive for their government systems reflective of the vey unique need there. And of course per student funding in the Northern Territory sits around 40 per cent or thereabouts higher than the per student funding in the next nearest jurisdiction across the country, again reflective of the very high needs in the Territory.
Patricia Karvelas: There will be a national schools resourcing board that will review the socioeconomic status of schools. How will that work? Because there are some inequities which are pretty troubling.
Simon Birmingham: So that board will be appointed now with input from into the membership from each of the states and territories, from the Catholic and independent schooling systems with a mandate to really go and try to come up with consensus recommendations about how to improve the SES methodology, which is an important part of our school funding model. We shouldn’t pretend that it’s not significant that the Government of the days says what we want to do in terms of supporting choice by parents to access non-government education is provide the greatest level of support to the communities who can least afford it and less support to the communities who can better afford it. And that is a very fair approach in terms of supporting and empowering parental choice and in terms of accessing non-government education, but we want to make sure that it is an effective methodology which is why over the next twelve months this review will be undertaken by the new independent national schools resourcing board. It will make recommendations that will be made public and the Government has committed that we will do our best to implement those recommendations.
Patricia Karvelas: Back to just the negotiations. The Greens felt quite abandoned clearly during the negotiations. They thought they were nearly, you know, working towards a deal then they lost that deal. Do they deserve some of the glory here?
Simon Birmingham: Look I give credit to Sarah Hanson-Young and Richard De Natale for engaging in really constructive discussions and negotiations with the Government. Now, ultimately at lunch time on Wednesday the Speaker’s list was exhausted in terms of people in the chamber ready to speak on the second reading vote, so we proceeded to the second reading vote, and unfortunately the Greens decided at that point that they weren’t quite ready to vote for the legislation yet and therefore they voted against it. Now, we were always open to keep discussions going past that moment, but sadly the Greens decided that at that point they were locked in. However, I do recognise they played a constructive role all along.
Quite the contrary of course when you look at the role Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek played where from the very outset they just said no, they undermined, it didn’t matter that David Gonski came along and endorsed our proposal, it didn’t matter the other members of the Gonski panel did, it didn’t matter when parts of the union movement broke ranks, it didn’t matter that independent commentators like the Grattan Institute or the Mitchell Institute endorsed what the Turnbull Government was doing. None of that of course budged the Labor Party because they just want to keep schools as a political issue rather than genuinely deliver needs based funding which is what we are doing.
Patricia Karvelas: You were seen as going soft on Pauline Hanson on her remarks around autism and segregation in schools on Thursday, and look, I’ve looked at the public record. Government did seem to stay very quiet. Did you stay quiet to get her vote?
Simon Birmingham: No, no. Look I made clear that I didn’t agree with all that Pauline had said and then I went very strong in terms of arguing that the model we were putting forward, the use of the new nationally consistent collection of data on students with a disability that sees three different levels of loadings applied under our legislation is all about inclusion, creating the right environment for inclusion, creating the right funding opportunities for schools to receive more support for the students who need greatest adjustment assistance, less for other students.
Patricia Karvelas: With the benefit of hindsight, do you think it would have been important for the Minister of Education and the Prime Minister to take a stronger position, a noisier position, a more strident position, denouncing the comments particularly I suppose if you look at the evidence. I mean there’s no evidence to support the comments. Did you think that perhaps you could have been a little bolder in what you had to say?
Simon Birmingham: Well, commentators can talk about that if they want. I have absolute confidence that what will make the greatest difference to students with autism next year in schools and the year after that is the legislation we passed through the Parliament on Thursday. Not what it is that I may or may not have said on Thursday.
In the end for kids who are actually going into schools and getting a better supported environment, the opportunity for full inclusion, the type of resources and support they need in the school to ensure every student can succeed, that’s what matters most. That’s what we focused on delivering and that’s the outcome that’s there.
Now, as I said I made clear that I didn’t agree with all that Pauline Hanson had said and that’s not an uncommon occurrence, but in the future students are going to get the support they deserve and that of course is going to last far, far longer in terms of outcomes and help for those kids than what was or wasn’t said in the Parliament over the course of last week.
Patricia Karvelas: Three Turnbull ministers have now apologised for contempt of court. Tony Burke was on the ABC this morning and says; it’s not the end of the matter for these ministers because of the code of conduct. He says contempt of court is a criminal offence and under the ministerial code of conduct they have to obey the law. Isn’t he right, they do have to obey the law don’t they – should they continue as ministers?
Simon Birmingham: Well of course we all have to obey the law but nobody’s been convicted of anything here.
Patricia Karvelas: But they didn’t- but they’ve admitted that they didn’t obey the law didn’t they?
Simon Birmingham: No, no. Look nobody’s admitted to not obeying the law. Nobody’s been convicted of anything here. I’m sure of course that many Australians would probably think what they said is the right thing. But we’ve been through this situation, it’s been looked at by the court. They’ve offered an apology in terms of the circumstances of what was said and on we go. I’m sure there will continue to be plenty of public debate about judicial sentencing and otherwise in the future just as there always has been in the past.
Patricia Karvelas: Does the area need any law reform? Do you think it’s about right where it stands?
Simon Birmingham: The level of judicial sentences or the handling of contempt of court cases?
Patricia Karvelas: No, the handling of contempt of court over this. So over this the fact that they can be convicted for something like this. Does that need to be looked at?
Simon Birmingham: I’ll let the legal experts proffer their opinions there. I’ve been pretty busy the last couple of weeks so I can’t say that I’ve followed every expert opinion that’s been offered on this matter.
Patricia Karvelas: Okay, that’s diplomatic of you. Minister, many thanks for joining me tonight.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks Patricia. Cheers.