Interview on SKY News with Peter van Onselen
Parliamentary proceedings; National Firearms Agreement; VET Student Loans; Provider eligibility for VET Student Loans; Resettling refugees while keeping our borders secure

Peter van Onselen: Let’s bring in our next guest, Senator Simon Birmingham. You know that the Mickey vote is an actual thing, but let’s be frank about this: when they’re running around behind the scenes saying something different it becomes an excuse, which is an albeit convenient one. That’s fair, isn’t it?

Simon Birmingham: Well g’day Peter, you’re the commentator, I’m not, and you may know what people say behind the scenes. I’ve got to say, I haven’t had any such conversations with any colleagues. That was a Mickey vote. In fact, I think from my recollection I turned up to it, was told by the whip that it wasn’t necessary, and I had people waiting in my office so I dashed off to tend to them, given the result was going to be pretty clear-cut.

Peter Van Onselen: Yes, but when you’re a National Party Cabinet Minister and you know that your backbench are about to revolt on this one, I would’ve thought that- you know, I could imagine that you would be less likely to not be there if that was going on in the Liberal Party as a show of solidarity to Cabinet. But as you say, I’m the commentator not you, Simon Birmingham. I don’t expect you to answer that one. 

Simon Birmingham: No, but I mean the policy point is very clear. The Coalition Government took steps to stop the importation of the Adler lever action with greater than five rounds. The Turnbull Government took steps to make sure that that ban on importation exists indefinitely until the states and territories get their act together under the National Firearms Agreement. And that policy isn’t changing, and our gun laws will not be weakened.

Peter Van Onselen: That’s true, but with the Nationals crossing the floor – move away from that for a moment – in the abstract, as a senior member of the Government and therefore a senior Liberal, if there was a Liberal revolt going on, even though you had both sides of politics notionally supporting legislation, if there was a Liberal revolt from the backbench would you as a senior Liberal Minister think it would be good – Mickey vote or not – to show a bit of solidarity to your Prime Minister and to your leader?

Simon Birmingham: Well Peter, you take every vote as it comes. We have the right in both the Liberal Party and the National Party for our backbenchers to cross the floor. Frontbenchers, of course, are indeed bound by the Government’s positions and by the Cabinet’s positions in Cabinet solidarity, and that’s something that we all have to take seriously.

Peter Van Onselen: All right, let’s move on. Let’s talk about the VET changes, or V-E-T. They’re going to go through in this sitting fortnight aren’t they?

Simon Birmingham: I certainly expect they will. The Labor Party and the crossbench have been very cooperative in terms of recognising we have to implement these changes; that we are fixing up a multi-billion dollar failure in terms of the old VET FEE-HELP scheme and putting in place something that ensures that vocational education providers are quality providers who help students to complete their courses, that the courses are relevant, and that prices are reasonable and affordable. 

Peter Van Onselen: And just on this, for the uninitiated can we just go into how we ended up in this situation where there was this sort of multi-billion dollar blowout in a system that clearly needs fixing? It happened on Labor’s watch, but the Coalition was slow to action. Would that be a fair criticism of both sides?

Simon Birmingham: Well Peter, certainly the changes that opened it up occurred in 2012, and then we saw the scale of loans under the program balloon from a few hundred million dollars to $2.9 billion by 2015. Now, we did impose around 20 different actions and reforms to try to fix the problems in terms of the VET FEE-HELP scheme, and we will see, I’m confident, when the 2016 data is finalised for VET FEE-HELP that the scale of loans will be hundreds of millions of dollars less than it was in 2015. 

So our reforms absolutely had impact, but the judgement that I made after the election was that the VET FEE-HELP scheme itself really couldn’t be perfectly fixed, that we couldn’t ensure absolute integrity in the providers in the scheme under the way it was written. And the best thing to do was to close it down at the end of this year, put in place a new program – the VET Student Loans program – that has tough barriers to entry to ensure training providers are high quality, legitimate, helping students to completions, strong employment connectivity, and that the courses are relevant to job outcomes, and that we have a methodology, a fee cap in place, or a loan cap that keeps a lid on price growth and inflation in terms of those fees.

Peter Van Onselen: And just sticking with this issue for a moment. I mean, do you accept that there will be some- I mean, clearly the system needs fixing, don’t get me wrong. But do you accept that there will be some providers that were doing the right thing, but in a sense get caught up in these changes in a way that is difficult for their business, even though they hadn’t done the wrong thing because of the need for wider changes?

Simon Birmingham: I do acknowledge that, Peter. Of course, the changes that we’re applying, and we’re putting them in place quickly, do have impacts on the business models of many providers. But we saw large scale rorting, we saw terrible completion rates, and we were seeing essentially billions of dollars wasted, so action was essential. I’m sorry for innocent parties who are caught up in the reforms that are being put in place. But in the long-term our new VET Student Loans program will guarantee that only high-quality providers get in the door to offer student loans in the future, that they have strong relationships with employers and industry, so we can have greater confidence that their graduates will go on to get a job, that the courses actually have some relevance to employment outcomes, and as I say, that we’re keeping a lid on fee growth in that sector. And ultimately, that’s all important to make sure not only that taxpayers get a better return and students get a better return, but in the long-term that the credibility of vocational education and training is restored in this country, and that those private providers who are doing the right thing don’t have their reputations continually tarnished by a bunch of crooks and rogues. 

Peter Van Onselen: Can I ask you about- on a separate portfolio area. I want to get your reaction to this furore that’s developed around some of the comments in Question Time in the Lower House yesterday from Peter Dutton, the Immigration Minister. He talked about lessons to be learned from the Fraser years with the immigration intake. What are those lessons to be learned?

Simon Birmingham: Well the big lesson is about successful resettlement programs, and making sure that you actually have in place programs and regimes and policies that help ensure people who come to Australia – especially people who come from troubled backgrounds, like refugees – have all of the support services to assist them. In my portfolio across Education and Training, we …

Peter Van Onselen: [Interrupts] Can I just jump in there Senator? Sorry to jump in. So is your understanding that what the Minister meant was that there are lessons to be learned for exactly what you just referred to, this notion of how you ensure well-integrated settlement as opposed to exclusion of particular classifications of migrant?

Simon Birmingham: Well there is already a very thorough risk analysis that we put in place in relation to migrants who come to Australia. And so we go through, and Peter Dutton is overseeing – with much tighter border control than we had under the Labor years – a process that ensures every migrant who comes through refugee channels is of course thoroughly screened and vetted against any security risk so that we can have confidence in terms of their background. But then when they do come to Australia, we have to make sure that we actually support that successful resettlement here in Australia. And so there are essentially two steps there: one is making sure you’ve got appropriate migrants who you can have confidence in terms of their background, and that they don’t have relations with any terrorist organisations or potential threats. The other, though, is in ensuring successful resettlement. 

So I was about to say, in my portfolio space we’re investing significant sums through the Adult Migrant English Program, that helps with English language skills. But there’s a bunch of other things done through the Social Services portfolio and Immigration to help with successful resettlement nowadays that have been built upon over the last couple of decades.

Peter Van Onselen: But Minister, just on that. I mean, what’s the lesson to be learned from the Fraser immigration cohort when we’re talking about crime by their grandchildren, not even their children?

Simon Birmingham: Well Peter, I think, stepped through in a fairly calm and rational way some of the statistics that are there in terms of the criminal activities and terrorist-related activities that you can see in certain cohorts today. And of course, we have to recognise that successful resettlement is not just about ensuring that immediately people get a house and hopefully a job, but it is also of course about ensuring that they engage in a way with the Australian community that comes to respect and appreciate and embrace our values and our way of life. And that applies, then, through their family, and that is something that is absolutely essential and is a core part of what we hope to achieve through those resettlement programs.

Peter Van Onselen: Simon Birmingham, always appreciate you joining us on the program. Thanks very much for your company. 

That’s the Education Minister there, Senator Simon Birmingham.