Interview on Sky News with Tom Connell and Samantha Maiden
Delivering real, Gonski needs-based funding for schools

Tom Connell: Joining us now for more on this is the Education Minister Simon Birmingham here in the studio. Thanks for your time today, Minister, you’re very busy I know.

The gloves appear to be off here – the CFMEU, the Catholic Education Union as well. What are your thoughts on this? The robocall worked pretty well for the Mediscare campaign, you might say.

Simon Birmingham: Well the CFMEU deciding to robocall and to try to put pressure on crossbenchers and so on is nothing particularly new. Obviously we want to work through different technical issues that Catholic education may have and to make sure that they have confidence in the fact that they are receiving additional funding under these reforms; their funding grows from $6.3 billion this year to $9.7 billion over the 10 year trajectory. Growth for all of those different Catholic education authorities in each of the states of Australia over that time and that they retain the confidence at well that they can distribute it amongst the schools in their system according to their needs-based principles.

Tom Connell: Are you disappointed though that they’re going with this type of campaign?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I would rather, of course, that they engaged with us constructively and various elements of Catholic education are absolutely doing that. Some have decided to run a bit more of a public campaign, it’s a free country, but I hope and trust that parents will see, teachers will see, and ultimately all of the authorities will see there’s growing funding, there’s maintenance of the autonomy they have as systems and there is respect for the fact that hard-working parents in Catholic schools, hard-working teachers are going to continue to receive the greatest level of funding under these reforms from the Federal Government relative to other schools systems, growth and needs-based support.

Tom Connell: Okay.

Samantha Maiden: What about the Catholic Education Commission paying for robocalls? I just had an email- I’ve spent three hours trying to get out of the Catholic Education Commission who paid for these robocalls and I just received an email in the last minute from the national office saying that actually it was Victorian office run by Stephen Elder that organised these calls. They’d be worth an estimated $25,000. Now, isn’t the National Catholic Education Commission and the Catholic Education in Victoria partly taxpayer funded? Should taxpayers really be funding to $25,000 worth of political robocalls into marginal seats?

Simon Birmingham: Well there’s no doubt that the funding the Commonwealth Government provides for school education, including to Catholic education authorities, must be used exclusively for school education purposes and, of course, we would expect that that is the case. There have to be independent audits provided to ensure that is the case and, of course though, if they’re using other funds raised by other sources, well that’s part of their right in a democratic country.

Tom Connell: Can you confirm just where we’re at on this and is the option being considered of delaying the roll out for Catholic schools and reviewing the SES funding model?

Simon Birmingham: Look, there are some technicalities that have been put on the table during discussions. A review of the SES is being discussed, I think, for some weeks now by different parties [indistinct] …

Tom Connell: [Talks over] That’s been put to you.

Simon Birmingham: And has been put to the Government as one option.

Tom Connell: [Interrupts] Are you considering it seriously?

Simon Birmingham: Well we’re giving consideration to all of the different scenarios that key players have put to us through this debate. Another scenario that’s been put forward is whether there could be some transitional adjustment to support that maintains elements of the system average in funding for one year only. Look, reasonable requests will be given reasonable consideration and that’s what the Government’s doing. 

Tom Connell: But is it a zero sum game? I mean, if you’re going to talk about reviewing the SES model that might give more money to some Catholic schools – as an example – you get less money elsewhere, you might upset other people might you not?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Tom, we’re not going to countenance changes to the reforms that disadvantage certain sectors; we’re not going to countenance changes to the reforms that get away from the ultimate objective of ensuring that after 10 years that we actually have a uniformity of application of a consistent, needs-based funding model as David Gonski recommended.

Tom Connell: [Talks over] Okay, but if you’re not going to countenance that, then why review the SES? Because if the Catholic system thinks they’ll be better off with a review or a change or a tweak to that, others are worse off. So is a review a real one?

Simon Birmingham: Well I’ve said publicly many times in this discussion that in the mix of the way the funding model is constructed, improving the data input, making sure that it does genuinely reflect need and so on are things that you’d expect any government to do and to continually do and so a review of the SES is not an unreasonable proposition. It would hopefully give greater confidence to everybody else once concluded that the SES methodology is fair, does reflect a demonstration of the capacity to contribute within different school communities, of the financial capabilities of those school communities. That’s what its intent is, it’s been there since the Howard era and there’s no reason we can’t improve it.

Samantha Maiden: [Talks over] Can we just unpack that a little bit further though? You’ve spoken about the two main options on the table are this review of the SES that you think is a favourable- a pretty good idea, a reasonable idea. This idea of delaying the new funding model for one year: now, Chris Back said that he wanted that, just not for the Catholic sector, but the independent sector as well. If you’re going to offer the Catholic sector a one year delay, would you also offer that to the independent sector?

Simon Birmingham: So, Sam, I don’t accept the concept of it as a delay of the new funding model for one year. There’s one component that Senator Back has spoken about which is the use of an averaging process around the SES scores. Now, he’s advocated that might be able to be maintained for one year while the review takes place, not any other changes to the rest of the approach, nor any other changes to getting everybody on that trajectory to consistency starting from next year. Now, in terms of application of that, so far as I’ve understood what Chris has asked for publicly, that is that it would apply to any system – as it currently does – regardless of their faith or background.

Samantha Maiden: Okay, so it would apply to public as well as independent? Or just independents and Catholics?

Simon Birmingham: Well this only has an impact in relation to the capacity to contribute measure which of course isn’t applied to government schools at all.

Samantha Maiden: So if you did it, it would be for the independents and Catholics. And then, let’s just unpack some of the other ideas that the Greens want. The Greens did want an independent body to set schools funding in Australia; are you open to that idea?

Simon Birmingham: Look, we’ve heard all of those and, as I said, reasonable requests are being given reasonable consideration. We’re at a point now where hopefully all of these matters will be finalised with the Greens and/or crossbench parties over the coming hours – I would hope – and therefore we’ll be in a position to be able to give clarity around all of this.

Samantha Maiden: Sarah Hanson-Young also said on Sky in the last week that $5 billion was her minimum to put in extra money to get to that national resourcing standard faster, to get it to six years rather than to wait for 10. Can you find $5 billion and how would you fund that?

Simon Birmingham: So, look, I’m not going to play through each of the different requests that the different parties have made. We’re giving them all respectful consideration. Our intent to make sure that we get true needs-based funding around the country is real. We want to make sure that, as David Gonski and his panel have advocated, this legislation passes because that will apply consistency regardless of state borders, regardless of sectoral differences. Getting to that point and ensuring that ultimately in the long run it doesn’t have undermine the structural position of the Budget, are important things that we’re looking at.

Samantha Maiden: What about the Greens idea that they wanted to make it tougher for the states to cost-shift? So there’s already some provisions in the legislation but they wanted extra.

Simon Birmingham: And, look, I don’t want to sound repetitive but I will, in the sense that reasonable requests are being given reasonable consideration. The Commonwealth will be putting in sufficient funding under our reforms as they are proposed to ensure that public schools in Western Australia and in the ACT and essentially in Tasmania reach the schooling resource standard; that in South Australia, they get to around 95 per cent given the combined input of federal funding and the state funding. Now, if we’re applying it consistently across board and WA can do it and Tasmania can do it, then if the state governments of Victoria or New South Wales or Queensland put in the same level of effort as they do in WA or Tasmania or South Australia or the ACT, everybody would achieve it though.

Samantha Maiden: Would you rather do a deal though with the crossbench than you would with the Greens?

Simon Birmingham: Well we’ll make our decisions in relation to the policy merits of the arguments and of course ensuring that practically we get an outcome and so it’s not about preferring the Greens versus the crossbench, it’s about preferring the best policy outcome that gets the best result through the Senate.

Tom Connell: Sorry, just finally on the indexing and future years: it’s based on inflation and wage rises as well. Are wage rises for the average economy the same as they are for teachers?

Simon Birmingham: Well there’s no reason as to why wage rises across the education sector should run faster than they do …

Tom Connell: [Interrupts] Have you looked at whether they do though?

Simon Birmingham: … in the general economy. And there’s an important policy here too in terms of embedding a methodology that does link to general economic circumstances. Which is if you didn’t do that the model becomes internally quite inflation …

Tom Connell: [Interrupts] Right, I can understand that part.

Simon Birmingham: Because wages rises would just get automatically [indistinct].

Tom Connell: [Talks over] right, but the fact is you’ve got a public system there that is generally getting more than- you know, the public sector is generally getting more than the average person at the moment. So you could get to a point where that dips when that kicks in.

Simon Birmingham: Well, Tom, we think that it’s a responsible approach to take to say an economy wide link there in terms of wages growth ensures you keep up with wages growth – which is only fair and reasonable – but you don’t end up with a model that inside it is inflationary and therefore just ever increases costs and provides an incentive as such for state governments to not give any consideration in their wage negotiations.

Tom Connell: Alright, look, complex area and a busy day for you. Thank you for coming in.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you.

Tom Connell: That’s Education Minister Simon Birmingham.

Simon Birmingham: Pleasure. Cheers.