Interview on The Guardian’s politics live podcast with Katharine Murphy
Delivering real needs-based funding for schools and fixing Labor’s model; 2017 Budget

Katharine Murphy: Simon Birmingham, thank you for joining the podcast.

Simon Birmingham: Great to be with you. 

Katharine Murphy: So on the weekend, readers of that august journal, The Australian, read that the Catholic education system had gone to the war with the Government. Is that true? And if it is true, why has that happened?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I don’t believe it is true and I certainly hope and trust that it won’t be the case, because we’re implementing reforms that simply treat Catholic education in a manner that is identical to any other part of the non-government schooling sector, and so that funding for all schools would be calculated under our Gonski-based reforms in a consistent manner across of all of those non-government schools. What does that mean for Catholic education across the country? It means $1.2 billion worth of extra funding over the next four years and $3.4 billion extra over the next ten years. So, it’s actually a good deal. It’s also a fair deal. It’s consistently applied, and what I find when I’m talking and speaking with principals, with parents, and others across all sectors, is once you talk through what we’re doing and explaining policy detail and the reasons behind it they usually understand and accept the fairness equation that sits there.

Katharine Murphy: Well then why they are they shouting?

Simon Birmingham: There are obviously people in the administration part of Catholic education who are still trying to extract the best possible deal, and I appreciate that school funding around Australia has historically been done on the basis of deals and special agreements and separate arrangements for this sector or that sector. And what’s challenging for people this time is that we undertook an extensive process of talking to people about the policy principles, the issues we were looking to address. We weren’t sitting there sliding bits of paper across the table with a hidden number written on it somewhere. We were actually looking to design a policy template based on the Gonski reforms that actually withstand the test of time, and that’s what we’re seeking to legislate. 

Katharine Murphy: You don’t think Catholic education might be running some sort of diversion campaign given that there are some problems in the church at the present time?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I think the motivations, I’m sure, of the people who are trying to seek the best deal for their school or authorities are pure motivations, and I understand that, but of course from the Government’s perspective we’re trying to give effect to David Gonski’s report. There’s a reason why he stood alongside Malcolm Turnbull and I three and a bit weeks ago when we announced these reforms, and that is because we’re being quite true to the Gonski recommendations, because we are trying to treat people consistently, fairly, across state borders, across school system borders and boundaries, and I think that is a very reasonable thing to do. And I’m quite heartened by the fact that if I look at the impartial commentators around the country, people who aren’t there still trying to seek the best deal for their part of the schooling system, we’ve had a really positive reception to it. 

Katharine Murphy: But do some Catholic schools lose money?

Simon Birmingham: Well a handful of non-systemic Catholic schools do lose money as part of the 24 schools around the country that see a reduction in funding to come into line with a fair funding formula applied equally to all schools. In terms of the Catholic systems themselves, in every state those Catholic systems see growth of at least 3.5 per cent per student per annum. That’s pretty strong growth; it’s well above inflation or wages. There are some adjustment issues in one territory – in the ACT – which I’ve been open about and which we continue to have discussions about how we make sure that that transitions in a reasonable way to, again, a consistent approach around funding.

And the reason you get a different outcome in the ACT is because, in a sense, there was a special deal laid on top of special arrangements for the ACT previously, where socioeconomic status for school communities in the ACT wasn’t determined by people who live in the ACT. It was determined of a whole-of-Australia measure that included remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, or Tasmanian regional communities, which of course bear no resemblance to the household income in the ACT. 

Katharine Murphy: And the economic circumstances in the ACT. So we’re talking of transition for the ACT, so clearly there will have to be a fix for the ACT because there’s- you’re under pressure from people like Zed Seselja and others to try and get that dispute settled. Crawling around your backbench over the last couple of weeks, there are a number of people who are very supportive of this policy. There’s obviously been a couple of high-profile critics as well, but there are a lot of people supportive of the policy. There are though, a number of people that I have spoken to who think that the politics of the Catholic uprising – for want of a better word – are serious and are quite complicated for the Government. People don’t seem to know whether there is a plan to fix this. So, is there a plan?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we continue discussions, and I’ve had many meetings and discussions with National Catholic Education Commission and various other representatives of their educational authorities or the church. And I’m trying to work through how best to reinforce with them that we absolutely respect their system autonomy and we’re not seeking to change that. But the manner in which the eight different Catholic education systems around Australia will each be paid a lump sum of funding won’t change. Yes, we’re going to calculate it based on a manner treating all schools consistently across the non-governmental sector, but will then give them still a lump sum check. They will retain the autonomy to choose to redistribute that across their schools. 

And so of course when you’ve got the same amount the money, plus at least 3.5 per cent, there’s no reason why you can’t give every one of those Catholic systemic schools next year the same amount of money plus 3.5 per cent and continue doing that year-on-year if they want to stick to their current methodology. And I do acknowledge that of course when it comes to the individual issues of teacher salaries in each school, particular cost bases, they have a more granular level of understanding than a federal funding formula can have. So, there’s a reason why they have that autonomy and that’s the reason why we respect.

Katharine Murphy: And what about, I know you won’t want to countenance this because your form in recent times has been getting policy through the Senate. You did the sort of rugby swerves in order to get your child care policy through the Senate.

Simon Birmingham: I’m more an AFL kind of guy, but I’ll take the compliment any which way.

Katharine Murphy: No it’s a compliment, it’s a genuine compliment. It was quite a deal to put together and so I know you’ll say to me well Katherine, of course I’ll get the schools package through the Senate, except maybe you won’t. And I think we need to talk about that in some detail. Obviously if- the day to day reporting of this issue apart from the Catholic uprising has been; the Government has a school funding model which accepts needs-based funding but is less than Labor’s offering and the state governments have been saying well we want Labor’s offering. Now the Prime Minister’s said well Labor couldn’t afford their offering, so it was kind of a hypothetical offering, right? So that’s the level- I’m just assuming that’s the level the readers are at, right, in terms of …

Simon Birmingham: Sure.

Katharine Murphy: … [indistinct] the business- the listeners, in terms of consuming what’s going on, right? That’s what they’ll be hearing most of. They’ll be hearing Catholics are revolting, they’ll be hearing there’s some argument between the major parties about funding levels for education. I’m just assuming that’s the level of assumption.

Simon Birmingham: I think the last few weeks people have at least picked up that there’s clearly extra money, the concept that yes we have come along and said we’re going to invest $18.6 billion extra, and yes it’s detailed in our budget as to how we pay for these things. Yep, does Bill Shorten go out there and make a promise of even more? If he does, does he say how he’d pay for it? We’d say no. He would argue that. Does he say how he covered up into whom he’d distribute it? Absolutely no idea on earth as to what the proposal there is aside from the fact that apparently in standing against our legislation and our reforms they’d rather keep special deals into the future, different arrangements for different states and the whole mess of inconsistency that is the current arrangement versus the type of consistent fair long term approach that we’re taking.

Katharine Murphy: Sure, that mud fight notwithstanding, let’s come back to the Senate and whether or not you can get this through and the consequences if you don’t. So I think you said this week that if the policy was blocked and you basically on the current indexation levels going forward that public schools would be worse off. I think you said that up there at some time when you were out Queanbeyan this week. So if it doesn’t- so public schools are worse off. Now but is that true for each sector if the current arrangements continue in perpetuity  – well until you convince the Senate to do otherwise, what happens for the other players like for instance, are the Catholics worse off if the current arrangements continue? Because doesn’t that influence how heavily they’ve campaigned against the Government to try and get this blocked?

Simon Birmingham: The answer in part on that is a bit of it depends because there are a range of policy decisions that if the legislation can pass the Government would have to take. The current legislation is not as prescriptive as many people think it is and doesn’t bind us in as many ways as people think that it does. Of course much of the spending was based on the 2013 agreements which only a handful of states signed and which we’ve been clear ever since the 2014 Budget would come to an end at the end of this calendar year. 

So that remains the position and if our legislation doesn’t pass, well then we’ll have to contemplate what it is that we are required to do under the legislation. And I stress the fact that last year and my officials made it very clear at Senate estimates that the Government could live within the budget we had last year under the current legislative arrangements and that of course was a budget that had $18.6 billion less in the forward estimates than our current arrangements do. 

So we will have to make decisions as a government as to whether we maintain the current budget setting if this reform package doesn’t pass and obviously we’re investing because we want to see reform, because we want to fix the funding formulas. Because we want to invest more in education as well we want to do it in the most targeted, fair and effective way to clean up the funding mess and have David Gonski undertake the additional piece of work on how that investment is being best harnessed to get the best ground result in our schools for our kids in terms of their educational performance.

Katharine Murphy: You’re kind of nuclearising the whole debate then though aren’t you? If you say okay well, if you don’t pass this model, we’re quite happy to go back to the other model which disadvantages you quite substantially. You’ll have state governments going crazy. You will have the entire education sector raid against you. Are you serious about wanting to take on that fight?

Simon Birmingham: Well I’m not suggesting that that will be what we do. I’m saying that obviously if the legislation that we have got before the Senate that was based on the budget given to me and the policy decisions taken by the Government to clean up the mess of schools funding doesn’t pass, then I’ll have to go back to cabinet to say, what is it that we’re going to do now? We are not bound in as many prescriptive ways by the current act as certainly future government would be by our act to actually definitely deliver growing levels of school funding. 

We want to make this investment as you acknowledged before in terms of the Government school sector and we’re proposing growth rates that are well above the maximum legislative growth rate in the current act that will see more than five per cent growth per student, going to the neediest schools in Australia. On our estimates around half of all Australian schools would see that growth in excess of five per cent per student per annum over the course of a decade. That sustains of course really strong levels of new investment in those schools because they’re already coming off a record growth base.

Katharine Murphy: So another way of looking at it apart from the nuclear metaphor that I dropped in, is if Catholic Education just should pick one stakeholder, was playing a game where they thought they just might roll the current arrangements over into the future, they can think again?

Simon Birmingham: Look I’m not out to issue threats to anybody. What I want to do is see our reform passed. I want to see the mess of school funding cleaned up. We want to see $18.6 billion worth of extra funding flow into the school sectors that delivers strong growth for every sector; government, Catholic, independent gets growth above any measure of inflation, above any measure of wages growth, real additional investment for all of them to make into their schools and that’s critically important for those schools, particularly the needier schools around Australia and they’re the ones who will see the greatest benefits out of what we’re proposing.

And so I hope that every sector, every system, ultimately I hope every senator recognises this. I can’t tell you how disappointed I am that the Labor Party having championed the Gonski report and needs-based funding for six years has now walked away from that and now it’s all about just who can spend the most. Well that’s not real reform. Just saying we’ll spend more is not fair dinkum reform. It’s certainly not cleaning up the mess of school funding in Australia which is what we are doing. We’re investing more, we’re fixing that mess and we’re going to focus effort on how it can best be utilised in the schools to make the biggest difference. 

Katharine Murphy: Just one more question on education just before- I assume that the claim is rounded in the Senate, right? Before I assumed that they would knock you back. You’ve been very …

Simon Birmingham: [Interrupts] I’m very hopeful because, of course, outside of the Labor Party none of the different Senate parties have ruled out supporting us yet. 

Katharine Murphy: The Greens are looking pretty wobbly though aren’t they? Aren’t the Greens looking pretty wobbly?

Simon Birmingham: Well, they’ve all kept an open mind. And the Greens, who are facing intense pressure – I acknowledge – from some who are spreading mistruths from the union lobby and so on, the Greens are standing firm in terms of saying we’re going to keep an open mind. I’m very pleased that they’re doing that. They recognise at least that I think we are cleaning up the mess of school funding. They may have an argument about whether or not enough additional investment is made, that’s something of course that is their position to argue, but I hope that they won’t ultimately throw the baby out with the bathwater in terms of seeing our increased investment and distributed as fairly as possible.

Katharine Murphy: Just picking up with babies and bathwater, you’re obviously very- you’ve worked out this policy model, you’ve worked it out with the intent of ending the special deals, of having rational policy that occurs across the sector and gets rid of the band aids and sticky tape, right? Like, pulls all that off. You’re pretty attracted to your policy model, but if you’re in a crossbench scenario or with the Greens, whomever you end up having to deal with in the Senate, are you so wedded to your policy model that that means that any asks that they bring you – extra funding, transitional assistance for the Northern Territory; I’m just pulling things out of the hat here, every child gets a free lunch box in Tasmania, whatever – are you open to that sort of discussion with them?

Simon Birmingham: Ultimately we’ve demonstrated ourselves to be a pragmatic government when it comes to getting things through the Senate, and this policy won’t be any different in terms of us working constructively, sensibly, with the Senate crossbench. It also won’t be any different that we won’t play negotiations out in public and we won’t trade away our policy principles before we even get to the crux of those discussions. In the end, I’ve spoken to all the different Senate crossbench players, but all of them want to see the evidence of the Senate inquiry. All of them will have more hard-nosed discussions, I guess, with us when it gets to the point of discussion being scheduled in the Senate, which will be in the last couple of sitting weeks of this session.

Katharine Murphy: Let’s stick with the- we’ve got time I think, just because a couple of political questions at the end. How do you think the Budget went generally? Take your zone off and how do you think it went down?

Simon Birmingham: I’ve been living in a very particular zone since the Budget, of course of the education policies, but in general I think there is a recognition of the fairness equation in the Budget and that Australians are quite reasonable people when it comes to it. I think when they hear that the Government has decided that obviously we want to fund schools properly, clearly we want to do as we’ve always done and deliver on the National Disability Insurance Scheme; how are we going to do those things? We haven’t succeeded in some previous proposals that were put before the Senate. We’re taking a fresh, clean, new approach. I think Australians recognise that.

I think people are generally willing to pay their way for a service and an important service like the NDIS, and I think it’s been apparent this week that Bill Shorten’s got himself on some sticky paper inside the Labor Party by opposing needs-based school funding, by opposing the Medicare levy increase for the NDIS, that he’s actually creating real difficulties for himself because of course these are things- I think Anthony Albanese was right to say in a sense that Labor should be championing the ideas that they took in government and actually pushing them right now and endorsing where the Government might be accepting elements of them. Now, I think on the schools-funding side they did a good report and a shocking implementation in government, and we’re coming along and fixing up the implementation aspect. On the NDIS of course it’s always had bipartisan support. We just want to make sure that it also has financial security for the long term too. 

Katharine Murphy: I’ve got a simpler question now, I think. You’re out and about in your community. Do you think voters are listening? Do you think they’re tuned in and listening?

Simon Birmingham: I think voters have lots of things to get on with in their lives and what happens in Canberra isn’t usually in the top few things on their radar, so I think that is a constant challenge. In an era of ever increasing mediums by which people get their news and information from different sources and disparate sources, it’s much harder nowadays for governments to get messages out to all Australians, compared with the era where if you had a good run on the nightly news for a week you patted yourself on the back and knew that pretty much every Australian heard your message. That’s not the case anymore and that makes it much more challenging. 

Katharine Murphy: It’s certainly much more cluttered and contested, but I’m asking the question from a slightly different point of view. It seems to me if you look at what opinion polling has done over the recent political history, it looks like voters make an early decision about a government and they stick to it. People seem- there’s a certain degree of surliness that seems to be happening in the Australian political climate at the moment which is sort of- should’ve been more pointed in the way I put the question. Do you think that voters are still listening to your government?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I think voters, if anything, actually show a fair degree of volatility at times in the cycle in terms of where they think they’re at with the Government in a particular point in time. In my opinion there’s absolutely no reason why we can’t and won’t win the next election. I think this Budget gives us good policy platforms upon which to do so, and it will be good policy that we need to succeed in terms of the next election, and giving people that certainty that their services they care about in healthcare and disability support in schools are all being delivered. Giving them certainty that we’re still on the job of fixing the Budget I think is important, particularly for the long term. Giving them certainty that our plans in terms of investment in jobs, in industries, in infrastructure, all of those things come together well in this Budget. Do I expect instant miracles? No. But I think that steady, consistent implementations we’ve been succeeding at will ultimately pay dividends.

Katharine Murphy: Should Tony Abbott just shut up?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I hope that every single one of my colleagues in the Government makes sure that their efforts, their comments, are for the good of promoting the good things that the Government is doing.

Katharine Murphy: Is that a yes?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I think in many cases, in recent interviews that I’ve heard Tony give, he has absolutely defended the decisions of the Government and I think he, like every other member of the backbench, is entitled to express an opinion from time to time. But in the main I think all of them are doing the right thing in promoting the Government’s direction and agenda.

Katharine Murphy: Generous to a fault. Simon Birmingham, thank you for your time.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you.