PATRICIA KARVELAS: We are one quarter of the way through this federal election campaign. Today has seen further debate on Medicare and a promise to cut down on pollies perks. Simon Birmingham is a Liberal Senator for South Australia and the Education Minister; welcome back to RN drive.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: G’day Patricia, it’s great to be with you and I’m just trying to work out how one becomes a Lego expert in that sense.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Yes, well you need to study more, Simon Birmingham that’s how!

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Apparently. Although we in South Australia do call it Lego [read: lay-go] too just to be really confusing.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: I’m so not going to call it that, I’m not going to call it that. Here is Health Minister Susan Ley discussing the Medicare rebate with Fran Kelly on RN Breakfast this morning.


SUSAN LEY: I understand for doctors, that the GP freeze has been difficult and I appreciate that they are working with it. I said to doctors that I want that freeze lifted as soon as possible, but I appreciate that finance and treasury aren’t allowing me to do it just yet.


PATRICIA KARVELAS: Is that a strange admission for the Health Minister to make? How can she not be allowed, she is the Minister?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well Patricia, we all have to live within our means and work within the budget parameters and that applies to ministers just as much as anybody else across government, that of course the budget is a whole of government approach, I’m not sure that Mr Shorten and the Labor party necessarily realise that with the scale of their spending promises at present, but it is a whole of government approach and that require us all to sometimes not be able to do everything in our portfolio at a time that we might like to do because we all have to live within our means.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Ok, but is the government trying to have a bob each way? I mean the Minister is telling the doctors she tried, the Prime Minister says the freeze will end at some point – really not a point, we know when it’s going to end, we have no idea, but you won't spend the money needed to do it; you cant have it both ways.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well of course the freeze will end when it is affordable to do so, when it becomes necessary to do so. Of course what Bill Shorten is doing by saying he’ll lift the freeze at present is he is spending money on a problem that just doesn’t exist because bulk billing has never been higher. It has gone up under our government from around 79% under the previous government to about 85% under us…

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Then why did the Minister even try? Because you’re making the case now that it’s not necessary at all.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well Susan may well have been listening to the demands or requests of one stakeholder group within her portfolio, that is of course a legitimate thing to do, but overwhelmingly the evidence is clear: this is not necessary to be done at present. Bulk billing rates have never been higher, they have gone up under us and so why on earth Bill Shorten is out there trying to scare people suggesting that somehow more Australians might be having to pay for their visits to the GP in future when the evidence shows that less Australians are having to pay for their visits to the GP than has ever been the case.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: On RN Drive my guest is Simon Birmingham, he is the Minister for Education and Training our number here is 0418226576 if you want to text me about any of the issues we are discussing tonight, discussing Medicare there of course, but we are about to move to another issue. On politician’s entitlements, do you claim this $273 daily travel allowance when you are in Canberra?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well yes, yes Patricia it obviously costs me to, in my case, rent a place that I share with a couple of colleagues while I’m in Canberra and the travel allowance entitlement is what I’m paid to cover the costs.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: So you don’t own a property that you live in in Canberra as well or that you have access to in Canberra?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: No, we are well and truly in the rental market and it was quite an effort to find a new rental property this year I have to say, the Canberra market was quite tight!

PATRICIA KARVELAS: I have also struggled to find somewhere to rent in Canberra, I’m with you there, and it is hard. Should politicians be able to claim both the daily allowance and deduct property expenses if they own a Canberra residence? Because there are some people, you’ve just told me you’re not in this category, but some people who are double dipping and Labor says they will change the tax ruling so you can’t double dip.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: So I think the Labor party has been caught out late today because the Commissioner for Taxation, Chris Jordan has put out a statement making it very clear that there are no special rules that apply for Members of Parliament and equally making it very clear that where any Australian is claiming deductions for travel expenses, they should then be declaring an allowance they might be receiving, if they are receiving one, for those travel expenses. So, we actually have a very clear statement now from the Tax Commissioner that says there are no special rules for Members of Parliament and making clear though that if there is any misunderstanding he will now have a look at the rulings that are out there to make sure they are crystal clear for everybody in the future.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Four Corners is set to cause some headaches for the Liberal party tonight. Former Federal Party Treasurer, Michael Yabsley says political donations for State organisations were funnelled through national bodies including the Free Enterprise Foundation. Will Arthur Sinodinos have further questions to answer and will the Coalition support Bill Shorten’s proposal that any donations over $1000 should be disclosed?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well Bill Shorten can make his own proposals, we have a very clear process in place at present for political parties to make disclosures of their donations and the Liberal party fully complies with those processes. Arthur Sinodinos has made very clear statements making transparent to everybody that he knew of no such things of the allegations that Mr Yabsley may or may not be making on Four Corners tonight so, I think this is a political distraction right now from the important issues the nation faces around how it is that we actually transition our economy in the future, the spending promises that the Labor party might be making…

PATRICIA KARVELAS: you might say that, but I would actually argue that the public is very interested in political donations and on disclosure and on transparency. Wouldn’t it make it easier if all donations over $1000 would just be disclosed? Wouldn’t that really deal with a lot of these issues that you’re having?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: and why $1000, Patricia? At some point you set a level…

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Well you can make it less if you want right now.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: At some point you set a level to say this is an administratively appropriate level, above which you think transparency is necessary to ensure that nobody believes the political system is corrupted by these donations, we have that level in place, it works quite effectively, we comply fully with it, I don’t see a burning need to be changing that level, people can have that debate if they want, I’m more interested in having a debate about how it is we make sure that there are jobs available for Australians in the future, how it is that we ensure we deliver on our defence plan to invest in Australian industry, how we grow innovation particularly in the nation’s universities, as Education Minister it’s something I’m very passionate about. I think there are plenty of other issues that are at the forefront of Australian’s minds than exactly what level it is you might set the political disclosure to when we already have a very clear process in place for political disclosure that ensure the vast bulk of dollars donated to Australian political parties are declared, are transparent for those Australians who might want to go on to the AEC website and have a look at them.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Ok, let’s get to some policy. You’re responsible for childcare, but your reforms are being put on ice until at least 2018. Will parents be paying up to $180 per day in some areas by then?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I think that’s highly unlikely. The vast majority of parents certainly would be paying much less than that, but I do acknowledge that Australian parents, and I’ve been one of them for the last few years, pay out of pocket costs in relation to childcare fees and that those costs are a steep burden for some families and some parents. That’s why we have detailed proposals to reform childcare payments, to simplify the system which at current involves around five different payments to a new childcare subsidy…

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Of course, but it has been delayed to 2018. Do you accepts that some parents might delay going back to work because of those really steep costs and would you consider bringing forward some kind of childcare relief that isn’t set other savings as a compromise or a stepping stone to deal with this dilemma?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: So what we have done and what we will be doing is in that extra year of delay in terms of implementation of the new model that has come about because we haven’t been able to get the Senate to pass the savings measures to put the new childcare model in place. What we will be doing is indexing the childcare rebate cap for the first time since Labor put a freeze on that, so actually we will be ensuring there is some extra support at the margins there to help families. It’s not all that we want to do which is why we have wholesale plans to change the childcare system from 2018 which will ensure that those families working the longest hours, get the greatest amount of support for their childcare costs. Those families earning the least amount of money get the greatest amount of money. Up to 85% of their childcare costs paid for without, for those families, any cap in relation to what those costs may be.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Simon Birmingham you know that I’ve watched this issue very closely for a long time and in the 2013 campaign I watched it very closely as Tony Abbott really raised expectations that he would deal with this childcare dilemma that people were having, commission a productivity commission report and deal with it. We are now at the next election with a further delay and no action. Do you concede that you’ve been deeply, not you personally, but certainly the Government, deeply, deeply disappointing in this area?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: This is an area of quite complex policy in terms of the way that the social welfare system interacts with people’s ability to participate in the workforce and we have gone through a very thorough process, perhaps it may have been better if it had all been able to be dealt with faster, but we wouldn’t have wanted to take any shortcuts. So, the productivity commission process sought to evaluate what the best things we could possibly do were, from that we have designed quite complex reforms, the biggest reforms to childcare payments the nation has ever seen to really come up with a new system that does apply an activity test to give priority, in terms of childcare support, to those families who are working, studying or volunteering that gives different rates of support so that low income earners get 85% of their childcare costs paid, low and middle income earners will be around $1,500 a year better off on the evidence of our reforms, so they are really positive changes. I wish we had been able to get the legislation through the Parliament in time for their implementation…

PATRICIA KARVELAS: But you didn’t do any compromising either because it was all around this link to the family tax benefit savings. You didn’t show any ability to compromise on any of those issues.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Unfortunately, the Labor party and the cross bench in the Senate didn’t show any ability…

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Sure, but you’re the Government right? You’re the Government and now you haven’t delivered the reforms you said you would.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: And we want to deliver those reforms and we will deliver those reforms. We’re frustrated that it has taken as long as it has because of the actions in the Senate and we will make sure that in the next Parliament we get a resolution, we get it through and that we do see the implementation of these changes because we know they’re very important to Australians. We don’t see any alternative policy from the Labor party when it comes to childcare. They’ve criticised the activity test, they’ve criticised the way in which some of the payments are structured, but they’ve offered no alternative to date. Ours is a very clear and detailed policy of reforming childcare that will, as I say, make sure the greatest amount of support goes to Australians working the longest hours and the greatest value of subsidy goes to Australians earning the least amount of money. It is a very fair and focussed reform.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: And I absolutely plan to hammer Labor about it as well given we have seen very little detail. So, you know, fairs fair and I can’t wait till I have Kate Ellis on next…

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: As you always are, Patricia!

PATRICIA KARVELAS: I’ll be speaking next with Nick Xenophon, he is waiting but, is it fair to say that he has the Liberals worried in South Australia, deeply worried, particularly in Jamie Briggs’ seat? He must be the most worried, it looks like you’re going to lose that seat, doesn’t it?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I don’t think that will happen at all. I’m quite confident that Jamie, who has delivered for his electorate in terms of local road transport infrastructure and other policies, will ultimately be returned, but we take nothing for granted in South Australia. South Australia’s economy is, in many ways, at the forefront of some of the transitional challenges the Australian economy faces and that is why our policies, particularly our defence industries policies, are delivering for South Australia and focussed on helping that transition in SA. I think we have a very potent and powerful message in South Australia because of the very positive economic policies of the Turnbull Government to get small and medium businesses growing as well which are of course a mainstay of the South Australian economy in particular, so I’m very hopeful and positive from my engagements out on the hustings in SA to date.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Senator, many thanks for your time.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: A pleasure, Patricia.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: That’s Simon Birmingham. He is the Liberal Senator for South Australia and he is also Education Minister.