Subject: (Education Green Paper; Citizenship Act Reform)


PATRICIA KARVELAS: Assistant Minister for Education and Training, Senator Simon Birmingham joins me now; welcome to the program.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good afternoon Patricia, good afternoon to your listeners.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Now Minister, this morning you said, and I quote “we don’t want to pre-empt the outcome of the federation white paper” but pretty quickly, Christopher Pyne ruled it out and in question time the Prime Minister backed him. Why have they ruled it out? You wanted a fuller debate, didn’t you?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: No Patricia, look it’s clear that of course the Labor Party and some other where hell bent on running a scare campaign around one sentence in one option of what is a far broader discussion paper that is part of a much, much broader reform agenda in relation to how the federation operates. So, it makes perfect sense to make it crystal clear that we’re not proposing a situation where people will not be able to access public schools as has always been the case. What we are having a look at is how you get rid of inefficiencies in the school funding system, how you make sure that Australians have clarity around who is responsible for what so that governments of whatever persuasion as whatever level can be held to account for getting the best possible outcome for students in to the future. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: So you’re saying Labor started a scare campaign and you got scared? 

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: No Patricia, I’m simply saying that we actually want to keep the focus on the big issues, not around one sentence essentially in one option of a far, far broader discussion agenda and I think it’s unfortunate that the Labor Party decided to blow this out of all proportion and we had many hysterical claims from them and the Greens and others in relation to this that have continued throughout the day despite the emphatic comments of Christopher Pyne and the Prime Minister and myself in the Senate during the course of today, but I would urge Australians to realise what this discussion is about is relating to the reform of the federation, having a proper engaging discussion between the Commonwealth government and all of the states and territories about how we get the responsibilities right, how we get away from a situation where there continues to be confusion about who is responsible for funding what, whether it’s in health or education or indigenous affairs or many different levels and I was pleased, frankly Patricia, to see today the Jay Weatherill, the Labor Premier of South Australia, to a far more sensible approach than his federal colleagues. He acknowledged, and quoting him, he said “it’s only a discussion paper, we’ve been asking them to canvas the broader range of options, there’s a broad debate going on about Commonwealth-state relations which is a good thing” thank you Jay Weatherill for being sensible, it’s a shame federal Labor couldn’t be equally as sensible. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: This is a green paper from the department of Prime Minister and Training. It recommends four options. I’ll put the other ones to you that aren’t ruled out, as far as I understand, what do you make of the proposal, for instance, to give the states and territories full responsibility for all schools?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well Patricia I think it’s important to say that what we’ve been clear on today is we’re not having an option that entails a situation where people could not access public school education. Now, of course running public schools is a matter for the states and territories, so we don’t even have the power necessarily to control that, but it’s certainly not the Commonwealth’s policy to have that situation, but four options remain possible if you want to look at it that way, from one extreme of the Commonwealth adopting all funding responsibility to another extreme of the states adopting complete funding responsibility to various hybrid models in between that could see continued partnership agreements in certain ways or the Commonwealth taking sectoral responsibility for non-government schools while the states maintain responsibility for government schools. They are all scenarios…

PATRICIA KARVELAS: …So you say all four are on the table still, but the Prime Minister has ruled one of them out with the detail of one of them…

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: …The Prime Minister has ruled out very clearly and the government rules out and stands by the fact that we will not be having a situation where people cannot access government schools as has been the case accepted around Australia for a long time. That’s not the federal government’s policy, that is not something we would be encouraging any of the states or territories to do…

PATRICIA KARVELAS: …How about if you can prove that wealthy…the children of wealthy families will still have access to that school and that they can afford it? I’m just trying to find out are you at all willing to entertain this as a concept, that they would pay a top up payment.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: No Patricia because we are not going to let what is a far bigger reform agenda be distracted by this type of issue. It’s really important that we focus on how we get effective accountability lines in relation to education. Most Australians would be horrified to know that government funding around school education grew by around 37% in real terms over the decade from 2002-03 to 2012-13 yet in that time our performance has gone backwards. We have fewer high achievers and more low performers than we did a decade ago, so what’s really important and what a lot of our government policy agenda is distinct from what’s happening in the federation white paper discussion, what our government policy is focussed on is how we actually deliver on means that improve student outcomes by getting better quality teaching, better parental engagement, greater school autonomy, a more robust and relevant curriculum, they’re our policy objectives as a government and at the same time on a holistic level, the government is looking at the federation and wanting to make sure we get all of these funding responsibilities right.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: What do you make of states and territories being fully responsible for funding public schools while the federal government funds non-government schools? Is that something you think would work?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well Patricia, in a sense there’s a degree of that that occurs today in that the states and territories do provide the bulk of funding for the government schools whilst the Commonwealth government has, for decades now, provided the bulk of funding for non-government schools. That, of course, is something that I would expect as with all of the different options that are available will be canvassed by the Prime Minister when he sits down with state and territory leaders who agreed at the last COAG meeting to have a retreat to talk about all of these issues, how schools, how vocational education and training, how the universities sector is treated, early learning, health care, indigenous affairs, housing, homelessness, all of these different overlapping areas of the federation are on the table. This is a conversation that is long overdue and, as I said before, I’m just pleased that it seems the states and territories are approaching it in a far more mature and engaging way than we’ve seen the federal opposition do so today.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: I have a text message here from Don and I want to put it to you. What about Gonski? No one has mentioned Gonski, can we assume it’s dead?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Patricia, we’ve delivered the funding that was in the forward estimates. A record $69.5 billion to schools over the next four years…

PATRICIA KARVELAS: …sure, but that’s for four years. After that you don’t support the Gonski funding model…

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: After that we are continuing to grow funding. That will be a matter that will partly be influenced by, of course, this federation white paper discussion in terms of where the final scope of responsibility settles and of course, importantly, as part of that federation white paper discussion we are having a look with the states at revenue implications. So, again I know the Labor Party are likely to say that one of these options says the states should do it all and the Commonwealth would rip funding away. Well that is just another element of scare campaigning here, when the truth is that the terms of reference for the reform of the federation white paper make clear that we need to address the issue of state governments raising appropriate revenue for their responsibilities. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: But your government is cutting money from schools. You’ve changed the way that the funding grows which means essentially it doesn’t grow at the same level it would have under Labor, that’s true, isn’t it?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: No Patricia, we delivered on everything that was in the forward estimates. We topped it up with an additional $1.2 billion that the previous government had taken out so that we weren’t treating some jurisdictions inequitably compared to others and yes, we then committed to having further growth in the future, elements of which will be informed by this process on the reform of the federation and of course by continued discussions with the states and territories about what future partnership agreements may or may not look like if that is the approach that’s taken in the future. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Why shouldn’t those with more capacity to pay, pay more to send their kids to school?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well people with greater income do already, of course, pay a much greater share of the tax base of Australia in any event, so you do have the reality, and it’s often missed in debates about funding, but you do have the reality that Australia’s high income earners do pay more to subsidise all elements of government expenditure, whether it’s our defence forces, whether it’s our school systems, whether it’s our hospital systems, that is where a significant base of funding comes from, so people are already making that extra investment. There is an accepted understanding in Australia that people will have access to the public education system and as a government we’re not changing the policy on that.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: On the citizenship bill, which we haven’t seen yet but we’ve been told it will be tabled on Wednesday, has the Immigration Minister’s proposed power to remove citizenship from dual citizens been removed in the bill?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Patricia, I have not yet seen the bill. I’m sure it will come to the party room possibly as early as tomorrow. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Are you confident with the concept of the Minister having this power or would you prefer to see a changing of section 35 of the Citizenship Act? Which is the other proposal that’s been floated today?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM:  I want to see the legislation. I’m comfortable and confident that we’ve had a proper process in terms of considering how we actually reform this to achieve an outcome that is as robust as possible in terms of how it will stand up in the courts. I’m confident that on our side of politics there’s always been unity of purpose and principle which is that we don’t want dual citizen holders, we don’t want people engaged in terrorist activity who happen to be dual citizen holders to be able to be able to come back to Australia if that is at all preventable. We haven’t had the same clarity of principle and purpose from the opposition, they may have moved someway in that regard in the last day or two, but if you can trust Mark Dreyfus saying “We want to bring them home” that’s not been our principle, it’s not been our policy and we’re now looking to make sure we get the strongest possible legislation to enact that principle and policy.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Simon, thanks for joining us.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Always a pleasure.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: and that’s Assistant Minister for Education and Training, Simon Birmingham.