Kieran Gilbert: Joining me now the Education Minister Simon Birmingham live from Adelaide. Senator Birmingham thank you for joining us for the first time this year, it’s good to see you. First of all, your thoughts on these talks at the White House; how significant for a new Prime Minister meeting with President Obama at the end of his second term in the White House.

Simon Birmingham:  Well good morning Kieran and happy New Year to you and the team and your viewers. These are of course critically important discussions for Prime Minister Turnbull. Australia has really no stronger relationship than our relationship with the United States of America which is economically, militarily and strategically of critical importance to us. It’s also of course incredibly strong and robust and enduring, and I’ve no doubt that the Prime Minister, building on his engagements with President Obama through a number of the multilateral fora he visited last year will indeed have positive discussions dealing with some of those defence issues that you were touching on there with Dan, as well as the economic challenges that the world faces.

This of course comes on the back of having built strong relations already with a number of critical leaders, including in our region, such as with the Indonesian President, and of course the discussions over the last couple of days with the Iraqi Prime Minister and Afghani President, which are critical given the troops we have on the ground in both those nations.

Kieran Gilbert: Now, my understanding is that the Australians have sought to have this meeting ASAP, rather than letting it drift later into the year but before Parliament sat, and there’s been a bit of speculation around the place that that might then be the precursor to Mr Turnbull coming back and calling an election for March. This morning the Treasurer Scott Morrison playing down that prospect; he described it as speculation of the silly season, and the Prime Minister himself has said that we’re heading to an election in September. Where is this at, is it still a live option, the early election?

Simon Birmingham:  I fully expect the Government will run full term, and that of course takes us through to around about September. I think the Prime Minister is keen of course this year to focus very much on the domestic challenges that Australia faces, and so it makes sense to make sure that early in the year he does as much of the international work as possible, so that for the remainder of the year he can be very focused and disciplined in looking at of course the domestic issues we face going into that election campaign where we really will have a debate about who is best equipped to guide the Australian economy into the future. To ensure that we have the type of innovation necessary to transition from the mining boom into a sustaining and successful economy in the future.

Who do you trust best to make sure that we actually have an economy and a tax system that is inviting for business and investment, and creates jobs in the future, and they’re the types of issues that Malcolm and the Government will want to be really focused on throughout this year, and we’ll be presenting clear and bold plans to the Australian people to make sure that we are taking the economy in a direction that creates jobs, maintains a high standard of living for Australians, creates the type of environment where business and investment can grow in Australia, because that’s the only way that we can continue to maintain the type of standards that we’ve historically enjoyed in our wonderful country.

Kieran Gilbert: That’s the message you want to prosecute; as you know though in politics there are often distractions. We’ve seen a few of them over the summer break for the Government, and most recently relating to the pre-selection of a couple of conservative Liberals, Angus Taylor, the Member for Hume, and also suggestions in The Australian today that Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, her spot on the top of the senate ticket in New South Wales could be under threat, and Eric Abetz has lashed out at the culture of the New South Wales Liberal Party, describing it as a party of political hacks and backroom schemers. He’s not happy with the merger(*) New South Wales against those two Sydney members of Parliament. What do you make of where those developments – given, as I say, both respected, and in the case of Angus Taylor, certainly someone believed to be of very high ministerial calibre down the track?

Simon Birmingham:  Look, these are very good colleagues, these are friends, and I think they are colleagues who make a great contribution. But ours is a democratic party where we are all open from time to time to facing challenge from other members who may think that they have something to offer within the Parliament. That’s the democratic nature of the Liberal Party, and we don’t have the type of union control, where union hacks are simply placed in roles like the Labor Party does. Now the New South Wales division has sent some incredibly good representatives to Canberra over the years. The New South Wales division has enjoyed two very strong and successful consecutive state election victories, and is delivering strong Government to the state of New South Wales. So I think we have a high performing division in New South Wales. How they conduct their pre-selections really is a matter for the administration and the organisation of the New South Wales division, just as it is for any other division of the Liberal Party around the country.

What’s important though is that none of these issues will distract the attention of the Cabinet and our policy focus for the country in terms of that innovation agenda which Malcolm Turnbull has championed, in terms of our focus on building the best possible tax system for the future in Australia, in terms of the hard work of trying to bring the budget back toward balance, recognising that will be a long and challenging task. And we’ll keep focused very much and squarely on the issues as a team working in Canberra, and those administrative matters are things that the party organisation takes care of.

Kieran Gilbert: Let me ask you about this report on literacy and numeracy – this is by the Australian Industry Group. It’s quite a worry; 44 per cent of Australian adults not having a level of literacy and numeracy at a level considered to be the minimum to operate in the workplace.

Simon Birmingham:  Look, it is a real concern Kieran, and it’s certainly anecdotal feedback that I’ve received over time from many employers, and it’s why as a Government we’re focused on some of the things in education policy that we know make the most profound difference to the outcomes for students. Areas like teacher quality standards, the national curriculum, and indeed the way in which we make sure that students are best delivered the type of learning environment in the classroom. And so through the Innovation Agenda we’re investing more in making sure that the best technology, the best resources are available for teachers. Through our teacher quality reforms we are putting in place a test that will apply from this year that ensures that every single new teacher graduate around the country must be within the top 30 per cent of all Australians for their literacy and numeracy standard, because we know that we must have the best quality teachers, and teachers who are able to demonstrate their competency in literacy and numeracy to be able to pass that on to students in the future.

Kieran Gilbert: But did you think it was this bad, as Education Minister? You spoke of the anecdotal feedback you’re receiving, but this sort of number is quite shocking.

Simon Birmingham:  Look, this type of research is quite concerning and will certainly cause me as the Minister to want to double down in terms of the work that we need to do to maintain that focus on teacher quality. To also ensure that we build a stronger narrative around parental engagement, which is also one of the key things that can improve outcomes for students from their schooling lives, that type of engagement in early years through reading to your children, engagement with your children through their schooling. These are critical factors that complement the hard work of our teachers in the classroom. So it’s not something that is solved by one single silver bullet; it requires a multi-faceted approach to get the curriculum right, get the quality of our teachers right, ensure we have the best possible engagement from parents, and these are all pillars in the Government’s education agenda.

Kieran Gilbert: Senator Simon Birmingham, Education Minister, appreciate it, we’ll chat to you soon. Thank you for that.

Simon Birmingham:  Absolute pleasure, Kieran.

Senator Birmingham’s media contact:
                  James Murphy 0478 333 974
                                                                                    Nick Creevey 0447 644 957
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