Subject: (Greek Economy; Education Funding; Marriage Equality)


KRISTINA KENEALLY: Tonight we’re joined by Liberal Senator, Simon Birmingham. Of course, he is the Assistant Minister for Education and Training, he joins us out of Canberra, Senator Birmingham, thank you for being on Monday Politics. 

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good evening Kristina, great to be with you and now I’m wishing that I’d picked the bright pink tie out of the wardrobe!

KRISTINA KENEALLY: You, Senator, are allowed to wear a Liberal Party-Blue tie because you are, of course, a member of the Liberal Party. I do want to get to your portfolio in a moment, but I want to start with some comments you made earlier today on Sky News when you talked about the Greek economy and the Australian economy. You said that it’s particularly important, when you look at the result of the Greek referendum and uncertainty on the other side of the world, that we have strong levels of confidence in Australia, but Australia’s levels of confidence took a massive hit last year following the first Abbott-Hockey Budget. We’ve still got unemployment with a six in front of it, consumer confidence did decline last month and business remains frustrated that we don’t have sufficient plans to grow productivity. Isn’t the biggest threat to confidence in Australia remain that the Abbott Government doesn’t have a plan for budget repair?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: No, far from it, Kristina. The latest ANZ survey of consumer confidence shows strong consumer confidence in Australia. Our latest research on business confidence shows strong business confidence particularly on the back of the last budget with its real focus on driving investment by small business and growthing our small business sector. There is a sense that we are getting good results from the economy now, that our economy is far better insulated than elsewhere around the world and part of that is because we do have a credible pathway back to surplus as well; that most of the budget measures from last year’s budget did pass through, we’ve had some significant advances in the period since this year’s budget in getting some other measures through, such as measures around the fuel excise and around some pension reforms which are very important for the long term trajectory for the budget. So the outlook in Australia is a positive one, we are well placed in relation to Greece, where we have limited exposure to a country like Greece, but of course, we’re watching the situation closely, we’re watching how the European community responds to it and we’ll keep monitoring it. But I think what we’ve done over the course of the last 18 months or so as a Government, in repairing the budget, in getting us in shape where we’re headed back towards having surplus budgets, is far, far better placed Australia than was the case prior to the election of the Abbott Government.

KRISTINA KENEALLY: Well prior to the election, then Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, said that a debt to GDP ratio, then of about 12%, was a debt and deficit disaster that matched the scale of the problems in Europe. Last year he told us that a ratio of debt to GDP of 50-60% was looking pretty good, as it was around the world. How can you sit here and tell me that we’ve got a path back to surplus, when we’ve seen debt and deficit blow out under the Abbott Government?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Kristina, because despite the dramatic fall we’ve seen in commodity prices we’ve seen over the last year that has wiped billions of dollars off of the revenue projections for the government, we are seeing an improvement in the budget bottom line every year through the forward estimates, it is moving back towards surplus and many of the difficult decisions we’ve taken are demonstrating that they will provide an improved budget decision in to the future. This year’s budget wasn’t just about dealing with the deficit, important though that is, this year’s budget was about encouraging investment by small business, was about boosting business confidence and consumer confidence and we’re seeing that play out in all of the economic evidence. We’ve also seen strong uplift in jobs growth, now; do we think that is strong enough yet? No. We know there is always more work to be done and we will keep focussing on how to grow jobs, but we have seen significantly faster jobs growth under the Abbott Government than was the case under the last year of the Rudd and Gillard Government and that’s picked up again this year and I’m confident that on the back of the recent budget and the small business lift that that’s providing, that we’ll see even greater jobs growth as a result of that.

KRISTINA KENEALLY: Well you mentioned there about the small business lift and certainly that’s been welcomed right across the board, the budget measures that help small business; but we haven’t really seen yet a lift in the Government’s polling. I’ve got to take you to the polling today because it does appear that the Government still remains in an election losing position and despite what many people would admit was a pretty abysmal parliamentary session for the Leader of the Opposition, we still have a Prime Minister who remains quite unpopular and a Government now who trails, now for 26 Newspolls on the two party preferred, what does the Government need to do to reverse this situation?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Kristina, I’m a firm believer that good policy leads to good election outcomes. The election is still a long way off. It’s not due until the second half of next year and I’m confident that what we’re doing in terms of providing that confidence to consumers, that confidence to small business, the incentive for businesses in Australia to invest, the opening up of Australian trade markets with free trade agreements with China, Japan and Korea, all of these measures as well as the budget repair task we’re undertaking will mean that when Australians stop and properly look at the situation in the lead up to next year’s election, they will have the confidence to back the Abbott Government, that they will see we’ve taken difficult decisions, sometimes unpopular decisions, but they will see that they are delivering results, that we will have a stronger budget position than would otherwise be the case, that we are better placed to withstand crises like those evolving in Europe as a result of Greece…

KRISTINA KENEALLY: …I’ve got to jump in there, Senator, isn’t the budget position going to improve of the back of bracket creep? Which one day Joe Hockey says he needs to do something about, but really, if you look forward in the forward estimates, it’s bracket creep that’s going to help this Government recover any sense of a surplus or hope of a surplus in the coming years.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: The budget position is impacted by a range of factors and the policy decisions we’ve taken to make the pension system more sustainable improve the budget position. The difficult policy decisions we’ve taken around fuel excise make the budget more sustainable. The elimination of Government waste and the smaller Government agenda we’ve applied make the Budget more sustainable. Economic growth, yes, lifts tax revenue over a period of time as well and that’s something that all Governments rely up on. We, of course, hope and intend to work to a position where the Budget shifts in to surplus and we can count on it giving dividends back to Australians, just as the Howard Government did so successfully once it addressed the Budget problems during those years. So ultimately, we hope to address bracket creep, we hope to ensure we can reduce taxes in certain parts of the economy and people should never forget that we have eliminated the carbon tax, without which, electricity prices would be around 9% higher across Australia; that’s a significant cut to the cost of living for Australian households and a boost to the competitiveness of Australian businesses. So, we’re trying to tackle cost of living pressures at the same time as deal with this Budget position which is important to make sure that Australia can withstand economic shocks, be they a dramatic downturn in the iron ore price, in the prices we’re getting for the commodities we sell to export markets like China or be they a completely external shock like what’s happening in Greece and Europe at present. 

KRISTINA KENEALLY: Let me take you to your portfolio and an area where taxpayer funding does seem to be continuing somewhat generously and that’s, of course, taxpayer funding for private schools which reports today say has grown twice as fast as it has for Government schools. This is data that’s come out of the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority showing that federal, state and territory Government funding for independent and catholic schools grew by 23% on a per student basis between 2009 and 2013, whereas taxpayer funding for Government schools grew by just 12.5% over that same period. As Assistant Minister, does this concern you?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well Kristina, I’m confident that we have the right policy settings there. If you look at the Budget estimates from this year for what our Government is delivering and through the life of the period 2014 to 2017, the per student funding, when you put it all together from the Commonwealth Government for those attending Government schools, increases around 31 or 32%, whereas for those attending non-government schools in the catholic or independent sector, it’s around 17%, so what you actually have in terms of what is being delivered under this Government, is a significant lift, a very big lift in per student funding in the Government sector. Now, over the years you’ve seen growth in overall funding to the non-government sector because more parents have voted with their feet and shifted to the non-government sector and of course funding has shifted with those students. But we should never forget that those parents are making an investment, those parents are saving taxpayers money because the subsidy for students outside of the Government sector is less than it is for students within the Government sector, and they’re making an investment of their own cash on top of that. It’s important, as in Australia, that we do have student choice and parental choice when it comes to education and I think we have the policy settings right there that give funding support to those in the Government sector, of a very significant level, and then to those in the non-government sector, of a slightly reduced level than that, that is supplemented and complimented by those parental contributions.

KRISTINA KENEALLY: Ok, I’m not trying to make an argument against private schools and I agree that they do provide a service and a well-used service by many parents in community, but critics of these figures that came out today, to be fair, they did acknowledge that these figures didn’t address or include the needs based funding that’s in the Gonski model and that will pour some $10 billion extra in to disadvantaged schools, but the Abbott Governments cut short that original six year agreement by two years. Shouldn’t the Government be looking to direct more funds to public schools which do teach far more disadvantaged students?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well look, we do direct more funds where there are students of disadvantage and one of the reasons why there has been a bit of a growth in recent years in funding to say, the catholic sector, is because there has been significant growth in the catholic sector of acceptance of students from low income backgrounds, from Indigenous backgrounds and with that goes greater funding in a number of cases, so there are those factors at play. I think the other thing from a federal Government perspective, that your viewers should be very aware of, is that growth in school funding over recent decades has been enormous, yet we’ve seen declining outcomes across the education system which is why our approach to education policy is, yes, to deliver the funding that is required but also to ensure that we lift parental engagement, that we improve teacher quality, that we focus on effective curriculum standards and relevant national curriculum, these are the types of things that are about improving outcomes, not just continuing a debate about funding, which is where education debates in Australia have all too often gotten bogged down. 

KRISTINA KENEALLY: You make a very fair point and as someone who has led a State Government and had to deal with education systems, I’m going to back you in that it is a far more broader issue than just the funding. I want to take you though, in the few minutes we have left, to some comments made today by one of your Senate colleagues, all be it across the other side of the aisle, Senator Penny Wong, who had some fairly firm words for your other colleague, Senator Eric Abetz, pointing out that language that claims that gay marriage would be hurting the children of same sex couples is illogical and offensive. Now, you’re position on same sex marriage, your support for it is well known, what advice would you give to some of your colleagues, such as Senator Abetz, as this debate unfolds over the coming weeks?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look Kristina, I’ve always argued for us to make sure that this is a respectful debate and that is what I hope and trust will be the case. Now, over the next few weeks while the Parliament is not sitting, my focus will be on the Government’s priorities in my portfolio, priorities in education as well as in economic development and national security, but when the Parliament returns, I’m sure this matter will obviously be discussed in the Party room at some stage, when I make my contribution I’ll be very respectful of the differing views of others and I trust and hope that that will be reciprocated.

KRISTINA KENEALLY: Now, I want to finish on a sombre note, but I think an important one. You’re a Senator from South Australia, you’re an Adelaide Crows fan, you must have been devastated by the death of coach, Phil Walsh. What are your observations on the fans and how the South Australian community have dealt with this very sad news over the weekend?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: It certainly was a huge, huge shock to everyone and personally I was quite shocked when I got a message and heard the news. Look, I think the club, to its credit, brought 20,000 fans, it’s estimated, together yesterday for a very low key memorial, but I’m told by those who were there, a very touching memorial and that was really valuable I think to give people that outlet. Of course, it’s a terrible human tragedy for Phil Walsh’s family, it’s a terrible reminder of the impact that domestic violence in all of its manifestations can have on different families. But the club itself, like all footy communities, will group together, will pick up and will move on while doing what it can for the Walsh family at a terrible, terrible time for them.