PATRICIA KARVELAS: My first guest tonight is the Education Minister Simon Birmingham. Welcome to the program.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good evening Patricia, great to be with you.
KARVELAS: Bill Shorten says Labor can win, that was his message today, so what’s your view? Will the Coalition win on July the 2nd?
BIRMINGHAM: Well I’m confident that in the end the Australian people will recognise that our plan for jobs and growth, our plan to ensure that the economy keeps moving forward and that we create opportunities for all Australians, is one that the Australian people will back, they will recognise the benefits in that and they will see the risks in the Labor Party in terms of the enormous levels of spending that are being promised. The higher levels of taxation, the higher levels of deficit that ultimately will threaten of course, the future for many Australians in terms of their job security, the growth in our economy and ultimately of course, with a weaker economy it will finally threaten the delivery of services that are so important to all Australians.
KARVELAS: Okay, so Minister you think you will win. How big a win do you need to ensure stability? How big does the margin have to be for people to feel confident that Malcolm Turnbull will remain Prime Minister and there won’t be a destabilisation campaign?
BIRMINGHAM: I am very confident that we will be a stable government if we are re-elected, that we will go on to deliver the type of reforms that we’ve outlined in this election campaign, very transparently. That we will ensure that the Australian economy keeps putting its best foot forward, that we will manage to deal with all of the uncertainties that happen in the world as we look at discussions in Britain at present around their relationship with the EU and other uncertainties that we can’t predict at present.
I know that we will absolutely be a good, sound, stable government if we’re given that chance by the Australian people on July 2.
KARVELAS: Bill Shorten says this is a referendum on the future of Medicare, does that mean that the Labor Party is picking up in its focus groups, in all of its research, that you’re vulnerable on Medicare? That people don’t trust the Coalition on Medicare? How do you plan to combat that?
BIRMINGHAM: I think that means Bill Shorten is increasingly desperate to be frank, Patricia. To be running a completely baseless scare campaign, the likes of which he’s doing on Medicare, is a remarkable act for an Opposition Leader to roll out two weeks from the election. Frankly, Mr Shorten has not a skerrick of evidence with which to base his claims, the Government has been completely clear and consistent that we will not be making any changes to Medicare, whatsoever. That absolutely recognises its fundamentally important to Australians and really, after having spent tens of billions of dollars in promises across all different areas of government, Mr Shorten’s campaign has come down to this – a baseless scare campaign on Medicare, that’s the best he can do?
KARVELAS: Okay, but why has the Coalition today dumped a proposal to look at privatising the Medicare payment system – which of course, isn’t Medicare – I’m very well-aware that the Labor Party was trying to muddy the waters there, but it was the payment system being looked at, now you’ve said you’re not going to go ahead with it. If it was a good idea, why didn’t you stand your ground and argue for that option to still be an option that you looked at in Government?
BIRMINGHAM: Because Patricia there was never a proposal to privatise a part of Medicare. There’s an inter-departmental committee looking at how it can best upgrade 30 year-old technology in terms of how payment systems are made. That’s what’s existing there…
KARVELAS: [Talking over]…But now you’re not going to pursue it…
BIRMINGHAM: [Continuing] …[indistinct] apparently the evidence that was behind this baseless scare campaign of Mr Shorten’s. Of course we will get on with making sure we do upgrade the technology, as always needs to occur across government. That’s a problem that frankly – were the worst to happen and Mr Shorten be elected on July the 2nd, he’ll have to face the problem and deal with the problem too.
KARVELAS: Okay so how will you modernise it now? Because you’ve said you won’t privatise it – does that mean there’s no way the private sector will get its hands on modernising that system?
BIRMINGHAM: Well of course, when you go through a technology build and the types of reforms to those payment systems, they’re matters that departments work out in terms of the procurement processes and so forth and really, that’s getting into the weeds of the organisation and operation of actual…
KARVELAS: [Talking over]…well not really.
BIRMINGHAM: [Continuing]…rather than what the public see…
KARVELAS: [Interrupting]…If I can just politely interrupt, I’m just trying to figure out – what I’m just trying to figure out is, might that go into private hands? The streamlining of that back-end, is that still an option?
BIRMINGHAM: I think Malcolm Turnbull was crystal clear today when he said that every aspect of Medicare that people see and that are publicly operated at present will continue to be publicly operated and delivered in the future to ensure that people can have confidence in relation to Medicare. But they should also have confidence in relation to a whole range of other areas that the Labor Party are running scare campaigns on. As the Education Minister I find it remarkable that Labor keep going around the country trying to convince schools and others that the funding for those schools might go backwards from its current levels. Nothing of the sort will happen in the future. Whoever wins the election school funding will grow and yet Labor persist with these lies and mistruths and the Medicare campaign is just another one they’ve rolled out.
KARVELAS: Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has made his strongest comments yet on the Coalition’s university fee deregulation policy in that Facebook debate on Friday – at that very bad time of 6pm on a Friday, really I cannot believe that happened but look I digress – mounting the argument for allowing universities to set the fees for a select few courses to bring about flexibility and competition. So is it just an option, or will some courses be deregulated? Can you clarify once and for all?
BIRMINGHAM: Well there’s nothing new in what Malcolm Turnbull said on Friday, this was all outlined in our position paper that we released in relation to higher education at the time of the Budget just prior to the start of the election campaign and it’s been reported by education reporters and others that the Government has ruled out full-fee deregulation in relation to undergraduate programmes at university. We’ve guaranteed that nobody will have to pay a dollar upfront to go to university that will maintain the HELP or HECS system, depending on which generation you are as to what you know it as, that we yes, want to have a look at how we might liberate universities if you like for ‘flagship programmes’ that are based around innovation and excellence but relate to only a very small proportion of their student load. Less than 20 per cent, quite possibly significantly less than 20 per cent, but how we actually give the universities some scope and freedom to innovate and pursue differentiation between one another to compete with one another, and that’s something that I’ve been talking about endlessly as Education Minister but particularly in relation to that flagship concept since we released it in the Budget.
KARVELAS: But this was first revealed as first just a proposal in an options paper – you’re right, I remember it well – Treasurer Scott Morrison said that fee deregulation would not happen at all under a re-elected Coalition government though just last week, so which is it? Because he ruled it out completely.
BIRMINGHAM: Well I think Scott was talking about the proposal that had been there for full fee deregulation and we have ruled that out quite clearly. More than 80 per cent of undergraduate students in future will absolutely attend university under a fixed price regime, a price fixed by government by the Parliament essentially, so that guarantee is there. But we do want to preserve some scope so that a university that wants to run the best robotics course in the world can have confidence that it can invest in that course. It might only be for a very small number of students, but we want to encourage that degree of innovation and change and give our universities some freedom of scope to operate outside the hand of government.
Equally, our position paper that we released in the Budget still commits to looking at the expansion of places into the sub-bachelor programs, diplomas, associate degrees – really critical pathways for people to get into university that may well indeed be better pathways for those who are currently entering and failing. So we’re committed to higher education reform based on principles of equity and excellence.
KARVELAS: It sounds to me it’s not like, just a proposal, it sounds like you’ve endorsed that particular proposal in the options paper. It sounds like it’s your policy now.
BIRMINGHAM: Well the position paper is indeed our policy, but the position paper we put out there does seek feedback from the sector and others to outline how certain proposals work, if they will work effectively. So we will be guided by that. Now we’ve put some barriers around that where we’ve said full fee deregulation is off the table, where we’ve indicated if flagship courses were to proceed it would apply to certainly no more than 20 per cent of the student load and may well be significantly less. But these are things I’ve been speaking about to various interviewers over the last six, seven weeks since the Budget was released just as we are tonight. There’s nothing new in terms of the topics that are there and we have quite transparently laid this out for the Australian people to see and that’s what Mr Turnbull was reflecting on Friday night.
KARVELAS: Just want to take you to this marriage equality plebiscite which we will have if you do win on July the 2nd under your policy. Bill Shorten talked about this today and said that it was effectively a taxpayer-funded campaign of homophobia, what’s your response to that? I mean, are there risks to a campaign like this? And the Coalition’s said, you know, this is now the policy that you must stick to but there’ve been a number of other policies that Malcolm Turnbull has dumped that he inherited from Tony Abbott. Why not this one?
BIRMINGHAM: Well I think Mr Shorten really ought to moderate his language when he’s talking about how he thinks the plebiscite might be conducted. I hope and have faith that in the end the Australian people will conduct a sensible, measured debate and that’s what I would be encouraging everybody to do and ultimately that having done that we will have a more unifying outcome from that plebiscite in regards to marriage equality. You well know my views on this issue, they’ve been on the public record for a very long period of time now and I will be voting ‘yes’, Malcolm Turnbull said that he will be voting ‘yes’. We will of course urge every single Australian, whatever their position, to adopt careful, moderate language, argue the merits of the case indeed but respect the positions of their opponents.
KARVELAS: How can you ensure that it doesn’t get ugly then? I mean, what are the safeguards against a very, very ugly and perhaps dangerous campaign because that’s what some people fear. What’s your answer to those critics?
BIRMINGHAM: Well we must all lead by example and I think that Mr Shorten talking up, in a sense, the idea that this might be a place or an outlet for homophobia or vilification of any sort is of course unacceptable. We should be giving a clear and consistent message to the Australian people that we are happy to have a debate but it must be a respectful debate.
KARVELAS: Simon Birmingham, thanks for joining us. You think you’re going to win on July 2nd so I suppose I’ll speak to you again as Minister if [indistinct]…
BIRMINGHAM: I believe the Australian people will see merit in our policies but you’re the commentator and you can make the predictions Patricia.
KARVELAS: I’m the journalist in this case but okay, you can call me a commentator. Thank you so much for joining us.
BIRMINGHAM: A pleasure, cheers.