Patricia Karvelas: My first guest tonight has been in the spotlight all week managing a backlash against a review of the anti-homophobia Safe Schools program. The Government finally responded to that review on Friday and the response has satisfied many of the dissenting MPs. Education Minister Simon Birmingham, welcome.
Simon Birmingham: G’day Patricia, great to be with you.
Patricia Karvelas: You are a senator and a cabinet minister, is the Senate so unworkable that a double dissolution is necessary, would you like to see one?
Simon Birmingham: The Senate has been quite dysfunctional in many different ways during the life of this parliament and I guess that was highlighted in all its not-so-glorious state at the end of this week during the very ridiculous debate we saw around changing the Senate election laws, which of course was to put in place laws that the Labor Party had recommended themselves less than 12 months previously and yet they fought tooth and nail to stop it and were aided and abetted by a hotch-potch of Senate independents and crossbenchers who gave far more passion I guess to a debate to try to save and preserve voting laws than many of them have given to how we might fix the Budget deficit or constructively actually work as a parliament to grow the economy.
Patricia Karvelas: So you’ve just described them as a hotch-potch, you’ve described them as a hotch-potch so I think I can read into that- would you like to see a double dissolution so there’s less hotch-potch in the Senate?
Simon Birmingham: We will work with whatever the Senate is but we don’t want to have an earlier election than is necessary and will only go to a double dissolution if it is going to ultimately give us the best capacity to put in place fundamental reforms, particularly to deal with union corruption but yes hopefully it might also, if it occurs, leave a more workable senate in place and one frankly that is more representative of the true democratic will of Australians than one comprised of people who were elected on the basis of backroom deals and stitch ups.
Patricia Karvelas: Greens leader Richard di Natale has accused Coalition leaders opposed to the Safe Schools program of having a problem with children who are struggling with issues of gender and sexuality. Now I know you’ve already rebutted this, but are you really saying that some of the comments made by MPs in the last week were not homophobic or were not offensive?
Simon Birmingham: Look I wouldn’t have put some of the things that have been said in the course of this debate the way that others have and frankly that probably applies to both sides…
Patricia Karvelas: [Interrupts] Give me an example of something you wouldn’t have said. What is something you found offensive.
Simon Birmingham: No, no, Patricia, that probably applies to both sides of the debate but probably more importantly I would much rather have had much of this debate conducted behind closed doors, rather than occurring out in the public but my view is that people, generally speaking, and I think especially my colleagues came to it with the best of intentions, not always perhaps putting it as I said, the way I would but came to it with the best of intentions, wanting to ensure that all Australian children were protected. Now some have I guess a greater level of concern about whether they are being protected from what is seen as inappropriate content on certain websites and those types of things, others of course particularly concerned about ensuring tolerance is promoted in schools. In the end my job as education minister was to deal with all of those competing interests and come out with the right outcome for Australian school children and I’m confident that is where we’ve landed.
Patricia Karvelas: So why did you go further than the review recommended in that case?
Simon Birmingham: Because the review was very specific in terms of looking purely at the content of the official resources developed to be taught in the classroom. There were equally though concerns expressed quite widely about the content of website that were recommended and the like. Now I didn’t ask Professor Bill Louden from the University of Western Australia to go off and look at other extraneous web content because that of course A) would have taken a lot more time, B) would be kind of pointless because internet content can change minute by minute and day by day. Ultimately my view was that those other concerns could be dealt with outside of the Louden review by simply putting in place clear rules which is what we’re now seeking to do that say the only internet links or external organisations that should be listed in these school materials are those that refer children off to counselling services, mental health services and the like.
Patricia Karvelas: That’s right, Minister, if you could just let me interrupt, one of those groups Minus 18, are you familiar with their work? What is your view on the work that they do?
Simon Birmingham: Look I’m not deeply familiar with their work and I’m not going to give a running commentary. I know they’ve been a topic of much debate in this regard. In the end, my view is that we should produce resources for teachers and school children that allow them to promote tolerance and inclusion and understanding in the classroom, provide one-on-one counselling to students who may need it and refer them off to government-funded services that provide mental health counselling or other support services directly to the students who need it. That’s really the crux of this matter.
Patricia Karvelas: The Victorian Government says that it won’t be making changes and wants to roll it out on its own. Will you intervene if you think that some of these resources are inappropriate, do you think it’s appropriate that Victoria would have it in Victorian schools?
Simon Birmingham: Well I think that’s a matter the Victorian Government’s going to have to answer. I would say to the Victorian Government and frankly to Bill Shorten, the Federal Opposition and all other critics since Friday’s announcement that rather than sweeping statements, some of them should actually come out and say which of the particular reforms that we’ve announced do they actually disagree with. Do they disagree with us limiting the internet content that’s available to children? Do they disagree with us giving parents a greater say? Do they disagree with us fixing the areas of the classroom lessons that Professor Louden found may not be appropriate for all children? It’s one thing to come out and say well this is outrageous that the Government is somehow changing this program but in what way is it outrageous? Which parts of what I think are carefully measured reforms that Australian parents would widely welcome and accept as being reasonable measures while still preserving the absolute integrity of this program, we resisted calls for it to be axed, we resisted calls to cut funding I made sure that we preserved the core of this program and frankly I think the changes we’re applying will strengthen it and ensure that it is more likely to be used across more schools over a longer period of time into the future.
Patricia Karvelas: Arthur Sinodinos said this morning something really interesting that the PM will be able to stamp his own authority, his own legacy if he wins in a number of areas. What kind of areas do you think the Prime Minister might be able to stamp his authority in that he’s been unable to? Would debates like this for instance shift under a Malcolm Turnbull win if he wins the election?
Simon Birmingham: I think mandates generally are important things and to be really honest, probably one of the challenges that the Abbott Government faced in its first budget in particular was an absence for a mandate around some of the key reforms that were put there, so a re-elected Turnbull Government that goes to an election with clear policies around competition policy reform, where we’re at odds with the Labor Party, we’re standing up for small business and the right of small business and competition and strangely they’re standing up for big business through this whether it’s in relation to future tax policy and the reforms that we will have, particularly providing more incentives for investment, in startup businesses, lower capital gains tax for those startup businesses, versus a Labor Party that’s proposing more capital gains tax, all of those things provide mandates in the budget solution, in fixing the deficit problems that we have, there will absolutely be some challenging things that we will put to the electorate to make sure that we have support for those.
Patricia Karvelas: [Interrupts] But on social policy will we see a different Malcolm Turnbull, will we see a different Malcolm Turnbull in the social area?
Simon Birmingham: Well I think Malcolm Turnbull is exactly who Malcolm Turnbull is when it comes to social policy. People have a reasonable instinct that Malcolm Turnbull differs from Tony Abbott in a number of ways. Now as a re-elected prime minister, he of course will have certain authority that comes with that office. But I think the main thing and I’m sure the main thing that Arthur Sinodinos was talking about this morning is really that you use an election to secure a mandate to fix the things and to do the things that you want to achieve as a government and that’s certainly what Malcolm and the team are focussed on.
Patricia Karvelas: Let’s get to your child care reforms. You blame the Greens and the Labor Party for stalling them today. Will you put them at the top of the agenda then when parliament resumes? Will you try to get them through?
Simon Birmingham: We have a number of competing interests and I think in relation to a double dissolution before we mentioned the Australia Building and Construction Commission cleaning up union corruption which is right up there at the top of the Government’s list because that is an important economic reform. The hesitancy around putting child care reforms rapidly to the Parliament is that Labor and the Greens and the crossbench all say that they oppose the savings measures that are required to get these reforms implemented.
Patricia Karvelas: So isn’t it your job then to negotiate a different path to make sure that parents do get this enormous child care package which clearly many families are crying out for?
Simon Birmingham: And I would welcome offers from any of those parties as to how it is that they think that we can come up with the money to suitably pay for the child care reforms that yes I think are very important. We are proposing the biggest recalibration of child care subsidies and payments in the nation’s history and dramatically reengineering them to steer them towards those who earn the least and work the hardest and that’s the type of reform I would have thought that everyone would welcome the Labor Party instead has nit-picked aspects of our reforms but more fundamentally they stand opposed to the savings measures that are required for us to make this $3 billion additional investment into the nation’s child care. Now we’ve worked and tried to work with Senate crossbenchers in relation to these savings measures. Scott Morrison has, Christian Porter has, I have, ultimately this has been to no avail and it is potentially one of those areas were we will need to seek a mandate at the next election.
Patricia Karvelas: So you think this is- you’re not going to pass it before the election, you’re going to have to go and take is as policy to the election?
Simon Birmingham: Well I have to deal with realpolitik and if the numbers in the Senate are not there for us to get the savings through that these reforms are contingent upon, then of course we’ll have to look to take it to the election. That’s essentially the choice we have, we can either put it to the Parliament, have it defeated and then abandon it or we can accept that it’s not going to pass the Parliament and try to seek a mandate for the entire package and hope that we can have more success in the next parliament get it implemented then as quickly as we possibly can following that election whenever it may be.
Patricia Karvelas: Simon Birmingham before you leave, you said something in the papers which I really was excited about as a working mother of young children: are you really going to extend the school day so that I don’t have to be stressed everyday at 3.30?
Simon Birmingham: Well I was asked that question on the back I think of some reforms out of the UK and some debate there and I said I would welcome the discussion here and importantly because a lot of people in the education sector get worked up about what does this mean? Now firstly it’s a very open conversation to have with the states, territories and non-government sector about what could be possible. Secondly what is looked at overseas often is can you put some of the physical education aspects, arts aspects, other things into good lumps of time at the end of what is the traditional end of school day, so you’re not necessarily saying we can take young children and drag out the school day longer and expect you’re still going to get the same time. Australia’s school day by OECD averages is actually a touch longer than the average so we don’t do bad in that sense but there are other models that perhaps make greater use of outside school hours care (*) time to provide some of the extracurricular type activities that aren’t at the core of reading writing arithmetic, the things that people usually think about in the learning component of the school day.
Patricia Karvelas: Minister I’d like to hear more about it. Thank you for joining us tonight.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks Patricia, great to be with you.