Subject: Education Policy; South Australians in Cabinet; Leadership Change


I’m joined by the Minister for Education and Training, Senator Simon Birmingham; Senator, thank you so much for your time. Can I first ask you, what will change under you as Education Minister?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well Good afternoon, Laura, it’s great to be with you. We are a government now, under Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership, that is focussed on creating an optimistic vision and future for Australia and really in the Education and Training space that is about making sure that our schools, our early learning, our universities and vocational training are all focussed very much on delivering people the types of skills that are required to deal with the economic and industrial adjustment we’re facing in a world where global dislocation of jobs because of technological change and so on is coming at us at rapid pace. Really focussing in on how we ensure training and education is relevant for the jobs, not just of today, but of the future is a critical aspiration of mine and it’s something that I’ll be looking at all of our reforms through that sort of prism.

LAURA JAYES: Can I ask you about universities first? This was a big measure under the previous Abbott Government, $3.3 billion worth of budget cuts in that area. This university deregulation was due to come in to effect in January of 2016, so just a couple of months away. It is yet to pass the Parliament, do you anticipate pushing this one along or will there be substantial renegotiation?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Laura look, policies remain policies until we’ve had a proper process of consultation and the cabinet has had a chance to have its discussion and my approach as a Minister will be to get out there and talk to the universities and the rest of the education sector and business and industry as well about what they see as the priorities for reform, the key attributes out of the reform package that’s there and then, of course, to take that type of feedback and my own opinions to the cabinet table and, as Malcolm Turnbull has been very clear, we’ll go through all those proper processes of cabinet before coming to a decision on these things, but we do have to face up to the fact that universities are in a world that is, itself, changing for the universities too. Australian students will increasingly have opportunities to choose to study at an international university, they won’t have to go to an Australian university in future and we need our universities to make sure they are adaptive and capable of reforming and keeping up with that pace of change so that Australian students still choose those Australian universities and those Australian universities are universities of choice for the rest of the world as well. 

LAURA JAYES: But Senator, students and universities alike do need some certainty in this area for forward planning about their funding and what the fees might be, so even if the Turnbull Government does want to pursue this university deregulation, you’d have to say that this will be pushed perhaps in to 2017?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I am acutely aware of the timing issues here and so, getting early feedback and getting a sense of what we do about that commencement date is a top priority for me, Laura, there is no doubt that. So, that will be at the forefront of discussions but, then there is the bigger picture about the nature of reforms and what people identify as the priorities to talk about too.

LAURA JAYES: This is actually one of the double-dissolution triggers, it has failed to pass the Senate twice now, crossbenchers remained adverse to some of these, well remain a little bit sceptical about some of these changes so, have you spoken to the crossbench? Are there new points in this plan that you look to be renegotiating?  

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well it is just on twenty-four hours since I was sworn in to the role and so I’ve not spoken to the crossbenchers about it yet. They, along with Vice-Chancellors, academics, other university representatives as well as, of course, business, industry and students and families will all be on my list of people to talk to quickly over the coming days and weeks as we get that type of feedback.

LAURA JAYES: You do share the view of Malcolm Turnbull who said, just in the last twenty-four hours, if it is not going to pass the Senate, well there is an arithmetic issue here when it comes to numbers so, you are obviously very aware of that and the need to perhaps redesign elements of this package.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Without abandoning our principles in anyway, I can confidently say the Turnbull Government is a pragmatic government that’s more about getting things done, than we are about bashing our heads against a wall and so, we will want to make sure that we can get real reform progress, if that means we have to compromise, that’s what we will do. I think Christopher Pyne deserves enormous credit for the fact that he had forty out of forty-one Vice-Chancellors agreeing with this reform package, but still couldn’t manage to get a majority in the Senate, but that is enormous support he had from the universities sector. However, the reality is it hasn’t passed the Senate to date. I’ll talk to those crossbenchers, I’ll talk to those Vice-Chancellors, we’ll talk and then we’ll go back to the cabinet room and come up with the right approach forward. 

LAURA JAYES: Senator, I think it is really interesting that the Turnbull Government has given two very important portfolios to South Australians, yours and that of Christopher Pyne’s. Do you hope that you and Christopher Pyne can really drive the economic fortunes of South Australia around but the electoral fortune as well?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, it is a great outcome for South Australia to have twice the number of people in cabinet, going from just Christopher to Christopher and myself, as well as of course, increased representation across the frontbench with Jamie Briggs and Anne Ruston both on board too. I think that is important for a State like SA and I’m very excited, especially looking at Christopher’s portfolio in Innovation and Science and Industry that he really will be at the forefront of driving the overall government agenda of how we grow advanced manufacturing, new technology industries, how we are actually achieving that economic growth that Malcolm is talking about as part of the global technological changes we face and clearly that needs to be complimented by my policy space in Education and Training of skilling and training people for jobs in those types of industries. So, it is an exciting time and I’m sure that South Australians will welcome the focus across these portfolios from Christopher, myself, as well as Jamie and Anne.

Senator, was Tony Abbott simply toxic in South Australia? Is that why he needed to be replaced?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, I’m wanting to look to the future now and I think Tony deserves much credit for doing many good things in terms of tackling some of the immediate issues we faced as a government but, it was my view and I’ve been very open about this, that it was in the best interests of the country that we have this more optimistic vision of the future, that we have a leader in Malcolm Turnbull who is able to unite Australians as much as possible behind a vision about where we take the country, where our future growth opportunities are, where the new jobs of the future will be and how we restructure ourselves with the reforms and policy credentials that are required to get us there and so I think it is very exciting time and I’m really looking forward to it.

LAURA JAYES: But Senator, you were a member of Tony Abbott’s Ministry as well, was it incumbent upon you to be warning Tony Abbott about this direction you were so concerned about? Did you do that when he was Prime Minister?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Tony and I spoke about issues of concern from time to time and they are conversations that I’ll keep to myself. Ultimately, I had to make the decision when the challenge occurred about what was in the best interest of the country as well as the party and my view was that Malcolm was best placed to lead us going forward.

So you had those conversations and it doesn’t sound like Tony Abbott listened at the time.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, I’m not going to go over all of that territory, Laura. I think that Tony deserves praise and credit for delivering on policy around border security, he deserves praise and credit for lowering the tax base in a number of areas, but I did think when it came to a choice that the party and the country needs to go in the direction that Malcolm offers and that is one of really communicating a positive vision for Australia and I think that will be warmly welcomed by the Australian people.

LAURA JAYES: Now I appreciate that it has been a pretty traumatic week for you and the Liberal Party, Senator, but can I ask you one final question, Tony Abbott has taken a swipe at Scott Morrison today accusing him of gravely misleading the public denying that he ever warned Tony Abbott about a loss of support or a febrile environment, do you think that was fair of Tony Abbott to do that today?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Tony has, understandably, had a very difficult week. I have to say I’ve been in briefings with my department most of today so I haven’t had the chance to actually hear exactly what was said, but I don’t think much will be advanced by talking about conversations that were had before the change. I think the Australian people will want us to get on with the job of governing the country and looking to the future and I have been really heartened and encouraged by the unity amongst colleagues since the change and the really positive reaction in the community to the new agenda that Malcolm is setting out.

LAURA JAYES: Senator Simon Birmingham, the new Minister for Education and Training, thanks so much for your time on PM Agenda.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: A pleasure, Laura.