Subject: Radicalisation, Higher Education


KRISTINA KENEALLY: We do want to go through to our guest today, the Minister for Education and Training Simon Birmingham, who's also joining us out of Canberra. Good afternoon Minister Birmingham.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Hello Kristina and Peter, I'm wondering if I should wave as well, like Peter just did.

KRISTINA KENEALLY: [Laughs] I think it's always a good thing, whatever Peter Van Onselen does, just follow it. He knows what he's doing on television. Minister, I want to start with the counter terrorism legislation – we are seeing proposals to apply control orders to people as young as 14. Now you as Minister for Education have a particular interest in the development of our young people – are you comfortable with that type of really quite … some people describing it as quite heavy handed approach to people at such a young age?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Kristina, I'm uncomfortable that it's necessary, but I accept that it's necessary. I think we need to recognise that the terrible incident we saw last week was committed by a 15-year-old school child essentially, and that we do have real problems with radicalisation of children. Now first and foremost I hope that schools, working in concert with parents and with community leaders and with other influencers on students can effectively manage to help to stop the radicalisation of students so that we don't see it get to this stage. But of course, where there is a real and present threat and danger to the community because of this type of act, then it’s appropriate that we have measures in place that allow our law enforcement agencies to step in and prevent harm occurring.

Senator, control orders is one thing, in a sense we're talking surveillance predominantly here, dropping the age from 16 to 14. But about lengthening the time – which is also being looked at – that you can hold somebody without charge? Currently with a court order it is eight days, they're looking to perhaps move it to 28 days. That is an extraordinarily long time for somebody to be able to be held without charge, wouldn't you say? I mean sure uncomfortableness perhaps has to result in a rethink when we're going that far.


Peter I think it's important in all of these issues that we give them full and thorough consideration, and I think though all of the different tranches of legislation on counter terrorism that the Government's considered over the last couple of years. The four that have preceded, these reforms that will come forward shortly, we've seen that full consideration given. And I know that the Attorney-General has been working with the states and territories about what is appropriate, and of course we'll continue to have those discussions, we'll go through all the proper processes of our party room in relation to any changes that are made, and then we will see I'm sure the proper parliamentary processes, where the Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence has shown a very cautious and careful approach with bipartisan spirit in the life of Parliament to make sure that we get reforms that are necessary while having protections in place for the rights of individuals, and especially anything that impinges on minors. And I will be engaged in those discussions where necessary, where it overplays or interacts with the education sector, and I've already had discussions with the New South Wales Premier, with the Education Minister there, and my colleagues here in Canberra about where and how we might set appropriate boundaries, and of course the need to make sure we have safeguards in place so that nobody can look at these measures and think they are punitive in any way, that they are overly harsh, but that in all they are seeking to do is put in place the necessary safeguards to keep the community safe.

Minister, terrorist expert Greg Barton said this morning on Sky News that a control order is only useful if you know about the individual beforehand, and in the case of the Parramatta shooting, police were unaware of these 15-year-olds in [indistinct], even his apparent radicalisation. What, in your view, is the appropriate role of principals and teachers in helping to prevent young people, people this young falling into extremism and radicalisation?

Kristina, there is a role for principals, teachers and the broader school community, but I don't want to overstate that role. And that role sits very much ideally at that point of early intervention, identification that there are external influences on a young person's development that are putting them at risk of radicalisation, and then working with that young person, with that child and their parents and others to provide the type of support that ensures that radicalisation doesn't occur. Of course if it reaches a further point…

Does that – sorry to interrupt, does that include teachers and principals making contact with police?


If it reaches a certain point of concern, then yes that has to become a potential consideration. Ideally, we nip things in the bud before then, and the last Education Minister's councillors agreed that all the states and territories with the Commonwealth will work together on strategies that can allow us to help support teachers and principals. But I do want to make the point, because it's very important, that this is not a responsibility that can or should be placed on schools alone. Schools have a role to play, they are part of the solution, part of the potential source of intervention, but that has to be done in tandem with the broader community, with other influences, particularly with faith leaders and with parents and those others who are close to the students.The idea that teachers and principals can be the sole solution is ridiculous; they can only be part of a very comprehensive solution that allows us to intervene as soon as we know that there is a potential problem at hand.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: The New South Wales Government are the ones that have put this into the media with the timing that we've seen. Is the Federal Government frustrated by this? I mean if it's good government and it's good process this seems to have been rushed out with their own political imperatives in mind. 

Well the potential extension of control orders is something that the Attorney-General flagged quite some time ago, and is something that he has been having discussions with colleagues about, and I'm sure that he's been looking at other measures as well. We have to work cooperatively with the New South Wales Government. Now of course as a Government we would rather not run these things through the media, but we have to respond to media stories when they come up as well. We've been quite open about the fact that that extension of control orders was something that was under consideration already, has been discussed by the National Security Committee of Cabinet. So there's been no response, as such, to the media stories, aside from being very open about what discussions Government has had and where we are at in the deliberative processes.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Alright, let's move on to another part of your portfolio, which is of course universities. This is something I'm fascinated to know what your new approach is, Senator Birmingham. Obviously there was a lot of heat in the debate when Christopher Pyne was Education Minister. That's been taken out as a result of him moving sideways into Innovation at one level. But what are you going to do here? The sector is half pregnant. You can't move forward with de-regulation, that's now been ruled out, but are you prepared to go back to caps on places? Because if you don't do one or the other I don't really see how there's a financial sustainability for the universities at the moment.

So Peter, I don't think that fee flexibility or other reforms have been completely ruled out, and the Government has only made a decision at present to defer the start date of reforms from 2016 to 2017. But importantly what that's done is it gives me the opportunity to talk to the Senate crossbenchers, talk to academics, vice chancellors, students, industry and business and all those with an interest in the success of our higher education sector first and foremost about the problems we face, the financial sustainability pressures on universities, whether current incentive mechanisms are working in the right way. And you rightly identify how it is that the uncapped demand-driven system works at present, and whether that incentive mechanism is providing the best possible outcomes. And of course the long-term vision we should have for our higher education sector about ensuring that it is of world-class standard, that we do have institutions that continue to be institutions of choice, not just for international students, but also for domestic students who will increasingly be able to access overseas learning as it becomes more available through different technologies, through MOOCs and other area that allow people to access different areas of study. 

So let's have a conversation fist, from my perspective as the new Minister, about the problems and the challenges and where we want to get our university sector. And then of course the nature of the reforms are really a solution to address those problems and challenges. And so I hope to really build the case for why we have some issues we need to address, and hopefully that can then support whatever reforms are necessary. Whether that be expanding access to sub-bachelor places that ensures universities don't just have an incentive to enrol more students at a bachelor level degree, but also have support and incentive to offer students at lower level qualifications that they might be better able to do. Whether it's looking at fee flexibility that better enables universities to be able to specialise, to be able to pursue areas of excellence themselves and to go and …

KRISTINA KENEALLY: Okay, we're going to have to leave it there for the moment. We're going to Andrew Robb speaking to us live.