Tom Tilley: All right, well let’s get the inside word from a senior Minister in the Turnbull Government, the Education Minister Simon Birmingham. He was in charge of the changes to the Safe Schools Coalition as well, which was announced last week, so we’re also going to ask him about that. Simon Birmingham, thank you so much for joining us on what’s a very interesting day in Australian political history.
Simon Birmingham: G’day Tom, great to be with you.
Tom Tilley: Yeah, now one of our Facebook followers said: the time for playing games is over? Sorry, what? The games have just begun by the sound of it. And the House of Cards Twitter account wrote to Mr Turnbull today saying: I admire your methodology, Prime Minister. If you don’t like how the table is set, turn over the table. So Minister, is this a game, and is the game do anything to get re-elected with a more sympathetic Senate?
Simon Birmingham: No Tom, this is far from a game. Now, the Parliament is due to expire and have an election somewhere around July, August, September. September is the three year anniversary of the last election, so if we end up having an election in July it’s hardly an early election; it is in the normal range of when elections are held. But importantly, we do need to make sure we have a Senate with which the Government of the day can govern, and frankly since the Palmer Party disintegrated and we’ve had to try to work our way through getting six different crossbenchers to support any piece of legislation, it has been a diabolical situation and quite dysfunctional in the Senate, and so there is good cause for looking at how we can have a more functional, transparent and effective Senate in the future.
But in addition to that, there is a serious piece of reform here in terms of how we actually get the best productivity out of the building industry, whether it’s companies or unions. Both are affected by an ABCC, by the Australian Building and Construction Commission, and we know that when it was in place productivity in the building and construction industry went up, which is great for the economy and helps create more jobs …
Tom Tilley: [Interrupts] Yeah, that was also during a mining boom though as well. It’s interesting that you- I guess you talk about both there, you talk about …
Simon Birmingham: [Interrupts] Well stop, stop, stop. Now, let me counter that, because it went down after the Labor Party abolished it, which was still when the mining boom was going. So let’s be quite clear here, productivity lifted while the ABCC was in place and it went down once it was out. A mining boom at the time, which of course we no longer have with us now, was continuous throughout that time.
Tom Tilley: Yeah okay. Interesting to hear though, you talked about a Senate which has frustrated your Government and about the importance of this legislation. What’s the most important out of those two? Is it about you guys clearing out the Senate, or is it really about this piece of legislation?
Simon Birmingham: Well Tom, both are important and I’m not going to put more emphasis on one or the other. Certainly …
Tom Tilley: [Interrupts] So they’re about equal?
Simon Birmingham: But certainly, if we were to be having a double dissolution, and there is of course another piece of legislation that deals with registered organisations that is already a double dissolution trigger, had we been having that you would certainly have wanted to have ABCC lined up as well. So it makes a lot of sense in that regard. It is sensible to do, and in the end all we’re asking the Australian Senate to do is for each of us 76 Senators to do our jobs; to consider legislation, to do it in a timely manner, not to play the games that have been seen.
And I guess the real point in relation to the Building and Construction Commission and why this action to have extra sitting weeks has been called is because everything we’ve tried to put through the Senate, including this, has been the subject of so many delaying and stalling tactics. And we saw that last week with Senate voting reform, that hours and hours and hours were pointlessly and needlessly wasted, and that was when we did have the support of the Senate. Where we don’t have the support they just frustrate things to stop them ever coming to a vote, and that’s just something we can’t accept.
Tom Tilley: Simon Birmingham, James from Melbourne agrees with you. He says the Senate needs a cleanout. Many Senators like Ricky Muir should never have been elected in the first place. Another texter says the unions are out for themselves; they need someone to answer to.
Now, if this situation does result in a double dissolution it will be the first in 29 years, and I guess people want to know why is this the one issue that’s worth calling the first double dissolution election in 29 years? I mean, we already have the Fair Work Building and Construction organisation which replaced the ABCC, so is this really- are we calling a double dissolution just to replace one organisation with a similar organisation?
Simon Birmingham: Well, no. I mean, the Fair Work Commission has a very general brief in terms of its role in the industrial relations system. The Building and Construction Commission is essentially a specific cop on the beat in relation to what happens on building sites. And I emphasis that some of the findings in relation to the Trade Union Royal Commission, where activities on building sites were the most egregious, don’t just relate to malpractice by unions. There are companies who have engaged in practices that frankly shouldn’t be occurring and dragged down the national economy as well.
We have a huge number of Australians employed in the construction and building industry; it is critical to the success of the national economy, and this is a very appropriate subject for a double dissolution. And frankly, that combined with, yes, the result of gaming of the Senate system which saw people like Ricky Muir- and I think Ricky’s a lovely guy, but he was elected on less than half a per cent of the vote out of six Senators, the Australian Senate from Victoria. It was not justifiable, it doesn’t make sense, and it was the subject of manipulation of our democracy rather than a reflection of our democracy.
Tom Tilley: All right. You’re listening to Simon Birmingham, who is the Education Minister, and we’re talking about the Prime Minister’s bold announcement today of a potential double dissolution on July 2, a double dissolution election. On the text line: I work in the construction industry and I’m sick of the media labelling workers. I have never been bullied into joining a union. Someone else says: the Senate is not uncooperative, it’s doing its job. Some seem to have a born-to-rule mentality and can’t accept that.
[Package on Safe Schools]
Tom Tilley: And yes, we have the Education Minister Simon Birmingham on the line with us, he’s in charge of this review into the Safe Schools and then the announcement on Friday about the changes that will be made. Now, Senator Simon Birmingham, what influenced your decision-making around these changes? Was it the review you commissioned, or was it Cory Bernardi and George Christensen? What influenced you more?
Simon Birmingham: Well Tom, the review was an important input, particularly into how lesson programs might be changed. What I really asked Professor Bill Louden to look at was to have a look at the specific resources developed for teachers in schools and whether or not that content was age appropriate, et cetera. And he found some of those lessons had content that was not appropriate for all children, and so I thought the wise and cautious thing to do was to have those particular activities – and they are only particular activities – removed.
Then there were broader concerns voiced by some colleagues, voiced by some others, voiced by some Labor MPs, about other aspects of the program’s operation, such as external websites and so on that were featured in your intro piece there. And again, I thought the wise thing to do was to say, well, we should make sure that third party organisations are referenced, they meet a threshold test, and that test I set was that they be a government-funded counselling or mental health service. So of course there is good cause to say if children need more information or more help they should be able to access it from different locations, but there should be a test as to what’s appropriate given that, of course, you can’t be monitoring third party web links constantly, they can change minute by minute, let alone day by day or week by week.
So of course, we need to make sure that there’s a constant test, and really there are lot’s of support services, especially from state and territory governments, that are supported around the country to provide mental health and counselling and support services for children who need it, and that’s the threshold that we’ve put in place. And I think if you look at it overall there were those calling for the program to be axed and for all funding to be cut and for it to be torn up right now; there were those who said there’s absolutely nothing to see here and nothing can be improved, and really what I’ve tried to do is chart a middle course that recognises we can improve it, and to use the remaining time in the contract and the funding to improve it and to ensure those resources are available then for schools for evermore. And I hope by taking some of the controversy out of it we might actually see more schools use the program, and it have a bigger impact in the future.
Tom Tilley: Unless a lot of parents say no, and Phil has texted in with a point that goes to that. He says because of the new changes from Safe Schools there’ll be children who cannot partake because their parents could think no, my son or daughter can’t be gay and he or she doesn’t need that. What if they are? How on earth does parental consent make this safer? So couldn’t kids whose parents don’t want them to be involved be the ones who need it most?
Simon Birmingham: Sorry, two parts to that Tom. Firstly, if an individual student needs support, counselling, et cetera, in their school environment, we’ve expressly said that that of course remain something they should be able to access and is absolutely not subject to parental consent, and that there should be dedicated resources available for that student and the school to work with them one on one, and that will absolutely still be part of the Safe Schools program.
Tom Tilley: Okay, Simon Birmingham.
Simon Birmingham: [Interrupts] In relation to the lesson content of what occurs in the classroom and is applied to all children, then we’ve said that there should be a standardised backsheet(*) developed to take a lot of the scare out of this, so that parents can see exactly what the content is. But then if they still have concerns, just as is often the case with aspects of sex education or aspects of religious instruction in schools, then there’s a right for those parents to consider to opt out. But that is trying to get the right balance in and to make sure that we take a lot of the scare out of this and ensure that the program is as useful as possible, rather than something that’s perceived as a marginal construct but in the end everybody runs away from scared.
Tom Tilley: All right, Simon Birmingham, I was trying to get another question in about your higher education policy because we could be facing an election very soon, potentially July 2, and I think a lot of people are waiting to see what your plans are there after de-regulation fell over last year, but we’ll have to hit that another time. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak to us on Hack today.
Simon Birmingham: I’m sure we’ll have time again before July 2, and maybe even specific to that topic Tom, a pleasure.
Tom Tilley: Absolutely, thanks so much.
Simon Birmingham: Cheers mate.