Joint Doorstop interview, Adelaide
Topics: Saab Australia and University of South Australia partnership; Bill Shorten’s National Press Club address; Schools funding in South Australia; TAFE SA; Future Frigates tender contract; Foreign interference

Gerard Ogden (Head of Strategy and Corporate Affairs, Saab Australia): I’d like to welcome you to Saab Australia, and welcome the Minister and Tanya to our premises today. I think the Government’s commitment about naval shipbuilding has really forced us to look at what our resourcing requirements are, and the collaboration with the Uni of South Australia goes a long way in assisting us to meet those resource requirements not just to fulfil the Government’s intent, but also to ensure that we can deliver the capability that the Australian Defence Force requires. Thank you very much. Tanya.

Tanya Monro Deputy Vice Chancellor and VP: Research and Innovation, UniSA: Thank you. The University of South Australia is very proud to be part of this very important partnership with Saab. Not only does it give us the opportunity to take our research expertise in virtual reality, systems engineering, human factors, and apply it to really important projects for Australian defence, but it gives us the chance to expose our students to a world-class working environment and really inspire them to build their careers here in Australia.

Simon Birmingham: Well, thanks so much. It’s wonderful to be here at Saab today, which is an example of a couple of things. Firstly, the phenomenal impact that the Turnbull Government’s investment in building a sovereign domestic shipbuilding capability in Australia is going to have; $90 billion of investment – most of it focussed here in South Australia – is going to transform an industry that is high technology, advanced manufacturing, at the cutting edge of leading in science and technology in so many ways. And Saab is a brilliant example of a company whose invested in Adelaide, in South Australia, in Australia, and is building the type of capability that we’ll benefit from into the future.

It’s also an outstanding example of collaboration. In this case, strong collaborative partnership between Saab and the University of South Australia. What this is doing is ensuring that our best world-class researchers are working together in a tight knit way, with a cutting edge industry and business, in a way that will help to have new technological breakthroughs. It won’t just help in terms of ensuring that the ships and submarines built in Adelaide over the years to come are at the cutting edge, but it will also help stimulate the type of defence export activity that Christopher Pyne and Malcolm Turnbull were just speaking about yesterday.

Together, this is about ensuring that we create more jobs, more opportunities, more business investment here in Adelaide, in South Australia. And I really want to thank Saab and UniSA for the work that they are doing in a partnership to provide opportunities for young students, as well as outstanding opportunities for researchers to provide ground-breaking breakthroughs into the future.

Now, otherwise today, a long way from Adelaide, we see Bill Shorten giving his speech at the National Press Club, and there are a number of questions for him to answer as a result of that. In terms of job creation, we know what the Turnbull Government’s doing: building industries like our defence industry, cutting taxes for Australian-based businesses and businesses operating in Australia to stimulate more jobs, to make sure that we’re more competitive in the future. Mr Shorten needs to today outline what on earth are his job creation strategies. We’re enjoying a jobs boom, the likes of which hasn’t been seen for many, many years, but where are his plans and policies?

I’m sure today we’ll hear him talk about the cost of living pressures for Australian families. Well, in July this year the Turnbull Government’s reforms to childcare will come into place, putting thousands of dollars back into the hip pockets of the lowest income, hardest working Australian families. Mr Shorten, you voted against those reforms, so today if you’re going to complain about it you should spell out what are your alternatives, what are you going to do, because our policies and reforms will come into effect this year and help so many families.

No doubt he’ll talk and bleat about school funding, which is at record levels and growing, and where we’re getting rid of special deals in favour of having fair, consistent needs-based funding around the country. So, if he is going to bleat about school funding today, what is his alternative? Will it be yet more special deals? Will he be favouring one sector over another, one state over another? Or indeed, what are the details in terms of what Labor complains about and postures on but offers no policies for?

That could be said across a range of areas. If Mr Shorten’s going to get up there today and outline an agenda or a plan for the next election, the test is where are the policies, where are the details, because right now they’re sorely lacking.

Journalist: On school funding, but more from the state perspective, the State Labor Government here is trying to, I guess, paint Nick Xenophon as a supporter of the revised Gonski package as a benefit for them and their election campaign. What do you make of that?

Simon Birmingham: Jay Weatherill is engaging in lies and deception when it comes to school funding. School funding in South Australia is at record levels and it’s going to grow in terms of federal funding flowing into this state. It’s going to grow faster than many other states because of the dud deal that Jay Weatherill signed up to under the previous Labor government. We’re making sure that ultimately SA will get the same fair, consistent deal as any other state around the country, and that is about providing common treatment by the Federal Government based on need. So, South Australia will get more per student than, say, Victoria because of the greater regionality in South Australia, because of Indigenous and disadvantage factors in South Australia, but it will be done in a fair and consistent way, not about stitching up a deal in the background, but about using the Gonski needs-based formula and applying it consistently.

Journalist: Just on a local level, Senator, that Susan Close today is saying parchments that students are hoping to receive from TAFE will be coming through in a few weeks, and almost there is nothing to see here now with TAFE. Does the Federal Government see it that way? Should it have ever got to this point, and do you believe her?

Simon Birmingham: It’s remarkable that the State Labor Government seems to still have its head buried in the sand when it comes to the TAFE crisis. They have no acknowledgement of the problems that existed, no understanding it seems of the scale of those problems, little compassion it seems for students who have been living under doubt about whether or not their qualifications are validly recognised, and few answers about how it is they’re going to fix the TAFE system to make sure this never happens again into the future. So, frankly Jay Weatherill and Susan Close should be embarrassed about what’s happened in TAFE. They ought to be honest and upfront about what the failings are. They ought to have got an investigation underway and started properly by now, rather than dragging their heels. And most importantly, they ought to be spelling out precisely how it is they’re going to guarantee students have got qualifications for which they’re entitled, for which they’ve had valid training, not just say: yes, we’ll have the parchments ready in a few weeks.

Journalist: Well, aren’t they doing that though, by saying they can’t get a qualification… [indistinct]?

Simon Birmingham: Well, what validation has occurred? What checking has been undertaken? What is it that the State Government has done to be so confident in making this claim, because it’s all been done in secret today?

Journalist: So, the Minister has also said that the private sector has stepped in and filled the void to get students over the line, but that’s going to cost local taxpayers money. It doesn’t seem to be coming out of Commonwealth funds, but she couldn’t quantify how much it’s going to cost, so somewhere there’s been duplicity, but taxpayers are paying twice it would seem.

Simon Birmingham: Isn’t it an indictment that the State Labor Government, who cut off private training organisations, has now had to turn to private training organisations to rescue them because of their failures in managing the TAFE system? Isn’t it remarkable that they’re now saying: we’ve had to haul in the private training organisations to rescue us, but we won’t say what we’ve paid, we won’t say what’s happened; all we’re doing is saying there’s a fix there for the students? Well, frankly, the public deserve better, and the students deserve to be given a very clear and public assurance that they’ve received the best training possible, the adequate support, and, of course, everybody has a right to know how on earth the Government is going to make sure this never happens again.

Journalist: Back on Defence, there’s been fresh criticism today of the Future Frigates tender process. What do you make of that?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the Future Frigates tender process is designed to ensure that we get the maximum employment and economic boost in South Australia and across Australia. All three tenderers for this process know that local industry content will be one of the factors upon which they are judged, and so what the Turnbull Government is doing is using the tender process to leverage the maximum bang for buck for Australians, of course, to get the best capability for our Defence Force, but to generate the most jobs, the greatest economic activity, and the greatest sovereign capability in Australia. We didn’t come out yesterday and release a Defence Industry Export Plan strategy because we don’t want to see jobs or activity in Australia; we released it because we’re determined to use the $90 billion of investment in Australia to leverage and build greater capability and to springboard off of that, export jobs and further contracts and opportunities. And this tender, the third such tender, having resolved the future submarine tender and the offshore patrol vessel tender, this one for the Future Frigates will equally be about getting as many jobs in Australia as possible.

Journalist: Is 50 per cent minimum Australian-made enough? Is that enough for this particular tender?

Simon Birmingham: Government hasn’t set a floor, nor have we set a ceiling. What we are doing is using the tender process to get the greatest number of jobs that we can possibly put into Australia into Australia and indeed here in South Australia, given this is where the bulk of construction activity will occur, so …

Journalist: Wouldn’t the sensible thing be, then, to mandate a higher percentage?

Simon Birmingham: What we are wanting to mandate and achieve is the most you can possibly get, and to make that a competitive element between the tenderers who are participating in this process. So, their participation as part of this tender will not just be about what the price is, or indeed what the capability is, but it will also be about how many jobs are created, how does it help stimulate industry activity in Australia so that we build that sovereign capability, so that we can get, of course, the export jobs of the future as well.

Journalist: Sorry, this is on foreign influence from my friends in Canberra. So, just on the comments Vice Chancellor Michael Spence made. He says the Government might be not welcoming- or have an anti-Chinese stance. What do you make of that?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the Australian Government is very committed to our economic relationship with China, and that includes ensuring that we continue to be a safe and welcoming country for international students. International students – whether they’re from China or anywhere else – come here because of the quality of our education, because of the safety of Australia, because of the lifestyle opportunities that are offered. But in terms of that quality of education, it is also important that it is independent, that it has integrity, and that, of course, the type of challenging of thought and ideas that occurs in our universities is available for all students to participate in. Now, I am pleased, as a Government, that we’ve overseen the development of Australia’s first ever international education strategy; that we’ve overseen reforms to visa arrangements that provide simpler pathways for international students. And as a result of these changes and this investment, we’ve seen record numbers of international students studying in Australia, including in Australian universities. We’re committed to continuing that. Our laws and our reforms in relation to foreign interference are all about making sure that – whether it’s universities, international education, or any other industry or sector – we can have confidence that they are operating in the future, in the best interest of Australia.

Journalist: What are your concerns then about foreign interference?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we know from intelligence advice that foreign influence and activity in Australia is at a high level, and so the reforms we’re putting in place are about safeguarding Australia’s interests, Australian industry interests, Australian education interests, and ensuring that those interests in the future are protected by Australian laws that guarantee our interests as a nation are put first.

Journalist: What are- sorry, and this is the last question I promise – what is the appropriate action to take then?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the Turnbull Government has spelt out reforms to foreign interference laws. These reforms will ensure that appropriate disclosure occurs, where people in Australia are acting on behalf of foreign agents or foreign governments. These laws will strengthen the Government’s ability to act where we believe that inappropriate activities may be occurring. The laws are, of course, before the Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Security and Intelligence, and that committee will be undertaking its investigations as it currently is. Universities and every other stakeholder is fully entitled to present their views to make sure we get those laws right, that they have their intended effect of protecting Australian interests without having any negative consequences elsewhere.

Journalist: Wonderful. Thank you for your time.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you.