SIMON BIRMINGHAM: It is great to be here in the wonderful suburb of Glandore, an outstanding childcare and early learning centre celebrating simultaneous storytime that is happening in around 3,100 locations across Australia. It is great to have Matt Williams, the hard working local Member for Hindmarsh, here to share in reading with lots of local children, but importantly to get the message across that it is so critical for parents to engage in and provide the opportunities for their children to read and to be read to, to read with children because we know that around 1 in 5 children start school with insufficient vocabulary, without the words and skills to succeed at school. Reading is critical to turning that around and it has got to happen in the earliest years which is why we really want to support parents, help them. The work of libraries around Australia is absolutely an essential part of that in providing, not just the books, but an opportunity for parents to learn about how best to read with their children, to do so in group settings, to have librarians and skilled people read with young children and to give them the best possible start for school.
QUESTION: Nick Champion is claiming that the Liberals have cut $2.75 billion from the skills portfolio including $1 billion to apprentices. That has lead to 8,339 apprentices – a drop of 8,000 apprentices across Australia, what will the Liberals do for apprentices if they’re elected to government?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well we provide around $6 billion of investment in vocational education and training overall, but most importantly we are focussed on trying to support our apprenticeship system coming out of what has been a very tough time. The previous Labor government cut around $1 billion of employer payments and incentives in apprenticeships; the biggest single cut which lead to the largest decline we’ve seen in apprenticeship commencements at any time in recent statistics. So, downturns in current apprenticeship numbers are really a factor of a decision that predated our government because apprenticeship commencements dropped before the last election as a result of that decision to cut those employer incentives. We’ve not cut one single employer incentive since we’ve been in office. We are working hard with employers to explore new and innovative ways to try to lift apprenticeship numbers again, but the best way you can lift apprenticeship numbers is to have a strong economy and that is what our government is focussed on, having a strong economy that creates new jobs and importantly in apprenticeships, creates new opportunities for young people in future.
QUESTION: Under Treasurer Joe Hockey you did change the tools for trade grant to a loan and a lot of apprentices say that that puts more pressure on them because they have to pay the money back when they’re not getting paid barely minimum wages, they’re learning at the same time. Do you think that may be a factor in there being less apprentices?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Trade support loans don’t have to be paid back until people earn more than $54,000. They’re providing much greater financial support to apprentices who need them in a much more flexible way. The old tools for trade proposal was a small amount of money that could only be spent in a limited number of ways. Trade support loans can be used by apprentices to help them get a ute if they need to get around worksites, to support their living costs while they’re living on a lower apprenticeship wage and, just like university students, they don’t pay it back until they earn a decent living. So, trade support loans has been a good policy, a good success and is giving a much needed flexibility to today’s apprentices. The real challenge in commencements is ensuring that we have a strong enough economy, that we are generating the places and that employers are offering those places and that is where we’re suffering from some of the changes of Labor and where there is a much greater threat in the future if we don’t see that economic growth that Australia needs.
QUESTION: Labor consistently polls higher when it comes to managing education. Given you aren’t committed to fully funding the six years of Gonski and the troubles you’ve had for higher education reform, are voters right that the Coalition isn’t the best on education?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: The Coalition is the only party in this election focussed, not just on how much is spent on education, but on ensuring it is spent as well and effectively as possible. So, we’re determined to make sure that from what are record levels of spending already and levels that will grow each and every year in to the future, we are actually getting returns that focus on the areas of problems in our schooling system. We’ve been spending for a number of years now, record levels on school funding and yet our performance in literacy, in numeracy, in reading, in maths and science, in foreign languages has been going backwards by many international benchmarks. So, we need to make sure we focus on what is happening in the schools, in the classrooms and so our policy paper outlines how we will grow school funding over the forward estimates period from around $16 billion in 2016 to more than $20 billion by 2020, but importantly also, how we ensure that young children, children in their first 18 months of school are assessed against their reading capabilities and that early interventions occur for those children who don’t have the reading skills to succeed at school, that we will lift the level of ambition in terms of minimum literacy and numeracy standards for school leavers, that we want to see more children doing maths and science in year 12 and will put in place policies to deliver that. We have very detailed school policies and I’m confident that our policies can get the best education outcomes for Australian students.
QUESTION: But in terms of higher education policy, you’re not taking one to this election, do you think it is fair on students that you’re not letting them know what you’re planning to do while giving them a choice about which party they should go to if you’re not putting on the table what your plans are?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: We’ve released a far more detailed paper in terms of higher education policy than anything I’ve seen from the Labor party. Yes, there are a number of areas that require consultation with the sector to be properly finalised and get the structures right, but we’ve been clear we will drive excellence and innovation in higher education, that we want to provide an opportunity for universities to differentiate and incentivise, but equally that there will not be full fee deregulation and that we can guarantee that for at least 80% of students they will operate under a fixed price regime and nobody will pay a dollar upfront, unlike Labor’s vocational education polices that will see people paying upfront for their studies. We won’t have that type of upfront payment, especially in the higher education sector. We are supporting continued strong funding to universities, but importantly we want to really lift transparency and accountability as well. We’re putting more money in to programmes that allow universities and force universities to report on student satisfaction, on employment outcomes, on income outcomes from their students so that actually people can make better choices in future about where they go. I think our higher education policies are quite comprehensive, far more comprehensive than Labor’s which are just, yet again, a case of committing to spending but little about how to ensure that spending gets the best possible results.
QUESTION: But what about cuts? You haven’t mentioned whether the 20% cut to universities will still be in place if they can do deregulation, are you willing to rule that out of the picture?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: The budget makes it very clear we still have to find savings in higher education and those savings we discuss in our policy paper could come from reductions in the Commonwealth Government subsidy, that won’t mean less money in to universities, it will mean that students may pay closer to 50% of the cost of their studies while the taxpayer pays 50%. University students do get a significant premium in terms of their future earnings potential and it is only reasonable that we assess what is fair for them to contribute, not up front, but under the world’s most generous student loan scheme and making sure that we have a system that is sustainable in to the future. Our policy also, unlike Labor, explicitly rules this out, canvasses and provides funding for expansion in to sub bachelor places, more pathways in to university particularly for the most disadvantaged Australians. Labor have ruled out that expansion, we want to see that occur so that in communities and for students who may not yet be ready to do a full bachelor degree, there are alternatives and more of those alternatives in future.
QUESTION: Will you move at all on Gonski funding? Delivering more money on needs based funding at all?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: We are fully committed to make sure that our record levels of funding in schools are distributed according to need. There will be more funding for schools of low socio economic status, for students with disabilities, for students in small rural and regional schools or for indigenous students. We are committed to needs based funding and David Gonski himself last week acknowledged that all sides of politics are committed to a needs based approach to funding. School funding under us will grow from $16 billion this year to more than $20 billion by 2020. Now, Labor is promising to spend more, they’re also promising to tax more and we’ll also see higher debt. The parents I talk to want an excellent education for their children and they want a job for their children when they finish school. Labor threatens our economy. We want to invest responsibly, affordably, but also make sure we manage the economy and government spending in a way that guarantees there are more jobs for people in the future.
QUESTION: This morning Alan Jones, when he was interviewing the Prime Minister, mentioned a programme from the safe schools, a programme about an empathy task where a 15 year old was asked to identify with a women who, I think he said, had loose moral values blah blah blah; is that still part of the safe schools programme? Because when I looked online today it didn’t appear to be part of the syllabus.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: So what my understanding is, is that the particular activity Alan Jones was referring to is one of the activities that our independent reviewer, Professor Bill Lowden from the University of Western Australia, found to not be necessarily age appropriate or suitable for children and it is one of those activities that we have had removed from the programme.
QUESTION: Is Malcolm Turnbull’s perceived arrogance a problem for the Coalition?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well I know that Australians have much greater trust in Malcolm Turnbull to manage our economy, to grow jobs, that they recognise his capability and competencies there. These poll results show a mish-mash of different things. They might show higher levels of trustworthiness in other ratings, but ultimately what is most important from a national government is whether or not they can provide for the national security of the nation and whether they can secure the economic growth of the nation, to provide jobs and opportunity. It is from that everything else stems, including our ability to fund education, to fund health, to deliver and continue to maintain one of the most general social welfare systems in the world, but we must have a strong economy to deliver the revenue to government to underpin that and that’s what Malcolm Turnbull will deliver.