Topics: Turnbull Government’s plan to make early childhood education and care more affordable, accessible and fairer; Higher education reform; Future schools funding arrangements; Racial Discrimination Act
Kim Landers: In a bid to win enough political support for its overhaul of child care subsidies, the Federal Government will separate the package from some of its planned cuts to welfare payments. And this change of approach might already be working, with Labor indicating it’s willing to re-negotiate some parts of the package. The Government is trying to get the child care changes through Parliament by the end of next week.
Senator Simon Birmingham is the Minister for Education and he joins us on the line from a child care centre in Canberra’s inner south. Minister, good morning.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Kim.
Kim Landers: Are you now confident the child care changes will get through?
Simon Birmingham: Well, the Government remains determined to make sure that our child care changes - which will benefit around 1 million Australian families – do pass the Parliament. Because we recognise that increasing child care costs are an impediment to people choosing to work the hours they want to work, to families making decisions they want to make about workforce participation. And we want to make sure that those families are free to do so. And our reforms will put in place, lower fees for low and middle income Australian families through greater levels of subsidy. They’ll put in place a mechanism that stops fee growth in the future. They will put in- they will remove the cap on subsidies that many families currently face and they’ll reduce a lot of red tape for child care providers [indistinct] …
Kim Landers: [Talks over] So, we’re well aware …
Simon Birmingham: … to spend more time educating children and caring for young children.
Kim Landers: Minister, we’re well aware of what the goals of this package are. But what are the specific welfare measures that will be put in to this separate bill to pay for the $1.6 billion child care changes?
Simon Birmingham: We’re continuing discussions across all parties to make sure that these child care reforms – a $1.6 billion additional investment in child care, as you’ve indicated – are fully funded and paid for. Because it’s critical that we don’t leave the children who are in child care today, with even greater levels of debt in the future.
Kim Landers: [Talks over] So, what are those saving measures?
Simon Birmingham: Those discussions are continuing, Kim, and of course we’ll keep our negotiations private between the different senators and parties we’re talking to, until we bring them finally to the floor of the Senate.
Kim Landers: What about the changes to the Family Tax Benefit supplements, for example?
Simon Birmingham: Well Kim, they’re a key component in terms of ensuring that we do manage to make sure that these changes to child care – the additional investment, to help around 1 million Australian families – are fully funded and the Turnbull Government remains determined to implement these reforms to help families, but to do so in a way that doesn’t increase the debt burden on Australians and future generations.
Kim Landers: Do you have a clear signal from some of those crossbench senators about which welfare cuts that they would support, in order to get these child care reforms through?
Simon Birmingham: We’re having really constructive discussions. And we believe that we can make sure – as we’ve been determined to do – that we get our child care reforms through. That we put in place the types of mechanisms that will really deliver significant benefits to families. I cannot, I cannot overstate the significance of the changes which will mean that for the lowest income families will be able to access quality early education and child care services for around $15 a day …
Kim Landers: [Interrupts] What about the- sorry, what about the changes to Paid Parent Leave, for example, are they going to be jettisoned?
Simon Birmingham: Well, Kim, it’s a good effort, but as I said I’m not going to through measure by measure, or indicate exactly where every bit of negotiations are up to. We’re having constructive …
Kim Landers: [Interrupts] Well is the fact that you’re having to do- sorry, is the fact that you’re having to do all of this last minute rejigging, a concession that the Government has mishandled negotiations about this important package?
Simon Birmingham: Well the Turnbull Government’s got an outstanding track record of actually getting things done with the Senate. That comes by being pragmatic, it comes by working cooperatively with the different parties elected to the Senate. That’s how we got the Australian Building and Construction Commission through and the Registered Organisations Commission through in the last part of last year; despite the fact that those measures had been defeated multiple times in the previous Senate. We did it by constructive private negotiations and we’re taking exactly the same constructive private approach this time around.
Kim Landers: And so how close are you to getting that support- that crossbench support?
Simon Birmingham: We believe we can get the child care reforms legislated. And we certainly believe that it’s critical that that occurs. Because these will make a real meaningful difference in terms of making child care more affordable, more accessible, more available, for low and middle income Australian families.
Kim Landers: The Federal Budget is rapidly approaching and last year you dumped the Coalition’s policy of reregulating university fees. When are we going to see the replacement plan for that?
Simon Birmingham: So we’ve gone through a very thorough process of consultation there, issuing a detailed discussion paper, taking advanced numbers of submissions, engaging with vice-chancellors, other stakeholders, student groups and the like. I’ve had an expert panel working alongside me in that process and we’re working towards this year’s budget, to finalise, of course, all of those higher education considerations.
Kim Landers: So will that be in the next week or so?
Simon Birmingham: Well we’re working towards this year’s budget, which of course is mid-May. And that’s the timeline that we’re working towards.
Kim Landers: You also need to finalise school funding arrangements with the states for next year and beyond. When will schools know how those agreements will be funded?
Simon Birmingham: Kim, we’ve been very open on that. The timeline for resolution of that is COAG this year. And so that’s the detailed discussions we’re having internally. And of course also getting feedback from states, territories, non-government school leaders as to how the record and growing levels of schools funding- the Turnbull Government’s investing some $16 billion dollars
Kim Landers: [Talks over] And there’s not yet an agreement for next year, so …
Simon Birmingham: … last year and it grows to more than $20 billion by 2020 – how that will be fairly distributed in a way that also drives reforms in our school to address declining areas of performance.
Kim Landers: On another matter – on the changes to the wording of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act – Nick Xenophon’s team won’t support them. So they appear to have no chance of passing the Senate. Is this all a bit of a waste of time and effort from the Government?
Simon Birmingham: Well people were telling me a number of months ago there was no chance of the child care measures and the reforms passing the Senate and the like. We believe that we can get those measures through to help hardworking families and we’ll take a constructive, considered approach to changes to 18C, which we think are important to make sure we don’t see cartoonists hauled before courts or political correctness impinge free speech in Australia.
Kim Landers: Could you split the Government’s plan into two separate pieces of legislation? One to change the wording and one to make the changes to the Human Rights Commission?
Simon Birmingham: Well we only just announced the plans yesterday. We will now sit down and we’ll talk to everybody. But of course, as we usually do, to see what can actually be legislated. We will take – on every measure we put forward – a constructive sensible approach to make sure that we achieve as much of our agenda as we can. The Turnbull Government is about achievement, implementation of reforms and we work constructively with the Senate that the people of Australia have given us.
Kim Landers: Alright, Minister, thank you very much for speaking with AM.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks so much, Kim.
Kim Landers: And that is the Minister for Education, Senator Simon Birmingham.