Release type: Transcript


Sky News AM Agenda with Kieran Gilbert


Senator the Hon Simon Birmingham
Assistant Minister for Education and Training

Subject:  Higher Education Reforms; Gun Control


KIERAN GILBERT: Thanks very much for your company this morning, with me now Liberal front bencher, the Assistant Education Minister, Senator Simon Birmingham and the Shadow Minister for Citizenship, Michelle Rowland, good to see you both. Michelle Rowland, in terms of the higher education reforms, the minister, we’ll get to the Assistant Minister in just a moment, but Labor’s position, you’re not going to budge one bit despite the urging of the Vice-Chancellors and others?

MICHELLE ROWLAND: We’re not because we believe that this is an issue of equality for all Australians to have the opportunity, if they so choose, to have a higher education.

KIERAN GILBERT: Even if that’s a diminishing education? 

MICHELLE ROWLAND: Well we know that it will diminish immediately if you have people locked out because they can’t afford these degrees and it will be diminished also for the country as a whole if we are held to ransom in the way that Minister Pyne is proposing, and we have science funding linked to this, this will mean 1,700 scientists having their funding cut off. This is no way to run policies…

KIERAN GILBERT: Why did the Minister do that and issue that ultimatum? Is that the right thing to do?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Kieran, it’s not an ultimatum this is just a fact of the budget situation that the Labor party left this science program, this research program unfunded from 30th June this year. As you know, as Michelle well knows, budgets in this country are rolled out over a four year cycle and when we came to office, funding for this science and research program finished 30 July this year. So it was funded for less than half of the forward estimates of the budget. We had to find money to fund that programme, we think it’s of value, we’ve found the funding to do it, that funding though to do so is contained within the higher education reforms, If it is not found from there, savings would have to be found somewhere else. 

KIERAN GILBERT: So why not find them if it’s that much of a priority?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Kieran, we have found them, they’re found in the higher education reforms and those reforms are before the parliament and that is the way we think it is best to provide security to this programme, but most importantly to achieve a significant reform to how higher education works in this country.

KIERAN GILBERT: It’s an ultimatum though, isn’t it? It is an ultimatum…

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: …It’s not an ultimatum…

KIERAN GILBERT: …the Minister said to the cross bench, if you don’t back it, 1,700 jobs gone.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Kieran, this package is far bigger than that, far bigger than that. Yes, the NCRIS programme, this science and research infrastructure programme, is important but, the overall higher education package is far, far bigger than one programme. As Minister Pyne has made very clear, he will happily negotiate with anybody, the Labor party included, on any aspect of this except of course the core element of it being the deregulation of university fees. Kieran, that means that everything else is on the table…

KIERAN GILBERT: Is there any prospect of that deal being done?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well Kieran, let’s actually deal with the policy here, the value of the policy, let me quote, not Christopher Pyne, not Tony Abbott, but Peter Beattie, the former Labor Premier writing in today’s Australian “Without funding reform, Australia’s universities will inevitably slip towards mediocrity and the quality of Australian graduates will decline in relation to our international competitors, that’s what’s at stake here.”

KIERAN GILBERT: Let’s get Michelle Rowland on that because, I guess, and underpinning that at the core of this debate is the fact that we have a situation in higher education where under the former Labor government, one arm or one half of higher education was deregulated in that the number of students going in has been uncapped, essentially deregulated, whereas the prices haven’t, therefore, more students, prices fixed, the quality has diminished as Peter Beattie said. 

MICHELLE ROWLAND: Well firstly, Peter Beattie can have his own views on this matter, but our view is very clear…

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: …and John Dawkins and Maxine McKew…

MICHELLE ROWLAND: …we’re not going to wear a situation where we have basically locking people out of university, locking people out who live in Western Sydney, people in Western Sydney being locked out…

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: …this is an outrageous scare campaign; nobody pays a cent upfront, Michelle…

MICHELLE ROWLAND: … the fact is, just give me a moment, the fact is Kieran, this is purely ideologically driven, purely ideologically driven because you wouldn’t have the government attempting to link this science funding to this issue if it was so critical to their budget bottom line and so critical to their reforms. The reality is, they have kicked an own goal…


MICHELLE: …They are back pedalling a hundred miles an hour since they floated this idea of having science funding linked to this issue. The cross bench have rebelled against it, and go ahead kick your own goals, and I’ve even seen, you know, this government is willing to take this to an election. Go for your life, go for your life, you want to make this an election issue for the next election, be my guest.

KIERAN GILBERT: Ok, let’s hear Senator Birmingham just on the prospect of this passing. Listening to all of the cross bench except for Senator Day from South Australia, every other cross bencher has concerns ranging from mild concerns to outright hostility to this set of laws. I don’t see how it has any chance of passing, it doesn’t, does it?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM:  Well Kieran, we will keep working as hard as we possibly can until the final vote is cast and we are open to discussions with absolutely everybody because this is a fundamental reform. It builds on what I would say are proud Labor reforms. It builds on the HECS scheme introduced by the Hawke government; it builds on that HECS scheme because not one student has to pay upfront. So it’s a complete scare campaign of Michelle’s to be saying it locks students out, in fact, quite the opposite, the Labor party’s policy, the so called ComPacks that Kim Carr wants to reintroduce, that will put caps on what universities can take, that will determine what courses universities can offer, that’s what will lock students out. Ours gives the universities the capacity to have the freedom to excel, to run themselves and it is doing exactly what senior Labor figures, like Peter Beattie, like former Education Minister John Dawkins, like Maxine McKew, like Bruce Chapman the architect of HECS, all of them endorse reform along with 40 of 41 Vice-Chancellors. 

KIERAN GILBERT: I want to move on, I want to ask about the gun laws, this idea of mandatory sentencing for those that traffic illegal firearms, five years mandatory sentence. Will Labor consider that?

MICHELLE ROWLAND: We have to see, firstly, what legislation is going to be, I see the Prime Minister saying this is going to be reintroduced, I’d like to see in what form it is, but can I just remind you that Labor wanted very serious sentences for trafficking, they appeared to be watered down and we introduced those laws in 2012 and they lapsed with the change of the parliament, but it isn’t some, you know, some flight of fancy to say that mandatory sentences actually don’t have the desired effect. You only have to look at some of the people who will sit in the Senator’s corner here sometimes, you know, the institute of public affairs has even pointed out this isn’t a left wing issue, this has serious implications for judicial discretion, it has serious implications for defendants who will seek to strongly contest mandatory sentencing and also what sort of deterrent effect it has. Now, if there’s evidence that shows that this, in fact, isn’t the case then I’d be very willing to see it and consider it but, all the evidence shows that this won’t work but, I will say Kieran, Labor is absolutely committed to making sure we have a bipartisan approach to issues of national security, but on issues of mandatory sentencing, you have to look at the policies that work. You have to look at the evidence.

KIERAN GILBERT: Let’s here Senator Birmingham in response to the concerns, as outlined by Michelle Rowland this morning.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well I can’t quite work out from Michelle’s answer whether they are open to supporting the legislation or not, Kieran. We are bringing back in to the parliament, legislation that will put in place a form of mandatory sentencing, there are more than 250,000 illegal firearms estimated to be in circulation in Australia, the Labor party, when they were in government, cut back the level of screening that was happening at our customs boarders, they cut back the level of potential for intervention, we’ve put $88 million back in to identification and screening and making sure that our customs are as able as possible to be able to pick up these weapons on the way through but, we want to ratchet up the deterrent level as well, that is exactly what this legislation is about, the Labor party can’t have it both ways, they’re either for tougher penalties in this space, getting on board with the government making sure we stop these illegal firearms from entering Australia, or they’re not. 

KIERAN GILBERT: Ok we’re out of time. Assistant Education Minister, Simon Birmingham and Labor front bencher, Michelle Rowland thanks so much this morning.