Simon Birmingham: … it’s a big investment that we’re making, and of course ties in to Malcolm Turnbull’s vision that Australia is an innovative and creative nation, and our ambition to ensure that our researchers, our universities, our CSIRO all collaborate and work with industry to make Australia as prosperous and innovative and clever as possible in the future.
Question: So what sort of things, what sort of opportunities are you looking to fund with these grants?
Simon Birmingham: There are a whole range of research projects, from those in terms of better environmental management that can improve public policy outcomes through to really innovative areas of scientific research that can create new metals fabrication processes and the like, which can help all manner of Australian industry to expand in the future.
Question: And what- going on to talk about HECS and VET loans, should Australians have to pay their HECS and VET loans at their death, you know, will you be chasing their estates post their death?
Simon Birmingham: I’ve said I’m open to a conversation about how we might do something that is fair and reasonable around recovery of HECS loans when people die. And of course, nobody wants a situation where the Government is chasing somebody for student debt if they’ve died in tragic circumstances and are leaving dependent children behind or the like. But equally, we shouldn’t be having people racking up HECS debts in their retirement years, never looking like they’re going to repay them, and yet leaving large estates for their children. So I think there are some sensible options to consider there, and I’m all up for that conversation.
Question: But do you think it should come out of their estate?
Simon Birmingham: Well the logical thing to do in cases where people have large sums of money at the point of death without dependent children who need support is of course to have a look at whether you can recover any remaining HECS debts.
Question: And for those Australians that might be living overseas that have accrued a HECS debt or a VET loan, do you have any agreements or are you in discussions with any other countries about agreements to recover those debts?
Simon Birmingham: We’re passing legislation through the Parliament to make sure that we can chase down people with debts overseas, and we will then be striking of course information sharing agreements with a number of countries, some of whom we already have many of those principles in place in terms of the sharing of tax information, but we’ll be looking to make sure we expand that. And of course it’s a mutual challenge for countries; it’s not just Australia that has a student loan scheme whereby we want people who move overseas to repay it. Other friendly countries like New Zealand or the United Kingdom have their own models and have similar trials to what we have.
Question: Have any other countries approached you for a similar sort of agreement?
Simon Birmingham: Well I’ve not been in those discussions as yet, but I do understand we cooperate on a reciprocal basis with many countries in terms of tax information generally, and so the ambition is to make sure that that extends to the recovery of student loans as well as[indistinct]. But put simply, people should not be able to escape repaying their student loan to Australian taxpayers just by moving overseas.
Question: Now you- there was some talk about dodgy training colleges earlier in the year and also the reforms that you announced in the last Parliament. So far have you seen any evidence that they’re actually looking to cut down on some of that [indistinct]?
Simon Birmingham: There are three tranches of reforms that we put in place for dodgy training providers, some started on 1 April, some started 1 July, and the final tranche is scheduled to start on 1 January next year. So I’ve seen some positive change in behaviour in the sector, but more is needed in terms of providers responding to the types of new criteria we put in place. We’ve banned incentives, giveaway iPads, fuel vouchers or the like. We’re ensuring that people have to have minimum academic requirements to start in one of these courses at year 12 or equivalent standard, and we’re making sure that providers will no longer be able to charge the whole fee in one hit upfront, but will instead be paid on the progression of the student through the actual course.
These are all important changes, but I and Luke Hartsuyker, the Minister now for Vocational Education and Skills have asked for additional options to be provided to us to make sure that we are considering everything possible to get the VET Fee Help scheme working in the interest of students and taxpayers, not in the interest of shonksters and fraudsters.
Question: Is it a matter of time – if you need the timeframe of a year or something to [indistinct] successful [indistinct]?
Simon Birmingham: We’ve moved quite quickly to implement the forms that clean up the mess that Labor created from this scheme, and it’s quite analogous too to think that scheme, in terms of the way it is just placed in the taxpayers’ money. But I always said we were open to considering other measures, and we will look at other measures in the [indistinct] in the wake(*) of [indistinct] justices, how the existing [indistinct] walk(*) through it, and anything we can merit or [indistinct] proposal, we can improve the quality of training and standards, and the value for money for taxpayers and students is something that we will consider.
Question: Just a few more. On the Defence White Paper, have you got any idea about time frames released? When will we see it released publicly?
Simon Birmingham: That’s really a matter for the National Security Committee of Cabinet, and so I’m not in a position to be able to say when it is likely to be released, but I know that Marise Payne and the Government are working hard to see that white paper finalised.
Question: Do you think possibly by the end of this calendar year?
Simon Birmingham: That would be outside my knowledge to speculate.
Question: Do you think the Government now can trust ASC to build submarines here in Australia, in South Australia, let alone canoes?
Simon Birmingham: I know that Malcolm Turnbull and Marise Payne and the Government has great confidence in the skills and capabilities of ASC and South Australia’s defence industries generally, and I know that Malcolm Turnbull wants to see as much work done in South Australia as it possibly can be with [indistinct].
Question: On the idea of a nuclear waste dump in South Australia, is that something that you would support?
Simon Birmingham: I think that the idea of expanding our involvement in a nuclear fuel cycle is a sensible thing for South Australia. We should be having a look at how we can take the raw product that we currently export in terms of uranium and value add that as much as possible. And I hope and trust that the Royal Commission will identify pathways that are economically and environmentally sensible to allow us to get more value for money, more value for our buck out of what South Australia currently does in exporting uranium.
Question: Do you think there’s further scope for South Australia to develop its nuclear industry?
Simon Birmingham: There’s enormous potential for South Australia to develop its nuclear industry. It also has to make economic sense to do so, and of course we have to have strong environmental safeguards in place. But if those two hurdles can be cleared, and the Royal Commission gives a tick as to ways we can expand our involvement in the nuclear fuel cycle, then we should absolutely embrace the opportunity, which will have the potential to create millions of dollars in additional revenue for the state, and of course potentially many more jobs.