Australian Agenda - Sky News Australia with Peter Van Onselen and Paul Kelly, Editor-at-large, The Australian
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Well, to largely focus in on issues around education but I’m sure we’ll go wider than that as well, we’re joined live out of Adelaide now as mentioned by the Education Minister as well as the Leader of the House, Christopher Pyne. Thanks very much for your company.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Good Morning Peter
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Can I just start by asking before we get to education, do you think that Bill Shorten is an economic girly man?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: [Laughs] Well, I’m not going to comment on that particular issue. I think the point that Mathias was making is that Bill Shorten wants to have it both ways. He wants to have his cake and eat it too which is very nice if you can get it but quite frankly it’s not that easy. Bill Shorten wants to be able to promise everyone everything they want to hear and spend all the amount of money that costs while also pretending to be economically rectitudinous and quite frankly both those things don’t work. The public knows that though. They know that you have to be firm in controlling the Treasury and that’s why after six years of Labor profligacy they elected a Liberal Government to fix the problem. They did the same thing with the Howard Government, they did the same thing with the Fraser Government, the same thing with the Menzies Government. It is part of, unfortunately, part of Australia’s historical cycle and Bill Shorten looks like he’s part of the same old Labor tax and spend policies we’ve been used to for decades.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: So, if as you say Senator Cormann’s aim was to point out fiscal rectitude as you put it, was the best way to do that to liken the opposition leader to a woman?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well, I think Mathias Cormann used a colourful phrase and I have to say it’s unusual for Mathias to use a colourful phrase but it’s obviously captured the attention of some people. I don’t think it’s the most important issue floating past us today but the point he was making was that you can’t promise everyone the world, spending tens of billions of dollars. I mean the real issue pending at the next election is going to be where is the money coming from for all of Mr Shortens promises? He’s been a national complaints box. He has promised everyone everything they want to hear but he’s going to have to pay for it and at the next election he’s going to have to explain where is the money going to come from for all of these promises he’s made to every single interest group in Australia.
PAUL KELLY: Minister, given the unacceptable emails being released from Professor Spurr the English advisor to the national curriculum changes, do you stand by that report in relation to the English curriculum or do you accept the critique by some Labor front benches that that’s got to be re-assessed?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: I stand by it absolutely. I certainly don’t support the private emails of Barry Spurr and the things that he said in those emails. I would point out that they were stolen from his private email account and it’s very unfortunate that he expressed those views that he did, but that’s a matter for him and he has an explanation for that. I didn’t appoint him to review the English curriculum. Kevin Donnelly and Kim Wiltshire did but the review of the national curriculum is a very good review and it has been widely supported and even the review of the English curriculum was widely supported in the days after its release. Someone has decided to try and sabotage that part of the review by releasing these emails and quite frankly, I’m not going to be thrown off course by this issue. The University of Sydney has acted on the matter. I don’t obviously endorse the remarks he made in those emails, but it doesn’t mean that the review of the curriculum has in any way been traduced and I will continue to press for it to be adopted or mostly adopted by the states and territories working collaboratively with them and it will be a shame if the left now tried to use this as an excuse for not improving the curriculum so that our students can get better outcomes.
PAUL KELLY: Isn’t the reality of this report however, contrary to what you have been saying that this is quite an ideological document in relation to both English and History; in relation to History it wants emphasis on western civilisation which would appear to be an ideological position and the same can be said of some of the reforms to the English curriculum?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: No, I don’t agree with that Paul. I think it’s quite ideology free. In terms of western civilisation it says that there isn’t enough emphasis on our heritage. Now our heritage is western civilisation. Now before 1788, it was certainly all indigenous, Since 1788 it’s been colonial, it’s been western civilisation and quite frankly, not to have that in the national curriculum as a major part of it is an enormous omission. So simply saying that western civilisation should be part of our curriculum is just saying our heritage should be taught to our students. So that’s not ideological. It also says that the themes of Australia’s place in Asia, Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander history and sustainability have been used to try and squeeze curriculum into those themes where it should be the other way around. The curriculum should stand for itself and the themes should match the curriculum when they do. And that’s all the review says and I agree with that and it says that we should de-clutter primary schools and give students more depth rather than breadth and I don’t think anybody will disagree with that so I think there’s a lot in the curriculum review that the state and territory ministers will agree to. As you said in your introduction, they decide whether the curriculum is altered and I hope that they will not block changes for political reasons, but my sense is that they won’t.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: What about the trial of businesses being involved in the teaching of school children? It’s one thing to look at those synergies when it comes to higher education of one form or another but do you have any concerns that that sort of a trail could lead to a sort of corporatisation of the school sector?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: No I don’t and I think suggestions that make the case are rather exaggerated. The P-Tech trial is about involving business, especially local business in particular areas in schooling just like technical colleges which I think is a very good idea. I think the public, the parents of school age children were very in favour of technical colleges. Labor effectively abolished them when they got elected because they weren’t a unionised workforce. I suspect. But technology and technical colleges are a good idea. Involving business and local business in particular in the training and skills of young people is a sensible and common sense approach and I want to see this trial successful and the P-Tech schools in the United States have been successful and we’ll see how it proceeds.
PAUL KELLY: In relation to the University First issue, have you finalised your thinking on the precise compromise that you are prepared to accept in relation to interest rates covering HECS debt to ease the burden on students and if you have can you spell that out for us?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well Paul I think the thing about negotiation is it’s constantly changing and I am quite prepared to negotiate with the cross-benches on the Senate. I would have been prepared to negotiate with Labor or the Greens in fact if they had played themselves into this debate rather than standing on the side-lines holding their breath till they turned blue which seems to be what they have decided to do. But I will talk to the cross-benches and I am continuing to talk to them. I think we are getting closer to an outcome.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: You seem to suggest though Minister that you think that they are changing the goalposts a bit on the way through?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well that’s what happens with negotiations Peter and they will change the goalposts, they’ll change them again and again.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: That must be frustrating.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: No I don’t find it frustrating. I find it part of the process. The House of Representatives has passed the Government's legislation. We’d like to see it all passed in its entirety. But the reality is that for the past 37 of the last 40 years, governments have not controlled the Senate and I’m more than happy to negotiate with the cross-benches. And I am making great progress and I believe in the next few weeks there will be a final result on University reform and it’ll be good for students, good for our universities. Sure some things will change in the package. The ten year government bond rate which is what Paul has alluded to in terms of the interest charged on the HECS debt is one of the aspects that the Senate might well want to look at and if they do, we will talk to them about how that might work. Because I want to see a reform, I’m not going to be dogmatic about it. I want to see a reform and I think the elements of the reform that are key are the deregulation of the universities and I believe that will happen.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Are you concerned though that as I understand it the finance team are concerned that the sorts of things that get negotiated away are exactly the sorts of things that you were talking about at the start of this interview? The importance of fiscal consolidation that you could be forced to negotiate away; the rate at which HECS is repaid, you might be forced to negotiate away the full 20 per cent reduction in Government funding that goes with the deregulation. Are you as concerned as the finance team about that sort of impact on the budget?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well Peter I don’t think I’m letting you in on a secret when I say that finance is always the most concerned about the fiscal consolidation and other departments are always slightly less concerned. We all want to bring about a return to surplus, but the Prime Minister and I are very keen to ensure that there is a reform. The higher education reform that’s on the table is far-reaching and important. Certainly there will be negotiation around it but I don’t believe that the key elements will be negotiated away. There will be savings, particularly structural savings in the medium to long term and universities will be given the opportunity to find new sources of revenue. And they are what is important to this reform but I haven’t had any discussions with as you call it finance that would suggest to me that they are worried at all because quite frankly we have not negotiated away anything at this stage.
PAUL KELLY: Those earlier comments that you made Minister were pretty optimistic about getting this reform through.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: I’m an optimistic person Paul.
PAUL KELLY: I know you are an optimistic person so given that, are you saying that you are pretty confident that you will actually get it through this year?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: I believe that there will be a reform bill passed this year yes and my conversations with the cross bench tell me that the more information that they are finding out about the measures, the more conversations they are having with vice chancellors and people in the sector, the more they are realising that standing still is not an option. The status quo is not an option. There must be reform and Labor who recognised this in Government have behaved like vandals in their response to this by not being part of the conversation about bringing about a better university system. Now I understand that Kim Carr believes that somehow they’ll be able to force the Government to a double dissolution election which Kim Carr believes Labor will win. Now that is really political opportunism rather than being part of good policy development. And the Howard opposition and the Peacock opposition, even the Beazley and Crean opposition were much more constructive in their approach to the Government.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: What about the Abbott opposition?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well we were much more constructive as well. I mean this is pathetic, when Labor knows that reform needs to happen and are simply standing in the way, well then they’ll get what they deserve which is to be irrelevant to the political process.
PAUL KELLY: I’d like to ask you about university standards given reports during the week about courses encouraging student activism and reports in The Australian are suggesting that some media and communications courses certainly lack proper academic rigour. So to what extent are you concerned that some universities and some university courses aren’t passing the mark and what can be done about that?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well that’s a good question Paul. Of course I’m concerned that some university courses are not passing the mark as you put it. I was concerned about the reports in The Australian this week about the media and communications courses at Sydney University and elsewhere. What can be done about it though is the sixty four dollar question. Now, Sydney University have said that they will not interfere in their courses because of academic freedom. And what we have to look at here is the overall reputational damage to the university. Sydney University has been damaged in several ways by so called academic freedom, not just the media and communications course exposed this week by The Australian but also of course the co called Centre for Peace Studies which has been running the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign out of that university against the state of Israel over the last several years. There comes a time when the university Senate has to decide about the reputational damage being done to an institution, but that’s a matter for them to determine. It’s not a matter for me to determine.
PAUL KELLY: But just on that point I know it’s not a matter for you to determine, but is this the sort of thing that you would discuss with the vice chancellor and have you?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: I’ve certainly had lots of conversations with vice chancellors.
PAUL KELLY: Have you discussed this issue with the Sydney University Vice Chancellor?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: I wrote. I believe I wrote. I certainly communicated through the pages of The Australian, but I think I wrote to the Sydney University about the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign some months ago. I have not written or communicated with Sydney University about the media and communications course. No that’s not my plan to do that. See education ministers should not try and interfere in the day to day running of universities. That’s not our role and of course and often sometimes opinions about these matters are in the eye of the beholder, so therefore it’s a slippery slope if you start getting involved in the day to day running of a university. The Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign I believe is anti-Semitic, it delegitimises the State of Israel and targets Jewish businesses. That to me is an anti-Semitic campaign. In terms of the media and communications course, I think the university should look themselves at the reputational damage being done to their institution by particular academics or courses.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Minister Pyne, You’re a South Australian Member of Parliament, are you as concerned about the prospect of subs no longer being built in South Australia as so many of your Liberal colleagues who came together during the week, including it has to be said Senator Fawcett who is himself a former Colonel in the military. Are you as concerned as they are about the idea that our subs might not be built in your home State?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well Peter, Labor is running a very irresponsible campaign trying to whip up fear in South Australia about the future of the Submarines.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: It seems to be working though amongst your own Liberal colleagues because we are not talking about Labor, we are talking about half a dozen of your own colleagues coming together from your home State to express concerns, including one of the most senior members of the coalition in terms of military experience, a former colonel.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well Peter it’s not half a dozen because there’s only half a dozen I have to tell you of us in the House of Representatives.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Including the Senate.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well let’s not split hairs. The point is Submarine Corporation has done a great job over several decades and whatever decisions the Government makes about where our next generation of submarines comes from, the vast majority of work will be done in Adelaide at Osborne throughout the life of the next generation of submarines; therefore the position at Osborne is perfectly secure. The workers who are there now, their jobs are secure. There’ll be more jobs at Osborne and more investment, so therefore the Oppositions campaign to create fear is utterly irresponsible and when that becomes clear by the way. When the decision is finally announced about the next generation of submarines and it’s apparent that Osborne will not be closing and that in fact there will be more jobs at Osborne and more investment in South Australia, I think that Labor again will look very silly and very opportunistic rather than the responsible Opposition trying to be a Government.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: But if all politics is local as the adage goes and you are the most senior local South Australian member of the Federal Government, cause you sound very confident there about the level of work that will stay local, at the highest levels you are taking a strong in even though it’s outside your portfolio because of that local connection?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: I am a fifth generation South Australian Peter and I take a very keen interest in the future of my great State and I’m working extremely hard to make sure that South Australia’s interests are secured in the decision for the next generation of submarines. Saying that though, of course it’s a Defence decision. It’s not an industry policy decision. It’s not a regional policy decision, it is a Defence decision. A decision made on our submarines will be made on what’s best for Australia’s defence. Happily that means that Osborne will be secured into the future because Adelaide is the only place where the through life support and maintenance can be done on a large scale. It’s the only place in Australia with the equipment to do it and the workforce to do it, so the hysteria that Labor is trying to whip up is extremely misplaced because whatever decision we make, Osborne will be the centre of submarine maintenance and ship building well into the future.