22 November 2017




ALI CLARKE: Let’s start with education, now yesterday the State Government announced an investment of $110 million in funding into independent, public and Catholic schools.

Now they said part of that investment, that’s because they are claiming that you and the Federal Government have pinched over $200 million of their funding. Do you think the states and South Australia at least have to pick up the slack that you’ve dropped?

SENATOR SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well I think in this case it’s South Australia picking up its own slack. South Australia has supported non-government schools less than any other state or territory. They’ve been the most parsimonious and mean spirited when it comes to supporting the non-government school sector. So I welcome the fact, at long last, the Labor Government here, having been in office nearly 16 years, has decided that just before an election, they’ll catch up in terms of the type of support provided in SA relative to other states and territories. It’s good news for parents in terms of their ability to make a choice.

Of course our reforms earlier this year provided more than $750 million of additional funding across schools in SA, the bulk of that, of course, rightly going into the Government school sector as part of a needs-based funding model. But it did provide additional support as well in non-government schools across SA too.

CLARKE: On that note I will introduce and say good morning to Penny Wong, SA Labor Senator and Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister who joins us. Hi Penny.


CLARKE: And also Greens spokesperson on trade, Sarah Hanson-Young.


CLARKE: Hi Sarah. Your points and your take on this funding to and fro between the States and Feds over this funding for our schools?

HANSON-YOUNG: Well look apologies for the background noise. I’ve just touched down in Canberra and still on the tarmac here. I think this is a really worrying trend actually when there is now a bidding war between State and Federal Governments on who can spend more money on private schools; on Catholic schools and independent schools when we know overwhelmingly the majority of our kids go to public schools and our public schools are chronically underfunded.

I’ll look at the details of this from the Weatherill Government but I must say, I know my daughter goes to a State school in Adelaide. Our public schools need a huge injection and that’s where the priority should be.

CLARKE: Well you’ve said you’ve just touched down in Canberra, let’s get to the fact that, you’re all Senators so you’ll of course have to work next week, but the Prime Minister, of course, has said the House of Representatives won’t be sitting. Simon Birmingham did you agree with this decision?

BIRMINGHAM: Well look, absolutely. It’s not unusual for the Government to reorder the sitting schedule, it’s happened two previous times over the last couple of years. This is just a case of government as usual, and getting on with making sure we can get the best approach in terms of taxpayer value for money when the Parliament sits and we’ve said we want to see the same-sex marriage legislation passed this year.

We don’t want to have to have extra sitting weeks in order to make that happen, so the most logical thing is that the Senate has all of next week to get that done and then we have up to two House of Representatives’ sitting weeks still available to ensure that’s resolved, the citizenship issues are resolved, so that we can get all of these issues cleaned up for Australians.

CLARKE: Tony Abbott didn’t agree with the decision though, did he? He was on Sky last night saying look, you might not always want to go back to Parliament but you always have to go back to Parliament because that’s your job.

BIRMINGHAM: Well you have to go back to Parliament when the Parliament is in session. There will be indeed up to two extra House of Representatives sitting weeks as were always planned. We’ll make sure though that they’re scheduled in a sequential way so the Senate can do its business and then the House of Representatives can get on with its business.

I mean really this is the Labor Party and others trying to squeal and cause a bit of political trouble out of this. I understand their interest in the Parliament sitting…

WONG: Oh, come on…

BIRMINGHAM: Their interest in the Parliament sitting is more game-playing and what type of political tactics they can deploy. The Government’s interest is actually in seeing legislation passed. The will of the Australian people, in relation to the plebiscite acted upon.

CLARKE: Well Penny Wong, is that you squealing?

WONG: I don’t know if I was squealing, I was groaning. Look, the Prime Minister cancelled Parliament because he’s scared about losing a vote on a Royal Commission, he’s scared about losing a vote to protect penalty rates and he’s scared of his Party Room.

This isn’t normal. We cancelled a week of Parliament, I think during the tragedy of the Bali Bombings. You don’t just rock up as a Prime Minister and say “I’m a bit worried about what’s going to happen in my Party Room, bit worried about what’s going to happen on the floor of Parliament because I’m a vote down and I know the crossbenchers and some of my own party actually support a Royal Commission into banks. I know some people actually support protecting penalty rates, so I’m just going to cancel democracy for a week”.

The arguments are spurious that Simon’s just put forward. He knows the Senate will finish with the marriage equality bill in plenty of time for the Parliament to deal with it. But I’ve just got to say, what does this say about the chaos in the Turnbull Government that you’ve got Malcolm Turnbull so scared about his own job that he wants to cancel the Australian Parliament to suit himself. It’s extraordinary.

CLARKE: Simon Birmingham, you do get what this looks like to the average person, don’t you?

BIRMINGHAM: Well I get that if people take the spin that Penny’s putting on it they would see it in a negative light but what I would urge people to understand is that earlier this year the sitting schedule was changed for this year to accommodate various international events. Last year the sitting schedule was changed by the Government. This is another change of the sitting schedule by the Government…

WONG: Oh come on…

BIRMINGHAM: …to accommodate circumstances. In this case it’s the circumstances saying we don’t want the House of Representatives to get to the end of its current or previously scheduled sittings, still not have dealt with the citizenship issues, still not have dealt with the same-sex marriage legislation, force upon Australian taxpayers then an additional sitting week when instead we could simply change the sitting weeks. It’s not that we’re not having Parliament sit. Parliament will sit, Parliament will be able to deal with these matters, it’s just going to sit in different weeks, that’s all.

WONG: So will you sit until all the citizenship matters are dealt with? Or are we going to see the same thing that the Prime Minister tried to do when he put up his so called plan for disclosure which he’s had to toughen up because of Labor pressure? Where you were going to try and push all of the citizenship issues off to after the Christmas break. You were trying to skate through not having to deal with it. This is the consequence.

CLARKE: Well will you Simon Birmingham?

BIRMINGHAM: The motion in the House of Representatives to deal with all the citizenship issues will be the first order of business when the House resumes. There will basically be one day for people to comply with that because everybody knows the details now that the Senate has agreed upon a motion. There will be one day for people to get their declarations in and then absolutely they will all be dealt with.

The whole point, in part, of changing the sitting schedule is to allow that and same-sex marriage to be dealt with in an orderly, sequential matter.

WONG: Right, so we’re going to have one week where we have to deal with both marriage equality and citizenship. The more the Liberal Party explain this the clearer the message is: Prime Minister cancelling democracy because he’s scared of his Party Room and scared of the Parliament.

CLARKE: Sarah Hanson-Young you’ve been listening to this as you’ve no doubt gotten off the plane by now. Your thoughts?

HANSON-YOUNG: Oh look, this is just, let’s just call bullshit on this, really. The fact is the Prime Minister doesn’t have the numbers in the next week in Parliament. He’s worried about things like a Royal Commission into the banks. It’s got nothing to do with prioritising marriage equality. If the Prime Minister wanted to prioritise marriage equality we would have got it done and dusted a long time ago.

Just because the Prime Minister wants to have a doona day, I’m sorry, the rest of the country has to get up and go to work. Really. Next time my daughter complains about not wanting to go to school because there’s a maths test, I’m going to give her Malcolm Turnbull’s number.

CLARKE: Simon Birmingham, Bob Katter raised the point of what about all say charity groups or other groups that have made appointments to meet with people, I mean, what will happen? What will happen to them?

BIRMINGHAM: Well look, obviously the Senate will be there in the scheduled week, people will be able to continue to have meetings and events if they choose to. They’re able equally to reschedule those meeting events.

As I said, this is not exactly unprecedented. The Parliamentary schedule for this year has already been changed once before this year. Last year the sitting schedule was changed on an occasion. This is not at all unusual for the Parliament to rearrange the weeks for the sittings to make sure that is best aligns with the business of government. That’s what we want the Parliament to sit for. We don’t want the Parliament to sit so that Penny and the Labor Party can play games or pull political stunts. We want the Parliament to sit to get on with the business of government. That’s what we’re scheduling it to do.

CLARKE: On that Penny Wong, will any of your Labor peers be turning up next week regardless?

WONG: We still have a Shadow Cabinet meeting so we’re not going to be cancelling that. So certainly the Shadow Cabinet will be there and the Senators will be there. I think obviously other MPs aren’t required now because of this decision but the leadership of the Labor Party will be there. If Malcolm wants to change his mind we’re also happy to sit.

CLARKE: Is that a waste of money?

WONG: Having a Shadow Cabinet? No, unlike the Government we think it’s probably a good thing to actually try and develop policy and think about what you’re going to announce before you announce it.

At the moment what we see from the Government is announcement after announcement without, frankly, much work being done. It’s just one of the most chaotic periods I’ve ever seen to be honest with you.

CLARKE: So much has been made of the modelling on the Government’s new energy policy. Savings now of up to $400 annually we’ve been told for households. This has all been had down this new modelling ahead of the COAG meeting on Fridays with all of the Energy Ministers. Now South Australia’s Energy Minister is refuting the benefits to this State. Sarah Hanson-Young do you find any comfort in these new figures from the Government?

HANSON-YOUNG: No not really. What it does is it shows that South Australia is still going to have locked-in the highest prices in the country. But in addition to that, of course, it’s going to make it even harder for renewable energy, and our State is the renewable energy State. Industries in our state who want to invest should be being supported not having hurdle after hurdle put in front of them.

And of course overall Ali, I’m really worried about what this means for climate change. We have to reduce pollution in order to address climate change and this NEG, this energy guarantee, which is nothing but a guarantee to make climate change worse, is really going in the wrong direction.

CLARKE: Well Simon Birmingham, this NEG, the National Energy Guarantee, the Energy Minister here Koutsantonis says that this will entrench large energy monopolies and push up prices here in SA. How will South Australia not be charged more than anything else?

BIRMINGHAM: Well Tom Koutsantonis is just dead wrong and sadly he’s showing an absolute unwillingness to get on with good and constructive policy development. Just yesterday the Council of Trade Unions, the Council of Social Services, together in a statement with the Australian Industry Group and various energy bodies, all urged States, Territories, Labor, Liberal, to get on with the job of developing and implementing the National Energy Guarantee.

So you have this huge sway of those outside of politics, lobby groups from the unions right through to the industry groups, urging us to implement this policy. Really, Tom Koutsantonis and Jay Weatherill ought to stop the game playing. I know that their entire playbook is about endlessly having arguments with the Federal Government. Well this is not something to argue over, this is something to get on to work with us constructively, to see it implemented, because yes the modelling shows that it can save households and businesses significant funds in terms of the energy prices in the future.

$400 or $120 compared to business as usual for an average household, significantly more, potentially 20 per cent plus for many businesses. It’s modelling that’s been undertaken by Frontier Economics, the same people Jay Weatherill and Tom Koutsantonis used in modelling their own energy policy. So they can’t dispute credibility of the modelling and it shows there’ll be savings and we have even the Council of Trade Unions urging them to come aboard and support us in development of this policy.

CLARKE: Well Penny Wong, there you go, this is the panacea, this is the all fix here, so you’ll…

WONG: I tell you what, it’s pretty funny isn’t it?. Nearly half a decade after they’re elected, we now have a Federal Government who’s presided over a complete mess in our National Electricity Market saying to everybody “ah, you’ve got to get behind us now that we’ve finally decided that we’re going to stop fighting each other and having national electricity policy caught in the fight in the Liberal Party room. Now can you just please all lock in behind us”.

Let’s understand a few points here. The energy market is in a mess, the uncertainty is increasing prices and it is preventing investment which is also impacting upon supply. So the business as usual trajectory is a chaotic one. So any policy, basically, is going to be better than the business as usual because at least there’ll be some certainty.

CLARKE: To be fair though Penny Wong. This mess that it’s supposedly in hasn’t happened overnight. I mean the fallout of it has…

WONG: No, the mess is because we had a carbon system in place which the Government then removed and didn’t replace with anything. That’s why the mess has been created, fundamentally.

Secondly, on the modelling. It’s pretty funny that we’re releasing modelling how long after the announcement’s actually made? So we have an announcement where the Government spends a fair bit of time on a glossy pamphlet telling everybody what the National Electricity Guarantee is. They tell people prices are going to come down. People then find out the back of the envelope calculations are about 50 cents a week. So they run off and do some modelling which they don’t release but they give to the papers ahead of Friday.

Now this is a chaotic way to run a complex and important area of policy.

CLARKE: Simon Birmingham, would you like to respond?

BIRMINGHAM: But after all that you’ve said Penny, do you agree with the ACTU that everybody should get on with actually supporting the development and the implementation of the National Energy Guarantee. We’ve spelled it out, we’ve laid out the policy direction…

WONG: Do you agree with the ACTU on your politically motivated Royal Commission? Do you agree with the ACTU on right of entry? Do you agree with the ACTU on freedom of negotiation? Come on.

BIRMINGHAM: I’m not your party though Penny, I don’t give the union movement votes in my party conferences. You rely an awful lot on the trade union movement and of course you and most of your members come from trade union backgrounds.

WONG: Here we go. You couldn’t wait could you? You tried to use the ACTU as a reason why we should agree and now you’re saying so, you’re owned by the trade unions. You’ve got to get your line right Simon.

BIRMINGHAM: No, no Penny, I’m simply asking you a straight question. You went on and on and on talking about energy policy but you never actually offered a position on the National Energy Guarantee. Now we have a long list…

WONG: Well you show me what the policy actually is?

BIRMINGHAM: A long list of people across the political spectrum saying we should get on with it and get it implemented. Do you agree? Do you support their position?

CLARKE: Do you support this Penny Wong?

BIRMINGHAM: Do you think that Jay Weatherill and Tom Koutsantonis should be far more constructive than they are being?

WONG: You keep asking me a question, do you want me to give an answer?

CLARKE: Yes, let’s do that.

WONG: Why don’t you show me what the policy is? You’ve given us an eight-page glossy document. You’ve given us an indication that what the NEG actually does is reduce the proportion of renewables in the mix and we know that that is one of the best ways to keep prices down. In terms of new capacity is renewables. And now you’ve released some modelling to some newspapers and you want us to sign up. Give us a break.

CLARKE: Okay I’m starting to feel like I used to feel when mum and dad were fighting so…

WONG: Hey, hey, I don’t want to be your mum. (laughter)

BIRMINGHAM: (laughter)

CLARKE: Okay well on that note, we might leave it there.