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Transcript of interview with Peter Van Onselen and Paul Kelly: Australian Agenda: 17 November 2013: Parliamentary standards; carbon tax; asylum seekers; debt ceiling; Higher Education system; school funding; Australian curriculum; HECS



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THE HON CHRISTOPHER PYNE MP Minister for Education Leader of the House

TRANSCRIPT

E&OE TRANSCRIPT

Sky News - Interview with Peter Van Onselen and Paul Kelly 17 November 2013 09:09am

SUBJECTS: Parliamentary standards, carbon tax, asylum seekers, debt ceiling, Higher Education system, school funding, Australian curriculum, HECS

PETER VAN ONSELEN:

And we're joined now out of Adelaide by the new leader of the house as well as Education Minister in the new Abbott Government Christopher Pyne. Welcome to the program.

CHRISTOPHER PYNE:

Good morning Peter, good morning Paul.

PETER VAN ONSELEN:

Can I just ask you off the top - it was Tony Abbott in that collection of images that said that parliament should not see motives impugned or characters assassinated; yet you opened things up by referring to the new opposition leader as Electricity Bill. Weren’t you're doing exactly what Tony Abbott said that this parliament should rise above.

CHRISTOPHER PYNE:

Peter I think it's referring to Bill Shorten as Electricity Bill is a far cry from impugning his character - or assassinating his character. I think Tony Abbott was talking about much more serious matters. The reality is that Bill Shorten wants people's electricity bills to stay high. He wants, at the end of the week basically, continuing to support the carbon tax and essentially wanting the boats to keep coming. What surprised me about this week is that Labor is in denial. That they haven't moved on from the last parliament. They lost the election and yet they're saying to the Australian public we're not going to accept the outcome of the people. We're going to vote against the abolition of the carbon tax and we're going to keep helping the people smugglers by wanting to provide them with information that will assist them in running their trade. I think that's a very bad political position for Labor to get themselves into.

PETER VAN ONSELEN:

So when you put together what you've just said then with the ruling that was done by Bronwyn Bishop - the new speaker - in relation to him being called Electricity Bill is the message for the opposition to expect more of this over the course of the next three years because that's what's coming?

CHRISTOPHER PYNE:

Well Labor should stop standing on their digs from the last parliament. We've not had four years of debating the carbon tax, emissions trading schemes, climate change. The public delivered a very strong on 7 September. We won ninety seats; Labor won fifty-five seats. Nobody could imagine that the election was not about the carbon tax - it was a referendum on the carbon tax. Labor had their lowest vote since 1903, their worst senate result since the senate increased to twelve in 1984. What more do the public need to say to the Labor Party about reducing electricity bills and cutting the carbon tax? But it seems at the end of this week, Labor is still insisting that the public are wrong Labor's right and the public have to change their mind. Well after twenty-one years in parliament I can tell you the public have a habit of insisting on their will.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Were you surprised to see the Labor Party go down a path of talking in areas - during the course of the first week - that were seen - or have long been seen - as weak points for the Labor Party? Asylum seekers, carbon tax - where they're blocking the repeal legislation - and of course the debt ceiling where they're looking to oppose the five-hundred billion dollars debt ceiling that the coalition wants. Were you surprised that their tactics saw them in a sense playing on what has long been firm ground for the coalition?

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well I was Peter. And I think the truth is that Labor are still sorting themselves out in opposition and there's a lot of tumult on that side of the house. We saw Kevin Rudd obviously resign on Wednesday night. Six members of the Labor caucus - out of fifty-five - missed a division on the first day of parliament on the Wednesday. Which is quite remarkable. More than ten per cent of their caucus failed to turn up to the parliament when they needed to.

PETER VAN ONSELEN:

But whether they were there or not it wouldn't have made any difference. You've got the numbers now so whether half the…

CHRISTOPHER PYNE:

No. But it rather indicates that they haven't moved on - that they're not quite sure what they're doing in opposition. So what they did was return to the themes that the opposition - the now government - the previous opposition have been running for the last six years. Because I think it's familiar ground. But the bizarre thing about that is the message to the Australian public is Labor wants the votes to keep coming; they want the carbon tax to remain in place. And on the debt ceiling they are trying to stop the new government from fixing the problems. And it - I mean we've used the theme this week but it's worth repeating, they're like a bad tenant who've trashed the rental and then when the tradesmen turn up to try and fix it after they've been evicted they start mugging the tradesmen. That's exactly how Labor's behaving.

PETER VAN ONSELEN:

But in fairness though you're like a new owner who's suddenly put the rent up because complained a lot about the debt ceiling being risen each time by Wayne Swan. Yet now suddenly you're looking to put it up a whopping amount from three-hundred to five-hundred billion dollars. I wonder what you would've thought had Labor tried that in government?

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well I think we're like a new tenant in this that the public have given us the opportunity to occupy who are mowing the lawns, fixing the roof, putting the house back together, cleaning the carpets, cleaning out the refrigerator, trying to get things done, taking the trash out. And Labor are trying to mug us while we do that. I think the public are going to be - sell the Labor Party very short on the tactics they've taken this week in parliament.

PETER VAN ONSELEN:

All right we've definitely overdone that analogy. Let's move on [laughs]…

CHRISTOPHER PYNE:

I think so.

PETER VAN ONSELEN:

Can I ask you Christopher Pyne about the new standing orders. Now I for one thought that the supplementary question was always something that worked quite well in the last parliament. You've abolished it - why?

CHRISTOPHER PYNE:

Mm. Well I think it was a bit of a pilot program in the last parliament and I don't think it was a very successful one. What we've tried to do is expand the time for members to be involved in spontaneous debate by introducing interventions in the parliament - in the House of Representatives. So that people can interrupt each other's speeches with useful questions or comments if the member wants to give way to their colleagues. I think that'll help more spontaneous discussion of issues in the parliament. I think question time worked well this week. It was calm, it was methodical, we went through the business of the day. We had twenty questions on both days - well on the first day. Labor cut off the question time on the second day but we would've had twenty questions.

The government isn't grandstanding - we're not standing up and telling the public how bad the opposition is and how marvellous the government is. We're actually answering questions. And we don't need supplementary questions in that circumstance. We want to lead by example. I think the parliament can be a lot better. And I'm going to try and bring that about as Leader of the House. And fortunately the Prime Minister agrees with me about that. And so we have the two people who are running that agenda both pointing in the same direction.

PAUL KELLY:

Look the reality of this parliament is that while you have got the numbers in the lower house you don't control the parliament. And Labor's made it very clear that it intends to play tough in relation to carbon, the debt ceiling, IR. So isn't there a risk for the government that its own program - that its own agenda - will be blocked in the parliament and denied. And how much of a political problem will this create for the new Abbott Government?

CHRISTOPHER PYNE:

Paul in the end I think that will work itself out. This is nothing like the forty-third parliament - thank goodness. We have a very clear majority in the lower house. The crossbenchers are no longer dominating the television news because every utterance of theirs in the forty-third parliament impacted upon government policy. In the senate we have to deal with the Greens and Labor until 1 July next year. And then we'll have crossbenchers who mostly are centre-right or right elected senators.

So that will be an improvement for the country I think because the Greens and Labor will lose their blocking power in the senate. But I would be very surprised if Labor - who are effectively a grand old party of Australian politics - want to delay until 1 July next year changes that the Liberal Party and the National Party promised before the election, we were elected upon and we're now implementing.

So in the end I think on the carbon tax, on border protection, on debt - on most other issues - I think Labor will come to an accommodation. Because effectively for their own survival they need to accept that the public elected the coalition not them. And if they try and delay everything until 1 July next year I don't think they'll be thanked by the Australian public.

PAUL KELLY:

Well can I assume from that answer that you are not holding out the threat of a double dissolution against the Labor Party? You haven't mentioned that at all. Can we therefore assume that this is not a realistic proposition and it's off the agenda?

CHRISTOPHER PYNE:

Well we don't want to go back to the Australian public for three years. I mean that's the term of the parliament. We want to have a three-year term of stability - of calm, methodical government - where the adults are in the room trying to bring about a better Australia. We don't want to go back to the polls constantly. And I think Labor accepts that and will understand it.

Now from 1 July next year we'll have a new senate where the crossbenchers are more inclined to vote with the government than with the Greens or with Labor. But I hope we don't have to wait till then in order to implement our program because people want lower electricity bills and lower prices now. They want temporary protection visas to be reintroduced now. We promised those things before the election. If Labor refuses to pass them they will effectively be saying to the Australian public, you're wrong we're right and you have to change. Well that's not the way it worked in Australia.

So we don't want to have a double dissolution and never did want to. But the threat remains there of course if Labor and the Greens combine to block our program over the next nine months. But I hope that won't be necessary.

PETER VAN ONSELEN:

But you think - just to be clear - you think it's unlikely that you would choose a double dissolution ahead of July next year if the Greens and Labor do block things like the carbon tax. Because you would be holding out hope to be able to get it passed after July. And of course if for some reason the new crossbenchers didn't do that well then it would be back on the agenda certainly. Is that right?

CHRISTOPHER PYNE:

Well I expect that Labor will see reason in the senate on all the key issues that were issues surrounding the election because it's important for their own survival to move on from their failure. They've had a six year government. The first three years were not very good; the last three years were utterly catastrophic. If Labor wants to keep that going for the next three years well they'll be in opposition a very long time. Now I know for Labor politics usually trumps policy. But it's bad politics for Labor - very bad politics for them to keep the issues of the last three years alive for the next three. But honestly if they want to do that the government will be perfectly delighted if they want to fight the next election on the carbon tax.

PAUL KELLY:

Now just moving to your portfolio - you've announced an enquiry into the demand driven higher education system. You're obviously concerned about that; concerned about how it's working. Can you just indicate what are the fundamental reasons for your concern?

CHRISTOPHER PYNE:

Well the demand driven system in higher education has led to a massive increase in undergraduate students which is perfectly good. But we have to make sure that the quality of our institutions is maintained. Australia has the third highest number of universities after the US and the UK in the top few hundred universities in the world. That is extremely important economically for Australia. Let alone the research and development - and the improvement of our society and culture.

Education is our second biggest export. Now if you aggregate gold, iron ore and coal together it's our second biggest export. So it's tremendously important for that international education market for Australian institutions to have a high quality reputation because that's why international students come here. What we've asked David Kemp and Andrew Norton to do over the next few months is give us some advice about how to make sure the demand driven system is working effectively for Australia to make sure it's maintaining quality in our institutions. And I look forward to their report in the months ahead.

PAUL KELLY:

But from that answer I assume that your real concern is that you think that Labor put quantity and sheer numbers - or if you like the equity principle - before quality. Is that your core concern?

CHRISTOPHER PYNE:

Our core concern is that Labor always puts things like quantity ahead of quality. That is a danger to our university system. There's a lot of anecdotal evidence - even Kim Carr the former minister, there are many of course former ministers for higher education in the Labor Party but Kim Carr was the last of them - even he said that he thought that there was some concerns around quality in our institutions because of the demand driven system. Now I'm not the expert on those issues - I want to become the expert and that's why we've asked David Kemp and Andrew Norton to give us advice about it. If they come back and say that quality has been maintained - there's no need to tweak the demand driven system - we'll accept that advice. But if they come back and say we would recommend that there are various levers that you could pull to improve quality and keep the demand driven system well that's the direction I'd like to head in.

PETER VAN ONSELEN:

What about funding for higher education going forward - I'm thinking particularly obviously the May budget next year. The last time the coalition came to power higher education funding was substantially reduced - and therefore obviously impacted on. Can you guarantee that that won't happen in the May budget next year now that the coalition's back in government?

CHRISTOPHER PYNE:

Well Tony Abbott's already indicated that we will not be cutting education - or health. He has a very fundamental commitment to research. I am the minister for research. That has been brought within my portfolio…

PETER VAN ONSELEN:

Can I just interrupt though and ask you a question on that though specifically - when you say that you guarantee it won't be cut does that include projected increases that are already in the forward estimates won't be reduced?

CHRISTOPHER PYNE:

Well Peter I'm not going to jump ahead of the budget that's in May next year. Our election commitment was that we wouldn't cut education.

CHRISTOPHER PYNE:

…jump ahead of the Budget that's in May next year. Our election commitment was that we wouldn't cut education.

PETER VAN ONSELEN:

Yeah, but what does that mean? That means cut the funding as it currently exists as opposed to if there are projected increases, they won't be reduced. That's not a guarantee you're making.

CHRISTOPHER PYNE:

No, it means - no, no. It means that the education budget as forecast over the next four years will not be cut by the Coalition. That's very clear.

Exactly the same way as in the Schools Portfolio, I said that we would keep the new school funding model but over the next four years because we don't believe in Labor's claims that things can be promised in five, six, ten, fifteen, twenty years.

Over the next four years, we will maintain the new school funding model and the budget that went with that in the forward estimates. And the same with education in general because Tony Abbott has a very deep commitment to universities, to research, to science and to education.

PAUL KELLY:

I'd like to follow up your point about school funding. We haven't heard a lot about the Gonski agenda since the election. You're committed to proceed with that over the next four years.

Does that mean there won't be any changes at all or do you reserve the right to make some adjustments, some policy changes in relation to either private or government schools?

CHRISTOPHER PYNE:

There will be definitely be changes, Paul. Before the election, we indicated that we would keep the same funding envelop as the Labor Party over the next four years. But that we would reduce the burden of regulation and red tape and intrusion that always is Labor's choice when it comes to education.

So we will dismantle, over the next twelve months, the extra command and control features that Labor worked into the system. We will abolish, for example, the school inspectorate that Labor wanted to set up where inspectors with clipboards and biros would go from school to school, ticking boxes and counting students heads.

We're not going to go ahead with things like that. The states run the - their schools with the Catholics and the independent sector run their schools. And by and large, they do a very good job. Our focus will be on teacher quality, on the curriculum, on parental engagement and on expanding the autonomy of schools and more local decision making.

We'll have announcements to make about that over the coming months. Obviously, we have had a policy which promoted all of those areas and over the next few months we'll put more meat on those bones.

PAUL KELLY:

Just how committed are you as minister to reviewing and changing the national curriculum, particularly in relation to certain areas the Coalition's been concerned about which go to history and related subjects? And how will you proceed to do that?

CHRISTOPHER PYNE:

Well, Paul, we've got a lot of work to do. A lot of work. We want the curriculum to be robust, to be rigorous. We have to increase the training of our teachers at university level, the undergraduate and post-graduate study, to move the curriculum away from the child-centred learning and towards more orthodox and phonics based methods of teaching.

Obviously, we have a problem in Australia when it comes to the outcomes of our students. Every report, whether it's the OECD report, the PIRL's report, our own studies around Australia indicate that we are falling behind in terms of literacy and numeracy compared to our competitor nations.

It is bizarre that Australia would be ranked twenty-seven out of twenty-seven English speaking countries in terms of literacy and numeracy in one report in the last twelve months. We want to change that. We have to address the curriculum issues and we have to address the teacher quality and standards issues which we'll be able to do.

In terms of changing it, yes, I do want to move the curriculum towards a more phonics based orthodox and traditional method of teaching. I don't think child-centred learning which has been the method of the last couple of decades has achieved the outcomes that we need in this country and I don't want to keep making excuses about it. I want to address it.

PAUL KELLY:

I know you want to address it but this seems to be a particularly difficult issue to, in fact, address. I mean The Australian newspaper has been…

CHRISTOPHER PYNE:

True.

PAUL KELLY:

…campaigning on this front now for a number of years but it seems to be very hard to get the changes into the classroom.

CHRISTOPHER PYNE:

It is.

PAUL KELLY:

How do you, as a Federal Minister, get those changes into the classroom and get the cultural change there where it's needed?

CHRISTOPHER PYNE:

Well, you've hit upon the real problem in terms of education from a Commonwealth point of view. Our strongest weapon is persuasion and common sense, Paul.

Because the states run all their schools. They employ the teachers and the principals. The Catholics and the independents, we can have more say with, of course, because we're the primary funder of Catholic and the independent schools besides the parents.

We never want to forget the fact that parents put their own resources into their children's education. But in - we're going to persuade the states and territories to put students first and that's going to be quite a battle with some states who are very used to the unions determining their policies around education.

But I'm hoping that through a persuasive method, through meetings and discussions and through presenting them with empirical evidence which shows that we need to change the way we've been doing things, the state ministers and territory ministers and their premiers and chief ministers will recognise that we can't just turn a blind eye to declining outcomes.

PETER VAN ONSELEN:

Minister, before we let you go, I want to shift back to universities and higher education for a moment, if I can. If the fiscal envelope isn't going to change because of pre-election commitments in both health and education, as two areas that do chew up a lot of the Commonwealth budget, I wonder about something like HECS.

Whether there is an opportunity to make adjustments on that side to help make the budget bottom line more affordable, I suppose, as the government searches for cuts.

A lot of people, probably, don't realise that HECS as substantial as it might be to the individual only funds somewhere between a third and a fifth of the actual cost of each student's education at the higher level. Is there any possibility that you're looking at adjustments to HECS?

CHRISTOPHER PYNE:

University students pay to get a great opportunity in life. They have the lowest unemployment rate in Australia of anybody in the workforce and they have the highest capacity to earn higher income than people without a university.

They make a contribution to through the Higher Education Contribution Scheme and we have said that we will not be increasing fees or putting the cap back on the demand - we will continue the demand driven system so that means that the cap will not be reintroduced. Within those promises, we have to try and increase revenue to universities.

Now, we're going to do that through expanding the international education market. We're going to reduce costs to universities by reducing the burden of regulation and red tape which was moving apace under the previous government through [TEQSA 22:23] and we want university students to make their contribution. But we're not going to raise fees and we're not going to put the cap back on.

PETER VAN ONSELEN:

Why not raise fees? I mean if it is such a fractional contribution and university graduates do get such an advantage in the aftermath of the their education from the higher institution, why not increase it even if you did it in some, sort of, way that mirrored the progressive tax system of income tax?

CHRISTOPHER PYNE:

Because we promised we wouldn't before the election and one thing that Tony Abbott wants to be remembered for besides being an infrastructure Prime Minister is that he kept his promises.

PETER VAN ONSELEN:

But is that the only reason?

CHRISTOPHER PYNE:

- no surprises government.

PETER VAN ONSELEN:

Is that the only reason?

CHRISTOPHER PYNE:

There'll be no surprises…

PETER VAN ONSELEN:

Would you like to?

CHRISTOPHER PYNE:

Look, Peter, I am not even considering it because we promised that we wouldn't and Tony Abbott made it very clear before the election that we would keep our promises.

The days when governments get elected or political parties get elected and then junk their policies and promises, I'm hoping it's over for good. Julia Gillard spent all that political capital when she said that she would not introduce a carbon tax and within weeks of the election did so.

And I think the public want a period of stable government where they - where the government keeps its promises and gets on with this program within the parameters of the promises that are made during the election. And there's much I can do in universities and schools while keeping all my promises and that's what I intend to do.

PETER VAN ONSELEN:

All right, Christopher Pyne, the new Education Minister as well as Leader of the House. Thanks very much for your company on Australian Agenda.

CHRISTOPHER PYNE:

It's always a pleasure, thank you.

Mr Pyne’s media contact: xxxx Department media: media@deewr.gov.au