SUBJECT/S: Schools funding; Turnbull Government’s $100,000 degrees; Question Time.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: I'm joined by the Shadow Finance Minister Tony Burke.

Tony Burke, welcome to the program.


BRISSENDEN: Regardless of the argument about funding over Gonski for four or 10 years, do you accept the criticism there from the Australian Council of State Schools that the system is too complex?

BURKE: For each area, each different education system has to have its own agreement. You need to have an agreement with the Catholic system, you need to have an agreement with each state.

So for each source of education, each provider, those agreements need to be in place.

Now one of the problems that we have is after the change of government, agreements were made by the current Government which carried no conditions.

So the actual principles of the Gonski funding, the principles of student needs-based funding, weren't reflected in some of those final agreements so -

BRISSENDEN: So is the integrity of the whole system, is the integrity of the whole system still in, you know, still in place?

BURKE: There are further negotiations with the states in some of those jurisdictions that certainly would have to happen.

But we'll be sensible in the implementation details of this. The bottom line question though is whether or not it can be funded and Labor has already made decisions before we announced this spending, but we've already made decisions that constitute more than $100 billion worth of improvements to the Budget bottom line. Some of them are in cuts, some of them are in closing tax loopholes.

We are the first Opposition in living memory to actually put down how we would improve the Budget bottom line before we got to our spending promises.

BRISSENDEN: Okay, but isn't it true, as Simon Birmingham has said this week, that school funding is at record levels in terms of Federal Government support at the moment and will continue to grow every year into the future?

BURKE: Well, funding for most things continues to grow into the future unless you are completely slashing them to bits, but what you have is a massive problem in school funding that you don't have a true needs-based funding outcome.

Now for years Australia went through an argument as to whether you'd help private schools, whether you'd help government schools and the public versus private debate was always the only discussion, because no one was willing to say ‘We're just not providing enough money for our schools’.

That changed when Labor adopted these reforms.

This gave us a situation to say, ‘No, no, the first question is what are the needs of the child and you have your funding go through on that basis.’

You have your indicators for students with disability, you have your indicators for students in remote area, you have your indicators for students who are in greater need and you have your funding match that regardless of the school system that their parents have chosen.

What Simon Birmingham is flagging and what Malcolm Turnbull was quite specific about only a week ago is that they are willing to go down a system where we go back to the old divide and they're willing to contemplate cutting money for government schools from the Federal Government altogether.

That's a chalk and cheese change from Labor's approach which is to focus on the needs of the child.

BRISSENDEN: Okay, the argument does seem to be about whether, you know, about the Gonski reforms about whether you work within the forward estimates of four years or you work to your plan of 10 years. It is difficult for anybody to plan that far ahead, isn't it? Do the forward estimates now stretch, as far as you're concerned, to 10 years?

BURKE: Well, let's not forget a child's education by definition is the country planning for 12 or 13 years.

BRISSENDEN: Well, okay but the Budget is planned around four years, spending is planned around four years?

BURKE: And if we were only to say ‘Well, we won't look at anything beyond that, we won't be involved in big policy reform’, you never would have had a National Disability Insurance Scheme and at the same time all these education reforms, and at the same time if you don't do long-term planning, you'd never bother to close the tax loopholes that Labor's been willing to deal with which is partly how we've been able to reach this funding level.

Now, if you were for example, to talk about high-end superannuation tax concessions, you would never cut them down because in the first four years, the Government's bottom line doesn't get improved much but over the medium term it's a massive saving to the Budget.

Similarly, the negative gearing changes: because we said whatever you already own won't be affected, if you're only looking at four years, there's not much change to the Budget there in significant terms. But over the medium term, that's where you get the big reform. And to say we're only going to look within four is to say we're going to abandon significant structural reform and Labor's not in that game.

BRISSENDEN: Okay, well let's look at a building economic crisis that is going to escalate over years and the Parliamentary Budget Office estimates that over 10 years in particular this is going to be a big problem which is the student loan crisis that we have after the Gillard government extended the student loans to vocational education.

Now the Parliamentary Budget Office estimates that that'll be a burden of more than $11 billion a year on the Budget in 10 years’ time - Labor's responsible for that.

BURKE: Well, let's look at what the report actually says there, Michael. The report refers to two areas that have caused the growth of these debts.

The first, as you say, is more students being able to access higher education. The second is the $100,000 degrees policy from the Government where the size of an individual's debt blows completely out of control.

BRISSENDEN: Okay, but we know that vocational education -

BURKE: The first of those issues, the one that you're saying - no, but the question that you're saying is relevant to Labor is a question of us making sure we are a better-trained country at a time of economic transition and we're investing more in students.

The second is the Government's policy which is contributing to this which is for $100,000 degrees, which is about making it harder for people to make that decision for higher education in the first place and if they do make that decision, to be saddled for debt possibly for the rest of their life. And the report specifically goes to an increasing proportion of these debts that will simply never be paid back because someone will never be able to deal with that with their future income.

BRISSENDEN: Exactly. But we do know that the vocational education training fees grew, those loans grew by 147 per cent a year compared to just 11 per cent for the university loans that you're talking about. And most of those vocational educational training programs don't have the sort of checks and balances included in them that the university education loans had to.

BURKE: On the issue of vocational education, Sharon Bird, who's our shadow in this area, has already made announcements about areas where rules do need to be tightened on that.

So we've been ahead of that in terms of public statements that have been made.

But on the issue of what this has meant for university education, you know, this is a bizarre own goal from the Federal Government. They've managed to do something in the name of saving money that causes ballooning debt for the Government. That's what they've managed to do.

And if you get right back to first principles, if you get right back to what both sides of politics keep saying, which is that we are an economy in transition. Is the path forward to that to have a more highly skilled workforce or a less highly skilled workforce?

Labor makes no apology for having policies that are about increasing the skills and education of Australians. But we will absolutely oppose the part of this parliamentary budget report and it is a big part of it in terms of the ongoing escalation of debt, that's about students having to pay for a $100,000 degrees. It's bad for the transition that this economy is going through and it's bad for the nation's Budget.

BRISSENDEN: Alright, just quickly on the Parliament returning. Now you've been complaining in the last couple of days that the House of Reps won't sit but it is true that this issue that the Parliament is being asked to address is all about the Senate and the Senate does sit without the Reps on occasions. Why is this any different?

BURKE: This is unprecedented. The concept that you would fly nearly 150 Members of Parliament from around the country, and their staff, to Canberra and then say ‘But they're only allowed to perform a stunt on one issue because that's what the Prime Minister wants and then they have to stop working in Canberra and they can hop on a plane again’, is extraordinary - unprecedented and extraordinary and a complete indulgence from the Prime Minister.

All we've said is that people are already going to be flown to Canberra, they should do a full weeks work there and the Prime Minister should have to turn up to Question Time every day beginning on the Monday.

It's no surprise that the Prime Minister wants to run a mile from Question Time at the moment. He doesn't want to talk about the double taxation with the States; he doesn't want to talk about his cuts to education and the proposal that you wouldn't have funding for government schools anymore.

He's running and hiding.

We're already going to be in Canberra, we should do a week's work and he shouldn't be a part-time Prime Minister.

BRISSENDEN: Okay, Tony Burke, we'll leave it there. Thanks very much for joining us.

BURKE: Good to be back.

BRISSENDEN: Shadow finance spokesman, Tony Burke.

Tony Burke