Interview on ABC Radio Adelaide, Breakfast with Ali Clarke and David Bevan

  • Minister for Education and Training


Topics: Political donations; University hazing; NAPLAN results

Ali Clarke:                     Well, let’s jump into Super Wednesday proper.

David Bevan:                 Simon Birmingham is the Federal Education Minister; he joins us now on the phone line. Good morning, Simon.                                     

Simon Birmingham:      Good morning, everybody.  

David Bevan:                 Minister, if we could just begin with the issue of donations. This has become an issue in the South Australian election campaign in the last few days. Sally Zou is a Chinese businesswoman based here in South Australia. She’s been very generous to the Liberal Party. There was a weird tweet a few days ago, suggesting that she was writing out a cheque for more than $1 million to the Liberal Party, which coincidentally the figures matched Steven Marshall’s birthday. He says he doesn’t know anything about it. The Liberal Party says they haven’t got it yet. But it is a bad look. What’s your take on Sally Zou donations in the Liberal Party?

Simon Birmingham:      Well, if she wants to give money to the Liberal Party, she’s welcome to, and to any of your other listeners who want to see a change of government to get this state back on track, to deal with our stagnating economic position, to make sure that…

David Bevan:                 So, you don’t care where the money comes from and you don’t care how much?

Simon Birmingham:      Please support the Liberal Party with your funding if you can, certainly with your vote, with your volunteering, because we want to win this state election. We want to win this state election because we want to ensure that we end 16 years of government that have left us a laughing stock across much of the rest of the country; have a child protection system that is shameful, have led to the Oakden Royal Commission. I don’t care who wants to give money to the Liberal Party, I want to see a change of government here and that is the most important factor.

David Bevan:                 But isn’t there an issue with a donation of that size? And look, putting aside the $1.2 million, nobody knows whether that’s going to actually materialise, she’s given a lot of money – hundreds of thousands of dollars – to your party. Doesn’t there come a point where a donor is so generous, they actually have an influence?

Simon Birmingham:      Well, no it certainly shouldn’t and it doesn’t in my mind. I see what gets declared publicly and it all gets declared publicly. Because it gets declared publicly is how we know that the shoppies union have given the Labor Party $1.5 million over the last few years. So, yes, political parties need money to run their campaigns, to run their operations. The parties themselves organise that. The politicians get on with the job of policy and developing that, and I urge people who share our values, share our views, share our policies; share our commitment to get this state back on track, to be generous, to do so, to help change the government so that we can actually put in place policies that will create more jobs in this state. Steven Marshall’s policy to eliminate payroll tax for small and medium-sized businesses, great job creation.

David Bevan:                 Okay.

Simon Birmingham:      But David, these are the important policy issues of difference to the state: getting rid of much of the emergency services levy, putting more money back in the pockets of households; freezing council rates, putting more money back in the pockets of households and small businesses. These are Steven Marshall’s policies, and they are upon which this election should be decided.

David Bevan:                 Has Sally Zou given large amounts of money at fundraisers that you’ve attended?

Simon Birmingham:      I know she’s attended some fundraisers and I assume that, where they’ve required a fee to be there, she’s paid it.

David Bevan:                 Well, one Labor person says to me via text in the last moment, she donated $200,000 at a Burnside fundraiser that you attended. Does that ring a bell? I mean, you’d know if she was handing out that kind of money, wouldn’t you?

Simon Birmingham:      No, I have no recollection and no, I’m quite sure that I’ve never seen her hand over $200,000.

David Bevan:                 Alright.

Simon Birmingham:      If she has, I’m sure it’s been publicly disclosed just as the shoppies union’s $1.5 million…

David Bevan:                 But you don’t see a problem with large amounts of money? You don’t think there should be a cap on how much money an individual or an organisation can give to a party – it’s open slather.

Simon Birmingham:      Well I think public disclosure is absolutely critical and we have that, and we absolutely have that for sums, the type of which you’re speaking, because that gives transparency to the system and it means if people see any evidence that there is any favouritism occurring, then they’re able to call that out. But I challenge anybody to point to anything that they believe would demonstrate any level of favouritism in policymaking. Ultimately, people have been giving funds to political parties for a long, long period of time. That’s how they’ve sustained themselves. This is the first state election in SA where there is any element of public funding- so until this state election came along, on all previous occasions, political parties in SA have had to completely fundraise out of voluntary donations.

Ali Clarke:                     Would you take money from cigarette companies?

Simon Birmingham:      No, we made a policy decision a long time ago not to take funding from tobacco companies.

Ali Clarke:                     Cory Bernardi?

Cory Bernardi:               Yeah, it’s an interesting thing. Firstly, Sally Zou has complied with the law, but I’d lay London to a brick this cheque, if it’s received by the Liberal Party, won’t appear until next Tuesday, so it won’t have to be disclosed for five days after that, and that will be after the election. You know, it’s an unfortunate thing that individuals can influence political parties to such an extent by donating a couple of million dollars. And in that infomercial from Simon about Steven Marshall’s policy mix, it’s clear the Liberal Party has enough money, and so if you want to make a contribution to politics that is not influenced by $1.2 million donations, I’d go with the Australian Conservatives. Our policy mix is pretty straight forward.

Ali Clarke:                     Can we get a can, a rattle can, in the studio please?

Amanda Rishworth:      I think we’ll be all out with a can at the front of the ABC soon.

David Bevan:                 Cory Bernardi, do you think there should be a cap on how much an individual or an individual organisation can give to a party?

Cory Bernardi:               Yes, the short answer to that is yes. Now, I believe that donations should only come from individuals. They should be disclosed in more or less real time, and there should be a threshold. So, like in America, where individuals can contribute, I think, $2400 or thereabouts to any particular campaign. I think that’s eminently reasonable and they should come from Australian citizens. But, there are constitutional issues to this because you can’t prohibit organisations from getting involved and so forth, but aspirationally, absolutely. I think, you know, you should have a cap on it. And whether it’s $5000 or $10,000, I don’t care, and I don’t have a problem with, and I think it should be disclosed effectively within 72 hours or 48 hours of being received.

David Bevan:                 Amanda Rishworth?

Amanda Rishworth:      Well look, I think the first thing I would say is that it is a very, very large amount of money that Sally Zou is donating. She’s already donated, I think it’s $800,000 and then in addition- I think there’s a question for Steven Marshall and he needs to answer: what does she want for that money? And he needs to, I think, come clean with what has she asked for, what are the potential conflicts. Because, I think, there’s one thing to support a political party; it’s another thing to effectively buy a political party and that’s, I think, a significant impact …

David Bevan:               What’s the difference between Sally Zou giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Liberal Party and the Shop Assistants Union, of which you are a member, giving, what, it must be millions of dollars over the years to the Labor Party?

Amanda Rishworth:     I think it’s no surprise that the Labor Party was born out of the union movement and has been connected with working people for a long, long time. There’s a question about this individual, who has mining interests I think.

Ali Clarke:                    Tom Kenyon asked for some money.

Amanda Rishworth:     I’m just talking about the size of this and I think most people will be scratching their head about why an individual would donate such a large amount – which is a significant amount – and I think there’s questions that Steven Marshall has to answer.

Cory Bernardi:             But if you do have piles of money- I mean if I won $50 million in Oz Lotto, I want to give $1 million dollars of it to a political party or any other organisation, is there a problem with it? That’s the threshold question. There are people with stacks of cash and they can use it how they want to. The question is: is it good and healthy for our democratic process to have that sort of potential contribution? It’s not illegal now, so Sally Zou, that’s her business.

David Bevan:               Have you received – Cory Bernardi, or your party, the Australian Conservatives – a large amount of money from the banks?

Cory Bernardi:             The answer to that is, in short, no, not that I’m aware of. The largest donation I think we’ve had – and I have to stand corrected on this – is, I think, $30,000 from someone in Victoria, towards the Victorian campaign. But that would be it; we’ve had nothing in excess of that.

David Bevan:               Right. Look, the bottom line here is that if you’re giving money, you want influence, don’t you? I mean …

Simon Birmingham:    David, you might just want good governance. You might, as Cory just said, if you’ve got lots of cash, giving $1 million, for somebody with a whole lot of money, may be akin to giving $10 or $1000 to most of us with much less money. Now, in the end, you might just happen to share the value, share a conviction, want better governance or support the policies that party’s rolling out. In this case, the Liberal Party policies for economic growth and better services and so forth. I mean, just because somebody gives, doesn’t mean that they are necessarily buying influence. That’s why we have transparency regimes. That’s why these things are disclosed. And ultimately, I can assure you that whilst I know Sally, and I know she’s given money, she’s never asked me for anything more than a selfie.

Cory Bernardi:             And who wouldn’t want a selfie with you, Simon?

Simon Birmingham:    I’m sorry I’m not in the studio...

Ali Clarke:                    Education Minister Simon Birmingham, we had allegations levelled at an Adelaide University residential college on hazing. You have rejected calls for the criminalisation of so called hazing rituals at colleges or other institutions – why?

Simon Birmingham:    Because we should apply the law as it stands first and foremost. Assault is assault, wherever it occurs; whether it occurs on a university college, on a university campus, or anywhere else in society. And our universities and colleges, who have a duty of care for their students, should make sure that there is clear support to help students who may be the victim of any inappropriate activity, to take their complaint the whole way through. If it’s assault, to take it through criminal proceedings, to make sure that is fully followed through; if it’s other forms of sexual harassment, to use the various mechanisms that are already in laws available to them.

I don’t think the case has been made that there is a lack of law in relation to what can be applied in these circumstances. The case certainly has been made though, that students feel that they haven’t been supported in pursuing their complaints and that universities and university colleges clearly have a) not been doing enough to stop this culture and stamp it out, and b) not been doing enough to support students when there are issues, to ensure that firm action is taken. I don’t think that means we need a new law; I think it means we need to be more effective at implementing the current laws and that unis need to take – as they have been, I acknowledge in many cases – a greater responsibility for helping students and ensuring the culture changes.

Ali Clarke:                    Amanda Rishworth, do you agree?

Amanda Rishworth:     Look, I do agree that cultural changes is a critical element to this and shining a light on it is very, very important. I think, of course, you have to have a look across the laws to make sure that there are no gaps in the laws, and one of the obvious gaps that were found in another area, which was bullying in the workplace, was found in Victoria and that government chose to try and bring in what was commonly known as Brodie’s Law. So I think we should ensure that there are no gaps within the laws. But it is about cultural change. It is about making sure that there is a clear message coming from universities that it is unacceptable and it is not- and it will not be tolerated. I think that’s the first thing. And also, I do agree with Simon that students need to be supported to actually raise their voice. It is a very intimidating circumstance to actually come out – especially if you’re living day in day out with other people that may have targeted you.

I think it is really, really important that they are supported, that there is a culture of absolutely no tolerance, because some of the statistics we’ve seen, whether it be sexual harassment on university campuses, or some of these other reports, are quite scary, and I’ve actually had a parent say that they would never send their students to boarding as a result of these reports.

Ali Clarke:                    Cory Bernardi, you’ve been involved in institutions.

Cory Bernardi:             What does that mean, Ali? Where are you going with this?

Ali Clarke:                    I was going to- sporting institutions, school institutions where bonding is important. Where do you sit on hazing and whether or not there needs to be a tightening of laws?

Cory Bernardi:             And I was there when I think standards were perhaps more flexible than they are today. My son’s going off to study at university in a residential college. I have no real concerns about it. I think the law should be applied as it is, and I think that what we’ve lost in society is this self-governance. This regulator that says: hang on, this is just wrong, and how would it feel if I was on the other end of that particular act?

David Bevan:               Have you experienced this sort of inappropriate behaviour?

Cory Bernardi:             It depends what you mean by inappropriate. I mean, I went through the sporting system, which was particularly brutal, I have to say. When I say brutal, it was tough. Every single day you’d wake up and go: my goodness, can I do this again? And it tested you mentally and physically, like, I guess, it does in our armed forces or something like that. It is about conditioning someone into a cultural thing. I found that really, really hard.

Ali Clarke:                    So then did you ever participate in those sort of practices then?

Cory Bernardi:             I was the victim, because I was that hopeless. Literally, it was about a mental toughness that goes with it, and …

Ali Clarke:                    So you then didn’t hand out that sort of punishment?

Cory Bernardi:             Well, I wasn’t there long enough, I guess, but it wasn’t from the other students – when I say students, it wasn’t the other athletes, actually. It was a coaching thing. It was about developing people to be as tough as they possibly can be, because in the sport of rowing, as we’ve seen, nine-tenths of the time, your body just says: I want to give up, this is too hard, and it’s about getting through that. So, I look back at it, and as difficult as it was, I think it was unbelievably formative for me, but it could have broken many other people, and I’d suggest in some respects it would have.

David Bevan:               What are we talking about? What could have broken others that was formative for you?

Cory Bernardi:             I mean, if you get up and you’re getting a feedback loop that is not always positive, or physically, you’re struggling to keep up to the mark, I think a lot of people can crash through those things, but that marks true champions. I’m not saying I’m a champion, but it marks the true champions who can get through those difficult things and out the other side, and that’s why in events like – and I say an event – the selection contest for, say, the SAS, which I’ve been to look at, it is particularly brutal, because the great challenge is always an internal one about whether you give up or you don’t, and it’s the same in sport.

David Bevan:               But aren’t we talking about kids who are just going to university? They’re not trying out for the SAS or …

Cory Bernardi:             I was asked about my institutional experience, and so I never went to a residential college at university.

David Bevan:               Yeah, but I just wonder how it’s comparable to what these kids at St Mark’s are [indistinct].

Cory Bernardi:             Ali brought it up. She’s obviously interested in my life, and I’m interested in hers [indistinct].

Amanda Rishworth:     I mean, we brought up the Defence Force, and there’s no doubt that the SAS, it’s a gruelling selection, but successive governments have said that within ADFA, which is the training area, that that sort of hazing, that sort of sexual harassment is not acceptable. So I don’t think the two are quite similar. There is absolutely tough training in the ADF, but we have drawn a line, and for in other places, where that sort of hazing, those sort of recruitment initiation sort of things are not acceptable, because they are completely inappropriate.

Cory Bernardi:             I went and spent a week with ADFA as well, and they’re a great bunch of kids, but there are clearly some problems there which I think the commandant put a stop to, which is a positive. I think people want to enjoy their experiences.

Ali Clarke:                    Education Minister Simon Birmingham, once again South Australia has recorded results below the national average on every test in every participating year level last year through NAPLAN and the standardised testing. Is it not time the Federal Government actually look at increasing funding to poor-performing states?          

Simon Birmingham:    Well, we have, and South Australia gets more funding per student than Victoria or New South Wales …

Ali Clarke:                    Do we need more?

Simon Birmingham:    … and gets a faster rate of growth under our funding reforms than those states as well, because it’s a needs-based system we’ve put in place. So government schools in South Australia will see funding growth from the Federal Government of about six per cent per student per annum over the next few years. So that’s well above any form of inflation growth or wages growth out there at the present, and will support extra investment. But you’ve got to ask, 16 years of the current State Government; the Premier, who was education minister before he was premier; and this is what we’ve got? SA underperforming across every category, every year level of the NAPLAN test, and it really …

Ali Clarke:                    Okay, We’re running up against the time, so I am going to have to get other people to respond to this.

Amanda Rishworth:     I’m just going to say that money was cut from schools: $17 billion. A lot of that was going to flow to South Australia in years ’18-’19. Simon, you cut the money. It was in your budget as a cut. It is disingenuous for you to say that that money is an increase. It’s not, but we do need to respond …

Simon Birmingham:    It is increasing, Amanda.

Amanda Rishworth:     … do need to respond, use NAPLAN to respond to make sure resources go where they’re needed, and cutting money just isn’t going to do that.

Cory Bernardi:             This is the folly of the Government’s approach. Both governments, they throw money at things. There is no performance outcomes, there is no requirement for increased literacy or numeracy. I asked them about this when they threw $23 billion into education. Our standards have been falling as more money goes into it. There is a problem; it’s not cash, it is about educational outcomes.

Ali Clarke:                    Alright. Look, we are, unfortunately, going to have to leave it there because of the nine o’clock news. Education Minister Simon Birmingham, thank you very much. Member for Kingston, Amanda Rishworth, appreciate you coming in; and Cory Bernardi, leader of the Australian Conservatives. I didn’t even get to ask anyone if they’ve been on a date to the fried chicken place with Nick Xenophon.

Cory Bernardi:             Well, I’ve been on a Yiros date with him.

Ali Clarke:                    Oh, okay.

Amanda Rishworth:     Never been on a date.

Ali Clarke:                    Ever? No dates?

Amanda Rishworth:     With Nick Xenophon.

Cory Bernardi:             It’s alright, Amanda, it’s alright.

David Bevan:               Very important to qualify that.

Ali Clarke:                    I’m out of here. David, it’s all over to you.


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