Interview with Luke Grant on 2GB

Transcript
  • Assistant Minister for Education

E&OE TRANSCRIPT
Subjects: Childcare, Goodstart Early Learning, childcare workers’ wages, United Voice

Luke Grant:

Now what do you make of this? I'll speak to Assistant Education Minister Sussan Ley. The nation's biggest childcare provider has rejected calls by the Abbott Government to hand back sixty million dollars earmarked under Labor for pay rises, instead telling staff they would receive a wage increase. Goodstart Early Learning has told the Government it won't co-operate with Assistant Education Minister Sussan Ley's plea to do the right thing and drop its claim to the money sourced from a funding agreement signed the day before the Federal election. The day before the election?

Chief Executive Julia Davison said Goodstart's board had rejected Ley's request that the money be redirected into a professional development program aimed at boosting skills and access to qualifications for all long day care workers. While professional development is important, so too is the payment of fair professional wages to educators, Ms Davison said.

The Goodstart Board has decided this money should be allocated for the original purpose of supporting professional wages for Goodstart's Educators. Now Goodstart runs six-hundred-and-forty-one early learning centres attended by seventy-three thousand kids, thirteen thousand staff. Now an independent report by PricewaterhouseCoopers earlier this month found evidence Labor's Early Years Quality Fund, the EYQF was used - and you'll love this - as a blatant union membership drive and there were perceptions of bias around large operators including Goodstart sitting on the advisory board that set the funding rules. Hello.

They sat on the funding board - the advisory board that set the funding rules. The day before the election the former Government says we'll sign off on this, sixty million available. You know, there's a smell, don't you think? At least it appears to be a little odd or convenient or whatever word you'd like to introduce. Now this requires very close examination. The Coalition has promised to honour only the signed contracts that give twelve providers, including Goodstart, access to the three hundred million dollars' worth of Early Years Quality Fund set up by the previous Government, even though an independent report found the funding allocation was unfair and had been used to boost union membership in the sector, as the report says in The Australian today. I mean, fair dinkum - three-hundred million the day before the election? Gosh.

We've got these questions about an ongoing deficit and growing debt. This all adds up to something. Yep, we've had all this morning spent on education, and our results are through the floor, sadly not through the roof. We're going backwards when compared to countries overseas in terms of the quality of the result of the system. So money's not the problem here, never has been. That's just a rubbish argument, given on the available evidence suggesting that even when we throw a heap of new money at education we get worse results. It comes back to - I think I agree with what Alan says - it comes back to the quality of the teaching and perhaps the curriculum. Then again, you fix that problem by throwing money at it. What rubbish.

Anyway, I'll talk to Sussan Ley about that soon and that does ring - that's got a nasty smell but I want to get to the bottom of that….

….Now the new Coalition government instructed Childcare Centres not to pass on pay increases awarded by Labor to staff, instead, it wanted the sixty million dollars earmarked for the increases to be diverted into professional development courses, however at least one centre is defying the new government. Goodstart Early Learning - the country's biggest childcare provider, we're told - will instead give its thirteen thousand staff looking after seventy-three thousand children at six-hundred-and-forty-one centres a pay rise. Now many would say that might well be the right thing to do - after all, childcare workers are amongst the lowest paid in the country with many earning as little as eighteen dollars an hour, but what will the government do in light of Goodstart's refusal?

Can the centre be forced to hand back the money rather than pass it on to staff? I thought we'd catch up today with the Assistant Education Minister - and the one responsible for Childcare Policy in the main - Sussan Ley. She's been one of the strongest advocates for diverting these finds into educational courses rather than passing them onto staff and I'm delighted to say, she's on the line, compliments of the Season to you.

SUSSAN LEY:

Likewise Luke, good morning.

LUKE GRANT:

Good morning to you. Let's start with the obvious; what's wrong with paying sixty million dollars to low paid workers instead of diverting it into a development course?

SUSSAN LEY:

Because eighty-five per cent of all childcare workers could never have got a single dollar, so the issue is fairness and the issue also is that the wages are being determined right now by the Fair Work Commission, which is the body that's supposed to do these things. So it's not the federal government's job to tip in to the wages of any individual in Australia, apart from federal public servants who we actually do pay, and it's not our job to say what a certain, small minority should be paid for a small time, which is exactly what this fund did. Signed up by the previous minister the day before the federal election and my independent report has found that there are dark clouds hanging over the decision making, the probity, and most particularly the equity.

So as the federal minister for every single childcare worker - I care about the wages of workers and I want to make that very clear - and my personal view is that yes, they are quite low. Let's let the Fair Work Commission do its work and come up with a sustainable increase for everybody, not a few union members, and as my report found, this fund was basically a tool to boost union membership.

LUKE GRANT:       

Now that, that really interests me, let me come back to something you said there. Eighty-five per cent of childcare workers would never have got a cent out of this deal agreed a day before the election. How does that work?

SUSSAN LEY:        

Well that works because Labor helped their union mates in the union, United Voice by tipping in three hundred million dollars of borrowed taxpayer's money to allow them to run a campaign in long day care centres across this country. Everybody reported from that campaign, that union organisers walked in the door and said if you sign up to the union, you will get this money; or if you don't sign up to the union, you've got no hope of getting this money. Now that wasn't true but the - the tale was allowed to run and so across the country, lots of lots of lower paid workers signed up - its five hundred dollars a year for your union membership - in the belief that they would have access to this fund.

It opened at eleven o'clock on Tuesday the twenty third of July and it closed twelve hours later. The fund of course was exhausted because there's no way it could possibly have covered everyone. But the really cruel thing is that it only ever could have applied to the award that this particular union relates to. The award that these workers could belong - the union that they could belong to is United Voice - so if you work in a community preschool, and lots of us know our good local community preschools and how hard they work, you could never have had a look in anyway because of course, you're not covered by this union.            So when I'm presented with an independent report that raises the questions that this report raised, it's my job to responsibly use public funding, and to look after every single worker, not just the union's chosen few.

LUKE GRANT:       

Well Minister…

SUSSAN LEY:        

By the way…

LUKE GRANT:

Just let me interrupt for a moment. I'm now of the view, hearing what you've said and I've seen some of this report. Am I not right in saying that on page twenty-one, we are using this - that is the EYQF, that fund - to sign up workers, of course we are. That was - they were the words of the National President of the United Voice Union - is that right?

SUSSAN LEY:        

That's exactly what he said. He said it before a senate or a house committee that we convened when we were in Opposition. I mean I've always opposed this and we had two enquiries into it before the change of government, but in a scrambling mess, the previous minister - Kate Ellis - signed up just sixteen providers the day before the federal election, in an attempt to get something for the Labor Party's union friends, and…

LUKE GRANT:       

So why isn't this - well this is corrupt behaviour then surely. If that's - if the only evidence - well if the evidence is so clear that this was about raising union membership numbers and looking after those people who are only members of the union and not helping the whole sector in its entirety whether you're a union member or not, this stinks to high heaven doesn't it?

SUSSAN LEY:        

Well it does and the Auditor General has had this referred to him and his office and I am sure that he will look into all of those things. I mean I can't use the word corrupt myself, as the Minister I don't have that evidence in front of me but I do have evidence that says this was appalling maladministration and it should never have happened. However our undertaking was that we would pay contracted funds and reluctantly, I will of course stick to that commitment but we will pay contracted funds and that's why some of these funds are going to wages right now. But I'm disappointed, I feel for the centres that could never have got a look in and I'm disappointed by the market distortion that this will create. Because this means, in some areas, because of government money, you will be able to offer your staff more, but it will only be for a short period of time.

LUKE GRANT:       

Of course.

SUSSAN LEY:        

It's not ongoing.

LUKE GRANT:       

You see as a taxpayer I kind of want to say to you, don't pay the money, we're in debt; we're looking for ways to get some of that money back. If this was so - and I can use the word I guess - suspiciously organised the day before an election to benefit certain people who are more or less union members, just say no and take the money back and do something fairer. Let Fair Work Australia work out what should happen, and let them spend some of that money. You don't feel - you don't feel you should have said no, we're going to claw that back?

SUSSAN LEY:        

Well a contract is a contract and we said we'd honour committed funds and that's what I'm doing, but the reason why I'm reluctant to do it is because of exactly what you said, and the fact that I want everyone to benefit.

So what I have been able to secure is this fund, which is three hundred million dollars, being used for the professional development of the sector as a whole.

Obviously some of it will now have to go to this short wage increase for a very, very small minority but the rest will go to up-skilling the sector, helping them with training, helping centres backfill when they release staff for training and basically taking the pressure off them as a whole because they are reaching new rules, having to perform to new standards and that is all quite costly.

But yes, wages should be determined by the Fair Work Commission, and they are. And you know the weird thing is, Luke, when the union came to see me a couple of years ago I said to them, why are you doing this campaign? Why don't you just take this to Fair Work right here, right now?

And the reason I concluded that they didn't was because if they had, they wouldn't have been able to run a recruitment exercise. Every single worker would have said oh, that's okay because Fair Work is looking at our low wages and we're happy with that. So they actually acted against the interests of their members, every childcare worker.

LUKE GRANT:       

Unbelievable. So here we have today in The Australian a story where Goodstart Early Learning through their CEO Julia Davison has effectively said to you when you've said look, can we use this money for getting some quality education for those people who work there, effectively said to you no, we won't be doing that, we've decided to do what we want to do which is to give it to staff members.

Now, I go to a story in The Australian I think on the thirteenth of December, page four of the Aus. Gwynn Bridge, quote. Gwynn Bridge, head of the Australian Childcare Alliance wrote to the Minister yesterday complaining that the nation's largest childcare provider, Goodstart Early Learning - this is the mob that effectively has told the Minister in The Australian today no, we'll do our own thing thank you and what you want is not what we intend to do.

The nation's largest childcare provider, back to the quote, Goodstart Early Learning, was able to submit five thousand pages of documents to support its claim for grant money within forty-eight minutes of the fund opening for submissions.

Let me say that again. Gwynn Bridge who is head of the Australian Childcare Alliance, in The Australian says Goodstart Early Learning were able to submit five thousand pages of documents to support its claim for grant money within forty-eight minutes of the fund opening for submissions. How did they get that put together so quickly?

SUSSAN LEY:

Look, that's a question you would have to ask them. Obviously as a beneficiary of the fund, others have written to me and Gwynn represents seventy per cent of private long day-care providers so she represents a large proportion across the country.

And they said well, you know, we didn't get a look in in this fund that closed in just over twelve hours so we're not very happy. And these are questions I have to take into account and this is why we've had PricewaterhouseCoopers do the report and this is why colleagues of mine have referred the entire fund and its administration and creation to the Auditor-General.

LUKE GRANT:       

Because someone needs to - I mean, I think I can put together an editorial or something pretty quickly but I don't know anyone who could submit five thousand pages of documents to support a claim for money within forty-eight minutes of that fund opening for submissions unless it - you know, I'm only assuming, I don't know this stuff - unless he got a massive leg-up in terms of saying hey, you'd better get some stuff organised.

I just don't know you'd do it. They might be just very capable, I really don't know. I've just got George on the line. Minister, if you don't mind staying there for a moment I'll talk to…

SUSSAN LEY:

Sure.

LUKE GRANT:       

…George quickly, who's related to this issue. George?

CALLER GEORGE:           

Yes. Good morning, Luke.

LUKE GRANT:       

Good morning.

CALLER GEORGE:           

Good morning, Minister. We own childcare centres. When this thing first came out, we couldn't believe our ears that somebody actually proposed to give a portion of the workforce an amount of money for a portion of time, which was, in business terms, ridiculous.

We assembled all of our staff, who obviously were very keen on getting this - getting some of this money and we looked into the proposal and realised that there was only going to be very few childcare centres that would actually quality for this and we weren't one of them. We've only got a number of childcare centres.

Well, the dramas that we went through with the unions visiting our centres, forcing their way through, assembling our staff and discussing how they'd go about getting - they'd get this bonus payment. It caused so many problems in our business we couldn't believe it. It is more than scandalous, Luke, more than scandalous.

LUKE GRANT:       

All right, George.

CALLER GEORGE:           

I'm so glad somebody is taking this up.

LUKE GRANT:       

Well, mate, when - you can rest assured, George, it doesn't stop today, mate. From what I've read this is - and I'll say it - red hot. Minister, how do you respond to George and what he had to say there?

SUSSAN LEY:        

Well, I just really feel for him. I mean, he is absolutely right. Unions barged into workplaces and bullied staff. There's evidence that they rang directors in the middle of the night saying you've got to get your staff to sign up.

What they would say to this vulnerable group of workers, mainly young women, is if you don't sign up you're letting all your mates down, you're letting everyone down because unless sixty per cent of you sign up we can't possibly get it, and just all this sort of nonsense, and the evidence across the country was this was happening all over.

But what ended up working if you like for the union was that they got more members. But you know, people have described me as anti-union. I just want to say this. I've belonged to three unions in my life, I was a member of the shearers' union in the shearing sheds of western Queensland, but the old unions of those days are not like the unions of today.

And what about the principle of one in, all in? What about looking after everyone? You know, this fund that basically said only a tiny group of you can get this but we don't mind that, we'll just ignore the rest of you, is letting down the principles of the good parts of what unionism is all about, of what it was meant to stand for in the first place, and it's disgusting.

LUKE GRANT:       

George, I will just put you back mate so we've got your details so that we can keep in touch with you. Is there anything you can do, Minister, in relation to this mob saying - I mean Goodstart Early Learning - no, we'll just give it to our employees as wages? Anything you can do?

SUSSAN LEY:        

Look, there's not because the contract between that provider and Government was signed, as I said, the day before the election and it is a legal contract, and I have said that we will honour contracted funds.

The reason why it's taken this time is because I asked every provider that had signed a contract - and this was the main one, this was sixty million of the sixty-two million that's totally been contracted with Goodstart, sixty million of the sixty-two million - if they would consider joining the Professional Development Fund but I didn't hold an axe over their head, it was their decision and they've made it.

LUKE GRANT:       

Yeah. I'm going to run into awful time problems but I've got to get Lee up very quickly who has called all the way from Darwin, just wanting to make a point. Lee, if you can, quickly if you wouldn't mind, what did you want to say?

CALLER LEE:         

Yeah, just ask the Minister how could they sign off in the caretaker period of contract? I thought that everything stopped during that caretaker period.

LUKE GRANT:       

That is a great point, Lee. Minister, is - are they guilty of doing that?

SUSSAN LEY:        

Unfortunately - good question. Unfortunately caretaker is just a convention. Legal advice is that a contract still remains just as enforceable in what we call a caretaker period.

LUKE GRANT:       

[Sighs] This is dead set so red hot, Minister. I'm glad we spoke today, we'll speak again. If you can find some time perhaps next week we'll talk about this some further. But good on you for what you're doing and thank you for being available today and all the best for the New Year.

SUSSAN LEY:        

Delighted, thank you very much.

LUKE GRANT:       

Thank you.

SUSSAN LEY:        

And the same to you, Luke, and your listeners. Bye-bye.

LUKE GRANT:       

Good on you. That's Minister Sussan Ley. I'm telling you, I wish we had more time to talk about her bio. She's an absolutely extraordinary human being, apart from being members of unions and the like, what she's done through her life is just remarkable.

ENDS

 

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