Education and Training Reform Amendment (Miscellaneous) Bill 2016

15 April 2016

14 April 2016

MS RYAN (Euroa) — I welcome the opportunity to make a contribution this afternoon to debate on the Education and Training Reform Amendment (Miscellaneous) Bill. This is an omnibus bill in many respects. It deals with a number of different issues currently affecting the education system. Several of those are quite important, particularly the measures to tighten governance and accountability in the school system.

I want to start by putting on record my disappointment that we are debating this bill on a Thursday afternoon with two other bills still to debate. I think the government has mismanaged the business program this week. Quite a number of members of the opposition would like to have the opportunity to make a contribution to the debate on this bill but with what little time we have left to debate three bills it will be difficult for everybody to be able to make their contribution.

The main provisions of the bill provide the secretary of the department with the power to summarily dismiss a teacher and other school staff in a government school for serious misconduct; implement debt recovery arrangements to give the commonwealth the power to recover funding; broaden the definition of a sexual offence under the principal act, the Education and Training Reform Act (ETRA); and give the minister the power to set fees for temporary work approval applications from early childhood teachers. The final provision gives the minister the power to appoint acting members to the Victorian Institute of Teaching.

I want to focus on the power to summarily dismiss teachers. I think this is a good change that we are seeing the government enact in this legislation. Under the current act, the Education and Training Reform Act 2006 (ETRA), which governs the accountability of school staff, there is no power for the secretary to dismiss principals, teachers or school staff if they have even admitted to guilt. This bill grants power to the secretary of the department to manage serious staff misconduct without having to go through a full investigation. It brings management of government school staff into line with what applies under the Public Administration Act, which currently governs the rest of the public service. So it is a sensible change and one that, as the shadow minister mentioned earlier, has arisen from the revelations that we are currently seeing before IBAC.

To use this power, the secretary would have to be satisfied that the conduct of a teacher, a principal or a school employee is grave, serious or a significant departure from the standard of care which should have been exercised. It is a power that will only be used in limited circumstances, and with these changes those who find themselves the subject of this power by the secretary will have a right of appeal. They will have the same right to appeal a decision as a public service employee, again as set out in the Public Administration Act 2004, which means that they will be able to make an application to the Disciplinary Appeals Board if they feel they have been unjustly treated.

The bill actually gives an example of where this power might be used, and it explicitly states that it could be used where an employee has admitted to serious misconduct during a corruption investigation. That obviously is a very real example, and it is in reference to, as I mentioned before, the revelations that we are currently seeing from the ongoing IBAC investigation into allegations of serious corruption in the Department of Education and Training.

The secretary, when appearing before IBAC, actually called for the powers to sack corrupt principals and school staff. Much of the investigation before IBAC focused on the issue of banker schools, which was allegedly architected by the former finance director in the Department of Education and Training, where — and I understand this practice was happening for several decades — large amounts of taxpayer money was being funnelled into school accounts where it was being used without scrutiny.

We have seen many media reports of the evidence coming before IBAC where that money was being used by senior bureaucrats, no less, to fund parties, wine, office furniture, international travel and, in one very notable instance, the purchase of a toupee. But despite some admissions of guilt to the inquiry by principals or school staff, those who have been involved in the scandal outside of the public service, but again governed by ETRA, have not been able to be brought to account. They have been stood down on full pay while a formal investigation is undertaken, even though they may actually have admitted to their guilt.

IBAC now has obviously turned its attention to ultranet, and as the shadow minister mentioned in his contribution, we have seen these revelations as a result of the steps that the coalition took in the last Parliament to actually introduce the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission. As IBAC continues its investigations into ultranet, we are seeing evidence of how contracts for that project were awarded and tendered, where departmental employees held shares in the company that ultimately won the tender and also evidence where it would appear departmental staff received gifts, travel and job opportunities through that contract.

Ultranet, as we know, has had a mired history. It was commissioned by Labor in 2006, and it has been an absolutely breathtaking waste of taxpayers money. When I think about some of the schools in my electorate that are desperate for funding, such as Benalla College and Seymour College — I again take the opportunity with the minister in the house to remind him of those two schools — it is absolutely tragic to think of the amount of money that has been wasted on that project.

There was a report in the Age this year — and I have to say that I think the Age has done a very good job of covering the commission — which refers to the salesmanship, I guess, of ultranet. The article talks about the Big Day Out launch at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre back in August 2010, and it states:

The performers in flamboyant costumes did somersaults on stage in front of a large audience of department staff, principals and corporate partners, singing to the tune of Madonna's famous …Material Girl: 'We are living in a virtual world and I am an ultranet girl'.

We really have to wonder what planet these people were living on. The coalition dropped that project in 2013 after the Auditor-General found that the costs blew out by $180 million, but it was just one in a litany of projects that Labor botched in the IT space. Obviously we also had myki, HealthSMART, the law enforcement assistance program (LEAP) database and of course the Department of Education and Training's other IT project, the student management system for TAFEs, which last year were forced to write off millions of dollars as a result of it, and that severely impacted on their bottom line. That is a fact the government does not like to mention, because Labor did grossly underestimate the scope of that project. It was poorly planned from the beginning, and back in opposition the then shadow minister for tertiary education and training, Peter Hall, pointed that out on a number of occasions, and regrettably his assessments of that proved to be true.

Just very quickly, the second provision gives the power to the commonwealth to recover debt from schools. The bill also expands the definition of 'sexual offence'. I think that is a good thing. Protection of students and children is of the utmost importance, and it would be a very serious concern and out of step with the expectations of society if the law here in Victoria did not actually introduce these provisions. Obviously that has come about from changes to the criminal code of the commonwealth. Just to conclude, education is of the utmost importance, and I welcome the majority of the changes in the bill.

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