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ABC Pilbara with Kelly Gudgeon, 25 October 2023

Kelly Gudgeon: Yesterday, The Australian newspaper has reopened the can of worms and reported that a $100 million cost blow-out at studio schools has forced the government to pull the plug on two of the planned remote schools, including the Roebourne School. Senator Sarah Henderson is the Shadow Minister for Education and she joins me now. Good morning to you, Senator. How are you this morning?

Senator Henderson: Kelly, I’m very well. Great to join you.

Kelly Gudgeon: Now, back in August, as I said, there was a fair bit of backwards and forwards on this issue when we spoke. There seemed to be a lot of confusion around the status of whether or not the studio school in Roebourne was going ahead or not. A statement from the federal government at that time put blame on the previous government, saying there wasn’t enough funding allocated, but the school was saying it was going to go ahead once an appropriate site had been identified. You were the one to uncover this information during Senate estimates. What’s your reaction to the reports in The Australian yesterday?

Senator Henderson: Well, firstly, Kelly, great to join you and thank you for your interest in this really important issue. Look, as we have discovered through documents unveiled in Senate estimates, the Minister for Education, Jason Clare, was not being accurate in the way he was describing the situation. The four schools funded by the Coalition for $75 million were fully funded. Now we have now uncovered that in July 2022,  which of course, is following the election of the Albanese Government, there was a massive cost increase. So rather than the government do something about that to ensure that the studio school in Roebourne could be delivered, the minister just axed the school and he provided no additional funding along with the school for East Arnhem Land. But what we’ve also uncovered now, Kelly, is that there’s been this massive increase in costs. So the Pilbara school has gone from $22 million to $64 million and then the school in East Arnhem Land from $22 million to $56 million. So we’re also now seeing evidence of the minister’s mismanagement of these schools, because I can tell you, if I was the minister I’d be saying, well, hang on a minute what’s going on here? We expect, of course, some cost acceleration, but this is ridiculous. Can we look at other ways of delivering the schools? Can we look at other methods of construction? The minister has just put his head in the sand, mismanaged this grossly, and as a result, the kids of the Pilbara and East Arnhem Land are missing out on a proper education.

Kelly Gudgeon: The reports in The Australian yesterday were around executive salary costs, blow outs. I mean they are saying to people totalling two executive salaries for two people, totalling just over $815,000 for an 18-month time frame. When you know, you have clearly said there’s not enough money in the budget to build the schools that have been promised. What was your reaction when you found that out?

Senator Henderson: Look, I’m really concerned, and I’ve written to the minister seeking an urgent review of his decision to axe the studio schools along with their costings, their operational costs and their salaries. It’s pretty disheartening to see that two people at studio schools are being paid around $600,000 per annum, while other people who work for studio schools are on relatively low salaries. There’s also some $16.2 million which has been allocated for operational costs, which is outside the project construction costs for the school, the upgrade of the school in the Kimberley Yirramalay, as well as the new school at Windjana. And it just seems to me that there is a very big question mark about the minister’s management of the delivery of these schools, along with some of the operational and salary costs of Studio Schools itself.

Kelly Gudgeon: We are getting very mixed messages about whether this school in Roebourne will actually go ahead or not. If we go by these latest media reports, it seems that it won’t. Is that your assessment?

Senator Henderson: So the factual situation is there is no funding for this school, along with the school in East Arnhem Land, because the minister cut these schools from the Building Boarding Schools On-Country program. He should have firstly questioned them on these massive acceleration of costs as I’ve described, and secondly, found more money to build these schools. So Studio Schools is saying this it is still on the program but I think they’ve pushed these schools out to 2028-29, which really is putting these schools on ice because there is no funding. So as I say, Kelly, why didn’t the Minister for Education, one of the senior ministers of the Albanese Government, why didn’t he scrutinise these costs? Why didn’t he ensure these schools could be built on time and within a reasonable budget? He has vacated the field. He has not applied the appropriate amount of scrutiny. He’s allowing, you know, the principal to be paid, it seems, an exorbitant amount of money, not the principal, sorry, the CEO of studio schools, Helen Drennan. And he’s also not applying the appropriate amount of scrutiny that taxpayers deserve in relation to other important costs. So as I say, the minister needs to urgently review his decision because it’s the children in remote communities and those who are the most disadvantaged and marginalised, who are missing out. And the Coalition is so concerned to make sure that we look after Indigenous communities on a needs basis, that we care for and support those who most need our help, and clearly the Albanese Government is failing to do that.

Kelly Gudgeon: We are running out of time, Senator, but what are your next steps? Are you going to keep the pressure up on the government for this?

Senator Henderson: Absolutely, Kelly. Tomorrow I have the Department of Education in estimates, so we will be applying an absolute blowtorch to the minister and to his department as to the mismanagement of these schools and why the community and the kids in Roebourne and in Dhupuma in East Arnhem Land are missing out. This is just not good enough. We are going to be driving this case very, very hard.

Kelly Gudgeon: Senator Sarah Henderson, thank you for your time today. Appreciate it.

Senator Henderson: Thank you so much, Kelly, really great to talk to you again.

Kelly Gudgeon: Shadow Minister for Education, Senator Sarah Henderson, joining me there regarding those latest reports about whether or not the studio school in Roebourne will go ahead.

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