Peta Credlin: The Shadow Minister for Education, Sarah Henderson, joins me now, who was asking the tough questions today at Estimates. I think I might even have a grab. You put some questions to the department, minister’s department, department officials who should have the answers, but they didn’t. Let’s have a listen.
Excerpt from Senate Estimate
Senator Henderson: Can you tell me what the annual salary is of the CEO, Helen Drennan?
Mr Cook: We have written to Studio Schools seeking information in relation to that question, they don’t provide that to us and are not required to provide that to us.
Senator Henderson: Have you tried to make a phone call or ask any further information about it?
Mr Cook: I haven’t done that, Senator. I wouldn’t normally ring individual schools and seek information on the salary of their staff.
Senator Henderson: My understanding is that the CEO was traveling from her home in Queensland to Broome and then flying by charter from Broome to the Kimberley. So do you have any information in relation to those sorts of costs?
Mr Cook: No, Senator. I’m very happy if you’ve got information you wish to share with us in relation to those particular points. Very happy to take those. But we have, as I mentioned, we have written to the approved authority asking for detailed information in relation to the financial accounts. And so we will see that in the next several weeks
Peta Credlin: Sarah Henderson, you’ve been around government for as long as I have. I have never seen such a lack of oversight of spending like that. The failure to acquit those grants, we’re talking literally of $16 million plus. Were you staggered by what you heard? Because I certainly am.
Senator Henderson: Well, absolutely, Peta. And good evening, great to join you. First, I was alerted to some deep concerns about the Studio Schools and the Albanese Government’s failure to manage the delivery of Indigenous boarding schools when they cut two schools from the May budget. So, we provided $75 million to deliver four schools, three new schools and one upgraded school, and suddenly two of those new schools were cut completely – in East Arnhem Land and also the Pilbara. But there was $16 million allocated for operational costs, which seemed extraordinary. And then from questions on notice, we discovered that the costs had gone up for the two schools that had been axed from $44 million to $120 million. Now, if I was the minister, I’d be saying what is going on here? And scrutinising those costs. It just seems unbelievable. No credibility. Why can’t this organisation deliver these boarding schools on time and within a reasonable budget? And then, of course, we saw in the financial statements made public in June, which the department and the minister did not seem to know about, that the chief executive officer and the chief operating officer were being paid a combined total of $600,000 per annum, while other teachers were being paid very mediocre salaries. And these are in some of the most impoverished parts of the country, so it just defies belief. But when I looked at this, Peta, the red flags went up left, right and centre and this minister did absolutely nothing.
Peta Credlin: Yeah, it’s extraordinary. I mean, that $600k for a teacher and an executive at the school, that’s more than the Prime Minister earns. That’s the first point. Who hires anyone to fly them from Queensland across to Broome and then a private charter in and out of school? I mean, that’s one hell of a taxpayer-funded commute. But then more broadly, if you’re talking about two schools costing from about $50 million blowing out to $126 million per school, I mean $60 million per school, roughly how many children are in these schools? They’re not big numbers, as I understand.
Senator Henderson: No, there’s 78, they accommodate 78 children per school. So the minister didn’t say, hang on a minute, let’s look at other forms of construction. Let’s look at prefabricated construction. Let’s look at how we can get these schools into the Pilbara, into East Arnhem Land, rather than just cutting the schools and then delivering $16 million to Studio Schools for operational costs, not scrutinising their expenditure. And I’ve now asked questions about the charter flights, about upgrades, I’ve been told that in excess of $60,000 has been spent on an ensuite or an indoor toilet. There are other very exorbitant operational costs being incurred, and the minister should have been all over this, really, they’ve been missing in action. I called for a review, they’ve now, just today in Estimates, said they will write to Studio Schools. But frankly, he’s just not doing his job, Peta, that’s the bottom line.
Peta Credlin: He absolutely is not, Sarah, keep it going. Keep it going because this is exactly why we need an audit.