DOORSTOP INTERVIEW: Planned industrial relations action by public school teachers; the Government’s own review into tollmania in Sydney


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CHRIS MINNS, NSW LABOR LEADER: Chris Minns, NSW Labor Leader. I’m joined with Deputy Leader Prue Car and Shadow Minister for Roads, John Graham to talk about a few things in the news this afternoon. First of all, there’s been finally an acknowledgement from the NSW Government that tollmania has gripped Sydney. We know that New South Wales has half the toll roads in all of Australia; we know that Sydney is the most tolled city on the face of the earth; we know that the community is paying a secret tax every time they use one of these toll roads. And finally, we’ve got a bit of paper from the NSW Government acknowledging what everybody already knows, toll roads are eating Sydney; a secret tax on the back of working families in Western Sydney. We’ve now got one company that owns all or part of the M2, M4, M5, M5 East, M7, the Cross City Tunnel, the Lane Cove Tunnel, North Connex and the Eastern Distributer. So in effect, we have a 100 per cent privately owned toll road monopoly. And I thought the reporting this morning was indicative that finally the NSW Government is making moves to ease the burden that tolls are having on working families in New South Wales. But many people would be asking the question, how do we get to this position in the first place? How come contracts were signed, putting new tolls on old, existing free roads? How come there is a 4 per cent annual increase in tolls on all of these roads when the long term inflation rate except for recently has been set at 2 per cent? The only reason that we jump above 4 per cent is if inflation is higher than that. We’re now in a situation where thousands of families are paying more than $4,000 or $5,000 a year in tolls. None of it was disclosed before the last election and the decision of the Perrottet Government when he was the Treasurer of this state to privatise the full Westconnex utility so it will be held by a private company has really come back around to bite the government on the backside, and really hurt the families of New South Wales. We have been telling the Treasurer, the Premier and the leadership of the Liberals and Nationals in this state that tolls were a problem. They went ahead with the privatisation in any event, they went ahead signing contracts with unaffordable increases in tolls in any event, and now it’s finally dawned on them that this is a huge issue for the families of Western Sydney.

On the other issue in the media at the moment in relation to proposed industrial action from the Teachers Federation, and public sector teachers. I just say to the NSW Premier, it’s time to sit down, talk with teacher representatives and those in the frontline on our public schools. It’s very important that that negotiations and those conversations take place, when you’ve got petrol increasing by 30 per cent a year, when you’ve got rents going up at 15 per cent a year, house prices 20 per cent a year, fresh food and meat going up 12 per cent a year, transport costs at 8 per cent a year. Everything in the normal basket of goods for thousands of families in New South Wales is going up but the government is intent on holding wages low. So for many people, particularly those that are trying to make ends meet are simply not able to cover their mortgage, get their kids through school, or meet the fundamentals of a busy life in New South Wales as a result of these changes. If the NSW government is going to change the legislated wages cap above 2.5 per cent at the state budget when it’s handed down in June, my suggestion to the Premier is explain that to your own workforce now. If we can avoid industrial action between now and when the budget comes down, that’s good news for the families of New South Wales. At the moment the government notwithstanding the fact that inflation in Sydney could be at 4.8 per cent for the next financial year, is insisting on a 2.5 per cent increase, having slashed wages during the last 12 months. Now that is not consistent with a government that is in concert with and happy to speak with their employees. That conversation needs to take place, particularly in light of the fact that unions up until last year hadn’t taken any industrial action for a full decade in this state during a period when there was a federal Liberal government and a NSW Liberal National Government as well.

PRUE CAR, SHADOW MINISTER FOR EDUCATION: Thanks Chris, just a few words from me about teachers. As we start term two we find ourselves yet again in the grips of a really chronic teacher shortage right across the state of New South Wales. We are thousands of teachers short right across the state, in teachers – in schools in suburban Sydney and in regional and country New South Wales. Time and time again this government was warned, time and time again Dom Perrottet was warned about the teacher shortage and they have simply not listened. Regrettably, we’re in a situation where many teachers feel like they just have no other option. As Chris said there hasn’t been widespread industrial action from teachers for a decade. It didn’t happen under Barry O’Farrell or Mike Baird or Gladys Berejiklian but it is happening under Dominic Perrottet because Dom Perrottet time and time again, fails to listen to the concerns of teachers and nurses and other key workers right across the state. In reality teachers are overworked, there’s not enough of them, the government has not hired enough and when you factor in inflation, teachers in New South Wales have had a real wage cut. It’s not acceptable and it’s on the government to sit down in good faith and negotiate with teachers so that they can be paid a wage where they can feed their own families and we can attract more teachers into the profession. We’re seeing teacher shortages in classrooms across the state that means classes are merged, some classes are shut, schools are shut on particular days in particular schools and our children miss out. Right now the students of New South Wales are missing out because of the Perrottet government’s arrogant mishandling of this issue, and the failure to listen to teachers about the chronic teacher shortage right across the state.

JOHN GRAHAM, SHADOW MINISTER FOR ROADS: John Graham, the Shadow Minister for Roads. The government’s finally caught up with the truth that every driver knows which is the cost of tolls is going through the roof. Tolls are high and they’re getting higher. This review is welcome but it contains a frank admission of failure. There’s a frank admission of failure here in these documents about the inconsistencies and the failure of the current toll regime – that’s what this review reveals. We look forward to seeing this review rollout, we’re calling on the government to deliver toll relief before they put up new tolls, before they consider new tolling arrangements across Sydney and they should make this review as public as possible. We should include consultation with industry, particularly the freight industry, and the toll paying public should have its say as well. So we want this process, this welcome process to be as open as possible.

MINNS: All three of us are happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: The obvious question, how much is the pay rise the Labor government would give the teachers?

MINNS: It’s very difficult for us to negotiate with the teachers unions and teacher representatives from Opposition. It’s almost impossible to do because a similar system that we believe would be better for New South Wales like you’re seeing in Victoria means that you can have a discussion around classifications, conditions and salary, package it up into one deal. Now we believe that would be better for the taxpayer, better for frontline public sector workers. That’s not possible in New South Wales with the legislated wages cap. So we’re calling on Matt Kean and the Premier Dominic Perrottet to understand how difficult it is for a family to pay their mortgage, to send their kids through school and to meet their obligations in a place like Sydney and in particular in regional NSW. Understand that projected inflation in Sydney could be at 4.8 per cent and the government as a result of their legislated wages cap is looking at a figure almost half that. So for many people, they simply can’t meet their mortgage repayments, something’s got to give.

JOURNALIST: Prue, you mentioned the disruptions last term. Wasn’t that largely due to COVID cases and COVID isolation rules which have now been amended?

CAR: COVID has certainly thrown a spanner in the works for our education system and for teachers in the classroom but the teacher shortage was a problem well before COVID. We’re still thousands of teachers short. When we see the COVID isolation changes take effect in classrooms, we’re still going to be thousands of teachers short because the government has not hired enough teachers and has not valued them enough to keep them in the actual workforce. They were warned years and years before COVID was even in our language. They haven’t done anything, it is just an excuse for the government to say this is all the fault of the COVID-19 pandemic.

JOURNALIST: Would it have been a possibility for the Teachers Federation to take their strike action today, given it’s a planning day, it’s a pupil free day so then at least parents aren’t inconvenienced next week?

CAR: I think even the teachers would admit that this is regrettable, that no one wants industrial action that inconveniences families. But families right now are suffering the impact of the underinvestment in teachers and the teacher shortage right across the state. Our children right now in public schools are suffering because the Government has not hired enough teachers and hasn’t done enough to keep them in our classrooms. The single biggest thing that we can do for any child is put them in front of a qualified teacher and under Dominic Perrottet, there’s less and less of them in front of those teachers every day.

JOURNALIST: But couldn’t the Teachers Federation have taken the action today when it’s the first day of term but the kids aren’t actually back yet, so still inconvenience the system but not the parents?

CAR: I think the teachers would admit that this is regrettable, industrial action is regrettable, but the teachers have been left with many of them feeling that they really have no other choice. Dominic Perrottet will not sit down with the teachers in good faith, he just refuses to listen to their concerns time and time again, even after industrial action last year. So many of the teachers feel like they just simply do not have a choice at this point.

JOURNALIST: Chris, I know you keep saying that you couldn’t possibly comment, you don’t have the budget but you must have a position, do teachers have a point here? Are they underpaid and overworked or does Labor not agree with that?

MINNS: No, absolutely. I’ve made it clear in the past that 2.5 per cent is too low given inflation within Sydney and Australia. Inflation across the country is projected to be at 4.2 per cent for the next 12 months according to the Commonwealth’s budget. As I said for the quarter in Sydney, it’s 1.2 per cent but there’s particular increases when it comes to fresh food, rents that are going up even steeper than that so clearly –

JOURNALIST: So under a Labor Government, the 2.5 per cent pay cap gets scrapped?

MINNS: We would like to see a model where we can negotiate directly with teachers about a way of talking to them on classifications, on work practices and on salaries to get a better deal for them and the New South Wales taxpayer. Now you’d be aware that’s illegal under the 2.5 per cent wages cap and the Premier’s decision last year to keep wages at 0.3 per cent has meant that many of those frontline workers feel like they’re getting further and further behind. I’ve made this point before, it used to be the case in Sydney that a single salary could get your kids through school and pay your mortgage. Then it moved to two salaries full time to pay your mortgage and get through school and now for thousands of families, that’s not even enough.

A second part of this argument and I think this policy issue, but an important one is that it’s not just public sector wages, we know there are a ton of private sector salaries that are closely pegged to counterparts in the public system – non-government school teachers, security guards, nurses in aged and residential care facilities that also have salary – a cap effectively from their employer that are unable to compete in or get by in a very expensive housing and economy right now.

Now, I’ve heard words from the Premier and the Treasurer when they go on radio, when they speak on talkback, when they have media conferences like you, there’s tons of empathetic words about how difficult it is, and they understand the impact of inflation. But when it comes to them actually doing something, that they’re directly responsible for more often than not, they say, our hands are tied, and they’re not going to do anything. I think they should make that point to their own workforce, or let them in on what their wages strategy would be when the budget is handed down.

JOURNALIST: In particular the teachers are angry about this year they’re getting 2.04 per cent, that is the third year of a three year deal. Is it really appropriate to wedge the government into amending or renegotiating the third year of a three year deal by holding parents and students to ransom, why not negotiate for future years and a new deal?

MINNS: So is your argument that the 2.04 per cent –

JOURNALIST: Is due to come in this year and that’s what they’re particularly upset about the pay, their pay for next year hasn’t been negotiated yet, but for 2022 it is 2.04 per cent. They say that’s not enough, so what effectively they’re saying is we need to renegotiate this year’s pay deal, even though it was a three year deal.

MINNS: The government and worker representatives are in the same pot, they both have to deal with the economic conditions as they’re presented to them and the Teachers Federation and the nurses and paramedics and police are staring down the barrel of 30 per cent increases in petrol, 4.8 per cent increases in inflation rises across the board. Now, it’s understandable that when they’re talking with their own employer about their ability for their members to meet their financial obligations, they’d be saying, we can’t meet it, it’s too difficult for us to do that. Now when you’ve got a NSW Government that is saying, we’re going to hold it at 2.5 per cent but by the way, for the last 12 months, we’re going to effectively pay you zero it means that the government is locking in real wages cuts for hundreds of thousands of employees in NSW, right at the moment when we know that inflation is going through the roof and we heavily suspect that the Reserve Bank will pursue multiple rate increases for 2022 and 2023. And I just say to the NSW Premier, people can’t afford to pay their mortgages. He’s got an obligation to sit down and negotiate with their workforce. The economic conditions have changed over the last six months, that’s the simple fact, not just in Australia, but right around the world. I think that worker representatives have acknowledged that fact that, but NSW government refuses to and as evidence of that I put forward the fact that there’s been virtually no industrial disruption for the last 10 years despite the fact that there’s been a Liberal National government in charge during that entire period.

JOURNALIST: John, just quickly on tolls, is the government underestimating sentiment in the community when it comes to tolls and do they need to make changes before the election or will they pay for it? And just a specific question on the Harbour Tunnel, the contract expires in August, should the government continue charging motorists for a road that’s paid off?

GRAHAM: Firstly, this is a welcome admission by the government that the current system has failed. That’s really, when you look at this terms of reference, that’s really spelled out clearly. The problems are there in black and white in this terms of reference of this review with the current toll system. And we welcome the fact they finally caught up to what every driver knows who’s making their way around their own city.

In relation to the Sydney Harbour Tunnel, those arrangements cease in August and we’ll wait to see what the government announces at that point. The crucial step for that will be the budget where the government has to indicate at that stage, what the expectations are for that revenue going forward.

MINNS: Thanks, everybody


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