16 February 2024

Department boss given an education at Senate Estimates

| Chris Johnson
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Sarah Henderson

Senator Sarah Henderson thinks the Education Secretary has had enough notice to deliver. Photo: Screenshot.

Education Department Secretary Tony Cook hasn’t had a great time in Senate Estimates this week.

In fact, he would probably have preferred to have been anywhere else rather than facing the basting he got at the hands of Liberal Senator Sarah Henderson.

On Thursday morning (15 February), he was forced to all but apologise for shouting members of an advisory group to a fancy Canberra restaurant and spending more than $1200 of taxpayers’ money on food and drink.

Then he was raked over the coals for refusing to tender correspondence over alleged rorting by an Indigenous educational charity.

First to the dinner.

READ ALSO Services Australia boss dumps on ‘time fraud’ for toilet break claims

Members of the National Research Infrastructure Advisory Group were hosted by the department at Courgette restaurant early last year. The bill came to about $1209.

“How could you run a department which allows this sort of flagrant waste of taxpayers’ dollars?” Senator Henderson asked.

Mr Cook said the dinner cost about $100 per person and he had already been questioned about it by Education Minister Jason Clare (after it was raised by Senator Henderson in the October estimates last year).

He said he subsequently changed the department’s hospitality policy to revise down the maximum spend per head for dining out, meaning fine-dining restaurants were out of reach.

“We now have limits on the expenditure that is allowed to be made,” the Secretary said.

“That limit reflects the Australian Taxation Office travel allowance rates … which would then mean that the majority of those restaurants would be completely out of our new policy. The maximum rate is $77.”

The Secretary appeared more than a little humbled by the Senator’s reprimand.

“I think we have let the taxpayers down in terms of what they would expect from public servants,” he said.

But the grilling didn’t end there.

READ ALSO Public service gets some estimates attention and it’s not all wanted

Later in the morning, Senator Henderson referred to another matter she had raised in October about the taxpayer-funded charity Studio Schools of Australia and its management of Indigenous boarding schools.

She raised concerns over the chief executive officer chartering flights right across Australia’s Top End and some “very, very dubious expenditure”.

She had asked in October for specific correspondence regarding the matter to be tabled in estimates.

Mr Cook took it on notice then and tried to do the same this time around, but the Liberal Senator wouldn’t have a bar of it.

The Secretary said he had concerns about handing the correspondence over but would seek advice from the Minister.

“You may have concerns, but your response does not comply with Senate rules,” Senator Henderson said.

“You are required to provide a copy of that letter.”

When Mr Cook tried to explain his concerns, the Senator shut him down again.

“Your issues are immaterial, Secretary, I’m sorry,” she said.

“You have not made a public interest immunity claim.”

Only a minister can make a public interest immunity claim over such matters.

The Secretary again said he would take it on notice.

“I asked for this letter in October last year,” Senator Henderson said.

“It’s been on notice for four months … This is very disappointing, Secretary.”

Lunchtime couldn’t come soon enough for the clearly rattled department head.

Department of Education Secretary Tony Cook

Department of Education Secretary Tony Cook hasn’t enjoyed his latest trip to the hill. Photo: Supplied.

Senator Henderson, the Shadow Education Minister, has been on a roll this session of estimates hearings.

On Wednesday evening, she questioned Mr Clare’s promise to review the Australian Taxation Office’s HECS payment system.

She asked about the ATO, saying the scheme would be too complex and expensive to reform.

Finance Minister Katy Gallagher confirmed there were no plans underway for the reform.

Senator Henderson subsequently described it as “not right and not fair”.

She said escalating student debt was crippling many young Australians.

“Currently, the ATO HECS payments system does not account for repayments in real-time,” she said.

“That means if someone with a $20,000 loan pays off $5,000 during the financial year, they will be indexed on the full $20,000 – not the lower balance of $15,000.

“Similarly, anyone repaying a loan in full can still be hit with an indexation charge.”

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I wonder if we’ll ever get proper leadership and accountability in this country. It’s going down the drain si fadt it’s beyond belief

Senator Henderson grandstanding yet again, it’s all she seems to know what to do, and the MSM lap it up. I would’ve thought reporting the massive corruption unearthed under Dutton’s tenure as Home Affairs Minister, would’ve been at the top of reporting but, it seems even The Riotact prefer to give voice to the opposition, instead of the Government.

Balance needed4:15 pm 16 Feb 24

Accusing Riotact of preferring to give voice to the Opposition instead of the Government is utterly ridiculous. Were you not following Riotact’s coverage of the Voice Referendum?

The Education Dept was pretty stupid with these over the top expenditures, but they pale into insignificance when compared with MPs entitlements. Pretty hypocritical, in my view.

Capital Retro4:44 pm 16 Feb 24

Yes, the daily tax free travel rate is $310 but when the Commonwealth pays for the accommodation of a Minister, a lower travel allowance rate applies for meals and incidental costs up to a limit of $204 per day.

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