Union interference may have impacted the procurement process for the Campbell Primary School Modernisation Project, the ACT Integrity Commission heard today (10 August).
On the first day of the first public hearing to be held by the corruption watchdog, an Education Directorate official known by the pseudonym John Green said he had been advised by Education Minister Yvette Berry’s office not to give the contract to Fyshwick-based Manteena despite it being identified as the preferred tenderer in two key stages of the procurement process, and to instead recommend Lendlease for the tender.
The commission was told the ACT Government could have saved nearly $900,000 if a different tenderer was chosen for the project.
The commission heard that there were “rumours” circulating within the directorate that Ms Berry “may have been approached by the unions and asked why Manteena was getting all the jobs”.
Counsel assisting Callan O’Neill said the commission should expect to see in evidence that the ACT branch of the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining And Energy Union (CFMEU) held a negative view of Manteena, and this was conveyed to Ms Berry and/or her chief of staff at various points during the procurement process.
Mr O’Neill also said the commission was likely to hear that there was a “line of communication” between the CFMEU and Ms Berry’s then-chief of staff, Joshua Ceramidas.
He said evidence suggested officials acted deliberately to interfere with the outcome and sought to conceal that conduct.
According to the Auditor-General report into the tender award, Mr Green said knowledge and understanding from his previous role as Secure Local Jobs Code Registrar had influenced his consideration.
As registrar, Mr Green was required to liaise with members of the Secure Local Jobs Code Advisory Council, which included a CFMEU representative.
Mr Green told the commission that concerns with a number of companies were raised by CFMEU, and Manteena was among them.
Mr Green was asked by Integrity Commissioner Michael Adams about his interactions with the union when he served as the Secure Local Jobs Code Registrar and whether they had ever “become unprofessional”.
He said that there were “definitely times when there were personal insults being directed at myself” during negotiations with the CFMEU.
“It certainly weighed on me at the time and that was definitely a strong consideration when I decided to apply for the role at education [in 2020],” he added.
Mr Green said an example that particularly stuck with him was “My four-year-old daughter would do a better job than you”.
He also said CFMEU members had raised issues with the ACT Government procurement process more broadly.
He described a meeting with the union in which secretary Jason O’Mara allegedly raised concerns about both the ACT Government procurement process and Manteena.
“I think the view was that the government doesn’t take Secure Local Jobs seriously enough, that the government continues to give jobs to contractors who don’t do the right thing by their workers, we take the cheapest price and that we’re going about it the wrong way,” he said.
He said the conversation then moved to Campbell and claimed Mr O’Mara said: “Manteena shouldn’t get it, they don’t do the right thing by their workers, Lendlease are a better contractor, government’s just going to take the lowest price again and workers are going to be worse off.”
Mr Green acknowledged that in his work at Secure Local Jobs he had been aware of “the history of complaints” by the union regarding how Manteena treated its workers and for not engaging the union in enterprise bargaining agreements.
Mr Green then spoke of a conversation that happened sometime after with Rebecca Cross, who had been acting as education director-general at the time.
“She’d been summoned down to the minister’s office to discuss Campbell,” he said, adding that she told him, “Josh [Ceramidas] says Manteena’s not to get it. There’s problems with their Secure Local Jobs and industrial relations performance”.
The commission is expected to hear from Ms Berry, Mr O’Mara, Mr Ceramidas, Education Directorate director-general Katy Haire and CFMEU national secretary Zach Smith.
Hearings will continue tomorrow (11 August) and are expected to resume in September.