Standing Up for TAFE in WA

  • 16 April 2014

TAFE delegates from the West stood strong against intimidation to give crucial evidence to the Senate Inquiry into the role of Technical and Further Education (TAFE) in Australia.  WA Branch Assistant Secretary, Rikki Hendon, attended the public hearing with two delegates from TAFE Institutes of Technology: Lewis Stevens (Central TAFE) and Denese Kelly (Polytechnic West). The intention was to provide the Senate inquiry with information about the cuts to TAFE Institutes and the impact of the Liberal Barnett government’s new ‘entitlement’ model and fee increases. Lewis and Denese would be appearing at the inquiry in their capacity as CPSU/CSA union delegates, and speaking on behalf of our members as is their right under our Award and Agreements.  Two days before the CPSU/CSA was due to appear before the Senate Committee, the managers from Polytechnic West Institute of Technology began to threaten Denese that giving evidence at the inquiry would be ‘illegal’ and advising her not to attend. Polytechnic West sent identical letters from Managing Director Jill Jamieson to Denese and another delegate from the Teachers’ Union who was also giving evidence to the inquiry, stating that they would be subject to disciplinary proceedings if they revealed any ‘official information.’ The letter went on: ‘You are not authorised to give evidence on any information that you have obtained during your employment including specific issues relating to Polytechnic West, government policy or any official information.’ Lewis was also sent an email with similar wording counselling him not to give evidence to the inquiry in his capacity as an employee of Central. It was later revealed by a spokesperson for Minister Kim Hames (“Tafe Teachers told ‘don’t testify’, The Australian, 11/4/14) that this advice was provided by the Department of Training and Workforce Development.  As a result of this intimidation, Lewis and Denese were nervous about attending the inquiry hearing, but felt strongly that they needed to attend to represent their members. In the meantime, the CPSU/CSA had notified the Senate Committee that the Institutes were attempting to prevent delegates from giving evidence, and the Committee Chair, Senator Sue Lines, became very concerned. At the inquiry hearing Rikki tabled the intimidating letters the delegates had received, and Senator Lines expressed concern at the attempt to silence the delegates and noted that they were protected by parliamentary privilege. All of the Senators expressed their concern and praised Lewis and Denese for having the courage to attend and give evidence. The CPSU/CSA delegation gave valuable evidence to the Senate Committee about the cuts and impact of reforms on TAFE, and after the hearing they were able to speak further with Senator Lines and Senator Lee Rhiannon.  Subsequently, Senator Lines wrote on behalf of the Committee to the managements of Polytechnic West and Central Institutes of Technology informing them that their attempt to ‘curtail the ability of these individuals to provide evidence to the committee…may amount to a contempt of the Senate.’ Senator Lines states that: ‘…whether or not the [the Institute of Technology] agrees with an individual’s approach of views, you may not threaten or penalise staff in any way because of their preparation or giving of evidence to the committee. Accordingly, the committee requests that the [Institute] immediately withdraws its advice to [the delegates]…’

This is a real win for the rights of union delegates to represent members.  The Institutes of Technology attempts to silence the delegates backfired, with the CPSU/CSA tabling the intimidating letters on the public record, and two TAFE Institutes being scolded by a Senate Committee and told to retract their ‘advice’ to delegates!  Denese and Lewis left the inquiry hearing feeling proud that they had stood up against intimidation and spoken out on behalf of their members, backed by their union.

The Education and Employment References Committee is due to hand down its report on 13 May 2014.