A clear Good to Great Schools Australia verdict, but confused headlines

, - February 19, 2017

Well! You wouldn’t know from the news headlines that Good to Great Schools Australia, which I co-chair, was cleared of last year’s media and political allegations about maladministration and “high risk business practices” at the Aurukun school. The clearance was spectacular and clear, but the reporting of it was not.

On Thursday the Queensland Auditor-General tabled its report into the Cape York Aboriginal Academy at Aurukun, following an audit commissioned by the Queensland Department of Education (DET) last July. The Academy is a partnership between Good to Great Schools Australia (GGSA) and DET, established in 2010.

The Auditor-General inquired into the finances, governance and enrolment practices of the Aurukun school. He reported to parliament: “We found no evidence of financial impropriety in the administration of the funding between DET and GGSA. We did, however, identify poor financial stewardship of the arrangement by DET, breakdowns of internal controls, and routine noncompliance with Departmental policy and procedures for enrolments at the Aurukun School.”

The report makes clear enrolments are solely the department’s responsibility. GGSA has no involvement in the administration of Academy schools, including enrolment. We provide teaching and learning programs.

That did not stop crazy press banners in some media outlets.

This newspaper got it right: ‘Cleared Pearson claims departmental own goal’. The Herald Sun’s second headline was accurate: ‘Pearson ‘vindicated by Aurukun report’, after initially carrying an inaccurate Courier-Mail headline. report’. The Guardian was also spot on: ‘Aurukun audit blames education department for poor financial stewardship’. AAP’s headline was ‘Pearson vindicated by Aurukun report’. The Cairns Post told the truth: ‘Audit clears Noel Pearson of mismanagement of Aurukun school’.

The Courier-Mail started its online screamer with ‘Cape York Good to Great school at Aurukun overstated enrolments and earned extra $815,000’, but amended it later in the day to ‘Aurukun school overstated enrolments’ when it was pointed out that enrolments were the responsibility of the department.

The ABC started the day with ‘Noel Pearson’s Aurukun school received $815,000 overpayment’. When we challenged that interpretation, pointing out that the audit report made clear the enrolment problems concerned the department, they amended their headline to read: ‘Aurukun school inadvertently received up to $815 k in overpayments’. But their original story was all over the internet and shared ten times over by then.

That manipulated headline was red meat to their resident social media trolls. In the ABC News comment thread, Kevin lamented: ‘And when this bloke came onto the scene he was militant but intelligent. I really thought he could become the next Neville Bonner … Very disappointing that he has sunk to this’. Kevin is joined by a cast of trolls variously calling for my incarceration for fraud, and so on.

Read the audit report, Kevin. It will give you a more truthful account than the one you read.

One of the reasons for the audit was to investigate finances. State Education Minister Kate Jones had implied problems in her interview with the 7.30 in October last year, when she told reporter James Thomas: “What I want to get to the bottom of is: where our funding has gone and what has been delivered for that money. If there are any irregularities that are improper, then that is exactly what the audit office is investigating right now”.

The QAO have now definitively “got to the bottom of it”. Instead of finding impropriety on the part of our organisation, the report lays out a litany of problems within the Minister’s own department. The ABC’s silence on this is deafening.

In the usual course, audits are outsourced to private auditors like Deloittes or Price Waterhouse and any number of accounting firms. This audit was the first time in history DET has called the Auditor-General to conduct an audit into one of its own schools.

It didn’t turn out the way Jones and her director-general, Jim Watterston, expected. I believe their intention was to discredit Good to Great Schools Australia. Instead, the Auditor-General has shone the spotlight on their own poor administration.

In the midst of the QAO audit, Minister Kate Jones gave an interview to James Thomas, and his handiwork burst into print and onto TV on November 11. In preparing his ‘story’, Thomas interviewed Minister Jones on October 27 — coincidentally, the same day Thomas received copies of the department’s confidential internal audit reports.

This was an astonishing leak against the department’s own policy, which precludes release to the media outside of the Right to Information provisions, especially in relation to information that’s the subject of an inquiry by the Auditor-General or Ombudsman.

Whether the minister or her director-general contravened the Right to Information laws is now the subject of official complaints.

Michael Andrew is the former chair of KPMG worldwide, and is the current chair of the Australian Taxation Board. He oversees the accounts of Good to Great Schools as a director, giving his time pro bono in the cause of school education. He is a hard taskmaster, Kevin, believe me.

He told 7.30 last year: “The matters that I refer to … in this internal audit report … go to issues with Education Queensland not Good to Great Schools’. The Auditor-General has confirmed the truth of Andrew’s statement.”

What is going on here? Is this a fake news phenomenon?

I think it’s a mixture of things.

Firstly, there’s just plain sloppy journalism. Secondly, the government’s spin doctors and their compliant mates in the media play a big role in misrepresenting the truth. But spin is an old problem. What is new is that this media manipulation has given rise to a widespread public mistrust of the tie-up between the media and politicians, and how the news cannot be trusted. In the social media age, headlines count more than the substance of stories. Kevin and friends don’t read beyond the headlines.

Half of the reporting after the QAO report was fake news. In the case of the ABC, there is a shadow of sinister motive; not in the article, which was reasonable, but in the headline that the editors in Brisbane put on the article. It generated the kind of routine filth that this kind of reporting does, and despite their responsibility for managing their online abuse, no action is taken to remove defamatory and abusive commentary.

The report by James Thomas on Good to Great Schools was the third national current affairs investigation last year into my work in Cape York. Earlier, Ginny Stein did two “investigative” stories about Cape York Partnership’s work on welfare reform at Aurukun. These aired on 7.30 and Lateline.

And then this:

A week and a half ago, I received the following letter from Caro Meldrum-Hanna of the ABC: “I am a reporter with Four Corners and I’m writing to invite you to participate in a documentary program that will look at your efforts to improve the way Indigenous children in this country are educated and your leadership of Good to Great Schools Australia.”

She wrote: “This program will examine the progress of the Cape York Agenda, Good to Great Schools Australia and recent allegations that GGSA has been involved in ‘high risk’ business practises. This program is an opportunity to explain the governance of GGSA and to clarify the role of the Queensland Department of Education.”

Stein and Thomas covered these issues in 2016. The Queensland Audit Office tabled its report setting out the answers to these very questions.

Then yesterday, even as the Auditor-General’s report was being tabled, an Executive General Manager at the Cape York Partnership (responsible for Cape York Employment, which runs the Community Development Project at Aurukun) and I receive an email from James Thomas: “The ABC would like to request an interview with Noel Pearson in relation to a story we are preparing on Cape York Employment (CYE), to air on the 7.30 program.

“We understand CYE is in breach of its funding agreement for multiple instances of poor performance. We would like to discuss whether or not you believe CYE is doing the job that it is funded to do?

“We’d request an answer on your availability by close of business tomorrow, Friday 17 Feb, 2017.”

Some context. There are 60 CDP providers across the country. CYE is one of the smallest, providing services to Aurukun and Coen in Cape York. My understanding is that 54 of the 60 providers received similar notices as part of the Federal Government’s contract management process. The problems identified in the performance of the Cape York provider early last year were administrative compliance issues that have been turned around and the breaches fixed. These are reasonable questions with reasonable answers, but the motives of the journalist — based on the controversy he generated with his previous report that has now been discredited by the Queensland Audit Office — are not reasonable.

This is routine accountability procedures of government, so why is 7.30 so interested? Maybe Cape York and Noel Pearson. Is 7.30 interested in any other CDP provider other than Cape York Employment?

The ABC is invoking an old dog whistle here: about blackfellas and money. Just look at yesterday’s ABC News comment thread to see how the whistle brought out the dogs. The line between journalism and vendetta seems to be blurring with the old Aunty.

Noel Pearson co-chairs Good to Great Schools Australia and is a director of Cape York Partnership.