Simon Shepherd: This week, a megastrike. The words no Education Minister wants to hear. For the first time in New Zealand history, all state and integrated schools will strike together this Wednesday.
The action comes after talks failed to secure an offer acceptable to the 50,000 affected teachers and principals. I asked Chris Hipkins if he had a last minute deal to stop the strike going ahead.
Chris Hipkins: Look, we’re going to continue talking to the teachers, right up till the point of the strike action. If we can avoid strike action, of course we would like to do that. We’ve been very clear, though, that with $1.2 billion on the table and a $10,000 pay rise for most teachers on the table, we think that that’s as far as we can go in terms of putting more money in their pay packets in this pay round. But we also recognise that for many teachers this is about more than just pay, and they’re raising a whole lot of other issues that they also want us to address.
Well, let’s talk about pay. They want a package, between them all, of like $3.9 billion. It seems you guys are like a universe apart. Is there no more money to just get this done?
We’ve been really clear that for salaries there isn’t any more money on the table, and there’s not going to be, but there are many other issues that teachers are raising. We know that there are more kids in classrooms that have additional learning needs, for example. We do need to do more in that area. We know that there are big workload issues that teachers are grappling with, and we need to do more in that area. We’ll keep talking to them about how we can address those issues, but in terms of the pay round, we’ve been pretty clear that $1.2 billion is what there is.
The Crown had a surplus in the March figures of $2.5 billion, and the teachers are going to be looking at that and going, ‘Look, there’s some money.’
I don’t think teachers will put their hands up to take a pay cut, if the surplus were to go down. You can’t base your decisions about pay negotiations based on government surpluses because actually every other workforce in the public sector is looking at that money as well. We’ve got to look at what’s sustainable. We’ve also got a number of other big workforces— nurses will be back in bargaining next year. We’ve got doctors in bargaining. You’ll have police back in bargaining next year, and we do have to think about what are sustainable pay rises across the public service? Teachers are right at the top of those. You know, they are being offered some of the biggest pay rises across the broader public sector.
Secondary principals now have a pay claim as well. Are you fearful that you’re going to see another strike on your hands from them?
Look, we’ll go into those negotiations in good faith. The secondary principal bargaining is just getting underway, and we need to let that take its course.
You talk about this pay round. What about next pay round? Is that one of the reasons that the government’s decided to loosen its debt cap — to create more money, to be able to borrow more money, to be able to make these kind of pay rounds work?
I’m not going to pre-empt the next pay round before we’ve even concluded this pay round. I’ve always been very clear with the teachers — as long as I have been doing this job for the Labour Party, and that was five years in opposition as well — that they need to think about their pay strategy over every pay cycle and not just a big action roughly every 15 years when there’s a Labour government.
This mega-strike that’s coming up on Wednesday, I mean, that’s hundreds of thousands of children, parents affected. Do you understand what kind of effect that this is going to have for families?
Well, look, I know that this will have a big impact for families. I don’t think that the strike action is justified. As I’ve said, the pay rise on the table now over the next two years is worth an average of $10,000 to the majority of teachers so that is a pretty sizeable pay increase. It’s $1.2 billion, and actually parents are also saying that they want the government to get serious about mental health, they want the government to properly fund district health boards, so that the hospitals that they go to are well-funded and well-resourced. They also want us to deal with the housing shortage and the housing crisis. They want us to lift children out of poverty. We need to be able to do all of those things.
But how long can you let this drag on for? One of these pay negotiations has been going on for more than 18 months.
Look, we continue to negotiate. We went to the Employment Relations Authority late last year. The Employment Relations Authority, in fact, said to the primary school teachers at the time that they thought the government’s offer was very competitive — ‘handsome and competitive’ was how they described it. We’re doing everything that we can.
And you’ve gone back there now? I mean, there’s new, urgent talks on the table, isn’t there?
That’s right. We are doing everything that we can to continue to sit around the table to try and resolve the issues that the teachers are raising. But obviously, any government — whether it’s our government or any other government — is always going to have a limit to the amount of money that they can put on the table in any given pay round.
Okay. Let’s talk about this week in parliament. Haven’t really seen anything like this before with allegations of bullying, harassment, sexual assault — how surprised were you at the findings of the Francis Report?
Look, I think parliament has come a long way over the last 20 or 30 years in terms of changing its culture, being more representative of all New Zealanders, but we’ve still got a long way to go nad I think the Francis Report clearly highlights that. We need to change the culture around this place. We need to create a much more people-friendly environment, and clearly there are some big areas for improvement.
You’ve been here — what? —almost 10 years, 10 and a half years, have you been involved, have you seen, have you experienced bullying and harassment of this nature?
Look, I wouldn’t say that I’ve been the victim of bullying. I have seen people treating other people inappropriately and unfairly. Now let’s just be clear about this — in a democratic system of government, like we have here in New Zealand, an adversarial approach is built into it. You know, it’s designed to be adversarial, and that is going to create conflict. There’s a different between legitimate conflict, legitimate scrutiny, legitimate accountability, and bullying. And certainly the staff, the interactions that some MPs have with staff, the interactions that some staff would have with each other — they’re not okay, and we need to be really clear in saying that. You can be adversarial, you can do your job in a democratic system without treating people as abysmally as some people around here have been treated.
It’s also been described as a very high-intensity workload. I mean, you’re a father, you’ve got to manage your family as well as this. I mean, how hard is it to be able to do the job?
Look, it’s a tough job. MPs are away from their homes a lot. I’m lucky in one sense, as a Wellington MP, I get to go home every night to my family. I think everybody who’s working who has a family struggles with this. I think MPs particularly, given the lengths of time they spend away from their families, do really struggle with that.
Okay, but what changes do you think should be made within parliament, both for staff and members, to make it more family-friendly?
Well, I think that the Francis Report, again, sets out some good recommendations around how we can improve the culture of this place.
What recommendations do you like?
Well, I think having a single point of contact or various points of contact for people who are feeling bullied or feeling harassed, so that they know where they can go to get extra help. We’ve been working for some time to make this place a bit more family-friendly. I think it humanises parliament a bit more, and I think we’ve made real advances in that in recent years, and there’s more that we can do there too.
So do you think we need a wider review, like the Francis Report, but for the wider public service? Do you think this kind of culture exists out there?
Look, I think any workplace is going to have challenges, if they have a culture that allows bullying. Now, without going through every different department or agency, I can’t say where that might exist, but my message to every chief executive in the public service, is my expectation of them is that they will ensure that their workplace is not one of those workplaces that has that type of culture.
Okay. It’s Budget Week, and Finance Minister Grant Robertson has been looking around for extra cash, and he’s taken $197 million dollars from the tertiary education policy — the ‘fees-free’ policy. Why not just give that to the teachers?
Well, when we set up the ‘fees-free’ policy, we deliberately budgeted conservatively because it’s very difficult when you’re introducing a new policy like that to understand the behavioural effects of that. You know, enrolments could have gone up significantly, they might not have. You’ve got to be conservative. You have to make sure that the money is there if you need it. We knew that we were probably going to get some money back from that. That money is going to go back into tertiary education, particularly into vocational education — where we know that our polytechs have been scaling back, where we know we’ve got critical skill shortages in areas like building and construction. so that money is still going into education, and it’s going into an area where we’ve also got a big pressing need.
With this tertiary policy— I mean, the Labour policy was to roll out free years in the second and third year by 2024. Has that gone?
No, that hasn’t gone. That continues to be the Labour Party’s policy. Of course, it’s a coalition government, so everything is—
So you can’t commit to that for the next election, is that what you’re saying?
Well, what I’m saying is we’ll go into the next election campaign with a very clear policy. Under this government where it’s a coalition government, the commitment that we made in this term was to introduce the first year free, which is what we have done. You know, beyond the next election, of course, that’s going to depend on the outcome of the election.
Okay. Finally, one last word to the teachers and the pupils and the parents who are going to be the subject of this strike this week, I mean, what would you say to them?
I would say that this strike isn’t necessary, that we are hearing the concerns of teachers. We are committed to addressing them. We have given teachers a very significant pay offer, the largest that they’ve had in over a decade. In fact, it’s worth more than all of the other pay offers that they’ve had over the last decade put together, and we’re also committed to working on the other issues that they’re raising.
Education Minister Chris Hipkins, thank you very much for your time.
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