Hobart Council caught up in child-care scandal

Wednesday, October 23, 1991 - 10:00

By Teresa Dowding

HOBART — The council of this fair city is not one of the more progressive bodies in the Australian governmental system. Resting on a system of multiple voting for property owners, its members are elected by a few hundred people. Presided over by Mayor Doone Kennedy, it includes five millionaires and one convicted tax evader.

Among its more notable achievements are its unsuccessful 1988 attempt to ban the Gay and Lesbian Rights Group from the popular Salamanca Markets and its repeated attempts to close down the markets altogether so its clientele would have one less alternative to shopping in the city centre.

In recent months this dinosaur has been shaken out of its customary torpor by a scandal involving the Hobart City Creche, revealed by assistant director Cheryl Watts, who has worked at the creche for 16 years.

She noticed that large sums of money she had been giving to director Carol Beasely had not made it into the bank account. Beasely pleaded guilty to embezzlement of around $90,000, and received a 12-month suspended sentence.

Shortly after this became public, the HCC began saying the creche was in financial trouble, and parents began hearing rumours that it would close.

Changes started taking place with little or no consultation with staff and parents. Hourly charges were replaced with daily ones, forcing all parents to pay the full-day rate. After protests, the council retreated to half-day rates, but refused to restore hourly rates.

Then came the hiring of a bus to take the kids 500 metres up the road to the nearby kindergarten, a distance they had previously walked under staff supervision. Parents were charged for this new "service".

But things got really dirty when wage restructuring negotiations resulted in redundancy for three of the senior staff, including Cheryl Watts (at the time on maternity leave) and Jaqui King, who had been with the creche for six years.

Both had repeatedly questioned the way the creche was managed. The three workers were advised by their union to accept the offered pay-out — all of four weeks' pay in lieu of notice, and eight weeks' redundancy pay.

It seems Watts had been targeted for embarrassing her employers. When she reported the embezzlement to the council, Watts claims she was told by community services director Susan Parr that the staff could face slander charges if they made any public comment about the matter.

Because Beasely pleaded guilty, no witnesses were called, and there was no publicity for her trial.

Forming an action group to learn about the management of the creche, covered that within months of Carol Beasely's appointment a previously existing parents' management committee had folded and financial supervision ended.

With this, supervision should have passed back to the council, but the last council audit took place in 1987-88, and no yearly budget was presented to it during Beasely's two years in the job.

Shortly after all this, the council announced that the creche had run $93,000 over its building maintenance budget allocated by the Department of Health and Services. It refused to detail how this debt had arisen. However, Cheryl Watts claims in a statutory declaration to the state Industrial Commission that much of the deficit consisted of council charges for maintenance, playground development, wages and attendance of council officers at meetings.

In short, tens of thousands of dollars of federal child-care funds had been redirected to the council. Before the HCC took over management of the creche, none of these charges existed.

According to Richard Flanagan, local historian and member of the parents' action group, the council evaded inquiries as to where the money had gone and "snowed us with half-truths and would never tell us the full story".

Flanagan told Green Left Weekly that he felt the council had deliberately allowed the building to run down so the creche would eventually be no longer viable.

"They constantly alluded to the fact that the creche was a valuable building ... it became obvious to us that the council wanted to close the creche down ... it is being slum-landlorded to the point where it is no longer viable financially or socially."

Then, in response to a sudden council decision to advertise for parties willing to take over the management of the creche, the parents' group decided to form a community-based management committee with representatives from parents, staff, union and council. The sponsor, financial overseer and paymaster was to be the Tasmanian Trades and Labour Council. The council refused the group access to the books for the purposes of preparing its submission.

The parents' submission was the only one — until Alderman Lynne Archer rang around 30 private child-care centres in a desperate bid to find a private group willing to take on the creche.

When an alternative private submission was finally found, the councillors and the lord mayor decided to bypass their own rules of procedure, bypassing the administration committee, whose chairperson, Dee Alty, would oppose a bid to privatise the creche.

At the council meeting that officially voted to fast-track the privatisation, Alty was gagged when she tried to move for an inquiry into the past running of the creche.

Meanwhile, the parents called for a state inquiry, but the state government, with one eye on the approaching state elections, said it had no jurisdiction over the city council. Richard Flanagan says the HCC appears to be a law onto itself. "Our proposal had the backing of parents, staff, the community and even the minister."

The Hobart City Creche is the only council-provided child-care centre for the city's working parents, and the only creche in the central business district. It offers only 40 places, and recently abolished its service for infants less than 12 months old.

This is little enough, but as of January 1992, when the new, private management takes over, the council will provide no child-care at all. The council has already indicated that when the creche staff reapply for their positions at the end of the year, there is no guarantee they will be re-employed.

The parents have not given up, however. The action group is still pressing for an inquiry, and received television coverage of a public meeting of about 100 at Hobart Town Hall on October 4.

From GLW issue 32