United action wins rental concessions for Katherine teachers

Katherine teaching staff at the most recent consultation meeting

A vocal campaign by Katherine teachers will protect current employees from large rent increases, but new employees will receive no housing subsidy under the Department’s latest proposal, writes Organiser Alyson Kavanagh

A plan to drastically increase rents for teachers in Katherine has been watered down after a sharply critical response by teaching staff, the local community and the AEU.

As part of the Government’s budget austerity measures, the Department of Education was directed to cut $500,000 from the subsidy it currently provides to nearly 100 teaching staff in Katherine.

Earlier options included doubling the rent for employees receiving the subsidy, which currently caps their rent at about $150 per week.

Under the latest proposal from the Department, the existing scheme will be grandfathered for current employees, meaning they will retain the subsidy but see rents increase by between 20 and 30 per cent, with increases differentiated based on salary tiers. In dollar terms, rents will increase by somewhere between about $23 and $45 per week.

For those staff who wish to leave Katherine but remain in the NT, DoE has promised to facilitate a transfer to a remote location. The provisions extend to contact staff and the Chief Executive has committed to giving priority to contract staff in Katherine for consideration for permanency.

What remains to be seen is how the government now attracts new teachers to Katherine town schools

Although the current proposal came as a relief to existing staff, the tradeoff is that the burden of the cuts will fall on new employees, who will have no access to a housing subsidy and must source their own property rather than via a DoE leasing arrangement. The only concession for new employees is they will receive at 10 least fortnightly relocation payments (equivalent to teachers in Alice Springs).

It was always going to be difficult to overturn a cabinet decision to inflict austerity on Katherine teachers and their housing subsidy, especially given the housing subsidy for Katherine teachers was not written into any enterprise agreement or other legislative document. This meant that there was no industrial mechanism to stop the reduction or removal of the decades-old practice of providing a housing subsidy to teachers.

Back in April when the decision was announced alongside many other austerity measures, teachers were on holidays. The poor communication of the implications of this decision left teachers feeling disrespected upon their return.

However, the passion and courage with which our members in Katherine asserted the importance of the subsidy, ably supported by many members of the community, forced a big shift in tone from the Department.

This dispute has highlighted the importance of having our conditions protected in industrial agreements

The language initially used by the government was negative in tone and the connotations of words like “cut” and “review” meant that teachers were worried that this meant the end of the entire subsidy. This language has since softened and at the latest consultation meeting, Katherine teachers were advised that cuts to the subsidy would be phased in over the next three years and grandfathering arrangements put in place.

While the decision to save money in this area was not completely reversed, by taking a strong collective stance we were able to influence the decision about how the measure would be implemented.

What remains to be seen is how the government now attracts new teachers to Katherine town schools, given that the Katherine region already experiences the highest rate of teacher turnover and contract employment in the NT.

The new arrangements are only temporary and will be reviewed in 2022, or sooner if it remains challenging to recruit teachers to Katherine schools.

This dispute has highlighted the importance of having our conditions protected in industrial agreements. That’s why the AEU NT will be campaigning for the inclusion of a housing allowance or similar instrument to be included in our next round of bargaining. 

This article was first published in the Term 3, 2019 edition of the Territory Educator magazine