Estimating Stephen Gniel

Stephen Gniel, of course, was CEO of VCAA while the Deloitte debacle played out, and then during the subsequent 2023 VCE exams battle. Gniel then began his previously arranged secondment, to be Acting CEO of ACARA (also permitting Gniel, it seems, to duck appearing before the Bennett inquiry). It is in the latter role that Gniel appeared (along with Sharon Foster, ACARA’s Executive Director, Curriculum, and Russell Dwyer, ACARA’s Executive Director, Assessment and Reporting) at Senate Estimates on 15 February, in front of the Education and Employment Legislation Committee. I don’t think Gniel had much fun.

Gniel’s main interrogator was Liberal attack dog, Sarah Henderson. Henderson has all the instincts of a Rottweiler and half the brains. But Rottweilers have their uses and the Estimates were fun to watch. Below is the video and transcript of Henderson attacking Gniel (including Labor clowns running interference) over the VCE exam mess. The full transcript and video of ACARA’s appearance are here and here (15:21:10 to 16:07:40, and PDF).

CHAIR: Senator Henderson.

Senator HENDERSON: I want to raise concerns about your role at the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority. You were CEO of the VCAA and presided over a series of mistakes in last year’s VCE exams. They included errors in the general and specialist maths exam, and various confusing typos in some exams. Some students were also given the wrong exam for a Chinese language test, and then some students were awarded bonus points. In other words, it was a real mess—such a mess that the Victorian Minister for Education, Mr Carroll, declined to award a pay rise to staff at the VCAA, and you apologised for this. I’m just wondering how you got the job you’re in now, because it wasn’t a very good track record given the performance of your work last year.

CHAIR: Firstly, questions can be asked, and they’ll be appropriately answered in a way the witness wants to answer it. But I’m also mindful that witnesses are at a disadvantage because there are documents from a previous organisation that we do not have authority to get. So, there are complications about trying to answer that question for Mr Gniel. It would be helpful if you could connect your back question with this particular item.

Senator HENDERSON: Chair, I’ll table this report from the Age, ‘More eyes to cross the Ts in VCE exams’. The issues I’ve raised are in this story. This is obviously a difficult question to raise, Mr Gniel, but I have to ask: how do you explain what happened last year with the VCE exams in Victoria?

CHAIR: I am trying to be helpful.

Senator HENDERSON: Chair, can I just say—

CHAIR: I’m not cutting you off.

Senator HENDERSON: If the question is in order, I would just ask that you allow me to ask the question.

CHAIR: I’m trying to be helpful to you.

Senator HENDERSON: You’re running interference.

CHAIR: No. Can you put it in the context of what this actual hearing is about?

Senator HENDERSON: Yes. This is about your role as acting CEO of ACARA and your role with ACARA. I’m raising concerns about the credentials that you bring to the role, Mr Gniel, and I would ask if you could perhaps explain what happened last year, and to give Australians an assurance that calibre of work won’t continue at ACARA?

CHAIR: To the role of acting chief executive?

Senator HENDERSON: That’s right.

CHAIR: Thank you. That’s what I was asking.

Mr Gniel: I’ll try to best answer that. There were a lot of statements there. I’d like to refute some of those. I will say that you’re absolutely right about Minister Carroll in Victoria. Obviously the state commissioned through the secretary there a review of that process. To my understanding, that review has not been handed down as yet. When that review is handed down, and those recommendations are made apparent, I think myself along with all people responsible for really significant programs of work across, as you’ve heard, millions of students working with teachers, will take into account any of those improvements. That’s what I will do. As a chief executive of large organisations with work that impacts on children, young people and families across the nation, we have to be able to apologise when things don’t work and when things go wrong and learn from those things. Certainly I know the VCAA team, most of whom are teachers, work incredibly hard to make sure those sorts of things are reduced in likelihood as much as possible. As I said, some of that is working with our partners. That is not something that these small teams can do by themselves. Once that information is made public, I’ll be making sure I read that to see if there was anything that could have been done better in that time, and I’ll bring that into this job and any further jobs I have in my area of great passion, which is education.

Senator HENDERSON: We’re waiting for that review, as you mentioned, to be handed down. In his words, the minister did talk about a series of stuff-ups that impacted on a great many students sitting the VCE exam in Victoria. Have you learnt those lessons? What changes were put in place in the time that you were still the CEO of the VCAA to ensure that those errors didn’t continue this year? I understand you’ve left that role now. I’m talking about the confidence level that you bring to the role as acting CEO of ACARA.

Senator Chisholm: If you want to run for Victorian parliament, you’re more than welcome to do so. Mr Gniel is here appearing as the—

Senator HENDERSON: We need a Liberal premier, that’s for sure, because the current one is not doing a very good job.

Senator Chisholm: You’ve never had much success, but we could debate that for a few hours. Mr Gniel is here to answer questions about—

Senator HENDERSON: It’s going as badly wrong under Jacinta as it did under Daniel Andrews.

Senator Chisholm: Yet we still win. Mr Gniel is here to answer questions about ACARA. I’d encourage you to put questions to him that are relevant to his appearance here.

Senator HENDERSON: Competency in the job is relevant. I’m asking questions that I think many Victorian parents would want asked.

20 Replies to “Estimating Stephen Gniel”

      1. ‘Appropriately answered in a way witness wants to answer.’ – hysterical 😁 We are led by donkeys here and across the oceans

        1. It wasn’t well worded but the chair had a point. Whatever one thinks of Gniel and his tenure at VCAA, and what I think is unprintable, Gniel was at Estimates in his capacity as Chair of ACARA. It was up to Henderson to tie questions about Gniel’s previous position to questions about his current position, and she did a pretty bad job of it.

  1. Thanks for sharing this, Marty. I couldn’t find it when I looked a few weeks ago. (Does anyone know if the Parliamentary Inquiry into the state of education in Victoria has started?)

    Gniel may not have had much fun, and nor should he, but he also successfully evaded answering the tough questions (perhaps I’m looking at a different transcript). Henderson the Rottweiler …? Maybe. But I want Muzzle, not Scout. Even better, give me Zoltan.

    Gniel’s opening statement, where he pulled out “a couple of key points … for the committee”, was poignant, tear-jerking stuff:
    “Importantly, I wanted to raise the fact that I started my career as a primary school teacher, a very proud male primary school teacher, and also worked as a principal. I really feel privileged to be here in this role and overseeing the really important work of the Australian Curriculum Assessment Authority.”

    Somebody pass me the tissue box. (I want to puke, not cry).

    Then on with the show: Does anyone know the answer to:

    ” In other words, it was a real mess—such a mess that the Victorian Minister for Education, Mr Carroll, declined to award a pay rise to staff at the VCAA, and you apologised for this. I’m just wondering how you got the job you’re in now, because it wasn’t a very good track record given the performance of your work last year.”

    The prospect of any answer was killed by the Chair’s very helpful: “So, there are complications about trying to answer that question for Mr Gniel.”

    How about the answer to:

    “This is about your role as acting CEO of ACARA and your role with ACARA. I’m raising concerns about the credentials that you bring to the role, Mr Gniel, and I would ask if you could perhaps explain what happened last year, and to give Australians an assurance that calibre of work won’t continue at ACARA?”

    Or the answer to:

    ” I understand you’ve left that role now. I’m talking about the confidence level that you bring to the role as acting CEO of ACARA.”

    (Admittedly, Henderson scored an own goal here by then getting into a dumb tit-for-tat exchange with the Chair, trying to score some cheap political points).

    It is laughable that the Chair was “trying to be helpful”. Unless what they meant was trying to be helpful to Gniel.

    I was hoping for the smell of fried snake. Or grilled weasel. All I smelt was a baked cake.

    1. The Chair was a clown, but Henderson’s thoughtless mode of questioning permitted the clown to be a clown. If she’d been more interested in incisive questioning and less in grandstanding, Gniel would have had a much tougher time.

    2. The Parliamentary Inquiry into the state of education in Victoria has started; the closing date for submissions has passed; the parliamentary panel will visit regional cities seeking comments.

  2. Has Gniel been over-estimated or under-estimated? I think he was considerably under-estimated at the hearings but has been way, way over-estimated (by people who’s job was to know better) in other respects.

    It is very disappointing (but unsurprising) that the process used by the ACARA Board to determine that Gniel was their best recommendation for acting CEO of ACARA and overseer of the NAPLAN remains unknown. The hard questions remain unasked and unanswered, and accountability is the victim yet again.

    It will be interesting to see what happens once the actor’s appointment expires at the end of August. Onwards to another role to play, I assume … (With the current teacher shortage and with Gniel’s sentimental recollection of his teaching days, it would be appropriate that he returns to teaching, in a struggling Primary school, where his skills can be best used. Bureaucrats are a dime a dozen and far too plentiful. Teachers, less so. How about it, Stephen?)

    1. I don’t think it’s in principle a big deal that we don’t know how Gniel was chosen for acting CEO. These people are a type, chosen by people substantially of the same type. Gniel would have been chosen well ahead of the 2023 VCAA exam battle, and so that battle could have had zero effect upon the selection.

      Yes, anyone paying any attention knew long before 2023 that VCAA is an utter mess, and that Gniel was either unaware of this or uninterested in fixing it or incapable of fixing it. I think Gniel is an appalling choice for ACARA, and I think anyone paying the slightest attention would have recognised he is an appalling choice. But it is simply par for the course that the Gniel equivalents who selected him paid no attention.

    2. Hi John – it’s not clear that the ACARA Board made the appointment – could have been the Minister as part of some deal with Vic. Who knows? The decline in merit appointment in the public service has been ongoing and while senior appointments have always been subject to a lack of process, that now applies to a great deal of the public service.

      The timing appears a little convenient to get Gniel out of the way in Vic and swap him to ACARA – we’ll likely never know. As for when it was actually decided – it may not have been before the exam fiasco.

      1. JJ, you’re much more knowledgable than me on such workings, but I think you’re doubly wrong in your speculation.

        First of all, I don’t think there’s any way Gniel’s secondment wasn’t determined well before the exam thing (re)blew up last. I don’t believe there is any way that the timing of the secondment was anything other than coincidence.

        Secondly, while I agree that we don’t know what role the ACARA Board had in choosing Gniel, I can see no reason to assume that it had anything particular to do with the Victorian Minister. All the Ministers, and the Federal Minister, have a say, including via the Board.

        Gniel was twice previously on the ACARA Board, and he was CEO of VCAA. He was a natural choice, even if arguably a very bad one.

      2. From Hansard:

        “Ms Brighton: Mr Gniel has been appointed for nine months, until the end of August, or until the ongoing CEO has been appointed. The way that appointment works is that appointment is based on the recommendation of the board. The board then consults with the Australian government Minister for Education. That’s for the temporary appointment. There will be advertising for the CEO this year. Once that advertising has happened and the recruitment process is gone through, there will be an ongoing CEO for ACARA.”

        IF Brighton is to be believed, it seems clear that the ACARA Board made the recommendation and the Federal Minister for Education (Jason Clare, one would assume) Elephant stamped the recommendation. For all intents and purposes, the ACARA Board was responsible for the appointment. And as Marty suggested, like attracts like. It was a logical choice on paper, which is why there was probably little or no due diligence.

        1. I don’t think the Board’s recommendation of Gniel was necessarily that straight-forward. It’s possible, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there had been some prior consultation with Clare and/or the State ministers.

          1. There are formal and informal processes. The formal process documents how the rules were followed. The informal process works out what actually happens eg who is actually appointed. Sometimes the two are in tandem, at other times the formal process very much follows the decisions having been made. For example, when you make a budget bid to Treasury, first they tell you orally how much you can bid for and then you make the formal bid for it in writing. That way everyone stays (relatively) happy and no bids are ever formally rejected. You NEVER want to get Treasury (or the Minister) off-side.

            There will almost always be communication between any board and the Minister (ie adviser) prior to recommending an appointment – there is no point in recommending someone the Minister doesn’t like. It’s highly possible that I’m overdoing it, but a deal between the Vic and Federal Minister is always possible – I scratch your back, you scratch mine. And ACARA has fewer staff than VCAA. We’ll see at the conclusion of the acting period what happens.

            1. “acting period” … I like it. If there’s any integrity, it will be ‘exit stage left’ at the end of August. “There are no small parts, only small actors.”

              And I still have \displaystyle that letter. I really hope I’m interrogated at the Parliamentary Inquiry.

  3. So the aftermath of all this is that life goes on and Gniel goes back to acting. What was the point?

      1. Indeed, Huh?

        Gniel (along with Sharon Foster and Russell Dwyer) front Senate Estimates, in front of the Education and Employment Legislation Committee, gets asked questions, spins his blarney (assisted in no small part by poor questioning) and then walks away. To continue acting.

        What was the point of it all?

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