The Press Council considered a complaint about an article in The Age on 19 May 2016 headed "Election 2016: Greens leader Richard Di Natale fails to declare home, pays au pairs low wage" online and in print the next day, headed "Greens leader fails to declare family farm". The article appeared shortly after a federal election had been called, in the early stages of the campaign.
The article reported that “Senator Di Natale has paid three au pairs to help with his family as little as $150 a week after tax, or $3.75 an hour - based on a standard 40-hour week - as well as room and board worth $300 a week”. It also reported that the Senator “says he made up the difference and paid above minimum wage requirements [based on advice from a payroll services company] and by requiring only 25 hours of work a week”.
The article went on to report: “The $150 weekly wage was a quarter of the national minimum wage in 2012 of $606.40 per week, or $15.96 per hour. A couple working for $150 a week would be earning just $1.88 per hour.” The article also said the “Greens leader has made workers' pay and conditions, and a promise to protect penalty rates, a central feature of the 2016 election campaign”. The online version added: “He has attacked Bill Shorten over the penalty rates issue too after the Labor leader vowed to respect the rulings of the independent Fair Work Commission and said he would not - unlike the Greens - legislate to protect penalty rates.”
In response to a complaint, the Council asked the publication to comment on whether the material breached its Standards of Practice.
The publication said it reported that the Senator paid the minimum wage through a combination of a $150 cash wage payment and then made up the difference by providing $300 in food and board, for a total payment of $487 for 25 hours work each week. It said a 40-hour week comparison was used because the Senator had provided no proof to support his claim that the au pairs worked 25 hours per week. The publication said it requested proof of this from the Senator after publication of the article and subsequently reported that, first, the Senator said he would release documents and contracts relating to the au pairs’ employment and, subsequently, that the Senator conceded timesheets were not kept to record the hours worked by the au pairs.
The publication said based on a University of Melbourne student guide on estimated living costs which takes into consideration rent, food and utilities, the cost of living in Deans Marsh, where the au pairs resided, would be much less than the $300 deducted by the Senator for this purpose. The publication said even if the au pairs were paid on the basis of a 25 hour work week they were possibly paid below minimum wage.
The Council’s Standards of Practice require that publications take reasonable steps to ensure that factual material is accurate and not misleading (General Principle 1) and is presented with reasonable fairness and balance (General Principle 3). If the material is significantly inaccurate or misleading, or not reasonably fair and balanced, publications must take reasonable steps to provide adequate remedial action or an opportunity for a response to be published (General Principles 2 and 4).
The Council notes that, under its Standards of Practice, the publication was required to take reasonable steps to ensure accuracy and fairness in reporting that the au pairs may have worked a standard 40-hour week and therefore may have been underpaid.
The Council considers that an au pair role involves living in the family home – often almost as part of the family – doing work of a domestic nature with a significant amount of flexibility and informality. The Council considers it is likely many such roles may not involve keeping of careful records or bear comparison to the standard 40-hour working arrangements in less domestic roles.
Based on the available material, the Council concludes that before the article appeared, the Senator told the publication that the au pairs worked 25 hours per week, he had made the employment arrangements in accordance with employment advice he received, and offered to provide documents relating to that advice to the publication. Although it took five days for the publication’s repeated requests for documents to be met and then only partially, at the time the article was published the publication had no evidence to contradict the initial information provided by the Senator’s office. At the time of publication, there was no reasonable basis for the publication to imply the au pairs may have worked a 40-hour week and on this basis, may have been paid “as little as $150 a week after tax”. The publication could also have contacted the au pairs to establish the nature of the employment arrangement but did not attempt to do so.
In the circumstances, the Council concludes that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure the article was accurate and not misleading, and was fair and balanced. Accordingly, General Principles 1 and 3 were breached in these respects.
The Council is not in a position on the available material to determine whether the cost of living in Deans Marsh was less than $300 per week and whether, because of this, the au pairs were possibly paid below minimum wage even though for 25 hours work per week. However, this does not affect its other conclusions.
Having regard for the absence of a complaint by the Senator himself, the Council does not make any finding of breaches in relation to General Principles 2 and 4.
Relevant Council Standards
This adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
Publications must take reasonable steps to:
Ensure that factual material in news reports and elsewhere is accurate and not misleading, and is distinguishable from other material such as opinion.
Provide a correction or other adequate remedial action if published material is significantly inaccurate or misleading.
Ensure that factual material is presented with reasonable fairness and balance, and that writers' expressions of opinion are not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts.
Ensure that where material refers adversely to a person, a fair opportunity is given for subsequent publication of a reply if that is reasonably necessary to address a possible breach of General Principle 3.