Monday, 25 October 2010
Private Members’ Business; Commission of Inquiry into the Building the Education Revolution Program Bill 2010
That this bill be now read a second time.
The effluxion of time has not washed away the failure of the government with respect to the Building the Education Revolution and, while time might heal all, tragically for mums and dads, principals, teachers and school communities who have been bitterly disappointed by the outcome of the school hall debacle, the passage of time has not changed their disappointment or washed away their feeling of being ripped off as taxpayers by this government’s inept handling of the school hall stimulus program.
This Commission of Inquiry into the Building the Education Revolution Program Bill 2010 that I introduced last week and is being debated tonight would return some semblance of respectability to government handling of important government programs by giving a judicial officer heading a judicial inquiry the powers needed to summons witnesses, to subpoena documents and to hold inquiries both private and public in order to get to the bottom of who is responsible for the massive failure of the school hall program and, more importantly, to determine whether taxpayers have received value for money for the $16.2 billion that has been spent on the Building the Education Revolution.
Last week in estimates startling revelations only made the need for an inquiry of this kind even more current and even more important. Some of the revelations included that the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission confirmed that they are interviewing BER contractors and examining contracts between builders and the government to determine whether there is evidence of collusion. I think most people in Australia would recognise that common sense suggests that there has been some kind of funny business, collusion—whatever you wish to call it—between business, between government and within businesses to ensure that taxpayers have been fleeced to the tune of billions of dollars that have lined the pockets of state governments and building contractors.
The estimates revealed that only a third of BER projects have been completed and 40 per cent of BER funds are yet to be spent in the program. So it is not too late for a judicial inquiry to improve the rollout of the school hall stimulus program. The minister—Simon Crean before and now Chris Evans—says that all these projects have begun and cannot be unravelled. Mums and dads and principals and teachers across Australia know that putting a bit of orange plastic fencing around existing playgrounds or tennis courts is not the beginning of a BER program. It is not too late for the government to admit its mistakes, to learn the lessons of the past and to ensure that taxpayers’ money is delivered effectively and that they receive value for money. It is a particularly arrogant government that continues to speak no evil, to see no evil and to hear no evil about the school hall stimulus program when they know that they could now fix the problems that the opposition has been raising since April 2009.
Another matter that came out through estimates is that despite Julia Gillard’s promise during the election campaign —yet another broken promise—that the costings for each project would be publicly revealed, none of the costings for the projects that have been overseen by this government are yet to be revealed in full in public. So what happened to their promises of transparency and accountability or the embarrassing comments by the Prime Minister that she would be opening the curtains and letting the disinfectant of sun shine in to ensure that every crack of government was exposed publicly through transparency and accountability? They were simply false promises designed to win over the support of the independents.
I call on the independents—those sitting on the crossbenches who I hope are listening to this debate—to recognise that this judicial inquiry into the Building the Education Revolution is an important opportunity for transparency and accountability to be more than just talked about but to be acted upon. This is an opportunity for the parliament to insist that transparency and accountability be brought to an area where there has been clear government failure, where there has been clear government waste, where state governments, building contractors and others have fleeced the Australian taxpayer. The Australian taxpayer is crying out for the parliament to bring the rigour of a judicial inquiry to bear on the Building the Education Revolution.
I hate to think what the parents, friends, principals, teachers and others at schools like the Hastings Public School, Tottenham Public School in New South Wales, Berwick Lodge in Victoria, Holland Park in Queensland and Stirling East in South Australia—just to name five schools out of the hundreds that have raised concerns and complaints about their programs—are thinking about a parliament that does not pass a judicial inquiry bill which would give them at least the opportunity to be heard and to know that the inquiry had the power to make independent recommendations, could act independently of government, could subpoena documents and summons witnesses and actually get to the bottom of what has been probably the greatest waste of taxpayers’ funds since Federation. It would probably only be surpassed by the waste of taxpayers’ funds as part of the National Broadband Network.
The opposition has been raising these concerns since April 2009. The government announced its program in February 2009. In June 2009 I wrote to the Auditor-General asking for an Auditor-General’s inquiry. On 25 June the Senate followed up and supported that inquiry. In late August 2009 DEEWR was already revising the guidelines and for the first time—in a $16 billion program—introduced the notion that value for money should be achieved. It announced at the same time a $1.7 billion blow-out of taxpayers funds’ on Primary Schools for the 21st Century. It took until April 2010 for the Minister for Education at the time, now the Prime Minister, to establish the Orgill task force, but without the powers to independently call witnesses and documents, to make independent valuations and to hold private and public hearings—without the powers that a royal commission would have if it were a judicial inquiry.
The ANAO handed down its report on 15 May 2010. It was a damning report. The report showed that the guidelines on the rollout of the program made it possible for rorting, price gouging, waste and mismanagement to exist and indeed flourish. It found that the program design means that schools are not getting the projects that they actually want or need. It found that it is virtually impossible to assess the success of the program against the benchmarks that the government itself has set, such as job creation. It found that the Minister for Education, the Prime Minister, the Treasurer and the Minister for Finance and Deregulation all knew that the initial funding was insufficient to cover the costs of the program, resulting in a $1.7 billion blow-out. It found that the projects are massively behind schedule—and they continue to be massively behind schedule—and in fact will stimulate the economy into 2011 and probably 2012, years after the global financial crisis which the government uses as its fig leaf to pretend that the school hall program has been a success, by saying it was designed to stimulate the economy and that the government did not care that it was wasting taxpayers’ money.
The ANAO found that there was a large degree of disquiet amongst school communities about the levels of consultation as well as about value for money achieved. Most damningly, it found that non-government schools had a high level of satisfaction but government schools a very low level of satisfaction, at 40 per cent. Why would that be the case? Because government schools did not get to manage their own projects and non-government schools did get to manage their own projects—exactly the coalition’s policy at the last election and before. Government bureaucracies did over the government sector, while non-government schools got the projects they wanted, got value for money and were able to have money left over from the taxpayer.
I am aware that I was supposed to have 10 minutes on the clock, even though I have 30. My understanding is that this is a 60-minute debate and there are six speakers speaking for 10 minutes each. So, in spite of the fact that it appears I am still within time, my understanding of the process is that I am now over time, so I commend this private member’s bill to the crossbench—
While the member for Mitchell is urging me on—because of the quality of the debate from the coalition side—I exhort the crossbenchers to support this private member’s bill, and I look forward to the debate from the coalition side. I expect we will get the same old platitudes from the government side.
No matter how many times the member for Sturt uses emotive language like ‘fleecing’, ‘collusion’, ‘embarrassing comments’ and the like, the truth is that he gave almost no facts about that. Even audit report 33 from the ANAO does not say what he says it says. What it says is that the BER is actually fulfilling the purpose for which it was created—stimulating the economy, creating jobs and creating vital infrastructure. That is what the Auditor-General’s report finds. The facts are that the member for Sturt does not like that. I think it would have been a very, very unhappy electorate office when he saw that report.
In the electorate of Blair there are 221 projects in 65 schools, worth $108 million. The member for Sturt talked about schools which he claimed were unhappy. Let us talk about some schools in my electorate which are happy: Blair State School, Fernvale State School, Raceview State School. The member for Sturt talked about there being rip-offs in relation to state schools. Nonsense. Let us get the facts out. What would the member for Sturt have done if he were now the education minister? He would have ripped up contracts that were in place. He ignored the reality that 97 per cent of all the projects had started. So we would have had thousands of building workers and subcontractors thrown out of work and many small businesses hurt—and he wants to talk about collusion, about funny business. We would have seen the breaches of thousands of contracts if the coalition had had their way. So they should not come in here under the veneer of legal probity and integrity and talk about what they would have done, because that would be the consequence of their policy. I am just going from what they had to say.
We have 24,000 projects across 9½ thousand schools. Treasury says that this program has saved the jobs of thousands and thousands of Australians across the electorate. I do not know which schools the member for Sturt goes to in his electorate, but the BER is not just part of the Nation Building Economic Stimulus Plan; it is part of our education reforms—improving teacher quality, national partnership, reviewing of funding for schools, the MySchool website and on and on.
We do not support a judicial inquiry. There is already an independent inquiry in place headed by Mr Brad Orgill. The member for Sturt can come into this place and trash the independence of that inquiry, but that inquiry handed down interim findings with 14 recommendations and we have said we will follow them. We have said that we will implement the agreements in relation to the inquiry.
He does not like the fact that Mr Orgill has found that the vast preponderance of principals and people involved in those school communities actually say that the BER funding is working well in their communities. He just does not like it. No matter how many times he comes into this place and talks about school hall rip-offs and the like, it simply does not accord with what the Auditor-General found and it does not accord with what Mr Brad Orgill found.
Primary Schools for the 21st Century, an element of the BER, continues to be highly scrutinised. We have mentioned the Australian National Audit Office. We have had the BER Implementation Taskforce and the Orgill report. We have had Senate inquiries and parliamentary committees in Victoria and in New South Wales, and the government has committed funding of $13.2 million for the BER Implementation Taskforce costs. The truth is that the coalition never supported the NBN, they never supported the BER funding and the member for Sturt has belled the cat. I do not know what his colleague the shadow minister for communications and broadband was doing here today with his bill on the NBN and I do not know what he was doing in the Main Committee with his private member’s motion, because the truth is they will never support the NBN just as they will never support BER funding. That is the reality. It does not matter what we say or do. It does not matter what the school communities say or do. It does not matter how many tradespeople will get jobs.
Whenever I have opened a BER project in my community, I have asked the project managers, the school principals and the builders what kind of employment people have—the jobs that were created and the jobs supported. Invariably, to a man and a woman, these people tell me about dozens of jobs. Like Mal Jacobson from Painter Dickson, whose firm was working on the Rosewood State Primary School—125 jobs, for instance. These have been real jobs created in South-East Queensland as a result of the BER.
Those opposite have moved this private member’s bill as a political stunt—that is all it is. They hate the BER; they have no commitment to schools. They would have ripped $2 billion out of education if they had had their way and their policies had been implemented. They would have got rid of the Computers in Schools program, the digital education revolution would have gone, and you would have had thousands of people out of work. The member for Sturt’s message in relation to all of this is: ‘Don’t worry that Treasury talked about the 200,000 jobs which were kept as a result of our nation-building stimulus program. Don’t worry about the fact that in the last 12 months 353,000 jobs have been created in the economy because of the work of the federal Labor government. Don’t worry about that at all.’ He does not really believe in education. He believes in political pointscoring. That is what his proposal for this judicial inquiry is all about.
The member for Sturt talked about that fact that we announced the formation of a task force. We did that on 12 April 2010 and we put someone of integrity and probity into that role—a businessman, well accepted, with no obvious ties. I am not aware that Mr Orgill is a card-carrying member of the Australian Labor Party. We funded the organisation and they looked into it. The opposition mentioned 33 per cent. They claim that somehow $6 billion to $8 billion has been wasted under the BER. That is what it amounts to. How can that possibly be the case? It is not true. He alleges that this is mainly in the public sector. Where is there a skerrick, a scintilla of evidence? There is none.
The BER program was the largest part of our Nation Building Economic Stimulus Plan. It was critical for our economy and critical for our communities. It was critical for hundreds of businesses in South-East Queensland where my electorate is located—for local contractors, newsagents, corner stores and bakeries. All of them benefited. Where there was a school there was a BER project, and that is the truth.
Those opposite have no idea with respect to education. I went to Ipswich East State School for seven years. I am proud of the fact that I went to that state school. They are getting $3.2 million under the BER. For the first time they will have a decent hall—they have never had one. For the first time they will have a decent library—they have never had one. That is a real example of a school in a working class area in Ipswich in my electorate getting the kind of funding they need, so that kids in Ipswich will have the same rights as kids in the electorate of the member for Sturt. I want those kids to get the same advantage, and the BER is delivering it for them. It is nation building, creating jobs, supporting jobs in my electorate and giving kids every chance in state schools as well as in private schools. The BER deserves to be applauded and the coalition should hang their heads in shame for their opposition to it. (Time expired)
It is a great pleasure tonight to support this motion from the member for Sturt. I want to take up the points that the member for Blair made in relation to this very important inquiry into the BER program that we are calling for. The member for Blair asserts that there are no facts and there is no evidence in relation to the need for an inquiry into the BER. I would say to the member for Blair: ‘Where have you been for the last two years?’
It is a fact that of the $16.2 billion only $9.8 billion has been spent. That means 40 per cent of the stimulus funding in the BER remains unspent today. So where are the jobs that the member for Blair said saved us from the recession? There were not 200,000 jobs. The reality is there were no mechanisms for job creation coming out of the BER program. That is what the ANAO report said. We have to be very clear about that.
I am here tonight to report a series of problems and failures with the BER, in my electorate and in my great state of New South Wales, that resulted from the decision of this federal Labor administration to pass the administration of the BER to the New South Wales government.
That was a big mistake, as the member for Sturt quite rightly points out. I have asked the Prime Minister in question time about several cases—and this goes back to September last year—relating to Baulkham Hills North Public School and Annangrove Public School. These are great public schools in my electorate. They are fantastic schools with fantastic P&Cs, with honest P&C presidents who are not engaged in the political process. When the BER came to Baulkham Hills North Public School it made one mistake. The P&C president, Mr Craig Turner, was an architect, and he was one of the first to come to me. He said, ‘Why are we getting a new school hall to replace the existing school hall, for $1.2 million, when it is smaller than the existing hall?’ I could not explain that.
I asked the Prime Minister—then the Deputy Prime Minister and responsible for this program—why the school was getting, for $1.2 million, a hall that was smaller and could not hold the school population. Of course she went through a series of vitriolic responses that did not answer the question. When I turned up to that P&C and said, ‘This is what Julia Gillard said to my question,’ many of those people said: ‘We voted for her. We voted for that government. We will never vote for that government again.’ They are not Liberal people. They are people in a public school trying to do the best by their kids and by their school, and they were outraged.
I turn to a further case. Ms Donna Hunter of Annangrove Public School is a great P&C president and someone with a great concern for her local school. This is an outrageous example, and I want to highlight these examples because we do need a judicial inquiry into the BER and this bill provides for that exact thing. The experience of Annangrove Public School is one of the grossest examples in this country of waste and mismanagement in a government program. Annangrove Public School has just 90 pupils. It got $850,000 under the BER program, something which ought to have been a boon and a gift for that school, something which should have set up that school for the next 20 to 50 years. It needed classrooms and it desperately needed new toilets for the school population. The school community asked for classrooms and toilets. What did they get from the New South Wales state government? A library. What did they already have? A library.
When you go to Annangrove Public School you stand in front of two libraries. You go to the existing library, which stands next to the new library. The existing library is air-conditioned and is fully functional and serviced with shelves. The new library, which cost $850,000, has no air-conditioning, has no shelving and is completely useless as a library building to that school with its 90 pupils—$850,000. When you look at the line items you see there was $66,000 in landscaping for that school. The member for Sturt and the Leader of the Opposition were good enough to come to this school and see it firsthand. They did not turn a blind eye like the member for Blair. They did not pretend it was not happening. They visited this school, spoke to the parents, spoke to the P&C and said, ‘Show us what is happening.’
There was $66,000 for landscaping but you find 12 plants, which had to be removed because they were a fire hazard, and a one-metre by one-metre patch of concrete. If this is landscaping then somebody has got a very good job out of that, I would suggest to you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Somebody has profited from that, and I say that in the full seriousness of understanding what those words mean in this place.
We have highlighted this issue outside and inside this chamber. You are welcome to visit this school and talk to the principal and the P&C president, Member for Dobell, because this is a serious issue affecting my community. There are other reasons we need an inquiry—an inquiry which, unlike the Orgill commission, has the power to call witnesses and get the documents to get to the bottom of it. One of the most fundamental reasons for needing that power in this inquiry is that there are more principals out there who do know that there have been big problems with the BER and its implementation. Many have spoken to me but I am not able to reveal their names and I am not able to say what the facts are because they fear for their careers. They say: ‘I cannot tell you this. I cannot tell you that the painting contractors that have been brought in by the New South Wales government to paint the school have cost five times what the principal can get a local contractor to paint the school for.’ They know that there is a culture in New South Wales and in our country where, under this administration, you do not speak if you have a problem like that. But they are outraged. There are many principals who exist in this culture in Australia today who want to say something, who would do better for their school community if they could and who want to make a difference. That is why we have to get to the bottom of this.
We have to get to the bottom of this because this is a big government program. This is not the standard of governance that we should settle for in this country. We have to have an inquiry that has the powers to deliver the real outcomes to ensure that government funding is spent wisely, frugally and better. That is why the P&C president at Annangrove Public School, who as well is not political, came forward. When the member for Sturt and the Leader of the Opposition visited these schools, they told them, ‘The coalition’s policy is to return control to the local boards and the local schools.’ The member for Blair said, ‘What would you do, member for Sturt?’ We have said clearly what we would do in government—that is, give the public school the right to pick its own buildings, the right to decide what it needs on the ground. It is a better model for public schools. Who benefited from the BER program? I come from a state with a blend of great public schools and great private schools, and every one of those private and independent schools got a great benefit out of the BER program. Why? Because they ran the project. They designed it, they chose it and they delivered it.
The Catholic system is a great example of how you can do this right, but this government does not want to know how you can do it right. The worst outcomes were in the public schools—that is, from the party of the worker. You should be upset over there. The public schools in Australia got the worst outcomes from the BER and in many cases were ripped off. You really should hang your heads in shame because it is this side of politics that is saying here today that we should look into this, that we should ensure that every dollar spent by the public purse is spent wisely and spent in a way that delivers the real outcomes that our schools and education system need.
New South Wales is one of the worst examples of maladministration in Australia. That was what was found by the ANAO and by others, such as the Orgill inquiry. New South Wales does have problems; it does have a huge bureaucracy. Huge management fees were taken by the New South Wales government. Why is it that the Catholic system can deliver on time, on budget and with only a small proportion of management fees but the New South Wales government gets to take a large chunk of the money out in management fees? I have to say, on behalf of all my public schools, on behalf of all the principals who are too afraid to come forward due to the culture of the worst government in New South Wales history—a government that has gone beyond rotten, that has gone beyond stale and that has given public administration in New South Wales and Australia the worst possible name—and on behalf of all those P&Cs: no, this money was not spent wisely and we are here to do something about it.
I would encourage the members for New England, Kennedy, Lyne, Denison and Melbourne to really think about this bill. We need to shine a light on this program because, no matter what side of politics we come from, we need to lift the standard of public administration in governments. We have to show governments like the New South Wales government that if you waste the money of taxpayers from New South Wales and the Commonwealth you will be held accountable. Something is rotten in the state of New South Wales and something is rotten with a federal government that is willing to vote down a bill like this, which aims to get to the bottom of it.
We know what would be constructed if the opposition were in government: there would be flagpoles, Member for Mitchell—that is what you would choose. That was the contribution from your side when you had the treasury bench: flagpoles for schools. And there were conditions attached to those as well. So do not come in here lecturing us about contributing to vital school infrastructure when the record from your side has been absolutely abysmal.
You question the need for the stimulus package, Member for Mitchell. I ask you the question: where have you been? Where were you when the global financial crisis was on? Look at what people are saying about the targeting of the stimulus package in this country. The IMF are saying it is the best targeted stimulus package in the world. The Governor of the Reserve Bank has said that the stimulus package, the fiscal response from this government, was absolutely spot-on, and when he has been before the Standing Committee on Economics—when members from your side, the opposition side, have said, ‘You know, we should be taking the foot off the pedal with the stimulus package’—the Governor of the Reserve Bank has repeatedly supported the government on the stimulus package, repeatedly supported the program and repeatedly supported the timing. So, Member for Mitchell, you should get some of your facts right before you come in here and debate this bill.
Quite frankly the Commission of Inquiry into the Building the Education Revolution Program Bill 2010 is a political stunt. It is nothing more. The member for Sturt is out after another headline and he is using this bill as a stunt to try and gain more publicity, attacking what has been the most successful and most wanted program in school history.
As an example, I will talk about some of the schools in my area on the Central Coast. There are 106 schools on the Central Coast and, of those 106 schools, all either have construction underway or have had construction completed. I was at Wyong Grove Public School just a couple of months ago. Wyong Grove has completed its school building, a new hall. Wyong Grove is one of the most underprivileged schools in the country. Do you know what the headmaster said to me about this school project, the BER project? She was so proud of what it had done for school morale. Kids were turning up to school because they had a new school hall in which they were being taught dancing for the first time. They were getting extracurricular programs that were being delivered in this school hall. She had had difficulty with truancy, getting kids to actually turn up to school, but because of the BER program we were getting kids to the school because they were proud of it. For the first time in this school’s history they were able to put on a performance for parents because they had enough kids there to do the dancing—dancing they had been taught as a result of this hall being put in place.
I have been to Tacoma Public School, a small school which has also had a new school hall built. Not only did a local contractor build the school hall but they put on local apprentices who had been out of work for a considerable period of time. Young Rob was a carpenter that I met at Tacoma Public School. He was in the last year of his carpentry apprenticeship but had been out of work for six months. He had had little prospect of finishing his carpentry apprenticeship until the BER. To get work before he had had to travel down to Sydney for a couple of hours every day. As a result of the BER he got work locally. There were 106 BER projects on the Central Coast and 98 per cent of the people who worked on them came from the Central Coast. The BER provided local jobs for locals in our community, stimulating the community, making sure that people were kept in jobs and making sure the economy did not crash.
I would like to read a quote from the editor of the Central Coast Business Review. If Edgar Adams is not a member of the Liberal Party, he certainly at least spends a bit of time fundraising for the Liberal Party. He is certainly not someone from our side of politics. He does, however, edit the Central Coast Business Review and, while I must say that it tends not to give our side of politics the greatest run, about the BER Edgar said:
While this Editor does not agree with many of Labor’s policies we have to agree that their stimulus spending in the schools was a masterstroke. On the Coast it saved the building industry and has done wonders for all of our schools. Anyone wanting to argue with that should talk to the builders and the schools. I have!
That is from Edgar Adams, the editor of the Central Coast Business Reviewsomeone who is not friendly to this side of politics—who has come out with a stunning endorsement of our program, saying how well it has done and how successful it has been in putting people into jobs. That is what this program was all about—making sure that local economies were stimulated so that they had jobs, so that these projects were able to contribute to society through employment but also build much needed social infrastructure.
At almost every school I have been to the headmaster has started the formalities of opening the new buildings by saying ‘I never thought we would be able to build these buildings at my school—it was always a wish but I never thought we would be able to.’ Then they go on to talk about how grateful the school is. I was at Brooke Avenue school the other day at Bateau Bay, just around the corner from where I live, and they were celebrating their 25th anniversary. It had been 25 years since any other building had been done at this school, until the BER. So 25 years ago they built the school, and since then when there has been growth in the school demountable buildings have been brought in. The BER is providing a permanent home, permanent classrooms, for those kids attending Brook Avenue school. That is having a great effect on their education and the future of that school. I am sure that in 25 years time those buildings will still be there. They have provided value for money for the people of Brooke Avenue school—value for money because we have buildings that were not there before that are going to last and that have ensured the employment of people locally and kept those workers off the scrapheap.
Let us not beat around the bush here. We had two alternatives during the global financial crisis. One was to let the market rip. That was the opposition’s view—let the market rip, let a few hundred thousand people lose their jobs. The other was to put in place a very targeted stimulus package that included the BER. That worked. It provided social infrastructure that was much needed. That is the option this government took, and every member of the government is very proud of what has been done.
This is an obvious stunt by the member for Sturt, because we have already had an inquiry; we have had a task force that has gone out and had a look at these issues. It is important to go through the terms of reference of that task force. The task force was to:
1. receive, investigate and respond to complaints regarding the full operation of BER, including individual school projects, in particular—
(a) by referring complaints or evidence of potential breaches of the law, regulations or guidelines to the appropriate authority for action; and
(b)ensuring arrangements are in place between the Commonwealth and States and Territories to minimise duplication of complaints handling processes.
2. assess value for money aspects of individual projects, including project oversight and administration;
3. investigate and assess at its own discretion areas of the operation of the BER, especially as they impinge on the outcomes of projects at schools; and
4. make recommendations to the responsible authority about changes to policy, contracts or projects required to ensure the objects of the BER are realised.
Only 14 recommendations came out of that inquiry. Six are being acted upon immediately and the other eight are recommendations for the future. The task force has had a look at the complaints, and only three per cent of the total number of jobs were complained about—97 per cent were not.
In summary, we have 106 schools on the Central Coast. Whether they were the Catholic schools, whether it was Lakes Grammar Anglican School, whether it was Wyong Grove, that I have spoken about, whether it was Tacoma school or whether it was Brooke Avenue, there have been no complaints from those 106 schools. All we have had on the Central Coast, be it from the business community, be it from the P&Cs, be it from school principals, be it from past students or be it from people who are out after a job, is nothing but praise for the targeted stimulus package that made sure people on the Central Coast kept their jobs and schools got much needed buildings and the much needed social infrastructure that they have been crying out for for years.
The Commission of Inquiry into the Building the Education Revolution Program Bill 2010 and tonight’s debate are not about whether the government had good intentions. All too often we hear this defence from the government: ‘Oh, we had good intentions; we wanted to do good things.’ But that is not what this bill is about. This bill is about what happened when the government set out to implement a program to give effect to its intentions. What has occurred with the implementation of that program? To use a quote from the current Prime Minister, it is a mess. We have seen more than enough signs that there is something seriously wrong with this program in terms of mismanagement, waste and poor handling of public money. We have seen more than enough signs of trouble, to the extent that it is now appropriate that we take the extraordinary and the unusual step of establishing a royal commission to get to the bottom of this.
I want to put three propositions—first of all, that there is more than enough evidence of there being very serious problems; secondly, that Labor has sought to sweep those problems under the carpet; and, thirdly, that the Australian people have a right to know what has been done with their $14.2 billion. Let me start with the evidence of the problems. We have heard this from the member for Sturt, and we have heard it time after time from others. I want to speak briefly about a couple of problems in my own electorate. Let me quote, for example, the president of the P&C:
What we’re concerned about is that the five classrooms that are over here are costing about $3,600 a square metre. We had a building down here, that was burnt down by arson last year, being constructed with the same materials. That’s costing $1,700 a square metre …
One is a BER building, at $3,600; one is business as usual, at $1,700. There is also the Gordon East Public School, where the new building being constructed is costing $4,870 a square metre. In my introduction to this place, when I asked the then Deputy Prime Minister, who was the minister responsible, about that school, for my troubles I was described as an ‘idiot’. Although I cheerfully note there may be other good reasons to describe me as an idiot, I do note that the P&C of that school subsequently asked the Orgill inquiry to come and have a look. So apparently things were not quite as rosy as the then Deputy Prime Minister tried to assert.
We have seen the evidence of the underlying problem, which is the appallingly poor process by which this money has been disbursed. The New South Wales government was handed a staggering amount of money—over $3 billion—by the federal government. On any view, it is a grave error of judgment to hand several billion dollars to the New South Wales government and to ask them to manage it with anything approaching competence.
I went to a presentation by the senior New South Wales bureaucrat, Mr Angus Dawson, who told those assembled, ‘We were told to spend $3.5 billion in New South Wales within two years or hand it back.’ So is it any surprise that there was very little concern given to the normal commercial discipline of saving money and spending money efficiently, or to something else that parents and taxpayers might reasonably expect—that schools would be given the opportunity to genuinely choose what they wanted? As we have heard, there have been all too many unfortunate examples of schools being left with something which was very much their second choice.
The first proposition is that there is ample evidence that there is a serious problem. The second proposition is that this Labor government has attempted to sweep it under the carpet. The shadow minister, the member for Sturt, has been assiduously raising this issue. All of us on this side have been assiduously raising this issue, but we get these attempts at diversionary tactics. For example, when the then Deputy Prime Minister spoke on a motion on this issue on 2 June, she said:
… if you are going to effectively manage a program you have to support it and you have to believe in it.
Implication: unless you voted for it, you are not entitled to ask questions about how the money is being administered. On our side of the House we absolutely reject that. In fact, when I wrote a letter to the Deputy Prime Minister asking her about the basis on which a decision had been made that a school in my electorate was not eligible to receive funding under the rules of a program she had established, she wrote back and said: ‘I should note my surprise that you are pursuing additional funding under the BER. As a constant critic of the program and as part of an opposition who voted against it, your hypocrisy in pursuing extra funding is extraordinary.’
There is absolutely nothing inappropriate with a member of the House seeking to understand whether the rules of a program dealing with the disbursement of public funds have been properly applied. Those who asked that question were simply subjected to personal abuse. That is an extraordinary way to deal with billions of dollars of public money.
The second justification we have had is: ‘It is all about jobs, so you can forget everything else. Don’t worry about the basis upon which the money is being disbursed.’ Indeed, the then Deputy Prime Minister also said on 2 June:
… in order to effectively manage a program you have to understand what the outcomes being sought for the program are. A key outcome of the Building the Education Revolution is supporting jobs …
I return to the point I made at the outset. This is not a bill which goes to the question of whether Labor approached this policy with good intentions. It goes to the question of how they administered this program and how they dealt with over $14 billion of public money. It is very evident that there are serious problems afoot.
We have seen reports from various inquiries that have already been conducted into this program. That leads me to my third proposition: the people of Australia are entitled to the facts. If even the Deputy Prime Minister’s handpicked inquirer is unable to avoid the conclusion that, for example, there is substance to complaints that have been put to him and if the Auditor-General raises issues in his report, then there is more than enough to indicate to us that there are reasons here to be very concerned.
One of the reasons we need a judicial inquiry is that the Orgill inquiry, even if you approached it in the most charitable way possible, does not have the power to get to the bottom of things. It does not have the power to summon witnesses. It does not have the power to issue search warrants. These are powers that a judicial inquiry would have. We have seen that there are sufficiently serious problems that we do need a body with such powers, particularly because of the climate of fear which, for example, the member for Mitchell raised when he spoke before me.
There is a raft of questions that the people of Australian are entitled to ask about the way that over $14 billion of their money was spent. Why were the most basic principles of procurement ignored in the administration of this program—such as getting three competitive quotes before you go out and spend money? Why in so many cases were schools given very little real choice about what would be built at their school? Why was it made so difficult for schools to manage the projects themselves? In New South Wales, principals were told that they could manage the projects themselves but they would have to assume personal legal liability. Unsurprisingly, very few of them chose to do that.
I want to note the courage, vision and hard work of so many school principals and P&Cs who have worked very hard to get good outcomes for their schools. It is very unfortunate that this program has made it difficult for schools to get the outcomes they ought to have had. Fundamentally, what is of enormous concern is that we have serious signs of trouble and mismanagement. We need a judicial inquiry to get to the bottom of it.
I want to start by thanking the member for Sturt for giving me the opportunity to speak about one of the greatest government programs in this country for many decades. He chuckles away there across the chamber. I know he thinks that it is all quite funny. The reality is that putting this on the Notice Paper is just a stunt. I listened very carefully to some of the contributions of others to see whether they were putting forward any real points. They want search warrants and the like, and they have all sorts of ideas, as if there is some grand conspiracy out there—an ‘X file’. It is a simple program for the good delivery of infrastructure for a heap of schools across this country. If those opposite actually were interested in this program, they would look at all the positives of this program rather than the tiny percentage of cases where there have been some problems and some mistakes. It is not as if we have not admitted that there have been problems. It is not as if we are trying to hide them. In fact we have made it completely open and we could not be more open about where the problems exist. Where the problems exist, we have said, ‘We’re interested not only in the good work this program can do but also in making sure that it is efficient and it is value for money.’ We are of that view.
In these large programs you are going to find some problems and some issues. Not everything is going to be 100 per cent. But we are going to make sure that we do it effectively and properly and, as such, we already have in place an independent task force—the Building the Education Revolution Implementation Taskforce, headed by Brad Orgill. That task force has responsibility to review implementation of the Building the Education Revolution, including investigating complaints, assessing value for money arrangements in place between the Commonwealth and the states and territories, assessing value for money aspects for individual projects—every single one of them—and making recommendations to improve the BER. The task force has already delivered an interim report. It has made 14 recommendations, all of which this government are happy to accept.
Not only is the BER a great program; it is doing great things in this country. We are prepared to say that where we find problems we will go out and fix them. There will be issues in a program of this magnitude—that is life—but the thing is you have to have enough courage to implement the program in the first place. We have some new members in the House, and I apologise for not knowing the seat of the member opposite.
Right. In the 12 years that the other side were in government, the best thing the former Howard government could come up with to invest in schools was a program for installing a few flagpoles. I am a big supporter of the flag. I love the idea of flagpoles. But, come on, let’s get serious about some serious investment in our kids’ futures.
I have also heard members on the other side claim that this is a one-sided program. It was quite involved. It was more than just infrastructure investment in schools; it was making sure that we invested as this country, along with the rest of the world, went through one of the toughest global financial downturns in over 70 years. We had a two-pronged attack and one involved doing something that had not been done in this country for 30-plus years—that is, investing in schools. Members opposite in the chamber can laugh about it, but it involves real money—tens of billions of dollars.
I have been to the schools, as have others in this place, and we have seen the infrastructure—the bricks and mortar—and we have seen the benefit that the buildings have brought to those schools, uplifting educational facilities that were very tired. We did it right across the board—every single school in this country. It was not like the sort of program the National and Liberal parties had while they were in government, which targeted just a few select areas and regions.
You are right, member for Sturt. They certainly know how to run a program very well, for themselves. But, unfortunately, that is not how you run government and, unfortunately, it is not how you invest in schools and in kids’ futures. Government should turn a blind eye to which schools get investment because it should go to every single school regardless of the region, where they are from or whom they represent. And that is exactly what we did. We invested in over 24,000 projects—9½ thousand schools, supporting students and local communities and regions. In a lot of depressed regions during the GFC when jobs were scarce this meant survival for a small country town, a rural community, a remote location or a school that had been suffering for at least 30 years—for some schools, maybe 50 years.
I have some fantastic schools in my area. The most recent one I visited was Redbank State School. Redbank school is celebrating 145 years—a great celebration, a great birthday. It is a little school. It started with just one teacher, who also happened to be the local pastor at what was a very tiny chapel. That was the school. Over those 145 years, it received sprinklings of investment. The biggest single investment that school has ever realised has been under the BER. The difference it has made to that school actually shocked me. I was surprised to see how much the kids have tuned into the value in their school and the difference it has made to the teachers and the principal. This is something they never could have dreamed of. They never dreamed of receiving an investment in their school of over $1 million. It was outside the realms of what they believed they could ever achieve. I am really proud, as I know many, many teachers, students and principals are proud, of what the Building the Education Revolution program has meant for them and what it has delivered.
I do not object so much to the member for Sturt putting this on the Notice Paper and wanting to debate it. It is his prerogative. He has a job to do and I understand that. He is doing his job loyally for his party. But what he is asking has nothing to do with reality. He is not trying to get to the bottom of things in this; he is trying to tear it down, pull it apart. He is trying to stop funding going to schools.
I query the real motivation behind having a royal commission. If the opposition had its way it would stop funding all schools, apart from the flagpoles. While I support it fully, as I am a patriot just like the rest of you, it did not do too much for uplifting the kids’ education. So there is a lot more that we could do. There is a lot of things that we could do with some serious money in terms of making that investment. I do not support the motion that has been put on the table because it is just a stunt. It would be better if the opposition were to have a good look at the inquiry of the independent task force that is currently going on and have a look at the improvements that we are trying to make and actually support us on those, so supporting the schools, supporting the funding and making improvements. Let us get a better program out of this. Let us do the right thing by the kids, by jobs and by local communities, rather than trying to tear down a really great program.