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Pyne and Gillard Debate Waste in the BER Program

Christopher Pyne and Julia Gillard have clashed over alleged waste and mismanagement in the Building the Education Revolution program.

The Opposition’s Shadow Minister for Education proposed a Matter of Public Importance in the House of Representatives this afternoon.

The Minister for Education, Julia Gillard, responded to Pyne.

  • Listen to Pyne’s speech (15m)
  • Listen to Gillard’s speech (15m)

Mr PYNE (Sturt) (3:56 PM) —We have in front of us a Minister for Education who has presided over waste and mismanagement on a grand scale. For months, the opposition; principals like Henry Grossek at Berwick Lodge Primary School and Ian McCluggage at Berridale Public School, whom we mentioned today in question time; chairs of Parents and Citizens Associations like Robert Vella, who was on the television last night and in the papers this morning, whose issues have been raised by us and by himself through the press; the media, most notably the Australian but also the other tabloid press; and building and construction experts like Reed Construction Data—all these people—have been raising concerns about the so-called Building the Education Revolution program, otherwise known as the Julia Gillard memorial school hall program or the school stimulus debacle. However you like to describe this program, it has been a debacle, a fiasco, a shemozzle, and we have a minister who absolutely insists that she will not be held to account for her failure to perform as a Minister for Education.

We have raised issues that cover many subjects, including profiteering. Many months ago, we raised issues about Cleve Area School, in the electorate of my colleague the member for Grey, where classrooms were disappearing. In March they were promised eight classrooms for $2 million. In April they were promised six classrooms. In May they were promised four classrooms. In fact, in May they were offered a collection of transportables which included decking. In three months, they had halved the buy of $2 million, halved what it would actually mean on the ground for them at Cleve Area School. We have other examples, like Cattai Public School, where they built a COLA, a covered outdoor learning area, last year for $90,000 under the Investing in Our Schools Program. They have just been told that they will be able to build another covered outdoor learning area, of probably the same size, for $200,000—a 120 per cent increase in 12 months. So we have uncovered profiteering.

We have uncovered state skimming. The South Australian government has reduced its infrastructure spend in state schools by 12 per cent, when every other year, as you would expect, it has increased its spending on infrastructure in schools. South Australia is not alone. The Victorian government, the Queensland government and the New South Wales government, at least, are using money from the federal school stimulus debacle to prop up their own infrastructure programs, removing promises that they had made—most particularly promises made in Victoria before the Victorian state election which disappeared off the table when the federal government came along with all their cash.

We have uncovered inflated payments to project managers. In Queensland, some project managers are being paid $565,000 for six months work, a king’s ransom. We have uncovered waste, like the $3.8 million being spent on display signs, 2.8 by 1.8 metres, to praise the dear leader and Madam Dear Leader for their greatness. These display signs are so large that I hear that when they are transported to country schools they are being used for barbecue grills because they cannot find any other use for them, and the poles are being used for point markers in AFL football because they simply refuse to waste their time erecting them in schools of 10 or fewer students, where hardly anybody is going to see them and they do not see it as a good use of taxpayers’ money—and why not? We have seen $3.5 million wasted on plaques so that the Deputy Prime Minister can have her plaque on every single Julia Gillard memorial school hall across Australia as part of Building the Education Revolution.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms AE Burke) —The member will refer to members by their appropriate title.

Mr PYNE —I will, Madam Deputy Speaker. This money could have been spent on so many other, better priorities. There are at least 140 science and language laboratories throughout Australia which have missed out on funding as money has been ripped away from secondary schools—in country electorates particularly. The member for Kalgoorlie has examples in his own electorate of language laboratories which have had money ripped away from them. Even Nambour State School, in the Prime Minister’s own electorate, had promises made before the last election that science and language laboratories would be built there, only to see them disappear because the government and the minister would rather spend money on self-promotion. That is self-promotion that the Australian Electoral Commission has identified as electoral advertisements and for which it has required an authorisation because it is so blatantly, transparently and cynically designed to help this government win the next federal election. Everything this government does is for a political strategy, not for an economic strategy.

We have uncovered mismanagement where schools that are closing have been given money under the National School Pride program, like Smithfield primary school; where one-child schools have been given $250,000 for new libraries, as at the Evesham State School in Queensland; and where projects that are not wanted are being foisted on schools. Unless those schools courageously stand up to the government, they are insisting that schools accept four new classrooms to replace four existing classrooms, rather than using the wit and imagination that should come with being in government to provide the kinds of projects that schools want—like withdrawing asbestos from school ovals, building covered outdoor learning areas that schools actually need or refurbishing schools that already have existing classrooms but need air conditioning, for example. But the government do not do any of those things; they simply insist that it is their way or the highway.

We have seen examples like the one today in Strathalbyn, where local builders were not even given the opportunity—they were denied the opportunity—to tender for work locally, in their own communities, because instead of supporting local contractors, subcontractors or builders the government would rather support major multinational construction giants, whether it is Baulderstone, Abigroup or Hansen Yuncken. Maybe it is because they can unionise their workforces or insist on that as part of their contracts, whereas they cannot keep the control over the small businessman, the local builder, that they can keep over the big players in the construction industry.

We have seen differing treatment for public and private schools, where private schools are given the opportunity to make the decisions locally about what they need and therefore spend taxpayers’ money wisely, whereas public schools are forced to take it or leave it by the department of education and training. In fact, Ian McCluggage, the principal of Berridale Public School, has written:

Our colleagues in the private education sector are able to utilise every cent of their BER allocation while we are being given more and more spurious reasons why the funding available for our projects is being siphoned off. “Descoping” was the term I was given last week …

The growing list of concerns is echoed by a growing list of people who want someone to take control of the education portfolio and run with it full time. They want someone to take control of this hopeless situation, to accept responsibility and to stop playing the blame game. These are people like the Auditor-General, who is inquiring into this program; the South Australian Primary Principals Association; the Australian Education Union; the Australian secondary and primary principals associations; the Australian Council of State School Organisations; the Victorian Principals Association; the New South Wales Teachers Federation; the Federation of Parents and Citizens Associations of New South Wales; and the New South Wales secondary and primary principals councils. These are not organisations, groups or associations that have always typically been associated with the coalition side of politics, yet the government refuses to listen to even the Australian Education Union, who did so much to help this government get elected in 2007.

In question time today, and all week, the minister has demonstrated that she is simply not across the detail. The minister did not even realise today that it was the changes to Building the Education Revolution that required local councils and state governments to suspend their development rules to allow the buildings to go on in schools as quickly as possible. She tried to pretend that that was a decision that state governments had made or that local councils had made—that it had nothing to do with her. In fact, state governments and local councils would not have made that decision unless the guidelines for Building the Education Revolution required it. The ACT held out against it, only to find that the federal government insisted that if they were to get one dollar they were required to suspend their rules for development in order to allow these buildings to go up as quickly as they could. The minister is simply not across the detail. She insists that these problems are all somebody else’s problems, playing the blame game, seeking to push the blame to others—to other ministers, to state ministers. But, unfortunately, when you are spending $16.2 billion of taxpayers’ money, the taxpayers expect the minister who is responsible, the federal Minister for Education, to actually take responsibility and to be accountable. This is apparently the biggest spending program in Building the Education Revolution, in the stimulus package, yet the minister says: ‘It’s not my problem; it’s all somebody else’s problem. I’ll push it off to the states. I’ll play the blame game.’

This is a minister who, rather than answering questions and rather than seriously dealing with the issues, denigrates her opposition, attacks her critics, accuses them of all sorts of gross calumnies and stands at the dispatch box and says, ‘Provide me with the detail and I am more than happy to talk to you.’ She has been told the principal’s name, the name of the school and the amount of money, yet she asks for more detail. She said that she was happy to visit schools. She has made those hollow promises before. We know they are not real. It is all about spin. It is all about a political strategy to win the next federal election rather than an economic strategy. Today, she was given the opportunity to answer questions about giving parents and citizens councils what they want, keeping track of the money like at Evesham, the cost blow-outs like at Berridale, the development rules being suspended like at Walford School, after school hours care centres being closed like at Alveston, commitments to fix problems not been followed up like at Langwarrin, retendering for cost blow-outs like at Newmerella school and display signs being a higher priority than value for money; yet this minister simply avoided answering any of these questions.

It would be bad if this was the only problem in the minister’s portfolio. But, unfortunately, this minister cannot get anything right in education. She is a sloppy minister who keeps spilling the drinks. There is the $1.7 billion blow-out in the primary schools stimulus debacle, the $1.2 billion blow-out in the Computers in Schools program, parents now being charged for laptops in the Computers in Schools program and the youth allowance debacle of the last few months which has led to a minor backflip of a couple of weeks ago. There are a lot more backflips to happen before the opposition will be satisfied that this government is even close to looking after the needs of rural and regional students.

One trade training centre was promised for every secondary school. They are now being found in one in every 10 secondary schools. There was the international students debacle where she failed to act early enough in spite of knowing about the danger signs and where, rather than resettling international students in new tertiary education, she is simply paying them out and sending them back home and, as a consequence, blowing out the insurance scheme that was put in place by the previous government. There are the Building the Education Revolution roadside signs where 10 days ago she said, ‘I am confident there is no breach of the Electoral Act,’ dismissing yet again any criticism or opposition, only to find that the Australian Electoral Commission humiliatingly required the government to put an authorisation on the sign and to ensure they were not within six metres of a polling booth because they were electoral advertisements.

The Building the Education Revolution itself is under investigation by the Auditor-General. It is under investigation by the Auditor-General for good reason. It is because it has been botched by this minister. It is time for the Prime Minister to put education at the centrepiece of his government, as he promised before the election. It used to be the No. 1 priority on the Prime Minister’s website. It has now slipped off the website altogether. Education was supposed to be the hallmark of this government. The minister is trying to handle workplace relations—not well. We understand that. Employment—not well. We understand that, as we do social inclusion. But the most important portfolio she has, from my point of view as the shadow minister for education, is education and she needs to start getting it right. There have been too many serial offences, failures by her and pushing of problems off to other people. The Prime Minister has to step in and, at the next reshuffle, appoint a full-time education minister who does not spill the drinks.

Ms GILLARD (Lalor) (Minister for Education, Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and Minister for Social Inclusion) (4:11 PM) —Here we end a week watching the continued political humiliation of the Liberal Party. They spent all weekend talking up an unprecedented attack on me as minister. This was going to be the week where they really delivered and here we have seen, limping around four days later, the biggest shot in their armoury having been whether or not I have got back to the member for Bradfield about a diary matter—and, as it transpires, we did get back to the member for Bradfield and I have just supplied to him our email from June where we are awaiting a reply. Something that started with so much fizz has gone so flat. Why is that? If you are actually going to come into this parliament and traverse the important public policy issues of our time and certainly education, the development of human capital, its intersection with the nation’s economic future, its intersection with the nation’s future equity—if you are going to traverse issues like that—you need to do some work.

Unfortunately for the opposition, the shadow minister for education likes to strut in parliament but he does not like to work. That is why here we are after almost two years of the Rudd Labor government, almost two years of the Liberal Party in opposition, with not one policy idea and not one substantial contribution to the education debate. After I chided him about his website only having one speech on it outside parliament for this year, he has clamoured around and managed to add a second, but not one substantial idea is the Liberal Party bringing to the most crucial debate facing this nation.

Let us just very quickly go through those crucial debates and the lack of ideas. With early childhood learning, we moved into government and inherited Australia at the back of the OECD class. We are moving in a range of areas to make a profound difference in early learning. What are the opposition policies on that? On school education and transparency, we have got a position articulated by the New South Wales Leader of the Opposition—he is opposed to it. Where does the Liberal Party truly stand on that? On the issue of more resources for disadvantaged schools, our national partnership that will make a difference for those kids that need it the most and for whom education is the crucial difference between a life spent at society’s margins or in its mainstream, what is the Liberal Party’s attitude to those profound equity issues as they confront our nation? What is the Liberal Party’s attitude to the future of teaching? We are a government that has already delivered a program that is bringing the best teachers to the most disadvantaged schools that need them the most and paying the more to do so. This is a government that is already delivering a new cohort through Teach for Australia, the best and brightest graduates preparing to teach in the most disadvantaged schools in this country. What does the Liberal Party say on those profound issues about the future of teaching and getting the best in front of the classrooms where they are needed the most?

What do they say about the future of literacy and numeracy development, knowing that, if you do not get that foundation stone of learning, education may be locked away from you for the rest of your life? What do they say about those future programs? What should be done to make sure that, in international testing, we do not see disadvantaged kids left behind? Silence—absolute silence. What do they say to our programs to change vocational education and training? What do they say to the most profound set of reforms in universities since the Dawkins reforms of the 1980s? On all of these things we hear an amazing silence.

I notice that Matthew Franklin, from the Australian, is in the gallery. I have had an occasional thing to say about the Australian. The good thing about the Australian is that they love a good debate—and I frequently give them one. I refer the shadow minister to the editorial of the Australian, which is not necessarily known for giving me the best assessments. It recorded that there have been more reforms delivered in education by me, as minister, and this government in two years than in the 12 years of the Liberal alternative. That is the conclusion of a broadsheet newspaper that proudly defines itself as Centre Right. Never, I suspect, has a more damning criticism been made of a conservative party in opposition than that a Centre Right broadsheet could come to that conclusion so quickly.

Let us go to the Building the Education Revolution program, because I want to have this debate. At the program’s very heart is a debate about jobs and the future of our schools—jobs today and modernising schools for the future. The quality of learning facilities matters, but it is not the only thing that matters in quality of education. Great teaching matters, resources for disadvantaged kids matter, literacy and numeracy matter and getting the best graduates in there matters—it all matters. But doing it in good learning spaces and libraries matters. Learning to read and write, having good libraries, having good classrooms and having areas where the whole school can assemble make a difference to learning outcomes.

Of course, this program is at the same time making a difference to jobs. On all of this—whether it is the education revolution reforms for disadvantaged kids, transparency, quality teaching, early childhood, VET, universities or Building the Education Revolution—what do we hear from the opposition? We hear no profound truths about the policy direction of this nation. The opposition can criticise, it can complain and it can carry on, but it cannot be constructive. And, by not being constructive, time after time it comes into this parliament and distorts the facts. So let us go through some of the facts that the opposition does not want acknowledged. Fact No. 1: the opposition has pointed to the reallocations within the government stimulus package and claimed that this is something to do with a blow-out in costs in Building the Education Revolution, particularly Primary Schools for the 21st Century. They have tried to create the imagery that somehow builders are inflating prices and the government has had to tip in more money. That is simply not true. More money is going into this program because it is going gangbusters, because more schools want to be in this program.

The shadow minister was profoundly embarrassed earlier this week. He had made much of this reallocation in the public media. He was out there publicly saying, ‘What sort of minister would factor in a take-up rate of 90 per cent for a program like this?’ only to find that, when they were in government, with Investing in Our Schools they factored in a take-up rate of 80 per cent and did not reallocate within an announced program and had to go back to the budget for more money. There was a cost blow-out by them in government, and the shadow minister was profoundly embarrassed when he found out about it. We have put more money into this program within the $42 billion cap for our economic stimulus plan because it is going gangbusters, because schools want to be in it.

Then in the lead-up to this week—and I note that this has not even made a starting appearance in question time, because it is so absurd—they were out there saying that the funding for the science and language centres has been politically rorted. The statistics in terms of the seats and all of that were running in the newspapers. They never even asked about it in the parliament. Why not? Because we had an independent assessment panel deal with this matter. We acted on the recommendations of that panel—and 53 per cent of the money for the science and language centres went to Labor electorates, whereas we hold 55 per cent of the seats. So there they are, trying to create this imagery of rorting, and of course all of that falls away when they are confronted with the facts. They were smart enough to realise that and not even ask about it this week. They smear us outside and do not even bring it into the parliament.

Then they have tried to create the imagery that there is no flexibility in this program. I have been to schools where people have purpose-designed the facility they want, and they are delighted with it. So I would challenge the opposition to get out there and talk to some principals and teachers—they are delighted with their purpose-designed facilities. Then they come into this parliament and make individual claims about individual schools. They ignore the vast bulk of the program, which is rolling out well with delighted school communities, and look for the one thing where they can make a criticism. I say this to the parliament: prior to the start of this parliamentary week I did a reconciliation of the individual examples that had been raised with me to that date and, when they were looked at, two-thirds of them had no foundation in fact. They come in here and make allegations with no facts behind them. It is business as usual for the opposition—never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

The shadow minister does not like these truths—I understand that—but I have got a few more. This is a program that is supporting jobs. The shadow minister went on Radio National with Fran Kelly at the start of the week talking up the attack on me: it was going to be fast and furious, it was going to be interesting, they had all this new material—and they are down to whether or not I got back to the member for Bradfield about visiting one of his schools. There he was in his interview on Monday. He has missed the global financial crisis, missed it entirely, and consequently does not understand that there is a need to support jobs. Out there in the real economy, according to the shadow minister for education, he says that it stood out as obvious that if you are going to spend $14 billion there would be an immediate impact on inflation because there would not be enough workers, there would not be enough resources. So the shadow ministry has got this imagery that out there in the real economy: no global recession, every construction worker is wholly employed and we were going to put $14 billion on top of that.

Let us to see what the rest of the world is saying: global recession, employment in construction has gone down every month for 17 months and the construction industry and economists around the country are telling us that it is only the government’s economic stimulus that is keeping the industry turning over—including the Building the Education Revolution program. Local workers know it, local workers are saying it, builders are saying it: it is vital to support local jobs.

Then those opposite come into to this parliament and they make all sorts of claims about the cost of the recognition requirements in relation to Building the Education Revolution.

Dr Kelly —Talk about hypocrisy.

Ms GILLARD —I thank the parliamentary secretary at the table. Talk about hypocrisy. Do we remember the days of the flagpoles? It was compulsory to have a Howard government supplied flagpole and every flagpole had to have a plaque—every flagpole had to have a plaque under the Liberal program, at a cost of seven per cent of the program. The estimate that we have generated is that seven per cent of the program went towards the cost of plaques. Imagine that: a plaque on every flagpole. In contrast, under our program we are seeing 0.02 per cent of the expenditure on recognition requirements. So let us not have any more of this hypocrisy.

Of course we understand in rolling out a program this big this quickly that there will be times when people want to raise issues of concern. That is why we have set up a complaints mechanism for doing that. As of yesterday we had had 49 complaints from the 9,500 schools around the country. Given how this is being rolled out quickly and the size and the scale of it, 49 complaints, with 9,500 schools and more than 24,000 projects, can hardly be characterised as the opposition would characterise it, as a list of major difficulties.

I conclude by saying this. There is one person sitting on the opposition benches who has at least announced that, because he voted against Building the Education Revolution, he will not associate himself with the projects in the electorate. That is the shadow Treasurer. What I think we should be seeing in this debate, and I hope that the next speaker on behalf of the Liberal Party or the National Party says this, is that they are going to follow Joe Hockey’s example. All they have ever done is voted against this program. All they have ever done is talked it down. Let us see whether they are hypocritical enough to keep associating themselves with this program in their electorates. In the meantime, we will get on with the job of supporting Australians in work today whilst modernising schools for tomorrow.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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