Senate debates

Tuesday, 8 September 2009


Building the Education Revolution Program

7:18 pm

Photo of Guy BarnettGuy Barnett (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Tonight I stand to speak on the issue of the waste and mismanagement of the schools stimulus debacle and to say that the coalition is supporting a Senate inquiry into this debacle, to investigate the systemic issues of waste and mismanagement and, indeed, to consider measures to ensure value for money for taxpayers. I put forward the motion and lodged it today in the Senate, and no doubt it will be discussed and debated tomorrow.

It is for very good reason. First of all, the Primary Schools for the 21st Century program has been plagued by examples of waste, mismanagement and the lack of value for the billions of borrowed dollars being spent. People deserve to know if the government is squandering billions of dollars of their money especially when it is borrowed money. It is their money and it will have to be paid back with interest. So this inquiry will do what the Rudd Labor government refuses to do: to seek advice on how to address the systemic waste and mismanagement in the school stimulus debacle.

Of course all this is on the back of the waste, inefficiency and mismanagement that has plagued the Rudd Labor government. You have seen the GROCERYchoice website where they committed $13 million to the establishment of a website. This was on the back of the Prime Minister, Mr Rudd, promising prior to the election to lower grocery prices. Then when he came into government of course what did he do and how did he meet that commitment? He set up and budgeted for a $13 million website. After some time and after some concerns were raised, they finally closed it down. That is why there is a Senate inquiry into that particular matter, with the first hearing scheduled for Friday of next week.

You have seen the tax bonus payments where 16,000 dead people unfortunately have received $14 million. You have seen the 27,000 Australians—and in fact non-Australians as well—receiving $24 million of taxpayers’ money, and then you have seen the evidence that this Rudd Labor government is the highest spending government on consultancies in Australian history, not to mention broadband and other matters.

But with respect to education, we saw it all yesterday with the Australian Electoral Commission’s legal advice and their public statement saying that the Rudd Labor government is in breach of the law. They are in breach of the Australian Electoral Act. They confirmed that the government’s school signage and the display signs are political advertisements. It proves categorically that the so-called Building the Education Revolution has always been a political strategy, not an economic or an educational strategy. We know that Australian taxpayers are forking out more than $7 million to spread the government’s promotional efforts in primary schools—$3.8 million for mandatory signs at the front of schools and $3.5 million to erect plaques to commemorate the Hon. Julia Gillard, the federal Minister for Education. How ridiculous! This is all shocking waste and mismanagement.

In my home state of Tasmania this issue has raised some considerable concern. We all know that the political signs will now have to be authorised, or indeed removed, at additional expense to the taxpayer. State groups in Tasmania have expressed concern and the Tasmanian State School Parents and Friends Association believes that it is a waste of money—‘wasteful spending’, they say. The Australian Education Union in Tasmania says that these signs should not take precedence over supporting students, and they are right. Why isn’t the Labor government listening?

The program to date has been plagued by waste and mismanagement. There needs to be some serious surgery on this part of the stimulus package. As Mr Pyne has correctly noted many times, it seems we have a part-time Minister for Education. Clearly, she is out of her depth. It is very sad. I also note that our leader, Mr Turnbull, has prosecuted the case today and publicly given his strong support for the motion to set up a Senate inquiry because of the waste and mismanagement in the rollout of the schools expenditure.

We have already seen a $1.7 billion blow-out in the primary schools program because it was poorly compiled policy and it was put together in a hurry. It was policy on the run. This is the hallmark of the Rudd Labor government to date—policy on the run. Under this program schools will get what they are given. Schools are being told what they will get rather than being asked what they need. There are a litany of examples all across Australia, and I will come to some of them shortly.

We have seen the skimming of these funds by the state governments all around Australia. They are allowed to take 1.5 per cent as an administration fee, but tens of millions of dollars more are going in ‘project management charges’. That is on the record.

What are some of the complaints that we have received to date? There are far too many to set out all of them in this Senate chamber tonight, but I will mention some. We have had hundreds of schools being forced to accept the ‘McSchool’ hall style demountables that are delivered on the back of a truck, irrespective of what those communities want or need. Why is that happening? We have had schools in some jurisdictions that wish to build new classrooms being told that they have to build a stock standard school hall, even when they already have one. What a shocking waste. The duplication is sinful.

Many schools are not being allowed to use local builders. This is a particular concern on the west coast of Tasmania. I have had feedback on this matter. The local builders have been snubbed in this process. I feel for them. They are missing out. They need those jobs; they need the work. They have been snubbed by this government. On the west coast of Tasmania and in many other parts of Australia they have been forced to use contractors from hundreds of kilometres away, or even interstate, at much greater cost.

In some states it has been revealed that schools due to be knocked down at the end of the year are receiving millions of dollars for refurbishment this year. There are examples of that not just in Tasmania but in many other states of Australia. I hope the Senate inquiry gets to the bottom of this so we can sort out exactly how we can do it better in the future so that taxpayers can get value for money. We should remember that all of this expenditure is with borrowed money—$315 billion, that is where we are headed. Australian taxpayers will be forking it out.

The state governments and state government approved contractors are raking in millions as costs to schools for their buildings spiral out of control. I have mentioned the project management fees, but what about the administration costs? They are increasing because of the appointment of project managers, who are charging as much as 10.5 per cent per project.

Going back to the signage in the schools issue, it is estimated there are 8,325 road signs worth $3.8 million, or about $295 each. I understand that that does not include the cost of erecting the signs. That is just for the sign itself. Of course, they will now have to be officially authorised, with a sticker or a repaint job, or pulled down because they will be within six metres of the entrance to a polling booth, based on the Australian Electoral Commission rules. Of course we do not know how all of this is going to affect the state electoral laws. There is an election in Tasmania scheduled for 20 March next year and there will be one in South Australia as well.

This has not been thought through. It is policy on the run. On top of that you have the plaques on the school buildings at a cost of $3.5 million, or $200 each. They are the memorial plaques in honour of the Hon. Julia Gillard. I find that disgraceful. We can see that there are a lot of examples of waste and mismanagement. I certainly hope that the inquiry is up and running as soon as possible.

There have been numerous allegations that projects are overpriced and schools are having projects imposed on them by the inflexible guidelines. We have had principals, teachers and builders—the very people who should feel supported by this so-called revolution—calling for a review of the requirements imposed on the schools by the scheme. This government can do better. It should do better. I hope that, as a result of this inquiry, we can make sure that taxpayers get value for money for their investment. (Time expired)