Senate debates

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Quarantine; Building the Education Revolution

3:24 pm

Photo of Richard ColbeckRichard Colbeck (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research (Senator Carr) to questions without notice asked by senators today, relating to quarantine and education.

I will start by talking about the absolutely abysmal performance that Senator Carr gave in response to my question on the now censored submission to the Senate inquiry into AQIS export certification fees. The government’s performance on this matter, I have to say, is symptomatic of their performance on a range of other things. We have seen the debacle of the pink batts scheme. Senator Mason asked questions on Building the Education Revolution. We have also seen issues with respect to Indigenous housing.

This particular issue, the government’s management of the removal of the 40 per cent rebate for AQIS export certification charges, has quite a sorry history. The government commissioned and accepted the recommendations of the Beale report, but they have not resourced it properly. They were prepared just to remove the 40 per cent rebate without any process. They were happy to say, ‘Righto, we’ll rip this $43 million out of industry.’ Once the objections started to be raised, the minister had to take action to put in place a process to try and mitigate the problems. The unfortunate part of it is that he has not actually gone about his job properly. He has not listened to the industry. He has created a number of industry consultative groups that are bound by confidentiality agreements, so they cannot really talk to their industry sectors. Then, when it came to the time for the fees to be exposed, people found out what the impact was going to be.

The government keep trotting out the line that industry supports this. But when you look at the submissions to the inquiry, there are nine that support it—one of those being the government’s own submission. Four of those, including the government’s own submission, express strong support. Five of those nine express qualified support. But there are 19 submissions to the inquiry that oppose it and 12 of them strongly oppose it.

Photo of Christopher BackChristopher Back (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Including Austrade.

Photo of Richard ColbeckRichard Colbeck (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) Share this | | Hansard source

Including Austrade. That submission has been officially withdrawn by Austrade today. We understand that process and we have seen that happen in the last 24 hours. This demonstrates the complete mishandling of the whole process by the minister. If industry want to know who to blame if these fees and charges are brought out, they ought to be knocking on the door of Minister Burke. He is the one to blame for his completely incompetent handling of this process. He has been a weak minister. He has not stood up for his portfolio. The department has been completely and utterly gutted. Industry understand that.

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

What a stretch. That is even below you.

Photo of Richard ColbeckRichard Colbeck (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Sterle and some of my colleagues on the other side will probably get up and talk about those that support this, but they will not talk about companies like the Mildura Fruit Company, who have pulled out of export markets to China, South Korea and Thailand because of the increase in AQIS fees. They have stopped exporting. They have pulled out because it is not economical to do it anymore.

The Australian Meat Industry Council have said what the opposition have said all along, ‘Put the reforms in place first. Show us the savings and then come to us with the revised fees and charges.’ That is what the opposition have said all along and that is what the Australian Meat Industry Council say in their submission. They bear $32 million of the $40-odd million cost. They bear most of the cost. They have been saying all along, ‘Put the reforms in place first and then come and talk to us.’ The Australian Ostrich Association tell us that any increase in cost is likely to shut down the industry. What we are getting here is a competition between the big guys and the little guys. The government is happy to go with the big blokes. That is fine, but who on the government side is standing up for the little blokes? Not many that I can see, and certainly not the minister.

The performance, the complete shambles, over the last 24 hours over the Austrade submission demonstrates that the government have absolutely no control. One hand does not know what the other one is doing. There are submissions going through ministerial offices without them even knowing that they are going through. The one thing that we ask, the one thing that the committee have asked today, is that the officers who prepared the submission be allowed to give their evidence tonight. They have been working with industry. That is why they have said what they have said. We know there are some who support this, but we know that there are a lot who do not. That is why we are asking the questions we are asking.

3:29 pm

Photo of Trish CrossinTrish Crossin (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

If we are going to take note of answers today, particularly answers given by my colleague Senator Kim Carr, let us have a discussion about the Building the Education Revolution program and let us get some facts on the table. One of the reasons this was instigated was that after 11 long years of the Howard government schools in this country had been neglected. Infrastructure was never seriously addressed under the previous government. In fact, education itself had plummeted to receiving the lowest contribution of GDP for many years, as the OECD continually reported and highlighted. I ask my colleagues opposite whether they can tell me how many schools we have in this country, including Catholic, independent Christian schools and government schools. How many schools do we have in this country? There is a deafening silence. They want to stand up and criticise, but they have no idea of the magnitude of this project and they have no alternative policies.

We are talking about 9½ thousand schools that will actually benefit from this education revolution, a revolution that was needed because of the abject neglect of the previous federal government. In those schools we have 24,000 projects happening around this country, from remote Indigenous schools to major high schools in capital cities to little primary schools in regional centres—primary schools, secondary schools and rural and remote schools. In fact, 9½ thousand schools around this country are benefiting from the Building the Education Revolution program, covering 24,000 projects.

We knew from the start that this was a massive undertaking. It was part of stimulating the economy through the global financial crisis, making sure that at the end of the day we were protecting jobs. If we had not instigated this project, there would have been an extra 210,000 Australians out of work. This was about not only building up the infrastructure in schools around this country—a neglected part of education under the Howard government—but also stimulating the building industry. It was about Australians having a reason to stay in work through the global financial crisis and a reason to keep collecting their fortnightly pay packet to ensure that the building industry that had gone through a massive slump was stimulated, and 210,000 Australians continue to maintain their jobs.

All you hear from the other side is criticism of the small number of projects that have encountered some problems. As Minister Gillard said this morning when she was interviewed on ABC radio, we anticipated that there would be problems. We have set up a website so that people can contact the federal government about problems. Remember that these schools are negotiating these projects with state and territory authorities. Federal government does not deliver services; it provides money to the state and territory government authorities who roll this out. School by school, projects were identified and these were negotiated with state or territory government authorities. We anticipated that projects at 9½ thousand schools would not be rolled out perfectly, and if you thought that was going to happen then you are in a fool’s paradise.

Photo of Brett MasonBrett Mason (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Education) Share this | | Hansard source

You weren’t wrong there.

Photo of Trish CrossinTrish Crossin (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

How many complaints have we had or how many problems have we had? We have had 49 problems, Senator Mason, out of 24,000 projects at 9½ thousand schools. I would have thought that that was a pretty good example of how this government works cooperatively with state and territory governments, even your mates in WA, to ensure that what we are doing is not only stimulating the economy but also putting back into schools and building in schools the capacity to deliver future education in a modern and stimulating learning environment. That is what this government is about. This government is about ensuring that the schools in this country move into the next century with classrooms that are not falling down around their ears, with sporting facilities that can be used, with science laboratories that can be used and with libraries that are productive, inviting and encourage learning, investigation and research by students in this country. (Time expired)

3:34 pm

Photo of Brett MasonBrett Mason (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Education) Share this | | Hansard source

Given the scale of the government's maladministration, I might have to confine myself to the shambles of the implementation of the Building the Education Revolution program. Sir, you would think that if a government was to spend, let us say, $16 billion people would be happy, wouldn’t you? What has in fact happened? All the stakeholders—the students, their teachers, even the education union, the P&Cs—are saying this money has not been well spent. There has been a chorus throughout the country that this has been a very, very poor spend. Why? Let me tell you why: because, as Abbotsford Primary School illustrates so well, there is no flexibility. What is happening is that state governments are telling schools what they need to have. It is the old Labor Party story: ‘We will tell you what you want. If you don’t want it you can’t have it.’

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Health Administration) Share this | | Hansard source

Command model.

Photo of Brett MasonBrett Mason (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Education) Share this | | Hansard source

Yes, command model—this whiff of Stalinism. The fact is that it is not flexible, has not been flexible and has not been working. What is worse is that it is costing far, far more than it should. Under the tender processes that the Commonwealth government is supposed to be oversighting prices have gone up. The taxpayer is not getting a good deal out of this, and that is an enormous problem. They say prices have gone up 50 per cent in the last 12 months on the same projects. This is a very, very poor spend. And there has been bullying by state governments. The money is being used to fulfil state government responsibilities and state government obligations. Incidentally, most of the money, the vast majority, that Senator Crossin spoke about is being spent on state government responsibilities. Infrastructure for schools is a state government responsibility, but they have not been performing, so the Commonwealth government picks up the tab. So much of the money is being used for state government priorities.

It is a bad spend for another couple of reasons. We do not even know how many jobs are going to be created, because the tenderers were not asked the question about how many jobs were going to be created, although I suppose with Abbotsford Primary School at least we know the government was going to knock down a four-classroom building and replace it with a new one. It is like digging a hole and knowing you are going to fill it up again, like something out of the Great Depression.

It has been an appalling spend, and we do not even know how many jobs have been created, and neither does the government. But even worse—and my friend Senator Back just reminded me about this—with a $16 billion spend, we are not even certain whether educational outcomes will increase, because that was never part of the project. We are not certain with $16 billion worth of expenditure that any student’s HSC score or TE score will rise even one point. We do not know that, and the question was never asked. It is a hell of a lot money—a one-off in the Commonwealth’s history—to give to an education system for no certain educational outcome. It is an enormous amount of money. Perhaps the only exception is my home state of Queensland and Evesham State School, where the lucky student—the single student at the school—has been given $250,000 towards whatever school she decides to go to. I understand that half of the principals in central-west Queensland are trying to find this poor young lady, because wherever she goes, they get the money. I am told they are offering her iPods and Sony PlayStations and that she will not have to do homework for a year as long as she goes to their school—that is because of the $250,000.

This is not a joke, but it just shows us that this whole project is quickly developing into a farce. Last week, poor old Ms Gillard—she has had a pretty bad fortnight—described the fact that this project has been underfunded by $1.7 billion as a mere bump in the road, a mere bagatelle. If you are spending $350 billion, does $1.7 billion more matter? Perhaps it does not. It is the sort of loose change that you find in your lounge suite under the cushions, isn’t it? Who cares about $1.7 billion anymore? It means nothing. Even when it comes to the government’s own advertising of their horrible failures on this project, when they finally put up the billboards in the schoolyards—do you know what, Mr Deputy President?—we will discover that those very billboards that are advertising the government’s failures are illegal. What farce.

3:39 pm

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I would like to take offence at Senator Colbeck’s contribution today. I have worked closely with Senator Colbeck on the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee and I find him to be one of the better performers on that side of the chamber when talking about agriculture. But Senator Colbeck’s blatant attack on Minister Burke today during his motion to take note of answers was nothing short of disgraceful. On that, Senator Colbeck mentioned how AMIC was one of the representative bodies that have had $43 million ‘ripped out’—that was the wording he used—of the industry, and he quoted AMIC, the Australian Meat Industry Council. To clear the air, I have in front of me the Australian Meat Industry Council’s press release of 17 June 2009. The heading is: ‘AMIC endorses government reform package’. This is their press release. It does not sound like they have had the guts ripped out of them—to use Senator Colbeck’s terminology. In fact, I expect that sort of terminology from the Uncle Festers of the Queensland Liberal Senate team, such as Senator Macdonald, but certainly not from Senator Colbeck.

Photo of Alan FergusonAlan Ferguson (SA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! Senator Sterle, be careful when you are referring to another senator.

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thought I was being nice, actually. AMIC’s press release states:

The Australian Meat Industry Council has announced today its agreement to the terms and conditions for a return to full cost recovery for AQIS export certification charges based upon a commitment by the federal government to implement—ready?—a groundbreaking suite of reforms to the meat inspection system in Australia.

It goes on to state:

In addition to the new AQIS reform agenda, a range of technology improvements, IT upgrades and a new plant performance rating tool and new market access consultation arrangements between government and industry will be implemented.


Minister Burke has committed over $289 million—

this is to AMIC—

to the various elements of the reform package, the implementation of which will begin immediately. Gary Berridge, Chairman of AMIC’s Australian Processing Council said today.

Mr Berridge went on to say:

We commend Minister Burke for his foresight and willingness to listen to industry in establishing a new framework for exports certification in Australia that will elevate its standing as a leader in this field internationally and provide a platform for Australia’s global competitiveness for the next 10 to 15 years.

It does not sound like they have had the guts ripped out of them—to use Senator Colbeck’s terminology; it sounds like a resounding endorsement of the minister’s hard work. And, not only that, the minister is seeking—lo and behold, this might come as a bit of shock to those opposite—the views of the industry.

The press release goes on to say:

The outcomes achieved today are the result of input by a broad cross-section of industry and government on both sides of the House, and I thank them for all their considered input and guidance in achieving this momentous outcome.

That is Gary Berridge from AMIC. There are also words of encouragement from the Australian Livestock Exporters Council, Horticulture Australia and the like, but I will not go on because of the time limit.

The line of questioning today from the opposition was that, for some reason, there was something sinister going on within Austrade. There has been a lot of commentary on that today. Quite simply, for the record—

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Health Administration) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Cormann interjecting

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

and take your fingers out of your ears, Senator Cormann, and have a good listen to this: Austrade’s submission to the Senate inquiry was not cleared through the office nor was it cleared through Austrade’s executive. The letter will be on the website for you, Senator Cormann. You can look for yourself. I know that might involve a bit of hard work.

Photo of Alan FergusonAlan Ferguson (SA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! Address the chair, Senator Sterle.

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

And I will. Mr President, I know that it might be a bit hard for Senator Cormann and others opposite to do a little bit of work and to actually do a bit of reading before they shoot their gob off to the media. The submission did not reflect the views of this government, nor did it reflect the views of Austrade. The Austrade executive recognised that a serious mistake had been made and acted appropriately to correct the public record. A wide range of industry representatives have endorsed, as I have said before, and supported the government’s position: the Australian Dairy Industry Council, ABB, GrainCorp, Horticulture Australia and the Australian Livestock Exporters Council, to mention a few. (Time expired)

3:45 pm

Photo of Christopher BackChristopher Back (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to support the motion to take note of answers from Senator Carr moved by Senator Colbeck. It is terribly distressing because this is the third day on which I have questioned Senator Carr on these matters and he continues to state points which are incorrect. One of the points I have made is the fact that the fieldwork associated with the Hendra virus research in Queensland is partially funded by the Australian biosecurity CRC, undertaken by the Queensland DPI. The minister continues to refute that view and I cannot understand why he does. It is clear, it is the fact: it is not work undertaken by the CSIRO. The minister has said that for whatever reason this particular CRC did not renew its application when it was refused earlier this year. I would have thought that, acting responsibly, the minister may himself have queried why such an important CRC did not reapply, particularly after we had the outbreak of the swine flu pandemic—it is transferred between humans and animals—and of course the fresh outbreak of Hendra. Why then he did not call the parties together to find out why that CRC had not reapplied? I did, and there was a considerable level of distress when that particular CRC learnt that their application had not been peer reviewed, that it had been the basis of a study and a recommendation by the review committee—no members of which had any expertise, as I said yesterday in this place, in areas such as infectious disease, biosecurity, quarantine, animal disease or the like.

Surely the minister must have had some alarm bells ringing. So incorrect was the advice of that committee to the minister that they said to him that the Quarantine and Inspection Service was not part of that bid. I would have thought that the minister would have had the opportunity in the last 24 hours to avail himself of the fact that AQIS is merely a service of the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, which was a main participant in the bid. That committee advised the minister again that the Customs service was not part of the bid. Of course it was not part of the bid or the CRC because the Customs service does not do research.

Why is it so critically important that this CRC continues? There are three reasons. Let me come back to the agreement of Senator Sterle and Senator O’Brien yesterday, who visited the facility with me in Geelong. We all agree that it is world’s best practice, but it is a laboratory based service. The strength of this CRC has been the fact that it combines members who do the fieldwork—in the case of the Hendra virus, the Queensland DPI; but state organisations around Australia—and feed that material into the CSIRO at the Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong, which does phenomenally good work. Let me make the third point, which will be lost when this CRC is terminated—and this is where it is so unique: we have been able to take the quality of the work done by the Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong, with the brilliance and speed of the testing, and, through the excellence of the CRC, transfer that out to laboratories around Australia. That is not a feature of other organisations around the world; it is a role of the CRC and is not something undertaken by the CSIRO. It does not have that role. I urge the minister to reconsider and to invite an independent assessment to see whether or not this CRC should continue.

I made the point today about the West Nile virus, a viral disease which has killed hundreds of people in the USA and in the north of America in the last couple of years and which affects animals. The two vectors are mosquitos of a type we have in Australia and birds, including crows, which we have in Australia. It is a shame Senator Crossin is not here, because the Northern Territory is one of the areas at risk. I asked the minister: who will do this work, which has been ongoing at the CRC, when the CRC is finished? I draw the attention of the Senate to the comment by the minister, when in opposition, about the dairy CRC and the weeds CRC. He pointed out that he asked the government of the day why they were being wound up when their research was beginning to bear fruit. I asked the minister today: why is this CRC being wound up when it is so good?

Question agreed to.