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Labor has dropped the ball in education

10 April 2010 1,245 views No Comment

JUST before his ministerial responsibilities were significantly reduced, Peter Garrett made one of Australia’s great political understatements.

The former Midnight Oil frontman said of Labor’s insulation program: “We’re seeing a relatively small number of complaints in the system, given the scale of the system, about 0.5 per cent of complaints given the totality of the system. It has been a very successful program . . .” Two weeks later he was demoted and the program was cancelled.

As Coalition education spokesman Christopher Pyne pointed out last week, Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd are running a very similar line about the much hyped Building the Education Revolution program, citing complaints in a mere 0.76 per cent of schools.
By the government’s own measure, Gillard has done an even worse job than Garrett. Yet the school hall rip-off continues at a cracking pace and Gillard continues to preside over the disaster-riddled education portfolio.

It is astonishing enough that it took five deaths and 120 house fires for the government to act on the insulation program, but when it comes to the BER, the government seems perfectly comfortable that millions of dollars are evaporating from the program almost daily.

Gillard describes the problems as small bumps in the road. On the face of it, her response appears uncaring and arrogant.

Announced in February last year, the BER started life as a $14.7 billion stimulus spend designed to provide additional infrastructure support to Australian schools. This was a very exciting announcement, especially for the public education sector, long neglected by the states and desperate for any capital investment.

At the time it was claimed that, in addition to improving education, the money was also meant to stimulate the local economy and create jobs in communities.

From the outset, the program’s design was flawed.

Unlike the previous federal government, which gave money directly to schools for projects, the Rudd government opted to entrust the states with the roll-out and, as a result, it has been the public education system that has lost out big time in this once in a generation spend.

In turn, the states have handed over the projects to a handful of multinational construction companies that have pocketed the windfall along with their suppliers.

Local tradesmen and suppliers have largely missed out on contracts, or have been given minor jobs.

Often, wealthy independent schools have been able to manage their own projects and squeeze every dollar, but it is a regional public school that is forced to take delivery of a prefabricated library delivered on the back of a truck, with barely a cent left for outfitting. In one well-reported example, the building, once delivered, didn’t even fit the foundations.

Almost two months after the program began, the first problem was reported in the media. Since that time complaints have exploded, climaxing in the extraordinary situation towards the end of last year where the government announced a $1.7bn blow-out in the primary schools component of the package. At that time, the guidelines were also revised (not for the last time) to include the words “value for money”.

With almost 99 per cent of complaints coming from public schools, it seems the great champion of public education, the Labor Party, has dropped the ball.

All the while in the media, Gillard routinely has laughed off complaints. Similarly in parliamentary question time, she derided the opposition for raising significant concerns from its electorates.

Meanwhile, the widespread discontent has continued to spread. Along with other media outlets, this newspaper has continued to publish many examples of systemic price gouging, rorting and waste.

To top it all off, just last week even the well performing federal Treasurer, Wayne Swan, admitted rorting was occurring in the BER.

Little wonder then that the federal auditor-general extended his investigation into the administration and reporting requirements of the project. He is due to report next month.

So what has the government been doing about all this? As with Garrett’s insulation stimulus, it seems it has been seriously inactive until significantly caught out.

This year we have discovered that hundreds of projects were being audited in NSW, although little is known about the findings after the process was concluded. This was in response to the negative media reports coming out of the state; a transparent attempt at playing catch-up long after decisive action was needed.

Similarly Queensland has had some high-profile BER disasters, including the failure to put the $490 million first round of the primary schools program out to tender. The stories emerging in some of these schools are heartbreaking.

In response, the federal opposition has this week set a challenge for the government to begin a judicial inquiry into the program. If the federal government is correct and it is largely running well, then it should not have anything to fear.

Rudd made his name attacking the previous government over the AWB scandal concerning the UN oil for food program in Iraq. The Howard government initiated the Cole royal commission to investigate the claims in an open and transparent way.

It is time for the federal Labor government to demonstrate some courage and send a clear message to the taxpayers of Australia that the good management of billions of tax dollars is more important than petty party politics.

Rather than denying what is increasingly obvious, which is what Gillard still seems intent on doing, Rudd has an opportunity to seize the moment and show he is prepared to acknowledge there are problems and work to fix them.

Agreeing to a judicial inquiry is the obvious first step. It might also be a chance to put his very ambitious deputy back in her box.

The Weekend Australian