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Hardly revolutionary, but Pyne’s plan could build a better future

17 July 2010 1,751 views One Comment

THE Coalition’s proposal to allow schools to self-manage projects makes perfect sense.

It is a bizarre irony that the former minister for education, Julia Gillard, succeeded Kevin Rudd as prime minister when it is the waste and mismanagement of a program she is entirely responsible for that seriously damaged the Rudd government’s credibility and contributed to his downfall.

Given what we know about Gillard’s abilities, it is not surprising that, during the first few weeks of her administration, the wheels have fallen off her solution to stop the influx of asylum-seekers, and that she is looking decidedly shaky on the mining tax deal.

Over the past 2 1/2 years there hasn’t been an education policy that hasn’t been partially or entirely bungled in some way, shape, or form by the former minister for education.

Putting that aside for the moment, it is worth considering the new Minister for Education and the possible reason he was chosen for the job. Gillard did not decide to go with a young up-and-comer or a firebrand visionary type who could reignite the portfolio of education, which is historically considered one of Labor’s greatest strengths. Instead she opted to go with Simon Crean, trying to shore up problems and inoculate the huge deficiencies in the portfolio in the hope they can quietly sit out the election.

Despite Gillard’s comments this week, Labor simply cannot afford to fight the election on education because of her record of failure in the portfolio. With the effective and energetic Christopher Pyne as shadow education minister, Gillard couldn’t risk putting the portfolio in the hands of a novice.

The opposition now has the opportunity to offer innovative and carefully targeted education policies that can outflank the government, whose record of waste and failure is monumental.
Last week Tony Abbott and Pyne announced the Coalition would redirect school-hall funding directly to schools to manage, thus cutting across Gillard’s continuing complaint that the Coalition would cut school funding.

It is well documented that the grandiosely named Building the Education Revolution has been tainted by chronic waste and mismanagement and reports of systemic rorts, price gouging and collusion in the construction of school halls and other facilities.

From the outset the guidelines for the program were deeply flawed, sending billions of taxpayer dollars directly into the hands of state governments.

State education bureaucracies were entirely ill-equipped to deal with the complexities of the roll-out, so projects were contracted out to developers, who have reportedly been charging exorbitant prices for substandard buildings.

Principals and school councils were largely shunted from the process, told by officials what they would be receiving, whether they liked it or not.

In contrast, the non-government sector has self-managed projects and achieved value for money. The comparison is simply staggering.

It is obvious the quick fix is for the government sector to be treated like the non-government sector and self-manage projects. However, the federal Labor government never entertained the notion that government schools could be trusted to manage projects themselves.

The Coalition has a strong case to prosecute when it comes to its alternative plan of allowing schools to self-manage projects, and the policy announcement has been very well received by the sector.

Leonie Trimper of the Australian Primary Principals Association was reported as saying the government sector was envious of the non-government sector’s ability to self-manage projects, and the notion that principals and schools should self manage infrastructure should become standard practice.

Given that the former Howard government trusted schools to self-manage projects under its Investing in Our Schools program, it is hardly a revolutionary idea. However, the really clever part of the Coalition’s plan is that schools will be given an extraordinary incentive to self-manage their projects and focus on making savings. This is because schools will be entitled to retain any savings made to use for other priorities on their wish list. These funds are now sent back to the same state governments that mismanaged them in the first place.

This could be a very significant amount of money. If estimates are correct then government sector projects should be coming in at two-thirds of what is presently being spent. Hence some government schools with a $3 million grant could save as much as a $1m for other projects.
Imagine what needy schools could do each with a lazy million, without any caveats on how it must be spent. Some of these schools have been neglected for years by the state governments that have primary responsibility for their infrastructure.

This is precisely the source of the growing anger and disappointment about this program. Rather than closing the gap between government and non-government sectors, it is now wider than ever, courtesy of the Australian taxpayer.

Parents aren’t stupid; they drive past the local non-government school and see the excellent buildings under construction and have a clear comparison to the often prefabricated buildings peppering the government school sector.

No two ways about it, the Building the Education Revolution has been a crime against the taxpayer. And it is not going to stop under this newly minted Gillard government because it was the PM’s program. Crean’s response to the idea that schools should be entrusted with funds directly is strange from someone tasked to properly administer taxpayer money. He accused the opposition of potentially opening up the government to litigation from cancelled contracts, leaving buildings half finished.

But surely if a school is not getting value for money, or indeed is being outrageously ripped off, then it is necessary for the government to immediately cancel contracts and initiate litigation: something the Gillard government wants to avoid at all costs.

Crean and the taskforce his predecessor established to investigate waste should be hauling contractors and state governments into the courtroom to extract compensation for schools that have been ripped off blind, not to mention the rest of us taxpayers.

Assuredly if the government wins the next election then this matter will eventually disappear from the public consciousness, as such things eventually do, while the judicial inquiry into the program promised by the Coalition will obviously never occur.

Australians will never know for sure how much money was lost in this program or who is
responsible, and Gillard will have escaped unscathed.

But rest assured, if Labor wins this coming election, there will be more mismanagement to come from the Gillard government and we will all be paying the price.

The Weekend Australian, July 17-18, 2010

One Comment »

  • Albert Gerber said:

    Excellent week-end article on BER bungling.

    Most people erroneously think we are necessarily waiting for Brad Orgill to give us insights into the magnitude of the problem.

    Interestingly, the Commonwealth Auditor-General asked school principals whether they thought they were getting value for money at their school, and fewer than half nationally were estimated to agree or strongly agree!

    Below are the stratified-sample answers that fell into the remaining categories (p 192 http://www.anao.gov.au/uploads/documents/2009-10_Audit_Report_33.pdf)

    The use of BER P21 money for my
    school represents value for money.
    [n = 610]

    Neither Agree nor Disagree 16.8%
    Disagree 16.1%
    Strongly Disagree 12.8%
    Don’t Know/Can’t Say 5.7%

    The obvious question is where have problems been the worst.

    The investigations undertaken by The Australian and the refusal of some public school principals in New South Wales particularly to be intimidated have made it clear that there have been some colossal BER rip-offs in that state. What about Queensland and Victoria?

    That’s the sort of information one would have expected in a thorough assessment of principals’ views, even though the Commonwealth Auditor-General can’t inquire into state and territory instrumentalities’ activities.

    Separate estimates for each of the public/Catholic/Independent sectors and then further ones about at least the biggest states (possibly collapsing some categories if sample numbers became too small) if, as expected from subsequent evidence, only the public systems stood out as unsatisfactory.

    What do we instead find in the ANAO report at paragraphs 7.25 – 7.29 on pp 163-5?

    In Figure 7.9 on p 164, only separate estimates mysteriously presented in terms of whether My school system/Education Authority or My school commissioned the design, even though a footnote on the previous page made it clear how different the public and Catholic sectors were in this regard! And there’s an apparent acceptance of the nonsense state bureaucracies tried to peddle about having higher standards. A rather timid whitewash, somewhat unusual for Auditors-General who tend to take their independence seriously.

    Suitably spurred, now that principals’ views of dissatisfaction have been corroborated through some indicative average cost metrics, the Auditor-General could present much more useful summary material fairly quickly.

    Indeed, after apologising for the earlier misjudgement, he could also undertake a closer examination of the full run of 2,300 replies from public schools to tentatively identify geographical regions in which problems appeared to be worst, or alternatively report roughly the same level of dissatisfaction uniformly throughout jurisdictions.

    One wonders whether the Prime Minister’s charmed life in this monumental mismanagement will continue throughout the campaign, or whether the Gillard gloss will prove wanting under the first bit of methodical scrutiny.