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Wednesday, 17 March 2010
Page: 2088


Senator HEFFERNAN (2:30 PM) —My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Education, Senator Carr. Given that the New South Wales Teachers Federation has called for a public inquiry into the BER school building program, does the minister agree with the view—

Honourable senators interjecting—


The PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Heffernan, as I said, people are entitled to be heard in silence when the question is being asked.

Honourable senators interjecting—


The PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Heffernan, continue.


Senator HEFFERNAN —The unions are their friends, not ours. Does the minister agree with the Federation’s view:

Principals, teachers and parents have raised concerns that some BER projects are costing more than the original estimates and far more than regular construction costs. There is much speculation that builders’ mark-ups, management fees and multilayered bureaucracy are greatly inflating the cost of work under the BER.

Can the minister advise if the Labor government intends to call for an inquiry into the wasteful spending at schools, not only in New South Wales but in all states and territories?


Senator CARR (Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research) —I thank Senator Heffernan for his question. The question goes to the achievements of the Building the Education Revolution program.


Senator Minchin interjecting—


Senator CARR —I think, Senator Minchin, it does because the whole issue here, Senator Heffernan, as you would appreciate, is that the Rudd Labor government has invested $63.7 billion in school education in the last three years compared to $33 billion that the Liberals invested in the previous three years while they were in government. This government has almost doubled the funding for schools.


Senator Abetz —Mr President, I rise on a point of order. Sessional orders require the minister to be directly relevant. He has now gone for one minute and has not even strayed near the particular question, which was in relation to wastage as asserted by the New South Wales Teachers Federation.


Senator Conroy —Mr President, I rise on the point of order. I make the point that Senator Carr is being directly relevant to the substance of this question. This question was an attack on the efficiency of this program, of the competency of this program and the purpose of this program. That is what the New South Wales Teachers Federation have alleged according to those opposite. They are lending their shoulder to that allegation. Senator Carr’s answer goes to the heart of the assertion that underpins this question. I put it to you absolutely that Senator Carr’s answer is directly relevant to this question.


The PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Carr, I do draw your attention to the question. You have 56 seconds remaining to answer the question.


Senator CARR —Thank you, Mr President. This government has almost doubled the funding for schools in less than two years. We have almost doubled the funding. Now we are being accused by the troglodytes of New South Wales of not doing the right thing by the children of this country and by the parents of this country in terms of the educational services of this country. What this government has done—

Honourable senators interjecting—


The PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Carr, relax and resume your seat. On both sides, I need silence so that we can proceed.


Senator CARR —There are certain troglodyte senators in this chamber that take the view that spending on education is wasteful. That is the allegation: that spending on education is wasteful. That is an allegation we reject. For the on-costs that are provided by the Commonwealth to block-grant authorities including the states, 1.5 per cent of the total BER funding will be available. (Time expired)


Senator HEFFERNAN —I am not actually a member of the New South Wales Teachers Federation; this is their question. Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. In another letter to the Auditor-General, the New South Wales Teachers Federation raised their concerns, citing a long litany—

Honourable senators interjecting—


The PRESIDENT —Order! On both sides, Order! Senator Heffernan, continue.


Senator HEFFERNAN —In another letter to the New South Wales Auditor-General the New South Wales Teachers Federation raised their concerns, citing a long litany of BER failures. If an inquiry is instigated by the Auditor-General, will the government encourage principals to come forward with their concerns about waste and mismanagement? Can the minister give a similar assurance about federal departmental officials?


Senator CARR (Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research) —This is a magnificent program that has been a part of the doubling of funding for school education in this country in two years. Those opposite think this is wasteful. Those opposite clearly take the view that the largest—

Honourable senators interjecting—


The PRESIDENT —Order! Obviously people are a little bit excited about the issue. Debate it post question time.

Opposition senators interjecting—


The PRESIDENT —That is the time to debate the issue!


Senator CARR —This is the largest single modernisation program of schooling in this country’s history, yet those troglodytes opposite take the view that education is not to be a priority in this country. We reject that. This government is determined to ensure that we get the maximum possible benefit from that investment, and that—


Senator Abetz —Mr President, I rise on a point of order. How on earth is this answer directly relevant, as required under sessional orders? Sessional orders require direct relevance. The question was dealing with whether or not the government would cooperate with the Auditor-General. It has nothing to do with how much has been spent et cetera. Will the government cooperate if the Auditor-General in New South Wales has an inquiry? That is the question. He ought be required to be directly relevant, or sat down.


Senator Ludwig —Mr President, on the point of order: Senator Heffernan, on behalf of the Queensland-New South Wales teachers union, asked the minister a question and the minister has been answering that question directly. The minister has been dealing with both the BER and the Auditor-General’s role, and the minister has been continually answering that question—notwithstanding the interjections from the opposition, which may in fact mean that he cannot be heard. But he has been answering the question directly and with relevance, although it was from, it appears, the New South Wales teachers union rather than Senator Heffernan.


The PRESIDENT —Senator Carr, there are 20 seconds remaining, I draw your attention to the question.


Senator CARR —The Auditor-General would be aware that the Commonwealth has imposed restrictions upon the education authorities and non-government block grant authorities that there not be any greater than 1.5 per cent of their BER funding used to cover administrative costs. In addition, states, territories and block grant authorities have agreed that there will be no more than four per cent— (Time expired)


Senator HEFFERNAN —Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. Given the documented up to 250 per cent over real costs to this program, can the minister assure witnesses of no career disadvantage or intimidation as a consequence of any evidence they might give to such an inquiry?


Senator CARR (Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research) —We are not in the business of intimidating witnesses or fabricating evidence before Senate inquiries, or any other form of inquiry. That is the preserve of those opposite. What we have is clearly a case where there are benefits accruing to 9,526 schools across this country—$16.2 billion of benefit to 9,526 schools across this country. Which schools do you want to see deprived of that money? You should now name them. Name them!

Honourable senators interjecting—


The PRESIDENT —Order! Shouting across the chamber does not assist the conduct of question time.


Senator CARR —This is the greatest modernisation program in the history of schooling in this country. If those opposite want to stop the money going to Australian schools, name the schools— (Time expired)