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Wednesday, 17 March 2010
Page: 2118

Senator COLBECK (4:29 PM) —I too rise to make a contribution to this motion on the Rudd government’s complete failure to implement what it termed with great fanfare during the election as the ‘education revolution’. I recall saying to some people at the time that revolutions are usually accompanied by chaos and all sorts of mismanagement, and we have seen it again—complete and utter chaos in the management of this program, really demonstrating this government’s complete lack of capacity to run programs. In my view, this program has the capacity to be a bigger problem for the government than its scandalous pink batts program. Once this program is properly scrutinised—and we know the government is trying to batten down the hatches, get everyone to stay quiet and hold off on releasing all the information that it possibly can for as long as it possibly can—and once all this starts to come out, I think you will see that this is going to be a bigger problem for the government than was the pink batts program.

Senator Bernardi has already put some of the information on the table as to concerns that have been raised with him. A real sign of the significance of the problem is that the New South Wales Teachers Federation—part of the Labor Party’s own—is now saying that it is concerned about the rort, the overpricing, the overcosting of this program and has written to the Auditor-General in New South Wales saying it wants the Auditor-General in New South Wales to look at it. We know the Auditor-General here is going to look at it at a federal level, but I do not hold much hope that we will see anything on this program before the election. I would like to think that we might but I doubt that we will. That is no reflection on the Auditor-General; it is just the way things are going.

We can go right back to the start and look at the way this program started. Right at the outset we had signs outside schools. Every school regardless of whether it had a project up and running yet got a school sign out the front proudly saying that this school would be the beneficiary of the education revolution. It is about the only successful part of this program—the government has managed to get signs up outside every school. But the signs have to stay there for two years, right through the election. In Tasmania, they even offend the Electoral Act. Bruce Taylor, the Electoral Commissioner, has deemed them to be electoral matter under the state Electoral Act 2004. The ruling leaves no doubt that these signs are designed to provide a political advantage to the government. So, that was at the very outset of this program.

Senator Jacinta Collins interjecting—

Senator COLBECK —We saw the signs in place. I will take the interjection because I worked in the construction industry for many years and I saw many, many construction signs out the front of schools. A genuine construction sign had the name of the contractor, the name of the project, the name of the architect and the details of the project. I saw dozens and dozens of school project signs in my time and I know what they look like. They do not look like anything like this and they were not declared to be electoral advertising under the Electoral Act. So, Senator, if you want to interject then you go for your life because we know exactly what they are and we know exactly what they were designed to do. Of course, they have to be covered up at election time; the electoral officer said that. The local member for Braddon, Mr Sidebottom, said they were no different to a sign on a road. Well, there are not too many roads that I know that are actually polling booths. There are not too many roads anywhere in this country that double as a polling booth. Here you have, outside polling booths all around the country, these electoral signs that are deemed to offend the Electoral Act.

Next we can look at what has been occurring as part of the program. Senator Bernardi has already detailed some of those things. When you start talking to contractors who are involved in these projects you hear the problems that they are facing. When you talk to the school communities you hear the problems they are facing. There are delays in project commencement. There are no completion dates on contracts or completion dates that are a long way out. You see very, very poor documentation in some cases, which is causing contractors to have to put contingency into their pricing because they do not know what they are going to miss.

I have spoken to a school which had to have its power lines changed and its septic tanks moved because the documentation did not include those sorts of things. These things are all leaving shortfalls for the schools in finishing the projects and causing delays. Contractors are having to price the projects two or three times because they have been over-specified and have to be cut back or they have been over-calculated and then cut back.

Senator Jacinta Collins interjecting—

Senator COLBECK —Senator, it is not common when you get decently documented projects.

Senator Jacinta Collins —It is common.

Senator COLBECK —Well, I do not know what construction industry you are working in but it certainly was not the situation in the construction industry that I worked in, I can promise you that. Quality documentation is absolutely paramount and there are significant problems that are occurring in the schools with respect to this. There is no question that it is having a detrimental effect on school communities. You see genuine contractors who say, ‘We don’t worry about these projects too much. We have decided we will take a few of them that we know we can manage and we let the rest go through to the keeper because they are creating too many hassles for our businesses. They are causing us too many problems to have to deal with.’

Just like we saw with the pink batts fiasco, we are seeing cost overruns and we are seeing rorting of projects. The situation in New South Wales where you have projects that are costing multiple times the cost for equivalent types of structure is an absolute disgrace. That is the sort of rubbish you see when you start to inflate an industry the way that this program has done, just like we saw with the pink batts fiasco.

Government senator interjecting—

Senator COLBECK —Well, senator, I understand it. I have spoken to the contractors. I hope you have the opportunity to do so.

Senator Jacinta Collins interjecting—

Senator COLBECK —I have spoken to a lot of people so I understand what is going on in this project and its management is just like the pink batts program. It will end up being a bigger problem for the government than the pink batts program was. This will be a major problem.

I will go to a couple of particular examples. With the Strahan primary school we see a school of 60 students receiving the same amount of money as a school in another state with only one student. The school thought that they were going to get about $900,000. They did their numbers and they got the fine detail of the program, but students at one level were only counted as a half, which put them just under the threshold. So they did not actually have the money to do what they wanted to do. The expectation was created in the school that they would get a certain thing, but the reality was that this school with 60 students got exactly the same amount of money as a school with one. This program will, as I have said, end up being a bigger problem than the pink batts debacle. (Time expired)