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Wednesday, 17 March 2010
Page: 2127

Senator JACINTA COLLINS (5:02 PM) —I congratulate Senator Ferguson on this occasion because, having listened to three Liberal Party senators speak to this motion, with 2½ minutes remaining he actually got to the detail and the issues around the motion. Let me remind anyone listening to this debate what the motion actually suggests, and then I will try and insert some facts into this debate rather than irresponsible and scurrilous allegations never sustained by any evidence. We have listened to the claims of rorting and not heard one example. We have listened to the claims that we are inflating an industry. Senator Ferguson described these measures as a Christmas present.

I think we need to take a step back and look at what these measures were designed to deal with. Certainly the Labor Party went to the last election promising an education revolution because this particular area of social policy had been neglected for many, many years at both state and federal levels. We were supported in that policy and we were elected with it as a very clear policy commitment. Further to that, when the Rudd government was confronted with the global financial crisis, we identified education as a key area where we could stimulate the economy with long-term investment designed to bolster the skills and infrastructure and at the same time deliver jobs. This whole debate has ignored the stimulus aspect.

As a senator who has sat through the Senate inquiry into the stimulus measures and countless estimates hearings about the implementation of this program, I am absolutely amazed at the quality of what has been put into this debate by the opposition. It simply goes to show that Tony Abbott’s claim that they were finally going to start working as an opposition is simply vacuous. Why haven’t you had contribute to this debate those senators that have been asking questions about this program in Senate estimates? Why hasn’t there been some quality about the detail in this discussion? Why is Senator Brett Mason not contributing to this discussion as the shadow parliamentary secretary? Why do we simply have baseless and inaccurate claims proffered? The comparison between these programs and the difficulties that we are having with the insulation sector are ludicrous. The suggestion that what the Rudd government has been able to do in schools compares to the difficulties in insulation is just laughable.

This is another example of the scaremongering—and fairly flippant, glib scaremongering at that—that the opposition continues to try and peddle out. Nothing has changed under Tony Abbott as leader—nothing at all. I had my office go back and look at the last time scaremongering was attempted in this area, because I could remember back in November last year exactly the same allegations being raised. As I said, I sat through countless Senate estimates hearings and heard case after case examined but at the end of the day resolved without the difficulties that were being put forward.

Senator Arbib highlighted this point back in November in question time. He indicated that, on the last stocktake that I am aware of that occurred here, there had been only 60 complaints, with one unresolved complaint, out of 24,000 schools. I am sure those figures have changed between then and now, because, yes, in a very complex delivery process there are going to be ongoing difficulties. There are going to be cost overruns. There are going to be time delays. And yes, indeed, in any major program there is going to be some degree of rorting. That is why it is the responsibility of any person in public life, if they are aware of rorting, to report it.

Senator Bushby —That is what we are trying to do.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —They are trying to report it, is the interjection. This debate has not reported any rorting at all. I challenge the opposition to report the detail of any of the rorting that you claim is occurring. But, no: we have no facts, no detail of any of these matters. The only case that was raised whilst I was here was raised by Senator Ferguson and was somewhat amusing.

Senator Bernardi —I thought you were here for all of them.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —No; I was not here for all of yours.

Senator Bernardi —You said that at the start.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —No; I did not. I said ‘from what I’d heard’. Senator Bernardi, you are being a little bit precious, but that is fine; I am used to that. Let us go back to what I was about to address with respect to Senator Ferguson.

Senator Joyce interjecting—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Hutchins)—Order, Senator Joyce.

Senator Joyce —I withdraw the comment I made.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —I missed it at this distance; perhaps another time, Senator. Senator Ferguson gave us one example. He said that he had spoken to a teacher, and he said he was aware of a school where they had knocked over one of their newest buildings. He kept talking in terms of ‘they’: ‘they’ did not have arrangements for cleaning. Many of these cases are quite similar to the other types of cases that arose in questioning in Senate estimates that, as I indicated, Senator Arbib was able to demonstrate had been easily resolved. The ‘they’ he is referring to here is the school community. If an existing structure was demolished, the school community chose to do that. If one particular teacher decides to have a chat with Senator Ferguson, and that is our only example of rorting, I wonder about the priorities that the opposition has at the moment that lead us to devoting our time to this debate.

Again, we should go to the facts. Senator Ferguson certainly attempted in his last 2½ minutes to address the motion, which was a good start, but, again, he did not stick to the facts. This motion relates to the digital education revolution. We committed to provide funding to education authorities to achieve a one-to-one ratio by 31 December 2011, and we are on track to deliver that commitment. I am extremely tired of listening to the opposition seeking to inflate the time lines that were provided by the government with these measures. Some of those time lines related to how we saw the economic stimulus roll out; some of the other time lines related to our broader education revolution policies. But of course this opposition has forgotten the global financial crisis, because the stimulus was so successful for the Rudd government. Australia was the only country that did not go backward in recession, and that was because of the proactive actions we took in measures such as this, where the public at large accepts that the federal government has stepped in and helped keep Australians in employment while at the same time considerably improving the infrastructure available to them in schools. How that is described is somewhat amusing, too: the notion that it is just school halls and that no educational advantage will arise from these investments—just school halls. Talk to any teacher about the advantage for a school of having, firstly, a space in that school environment where the whole school can come together—and this is new for many schools—and, secondly, a space that is available for multi-purpose use. Enormous educational advantages can come out of that.

But let us go back to some of the other facts and time lines that have been exaggerated or inflated to suit the opposition’s purposes. The Trade Training Centres in Schools Program was, if I recall correctly, the only other issue that Senator Ferguson sought to raise. Let me go back to the facts in this area. Under a 10-year $2.5 billion Trade Training Centres in Schools Program, Australia’s 2,650 secondary schools are each eligible to receive between half a million dollars and $1.5 million. Since the Trade Training Centres in Schools Program commenced, the Australian government has approved $809.9 million to fund 230 projects benefiting 734 schools. Of the 230 approved projects, 150 involved schools working together to establish joint facilities. I do not really see why joint facilities are such a problem. There are 110 projects underway to construct or refurbish trade training centres, and 46 projects have commenced construction. There are also five trade training centres for which construction has been completed.

A number of schools are delivering qualifications, some in anticipation of their new trade training centres being completed late this year. Approximately 70 trade training centres are scheduled to be completed by the end of this year. The estimated time frame for building a trade training centre is between 12 and 18 months, depending on the project’s size and complexity. This is consistent with the time taken to construct Australian technical colleges. To choose to continue to try to inflate the time lines to attack the government and misrepresent our policy does not stand the opposition in any stead but fails to deliver on what Tony Abbott said his new leadership would provide.

This is not a genuine opposition. This is not even an informed opposition. You should take the time to inform yourselves of the facts of the policy and deal with the criticism of it in an accurate and appropriate fashion. The scaremongering was something that we were told would be of the past. The pretence or belief that you were still in government was also something that we were told would be of the past. We were going to have a strong and vibrant opposition. I really wonder where that genuine new opposition is.

There is no question that Building the Education Revolution was an ambitious program and that we had taken on with our federation an enormous challenge to deliver this program. But we thought it was incredibly important during the global financial crisis to escalate work in this area and help maintain and deliver jobs. The longer term investment in education is, of course, critically important as well. One of the reasons education was chosen was that it had established processes for delivering this type of infrastructure, but we never pretended that it was going to be a song, that it was going to be easy. We knew that we were dealing with multilayers of bureaucracy but we were delivering during the global financial crisis and we were protecting Australian jobs.

There is the suggestion that this was a Christmas present and that value for money has not been achieved. On one part we accept that if we had sat on our hands and examined our navel for a little while, we could have thought up better ways to do certain things. We are happy to accept that. But then, again, we might have been just too late to protect the jobs that we needed to protect. We may well have ended up in a recession in Australia. But, no, we decided that timely and effective action was required last year, and that is what the Rudd government delivered.

Most people, when you discuss with them the problems and the difficulties in delivering this program, understand the broader circumstances that relate to it, and they are incredibly pleased to receive what the opposition tells us does not really deliver—an educational advantage. They understand that, yes, there will be issues with powerlines, that there are water tank problems and that there are all sorts of complexities involved in delivering them. I can remember the principal of one of my schools saying to me: ‘But, gee, that training package that was produced for principals was tremendous. It helped us understand how to manage some of these difficulties.’ I have not met one person similar to what you have characterised as highlighting support for this very, very empty motion.

I suggest that, on future occasions, if you are going to come forward in the chamber in debates such as this, you provide some evidence of your claims and, indeed, that the senators contributing to the debate actually address their own motion. (Time expired)