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Thursday, 27 November 2008
Page: 11678


Mr PYNE (11:12 AM) —Mr Speaker—


The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. Peter Slipper)—Mr Deputy Speaker.


Mr PYNE —I am sorry: Mr Deputy Speaker, in rising to speak on the Nation-building Funds Bill 2008, Nation-building Funds (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2008 and the COAG Reform Fund Bill 2008, I note that my contribution is particularly drawn towards the Higher Education Endowment Fund, which has been renamed and slightly restructured as the Education Investment Fund. The Education Investment Fund will have $8.7 billion, $2.5 billion from the 2007-08 surplus and the remainder from the Higher Education Endowment Fund. To put it another way, the Education Investment Fund will contain $2.5 billion from the surplus created by the remarkable economic legacy of the coalition government and more than $6 billion from a fund established for this purpose directly by the coalition government.

The Higher Education Endowment Fund was an excellent initiative of the coalition. In rebadging it, the government are conducting a cynical exercise in claiming credit for something that they did not do. They do not fool anyone. As the former Minister for Education, Science and Training, the member for Curtin, said in May last year when the fund was established, this investment will promote excellence, quality and specialisation in Australian universities for years to come, helping our institutions to become truly world class. It was an unprecedented investment in the future of the higher education sector.

In the same manner as the Future Fund, the Higher Education Endowment Fund was innovative and forward thinking. It was a demonstration of the fundamental importance that the coalition places on higher education. It could only have been achieved by a coalition government. It was the coalition that took the tough decisions necessary to pay off Labor’s $96 billion debt. Labor, addicted to deficit, as we saw again today and yesterday, voted against every one of those very tough decisions but now seeks to claim the credit for the fruits of that hard work.

Despite promises at budget time of increasing the size of this fund to $11 billion, that figure relied on future surpluses. No doubt the government is hoping that people will have forgotten that headline by the time next year’s budget comes around and the government slips into deficit and debt. The fact is that it seems that the Rudd government will not have sufficient fiscal surpluses to contribute any significant extra dollars to these funds in 2009 and 2010.

Turning to the sorts of projects that this fund will support, I note that moneys from the funds will not pay for any ongoing running, maintenance or staff costs. According to the explanatory memorandum, where specific projects have an ongoing cost component it is intended that such funding would be sourced through other means. This could include direct funding from the bank, outside the Building Australia Fund, or funding by the states or territories in relation to proposals that are brought forward as part of the COAG reform agenda.

Given that capital costs are being split from ongoing maintenance costs, I am concerned that this could lead to instances where the whole-of-life costs of an asset are not appropriately considered when these funds are being invested, and this is an issue on which this government has form. This is, after all, the government that delivered—or failed to deliver—the computers in schools program, the rotten core at the centre of the failed education revolution. The lack of a whole-of-life assessment of the cost of this project has meant that additional capital and recurrent costs of two to three times the initial cost were not factored into the rollout of the program.

The Rudd government’s claim that the infrastructure program will be subject to rigorous cost-benefit analysis is not reassuring. For example, the computers in schools program is typical of the government’s approach to date—a proposal that was not subject to any serious analysis, resulting in a delivery failure. The computers in schools program has been a monumental embarrassment for the Rudd-Swan government. As recently as yesterday new details emerged as a further indictment of the mismanagement of the program. Freedom of information documents have revealed that, while $51 million of federal funding is expected to be given to the Western Australian state government for computers in schools, the program will cost the state an additional $167 million. This works out to a ratio of $3.27 of costs to the states and to the schools for every federal dollar spent. We are talking here, Mr Acting Speaker, about—


The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. Peter Slipper)—If the member would just pause for a minute. When I corrected him the first time, I said that the correct means of referring to the occupant of the chair is ‘Mr Deputy Speaker’. He may have misheard me.


Mr PYNE —I did mishear you, Mr Deputy Speaker.


The DEPUTY SPEAKER —If you would just observe that in future.


Mr PYNE —Certainly, absolutely. Thank you for your guidance. We are talking about $1.2 billion of federal investment in relation to this program. If this ratio is the same in all states and territories—a not unreasonable assumption—then this means that the government’s election promise is going to cost the states and territories $3.9 billion to implement. Is it any wonder that the Western Australian Minister for Education, Dr Liz Constable, is today quoted in the West Australian as saying:

… it is patently absurd that Mr Rudd can make an election promise that the States have to meet.

The Western Australian government is not the only government that has expressed its dismay at the Deputy Prime Minister’s handling of this program. Even the government’s Labor friends across the country have been lining up to take a shot. Today, in fact, the Premier of Western Australia, Mr Colin Barnett, indicated in the clearest possible terms that Western Australia is considering withdrawing entirely from the computers in schools program because, as he says, there is absolutely no reason why the state governments should fund the promises made by the Rudd government when they were in opposition.

The New South Wales government has pulled out of the program. The New South Wales Minister for Education and Training, Verity Firth, likened the program to offering to buy someone a suit but then asking them to buy the jacket themselves. In South Australia the Minister for Education, Jane Lomax-Smith, admitted in estimates that she was exchanging old computers for new to avoid these massive new costs. Exchanging old computers for new is not reducing the computer-student ratio; it is just providing states with replacement computers. That can only be described as an abject failure of the policy.

The ACT government is not only exchanging old computers for new—it claims that the costs of the program are even steeper than has been revealed in Western Australia, with four territory government dollars to every one federal government dollar spent. In Victoria we have seen some public school parents being slugged with increased fees if they wish their children to have access to computers. Lilydale public school featured the details of the plan on their website, which was hastily pulled down after it was exposed in the media.

I am not sure whether the Labor Party policy before the last election came clean with the Australian people that parents were going to be asked to provide the funds for the services and infrastructure of the computers in schools program. I think the election result might have been quite different if some of the things we are now discovering about the Rudd government had been known before the election—not only their profligate economic management, which is leading the government into debt, deficit and ruin, but their management of computers in schools. I think if parents had known that they would be asked to pay for the costs of services and infrastructure there might have been quite a different response.


Mr Ripoll —I doubt it! You wish.


Mr PYNE —I hope the honourable member interjecting can go back to the parents in his electorate, look them in the face and explain to them why the states are pulling out of computers in schools across the country, why parents are being slugged for the costs of services and infrastructure, why the Western Australian government and the New South Wales government have either pulled out or threatened to do so, and why old computers are being replaced with new computers. The honourable member should hang his head in shame and disgrace that he is part of a government that fooled the Australian people last November into believing that they would get a laptop for every student when they now face the prospect of having no improvement in the position that they faced before the Rudd government came to power—except that Investing in Our Schools has been abolished and a $1.2 billion program which was terribly popular and very successful was taken to the guillotine as part of the education revolution and replaced with a damp squib.

The Rudd government and the Deputy Prime Minister like to pretend that they are unaware of these costs. In fact, soon after New South Wales pulled out of the computers in schools program, a comment from the Deputy Prime Minister in the media implied it was the states’ problem to fund the rollout. However, it is on the record that the government is fully aware that the costs of this program are blowing out. It emerged in Senate estimates that the federal Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations had provided to the Deputy Prime Minister a report detailing the additional costs for the states but, when asked to release the report by my colleague in the other place Senator Mason, departmental officials refused to do so.

So we have established that the federal department of education has prepared a secret report for the government on the true costs associated with the computers in schools program. The minister has refused to release it and never comments on the extra costs. This government seem to like to pretend they are incapable of mistakes. The reason is that the computers in schools program has become an embarrassment and a shocking indictment of the ability of the government to deliver on their promises.

Now that the coalition has managed to obtain figures for Western Australia it is long overdue for the Minister for Education, the Deputy Prime Minister, to come clean on the costs for all states. No-one—no parent or student—would disagree that it is a very useful thing for a student to have access to a computer at school. The computers in schools program grabbed headlines during the election. This so-called digital education revolution was going to provide a computer for every student in years 9 to 12. Kevin Rudd waved a laptop about and said he would give one to every student. But what sort of government creates a program that completely fails to take into account the costs of the rollout? What sort of incompetent government does not factor in these sorts of costs? What sort of government thinks that the state governments will just gratefully accept the government’s computers and not ask for maintenance, support and technical costs? It is not as though the states are flush with money at the moment. It appears that New South Wales government is in freefall economically, and yet it is being asked to come up with the extra funds that the Rudd-Swan government is refusing to provide.

So how can we trust the government now to deliver on the Education Investment Fund? We cannot, and therefore I am supporting the opposition’s amendments to these bills, which will not only provide for increased transparency and an assurance that projects are supported by the Productivity Commission but especially will provide that all funding commitments depend upon financial commitments from all asset owners and stakeholders to meet the whole-of-life of asset costs. Then again, maybe if Australia had a full-time education minister with an eye on the details, the computers in schools program would not have become such an embarrassing failure.

It is time for the Prime Minister to follow through with his plans for a reshuffle. It is time for the Deputy Prime Minister to relinquish at least one of her portfolios. Education and industrial relations by themselves used to be cabinet-level positions in separate people’s hands. My colleague the shadow minister for employment and workplace relations is in the House today, doing a tremendous job at holding the government accountable in industrial relations, but I am sure he would prefer that the minister had her eye on at least one ball all the time—


Mr Keenan —On jobs!


Mr PYNE —and on jobs, particularly, for Australians. We have a situation where the education minister is also the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations. It is unprecedented in Australia. It has not been done before because it is a bad idea. The Deputy Prime Minister should relinquish one or the other portfolio and ensure that education has a full-time minister so that the parents and children of Australia can get the quality of education and the choice of education that we in the coalition support, and so that the teachers of Australia can get the pay and conditions, respect and support that they require in order to do such an important job.