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Wednesday, 4 February 2009
Page: 367

Mr SYMON (12:05 AM) —I rise to speak in support of the Appropriation (Nation Building and Jobs) Bill (No. 1) 2008-2009 and cognate bills. As is well understood on this side of the House, the global financial crisis has pushed many countries into recession, countries such as the United States, Japan, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, countries in Europe and many of our neighbours in Asia. Australia is not immune from what happens globally. This has certainly been held to be true over recent months. With the forecast from the IMF of a two per cent collective contraction of the world’s advanced economies in 2009, there are major consequences economically for Australian government revenues, growth and of course jobs. Together, these bills form the Rudd government’s $42 billion Nation Building and Jobs Plan, which has been announced to support jobs and invest in Australia’s long-term economic growth.

There are far too many components in this package for me to be able to talk about all of them in the time available, so I will concentrate on a few areas that will have particular relevance to many of my constituents in my electorate of Deakin. Building the Education Revolution is a $14.7 billion component of this package, and it contains three key elements: Primary Schools for the 21st Century, Science and Language Centres for 21st Century Secondary Schools, and Renewing Australia’s Schools. They are all important in their own way and I will go through them briefly.

Primary Schools for the 21st Century is the major part of the package, and it is a $12.4 billion program that allocates funds for the building or refurbishment of large-scale infrastructure in primary schools, K-12 schools and special schools right across Australia. This program covers both government and non-government schools and provides capital funding from $25,000 right up to $3 million, depending on the size of the school. In the case of primary schools in my electorate of Deakin, most schools will be eligible for funding of between $2 million and $3 million to construct new libraries, multipurpose halls or other approved buildings. An important condition of the funding for these new facilities is that the schools make them available for community use at little or no cost. I think it is very important, if we are going to put money into community assets, that the schools are not locked away at weekends and night-time or shut up for months on end over school holidays but that local communities are able to access and use them. There is always demand, in every electorate, for meeting places for local volunteer groups, whether they be for scouts or for various other clubs. There is always a need for that sort of thing.

Schools that already have modern libraries and multipurpose halls will be permitted to apply for funding for refurbishment of buildings or the building of new facilities. This could include the replacement of portable classrooms with permanent structures. The 21 government primary schools in Deakin electorate will all benefit greatly from this measure. Many were built decades ago and simply do not cater for the 21st century needs of students, teachers or parents—who also spend a lot of hours at schools.

I have been to primary school assemblies in Deakin that have had to be held outside in the rain because the school does not have a multipurpose room or hall to accommodate their assemblies. Other primary schools have halls that are far too small to accommodate all the students in safety and comfort, so students end up sitting on the floor, elbow-to-elbow, in lines, and hope that they can all squeeze in the door. In these circumstances, the provision of a multipurpose hall that could be used for school assemblies and other meetings would be a very welcome upgrade that cannot come too soon. Of course, it is not only government schools that are burdened with old, out-of-date or non-existent multipurpose halls and libraries. There are also non-government primary schools that have similar needs for infrastructure, and they too are eligible to receive funding at the same rates under this program.

In 2007, the combined enrolment in primary schools in Deakin was 9,232 full-time equivalent students. Anecdotally I think that figure has gone up in the last year and a bit. Most primary schools I have been to have reported an increase in the size of their schools over that time. Whilst it is very good that we have got more children going through school, it also puts more pressure on those schools. Importantly, each and every primary school student will benefit from this program.

The second element of the Building the Education Revolution package is Science and Language Centres for 21st Century Secondary Schools. This is a $1 billion program that will fund the construction of up to 500 science laboratories or language centres in Australian secondary schools. Investment in science labs and language centres will provide students studying these disciplines with access to modern and cutting-edge technologies that they can make use of in their own learning spaces. The electorate of Deakin contains 10 secondary schools, a mixture of government and non-government schools. Each school will be able to lodge bids in a competitive process for proposals. Applications will be determined on demonstrated need, readiness to commence the project, and capacity to complete construction by 30 June 2010.

The third element of the Building the Education Revolution package is Renewing Australia’s Schools, a $1.3 billion program that is available to all schools—primary and secondary, government and non-government. The important thing about this program is that it is almost an immediate start. Most schools in Deakin would qualify for funding of between $125,000 and $200,000, based on the number of students in the school. The funding can be used for maintenance and renewal of school buildings and for minor building works. It can also be used for items such as minor refurbishment of buildings, fixed shade structures, covered outdoor learning areas, green upgrades such as water tanks, air-conditioning and support for students with disabilities or special needs. These all may be funded under the Renewing Australia’s Schools program.

Many of these projects should be able to begin almost immediately. The issues in the long term are well documented and the solutions in many cases are readily apparent. As I mentioned previously, many schools in Deakin were built decades ago. As Melbourne’s population expanded eastwards in the 1950s and 1960s these schools were built to cater for the increase in the local population. These buildings still bring back memories of my time at school and that is because some classrooms still look the same today as when I went to school, except I left school 27 years ago. Some of the buildings are now over a century in age, and maintenance or refurbishment for them cannot come soon enough. Many schools still have portable classrooms, again a very memorable feature of my days at school so long ago.

In my visits to schools in my electorate over the last year, the issue of maintenance has just about always been raised. The schools try to find more room in their budgets to cover increasing maintenance costs of continually ageing buildings. Rusting roofs and gutters, peeling paintwork, holes in masonry and doors that no longer fit into doorframes—all are very common. Going through a very hot summer also increases those types of maintenance tasks, and things that have held together quite well suddenly do not after a few days of 40 degree-plus heat. For many schools these are not new problems. They are part of a maintenance backlog that stretches over many decades. Even trying to carry out modern teaching in classrooms that are in good condition but which were built 40 or 50 years ago is also problematic. Rooms might not have enough power capacity for computers or they might be too small for modern teaching methods, especially for combined classes.

The local employment that will be generated from the Building the Education Revolution plan will be substantial and especially needed due to the contraction in our economy. Projects such as these provide employment not only for tradespeople but also for people such as architects, engineers, suppliers and wholesalers and especially the many other local small businesses which rely on the construction industry for a living. There is nothing better than having activity happening on several sites near where your business is set up.

There are many other features of the Nation Building and Jobs Plan that I could highlight here in the chamber tonight but, listening to the debate, I think many other members have already spoken on most of these points, including the benefits that this package of stimulatory funding will bring to our economy in the face of the global economic crisis. These bills are vitally important to keep our economic wheels turning whilst private sector demand is contracting. The opposition are saying they are going to block these bills but I see no great benefit for our nation in that. I call on them to reconsider and I commend this package of bills to the House.