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Tuesday, 16 June 2009
Page: 6107

Mr CHESTER (4:22 PM) —It is not with any triumph that I rise today to speak on this matter of public importance. I take no satisfaction from the topic before us: the failure of the government to properly manage the Building the Education Revolution program. I am not going to indulge in a debate on the merits of the program and the amount of borrowed money, $14.7 billion, that the government has set aside for the initiative, because that debate has been had. But the government has an obligation to the Australian public to achieve value for money in rolling out this initiative to achieve its stated objectives. I fear there are many examples of the government’s failure to properly manage the program, particularly in regional areas.

It is typical of this government that any concerns which are raised by opposition members are described—to quote from a response by the Minister for Education yesterday in question time—as ‘carping, moaning and criticism’. It is not carping, moaning and criticism; it is pointing out some faults in the program and the minister’s need to intervene before the state governments waste millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money.

Mr Pyne —Billions!

Mr CHESTER —Billions, even. Thank you, Member for Sturt. It is called being accountable to the parliament and being accountable to Australian taxpayers, who will be paying off the Rudd government debt for decades to come.

I like to think that I am a reasonable person, but, despite all the rhetoric we have heard today from the minister, she must understand by now that there is a problem. It relates to the value for money issue and the indecent haste with which this program is being implemented. To understand my concerns and the concerns of Gippsland builders, principals and teachers who have contacted my office, you need to consider the government’s stated objectives for this program. The minister has never been one to hide her light under a bushel. I quote from her media release yesterday announcing round 2 of the primary schools program:

The Rudd Government is unashamedly undertaking the largest school modernisation program in Australia’s history to support local jobs, stimulate every local economy and invest in important long-term infrastructure.

Yesterday in the chamber the minister said:

In particular, the Building the Education Revolution guidelines have required that, wherever it is possible, local tradespeople are engaged for the work.

Here is a newsflash for the minister: it is not quite working like that in Gippsland. The money is being shovelled out the door in such indecent haste that many schools are not getting the chance to secure the infrastructure that they want, local builders are being excluded from tendering for the work and there are fears that many of my smaller schools will only receive a relocatable building. In many instances, it is the ‘portable education revolution’—not exactly long-term infrastructure. There are not many jobs in regional areas from bolting a few portables together after they have been delivered on the back of a truck from the city.

To be fair to the minister, I know she does not trust the opposition, she does not believe the case studies that we have put forward and she certainly would not have been receiving any reports from her own backbench—they are too scared to speak out themselves. What are the chances of any regional MP in the Labor Party actually standing up for jobs in their electorates? It is just like the debate over the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. They come in here like sheep and they bleat the party lines on other issues, but when it comes to the critical issue of jobs in regional communities it is the ‘silence of the lambs’. We do not hear a peep out of them. What are the chances of regional MPs like the member for Dawson, the member of Flynn, the member for Leichhardt or the member for Page actually standing up for jobs in regional areas? It is hard to say. Rather than rely on her own backbench or take the word of opposition MPs, may I refer the minister to the editorial comments in Monday’s edition of the Bairnsdale Advertiser. Under the headline ‘Bureaucratic nonsense’, the editor of this fine journal in the electorate of Gippsland had this to say:

The education building process, already criticised on other grounds by school principals, is bureaucratic nonsense.

With one hand the government set out to provide schools that will equip students for their future employment needs. With the other hand they handicap local firms that can build the required facilities and at the same time provide much needed jobs for local school leavers. Governments are stifling local initiatives, discouraging local youth, and making a mockery of their claim to govern for all people.

What is it that has so riled the editor of the Bairnsdale Advertiser? In one instance, it is the government’s outrageous betrayal of regional students in their gap year—but we will leave that topic for another day. Another issue that is frustrating the editor of the Bairnsdale Advertiser is the same issue that led local builders to speak out in the press. They are being prevented from even tendering for projects in their local areas. The very program that is meant to be creating local jobs is not even completely open to the local building industry.

I have spoken previously on this issue, but given the lack of response from the minister’s office I will repeat the scenario for the minister’s benefit. There are well-respected building firms in Bairnsdale which have successfully completed a range of significant public building works in the past for the department of education and other government agencies. Not surprisingly, these firms were offered the opportunity to tender for three projects in Gippsland under stage 1 of the primary schools program. The only problem is that the three projects were located in Foster, San Remo and Wonthaggi. These towns are not even in the Gippsland electorate and are about two to three hours drive away for these Bairnsdale based firms. Meanwhile, there is a multimillion dollar contract in Bairnsdale that the same firms have been excluded from tendering for as part of the stage 1 process.

I ask the House: what genius in the education department in Melbourne came up with this plan? Why won’t the minister intervene to ensure that local traders have the opportunity to tender for every local project? Most people have been reluctant to speak publicly about these decisions for fear of reprisals. They do not wish to have a black mark put against their company’s name. They do not want to sound churlish or ungrateful for the investment of taxpayers’ money, but they do want to achieve the best value for money and the best possible project for their school communities. I can assure the House, though, that I have been contacted by several local builders and at least 10 school principals who have all expressed concerns with the way this program is being managed. I do accept it as a huge program being rolled out right across Australia, but that is no excuse for cutting corners and abrogating our responsibility to achieve value for money. I think the state government in Victoria in particular is leading the minister up the garden path in relation to this whole project.

A couple of builders in my electorate have spoken out to the media. Michelle Brooker and Chris Banks both told the Bairnsdale Advertiser that they had been asked to tender for these jobs three hours away while missing out on the local work, about three minutes away, that they could easily service. Also, Warren Robinson of Dynamic Windows told the local press:

We’ve been denied access to participate. For instance if a portable classroom is established at a local school, it is manufactured in Melbourne. Our industry is in crisis and the stimulus package will not help our local businesses at all.

As I said at the outset, it is not with any great sense of triumph that I raise these concerns. My primary interest is to make sure that the taxpayers of Gippsland and across Australia receive value for money under this program and that my local schools get to build the best possible facilities with the funding that has been allocated to them. People in my electorate will be paying off this debt for many years to come, of course, and they should expect maximum value in terms of support for local jobs and the quality of the facilities that are actually built. Unfortunately, in too many cases that is not what is occurring in Gippsland. I know of building firms in Sale and the Latrobe Valley which have been offered tenders in Orbost and Goongerah, three to four hours away, but the state government’s program managers have indicated they will not even be asked to tender for schools which are literally around the corner. I am worried about the round 2 programs which have been announced this week and whether Gippsland and Latrobe Valley building firms will even have the opportunity to tender for more than $20 million worth of work. It defies logic and it is completely contradictory to the minister’s comments that local jobs would be supported in every region in Australia.

Mr Bidgood —They’re certainly being supported in Dawson.

Mr CHESTER —Finally the member for Dawson has found his voice—a voice he cannot find on behalf of regional jobs on any other occasion.

Mr Bidgood interjecting

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms AE Burke)—The member for Dawson does not have the call.

Mr CHESTER —But, because of ridiculous haste, major mistakes have been made at every step of the process. I appeal to the minister to take the time to actually get it right. The tendering is being compressed into ridiculously short time frames and builders are telling me that the template designs are being changed, leaving program managers unsure about which building is actually being offered to each school, even within a week of when the tenders are due to close. As a result, builders are inflating their prices to cover contingencies and also to meet the travel and accommodation costs of moving workers across the region. There seems to be a complete lack of understanding within the Victorian state government about the impact of the rollout of this program or the capacity of the local community to handle all the work at the same time.

We need to consider the regional implications of this program and whether the regional building industry can cope with the amount of work that is being shovelled out the door. Once you get an out-of-town firm coming into a smaller regional market to complete these jobs there is a complete distortion of the local market. You will end up with workers being taken from existing firms. It will destabilise the local workforce and profits will head straight out of town. The system that is being employed of packaging projects and then offering them for tenders is convenient for the government and may suit these ridiculous time frames but it will not deliver value for money or support local jobs. As much as there are issues with the tender process, value for money and the capacity of local builders to secure the work, there is also an issue with the facilities that are being offered.

I have mentioned already the concerns expressed to me by several smaller schools that there would be no local jobs created if all they receive is a portable building on the back of a truck. This is one of the most galling aspects of the program. It reflects the complete lack of understanding on the other side of the House of how our small communities actually work. If this money were made available to the school councils themselves they would use it to leverage off other fundraising activities and secure local traders who are sympathetic to the school’s needs. Our country communities have a great capacity to stretch a dollar further. I am certain that we would end up with better quality projects and more value for money if small schools in particular have the chance to set local priorities. Trusting local school councils to deliver local solutions to their own problems would be a far better approach than that being undertaken by the government.

Schools in my electorate which are entitled to much larger sums of money—up to $2 million and $3 million—are being pressured to accept template designs which do not meet their needs. As I have previously told the House, when the Prime Minister talks about shovel-ready it means ‘shovel the money out the door and cross your fingers that some of the projects actually hit the mark’. There should be a more strategic approach to this program. Our local communities should have more control. I urge the minister to take the time to get it right. (Time expired)