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Thursday, 23 June 2011
Page: 3729


Senator BARNETT (Tasmania) (15:11): Mr Deputy President, congratulations to you, in the chair for the last time today, and best wishes for your retirement.

I would like to take note of answers and support the motion moved by Senator Joyce, particularly with respect to answers given by Senator Evans on behalf of the government and specifically regarding the question I asked about school closures in Tasmania. The question related to the slated 20 closures of state public schools in Tasmania and the more than $13 million of Building the Education Revolution funding that has been provided and spent in Tasmania on those schools. Of course, if those schools close, that is taxpayers' money gone down the gurgler. For and on behalf of Australian taxpayers, we say that money has been and will be wasted if those schools are closed.

The big question relates to the advice that has been provided by the state Minister for Education and Skills, Mr McKim, a Greens minister in the Labor-Greens coalition government that is now in a rolling crisis in Tasmania and is dudding the Tasmanian economy dreadfully. His advice to the state parliament this morning was, 'Yes, I can guarantee that not one dollar will be repaid by the state government to the federal government.' He went on to say, 'That is because those buildings were part of an investment program designed to stimulate the economy and announced 2½ years ago.' So he is saying that, because it was announced 2½ years ago, not one dollar will be going back to the federal government. He said, 'Those buildings are part of state government schools on state government land, and we will decide how to operate those schools, not the federal government.'

When told, 'Senator Evans has not said what you have just alleged,' Minister McKim said, 'He has not said that we are obliged to repay funds. In fact, I have spoken to Senator Evans about this issue personally and at no time has he expressed to me that he, his department or his government have a view that we are obliged to repay the funds, so let us be very clear about that. He has not expressed those views to me.'

Senator Abetz interjecting

Senator BARNETT: Senator Abetz has interjected and confirmed that that is the advice that was made in parliament today. Frankly, this is where we have a major division now between the federal minister for education, represented by Senator Evans, the Leader of the Government in the Senate, and the state minister for education. In the answer from Senator Evans today he made it very clear that he was looking into the matter, he would deal with each school on a case-by-case basis. He did not in any way, shape or form agree with the advice of Mr McKim, the minister for education in Tasmania, that not one dollar will be repaid by the state government to the federal government. Clearly there is a division. Clearly they are way apart in their views if the federal government is dealing with these matters on a case-by-case basis.

I must also alert the Senate to the fact that in the last several days since this decision was made we have had the views of federal Labor MPs. What do they say about the school closures? For example, Senator Carol Brown, a Tasmanian Labor senator, together with the Hon. Julie Collins who is a parliamentary secretary, have either criticised or opposed the closures. They support deferral until 2013. Mr Dick Adams, the federal member for Lyons, and Mr Sid Sidebottom again have either opposed or criticised the school closures. You have the federal Labor MPs from Tasmania saying something totally different to the state minister for education. The question is whether Senator Evans, who represents the federal minister for education, supports and agrees with the views of those federal Labor MPs from Tasmania. Clearly you have a crisis and a division between state and federal Labor. Let us make clear what the BER guidelines say:

Where funding of over $75,000 is provided for a school for the construction or purchase of facilities, we have a right to repayment of the calculated portion of the funding where, at any time during the designated use period, the facilities cease to be used principally for the approved purpose, the facilities are sold or otherwise disposed of.

That is what the funding agreement says. That is what they have signed up to. That is what the federal government stands by. The federal minister today confirmed that those are the guidelines and that is clearly contrary to the supposed legal advice obtained by Nick McKim. I have a list of the schools and there are some 20 of them with hundreds of thousands if not over a million dollars spent on them. Clearly there is a major dispute between the two and this is a problem for the federal government.