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Thursday, 13 August 2009
Page: 7824

Mr TUCKEY (1:28 PM) —This is of course primarily legislation relating to appropriations. There is some fairly interesting information available in the explanatory memorandum that is worthy of comment, because it points out to us that, in relation to the Higher Education Support Act 2003, the Higher Education Support Amendment (2009 Budget Measures) Bill 2009:

  • increases the overall appropriation under section 30-5 by $416,349,000 for the period 1 January 2010 to 31 December 2011;
  • increases the overall appropriation under section 41-45 by $398,567,000 for the period 1 January 2010 to 31 December 2012 and appropriates funding for 2013 to a limit of $2,067,383,000; and
  • decreases the overall appropriation under section 46-40 by $355,772,000 …

So, in terms of the initial appropriations, there is a net outlay of about $460 million—although it reads a lot better than that at first glance.

That brings me to the first issue I wish to raise on this higher education issue, and that is the consistent information provided in this House by the Minister for Education, the Deputy Prime Minister. This is what I often refer to as a process of measuring excellence by expenditure, and yet the record is not good. One might remember that the government promised, as a major policy issue, to provide a computer to every secondary student, I think—it might have been primary as well. That was costed and put in the budget, but everybody forgot the additional costs involved in installation, maintaining the software and other aspects that we know are associated with any form of computer hardware. In fact, the states said that those costs were twice the amount proposed in the purchase of the computers. The minister seems to have shrugged that off. Some states have done deals, which of course will represent an additional cost to the budget. The latest information I heard with respect to New South Wales was that they refused to participate. That is not surprising, considering the disastrous set of circumstances of economic management that apply at the state level in New South Wales. So the reality is that a major budget measure failed the test of administration.

Since then, we have had the BER—the Building the Education Revolution. These are all fancy terms, but everywhere we turn we see the funding allocated there being wasted. It is interesting, because an issue got up in the media. I do not think that the particular local member, the member for Paterson, had an involvement in this matter. In the absence of the Minister for Education—she was in Israel—the Leader of the House, Mr Albanese, was acting on her behalf, and he chose to make a smart-alec comment in this place and virtually belittle a school principal, who had complained publicly in some area that they had a quote to provide infrastructure. It was, in fact, two classrooms with two associated storerooms, and they were to be delivered by way of a transportable building. She claimed that that was going to cost $150,000. The minister got up in this place during question time, and this is recorded in the Hansard, and said that was ridiculous. Firstly, the quote was only $120,000, and then he listed all the things that were missing. A price was eventually arrived at, which he attributed to the New South Wales Department of Education and Training—the agent appointed by the Rudd government to deliver the BER in New South Wales, and that was $350,000.

I thought that this was worthy of some investigation, so I rang up the builder—who got a mention in the minister’s answer—and said, ‘Tell me about this.’ It is a well-recognised firm. It has one part of its business here in Canberra; that is where I started. I eventually got on to the national managing director, and he said, ‘Hang on a minute; we’ll get the quote out.’ The quote was not for $120,000. That was added to the quote, as an option that could be considered—one of which happened to be delivery of the building and its location on site. That was for $18,000. The minister said that there was no carpet. Carpet is not always provided in the structure of a building. Things like that are done by external trades. The minister also mentioned that there was no connection of electricity and sewerage. Of course, there was no sewerage, because the classrooms had no toilets or basins. And he called the building a ‘tent’, because it happened to be transportable. Just about every classroom building being delivered around Australia under the Building the Education Revolution is a transportable. In fact, on this company’s website is a photograph of exactly the same type of building, which was provided to another school. It is actually a large one, but in terms of visual effect it is the same.

We come to the fact that a building was delivered, with carpet and with some air conditioning—which the minister said was not quoted—at about $150,000, which is just what the school principal had said. Then I had a look, as somebody with a long experience in building construction in my previous life, at other items that were identified that somehow took this $150,000 up to $350,000. One was furniture. I went to the IKEA website and costed some desks and chairs—that were, I think, of better quality than one would find in a typical school—and I added them into the price. I looked at the cost of electricity connection, which I think would have been an extra anyway, and I took account of the fact that the power was already in the school, so there would be only some short extension of wires. I looked at the fact that there was no stormwater drainage and allowed for a couple of little soak wells. After considerable other efforts—for instance, the costing for furniture at IKEA for two classrooms of 30 students was about $10,000—I added it all in and I got to $178,000. So who was going to cop the other $150,000? Who was getting it? I can tell you what: the students in that particular school were not going to get it.

That is just a simple example. In my inquiries I found that things were happening, such as the New South Wales government giving extended contracts without tender. People who probably had a contract for five or six school structures for the year just got the extra 50 that were paid for by the BER—no quotes, no tenders and no capacity to deliver. So what has happened? The steel framework for the building is being manufactured in Victoria, put on a truck and carted up to Queensland, where they put the top on it, and then it is carted back to somewhere in New South Wales, while a New South Wales manufacturer is being pilloried by a member of this parliament from New South Wales whose wife just happens to be the Deputy Premier—and that is okay. New South Wales manufacturing is getting nothing out of these buildings because the government will not let anybody else in on the tender, and those that have the work do not have the capacity to deliver. Where do you get anything out of that for the economy or, more particularly, for the interests of the taxpayer?

I will not go on and explain how school principal after school principal and P&C after P&C have complained. Because the bloke in Victoria had the courage to stand up against his own department, he eventually retained the perfectly viable gymnasium he had, which was pictured in the paper with a lovely polished jarrah floor, and got a couple of classrooms that he needed. Tell me about it! That is the measure. But in this place we are told: ‘We’ve got control measures for that. Yeah, I know we allocated $70,000 or $80,000 to a school that is up for demolition, but the money won’t get there. We’ll put it into the school next door.’ Who says the school next door needs it?

It is a mess and it is typical of the administration of these budgets by the Deputy Prime Minister. Not one of these expenditure measures is being well administered, and it cannot be said that every dollar is delivering an outcome. The government say they have $14 billion or whatever it is for this project. Surely the kids of Australia who are going to pay off the debt should at least be getting value for each dollar that is put into facilities around their schools! We had that disgraceful ad in the last election in which the Prime Minister was driving past a public school in a car. Now we need an ad where kids file into fancy new school buildings and they are each given an account to take home to remind themselves of what they are going to pay when they go to work to pay off the debt—when they will be getting 50c in the dollar.

But that is not the end of it. The minister told us yesterday there has been a decline in the number of rural students going to university, and she seems to think that is a reason to reduce those numbers further. That was the excuse she gave to the parliament in question time yesterday. The students cannot afford to leave home to go to university, and the ICPA, the Isolated Children’s Parents Association, has been knocking on doors in this place for years pointing out that, where kids live an unacceptable or untravellable distance from any form of primary, secondary or tertiary education, there needs to be some financial assistance. The fact that some farmer has a header in his shed that is worth a quarter of a million dollars does not make him rich when there is nothing growing in the paddock, but the government add up all his assets and say: ‘You’re rich. Your child does not qualify.’ Of course, the richer a person of the same financial means living in the city gets, the closer they move to a university. Where is the equity? It is not a question of means testing or of who is rich and who is poor. The fact of life is that, if you raise a family outside a 50-kilometre radius of a tertiary institution—a university or, for that matter, a TAFE—you have to have an extra $10,000 a year to accommodate that child.

I do agree it is a bit of a mess. People started to look at the youth allowance, which had a rent subsidy component, as a means of getting some financial assistance, so they could attend university. The first thing they had to do, which I do not think contributed to their education, was take a gap year, virtually divorce their family and go out and earn some money independently. Under the arrangements as they were, it was a sum of money—$18,000 became $19,000. They had to earn that amount of money within an 18-month period to prove their independence and qualify. They also had to spend it. If they had more than $2,000 of it left, they did not qualify. It was a process, and many kids took that opportunity. Maybe some had wealthy parents, but 70 per cent or 80 per cent certainly did not. A group of them have been working to that plan for the last 12 months, and now this minister stands up and says: ‘Tough. I’m changing the rules on you.’

The minister tells us that she has done some generous things and actually improved the thresholds as they relate to the means test. Then she throws in the curly one: to qualify, you must work 30 hours a week every week to prove your independence. You have just left year 12 and you are looking for a job. You are in a country town where things have been tough with drought and a lot of other things. Those jobs are just not there. So how do you qualify? She says: ‘Come round and I’ll show you the table whereby you can qualify.’ But if you cannot get a job at 30 hours a week for 18 months you do not qualify.

When this first came up I published on my website a form that could be downloaded as a petition. People could not just hit the button and protest; they had to download it, put it on a piece of paper as the rules of this House require, go around and ask people to sign it and then post it to my office in Albany, which is not a metropolitan centre. In the first week we got 6,800 signatures, which have been tabled in this place. I have with me another 1,200. Back in my office yet to be presented to this House there are sufficient to take that number to 13,000. These are not people who took the easy option and just pressed a button on the computer and sent someone an email; they had to have a genuine desire to do this. If that is not a message to the minister that there is something wrong with her proposal then I do not know what is.

The minister cannot sneer in this place at those people and say: ‘You’re not telling yourselves the truth. I’ve had the forums, I’ve had the people there and I’ve had them explain. Teach me things about this system that they don’t know.’ Maybe the minister believes the Youth Allowance system is inappropriate, which I would not dispute. Fortunately a number of universities are now letting these kids extend for another year, but that is two years out of the education system, which means they are getting closer to wanting to get married, have children and take a responsible place in society. Before she kills off the kids who have just been retrospectively dealt with, why can’t the minister say: ‘We’ll grandfather this thing. This is all going to happen in another year or so. Here are the new rules’? Rather than this prostituted arrangement based on Youth Allowance, there should be a proper policy for tertiary education students who live beyond a reasonable distance from a centre of learning.

That is what is needed, and you can call it what you like. It should be compensation for the fact that those young people are disadvantaged by distance. It is not because they are rich, poor or anything else. It is a straight-out equality of access issue. It can be measured, it can be done and there are all sorts of mixes you could have. It could be a dollar for every dollar they earn so that they make a contribution, as they can these days with night-time jobs and so on. But that should have been on the table as a transition measure and kids should not have been left in the circumstances they have been. I thank the House. (Time expired)