Isn’t it time we saluted the outstanding success of the Building the Education Revolution program? This piece is focussed on what has been achieved rather than the media’s focus on the problems that were encountered, a focus that has detracted sickeningly from the success of the program, one we should all be celebrating.
The BER has been called the ‘$16 billion schools building program’. According to the Auditor General’s Performance Report
on the BER tabled on 5 May of this year, the program comprised three elements:Primary Schools for the 21st Century (P21)
, which initially provided $12.4 billion (later, $14.1 billion) for Australian primary schools to build new facilities, such as libraries and multipurpose halls, or to upgrade existing facilities, by 31 March 2011;National School Pride
, which provided $1.3 billion for minor capital works and refurbishment projects in all eligible Australian schools, to be completed by February 2010; andScience and Language Centres
, which initially provided $1 billion (later, $821.8 million) for construction of new, or refurbishment of existing science laboratories or language learning centres in secondary schools by 30 June 2010.
These add up to little over $16 billion.
The Auditor General’s Report concluded: “Overall, there are some positive early indicators that the program is making progress toward achieving its intended outcomes, despite the slower than expected implementation of the program. Lead economic indicators, including construction approvals, indicate that the introduction of BER P21 has contributed to a reversal in the decline in non‐residential construction activity that resulted from the global financial crisis. Education industry stakeholders, including peak bodies, Education Authorities and a substantial majority of school principals have also been positive about the improvement in primary school facilities that will result from the program.”
This did not prevent the media, particularly The Australian
, from reporting on it negatively. The ABC was also negative. On 10 May Anne Connolly from the ABC News Online Investigative Unit
writes: School buildings audit 'ignored survey data'
, that begins: “The troubled $16 billion school building program is again under siege with questions being asked about last week's auditor-general's report.”
There were several related stories: Principals doubt value of school building scheme
; BER task force chief inspects first school
; and School building task force 'will have teeth'
that you can access from that story.
The Orgill Building the Education Revolution Implementation Taskforce Interim Report
, presented this last week, focussed on the $14.1 billion P21 program to build new facilities, such as libraries and multipurpose halls, or to upgrade existing facilities in primary schools. $3.9 billion was allocated to 3052 classroom projects; $4.8 billion to 2822 multi-purpose hall projects; $3.6 billion to 3009 library projects; $0.5 billion to 750 covered outdoor learning areas, COLAs; and $1.1 billion to 952 other projects. The graph on page one of the Report gives the breakdown of allocations to States and Territories and school types.
At the conclusion of the Executive Summary it is stated: “Our analysis suggests BER P21 is delivering quality infrastructure within the timeframe constraints set. For some of the 22 education authorities project costs are materially higher than would have been obtained pre-BER in a business as usual environment. For some education authorities however the costs do not appear to be higher. The Taskforce does not have sufficient pre-BER cost data at this interim stage to conclude, but from what limited data and insights we do have, we think the overall BER versus pre-BER cost differential, for each education authority, is in the range from 0% to plus 12%. The higher costs have resulted from the scale, time and complexity of the undertaking. Overall, delivering BER P21 within the short timeframe to achieve the economic stimulus objectives may have added a premium to pre-BER business as usual costs of between 5-6%. The Taskforce will continue to gather and analyse BER and pre-BER project data to enable us to have a more definitive view on value for money for the BER program as a whole by our November 2010 report.”
Later it recommends: “The Taskforce recommends that, where possible, any projects not yet committed and unlikely to be completed by 30 March 2011 should be delivered in accordance with the relevant education authority’s pre-BER ‘business as usual’ approach to capital works”
, ‘business as usual’ meaning under non-urgent conditions.
The effect on the construction industry is documented in Appendix 8 where it says: “The BER provided the construction industry with a significant economic stimulus which prevented many construction organisations from reducing staff and/or the size of their operations to match an otherwise decreasing workload resulting from the GFC. Some indicated that without the work generated by the program they may have had to cease operation.”
and “Lower tier contractors expressed the view that the level of reporting quality and safety management systems required of them under the BER project were of a higher level than would ordinarily be required on comparable projects. Almost all designers and builders reported positive experiences with school communities as their projects were completed. Most felt extremely proud to have been part of the program.”
The Report also says: “There has clearly also been an added benefit of construction industry up-skilling, beyond just sustaining employment...”
So both reports say that the BER has achieved its aims and benefitted not only the children, staff and parents of the schools involved, but also the construction industry by providing employment at a time when without it, some operations may have had to cease, and by providing up-skilling of construction workers.
It has been the largest schools infrastructure project in the nation’s history, replacing and improving run-down buildings and amenities neglected in previous years.
We ought to be applauding it with enthusiasm and gratitude, but because of an unremitting negative campaign against it from the Opposition, and unrelenting and at times vicious attacks from the media, especially News Limited and its flagship The Australian
, many electors think only ‘waste and mismanagement’ when the BER is mentioned. This is wicked manipulation of public opinion with information that flies in the face of the facts.
In the same way as when the Auditor General’s Performance Report emerged and was largely positive, the media still attacked, dissecting out fragments that suited its adversarial case, it has done the same this time with the Orgill Report. The Australian online
initially had a headline by Justine Ferrari and James Massola that indicated that the Report had recommended that the BER program be scrapped, with the lead sentence ending with words that it ‘should cease’ and later that the Report called for the ‘effective dismantling’ of the program. There is still an article on its website by Justine Ferrari: Report calls for end to BER program
, that begins: “The federal government's troubled $16 billion school building program will be dismantled.”
Sounds pretty final.
When I looked at the official Report and its Executive Summary and Recommendations to ascertain the details, I could not find reference to the program ceasing; indeed a search for the word ‘cease’ found only one reference and it wasn’t to the BER ceasing. When I went back to The Oz
a short time later I found the headline had magically changed to a very different one “BER taskforce finds 'very valid concerns' with Labor's schools building stimulus program”
and the following paragraphs: “The taskforce reviewing Labor's troubled $16 billion Building the Education Revolution scheme has recommended the program cease in its current form.”
Note the words ‘current form’. “An interim report released today by BER taskforce head Brad Orgill calls for the effective dismantling of the schools building stimulus program as it now stands.”
Note the words ‘effective dismantling’ and ‘as it now stands’. “It says any projects not yet under contract, or that are unlikely to finish before the end of March, be delivered by the states under their pre-BER building programs.”
This is very different from the initial headline and initial paragraphs, and even this headline seems to have disappeared. Someone at The Oz
must have decided that, even for that newspaper, the initial story was too gross a misrepresentation of the Report to be able to stand, a representation designed to place the Report on the BER in the worst possible light, and in tune with the longstanding campaign by that paper, to demean the BER. This small example shows how much this paper is prepared to stoop in its pursuit of the Labor Government, but Justine Ferrari and James Massola’s initial write up was too much even for The Oz
The report DID NOT recommend that the BER ‘be dismantled’ or ‘cease’ at all – that was simply the scandalous beat-up perpetrated by The Australian
Still not satisfied Justine Ferrari writes at the weekend: Publish the costs and be damned
that begins: “The level of unhappiness with the BER is greater than the level of official complaints received by the taskforce (2.7 per cent of schools) would suggest. Many schools are mystified by what they have received for their money, but not outraged enough to complain.”
She cannot let it go – now she asserts that there are more complainants ‘but not outraged enough to complain’.The Orgill Report is here
. On Grog's Gamut, Grog has a brilliant analysis of it that shows how minimal the complaints were. I will not attempt to repeat his line of reasoning here; please read his piece Election 2010: Day 21 (or who needs perspective). Be sure to look at the 'Construction Work Done' graph to see the dramatic effect of the BER on public construction work.
In The Weekend Australian
Matthew Franklin has combined with Justine Ferrari in BER waste exposed by taskforce
that begins: "Julia Gillard has declared she has no regrets about her $16 billion Building the Education Revolution scheme despite a report saying it was wasteful."
Of course Franklin has been an adversary for some time, especially about the BER.
Ray Hadley, 2GB Morning Show presenter writes in The Australian Debacle exposed, and yet she still believes
, beginning “I was on air yesterday when the Prime Minister responded to Brad Orgill's interim report. What scared me the most was her confirmation that she'd do it all again. Julia Gillard relied upon the much-discussed ‘saving jobs and saving the economy’ line. She has said it so often now I think she actually believes it. The facts are inescapable: the BER, particularly in NSW, has been an obscene waste of taxpayers' money. The graph on page 29 of Mr Orgill's report showing a state-by-state comparison of project management fees makes it clear that in NSW these fees were, as The Australian has reported, highly inflated.”
Michael Stutchbury, who also has been a long-time BER detractor takes a different tack with: Saved? We were already safely through the crisis
that begins: "Brad Orgill's report card gives Julia Gillard's $16 billion Building the Education Revolution stimulus a tick. This is for delivering both ‘much-needed’ school infrastructure and ‘economic activity across the nation’. Wrong on both counts. In particular, the BER could not have ‘saved’ Australia from recession, as Gillard claimed yesterday, because we'd already dodged the bullet by the time it ramped up. The damning evidence is relegated to a single chart, presented with no explanation on page 75 of Orgill's report. This shows that BER construction for the nation's 7900 primary schools only seriously got going by October last year - eight months after it was announced - when cumulative actual spending first topped $1bn. But, by then, it was clear Australia had escaped the global recession, thanks to Labor's initial cash splash, the Reserve Bank's big interest rate cuts and the momentum behind our China-fuelled mining and population boom.”
So the whole BER adventure was unnecessary according to Stutchbury, at least to counter the recession.
By comparison The Age
did not even headline it on its first page, but in School building costs blew out by 12 per cent, taskforce finds
pointed out: “Where projects are unlikely to be finished by March next year, it wants them delivered in ‘business as usual’ pre-BER arrangements.”
This refers to one of the key recommendations of the Orgill Report.
The Courier Mail had a piece: Queensland schools left wanting in Building the Education Revolution projects
that begins: “The rush to roll out recession-busting school works wasted almost $1 billion of taxpayers' money, a damning report shows. The investigation into the centrepiece of the Gillard Government's stimulus measures found the haste may have added as much as 6 per cent to costs."
The piece lists complaints from Queensland schools, which when you read them you are likely to conclude that they are largely trivial.The Daily Telegraph
in What a waste of our money
writes “The almost comical level of excess spending during the BER program was greatest of all in NSW, where more than $3 billion in taxpayer funds was spread over 2366 school projects. Many of those projects failed to deliver value for money. Unless, of course, you were the contractor involved, in which case the value was very handy indeed.”
Emma Rodgers writes more positively on the ABC website: Gillard welcomes BER program report
that begins "Prime Minister Julia Gillard says a future Labor government will implement all 14 changes recommended in a new report into the troubled $16.2 billion schools building stimulus program."
Most of the rest of the media coverage was negligible, presumably it thought it not worth the space in its pages.
So there it is. We have seen mostly negative media coverage despite two largely positive reports on the BER. How is it possible to counter such a deliberate campaign to demean this program despite its outstanding success in maintaining employment in the construction industry with all its flow-on effects to the economy, and in providing a massive infrastructure boost to schools, the children and teachers that use them, and the parents who send their children there.It is a sad commentary on how manipulative the media has been in pursuit of its aim - to diminish the Labor Government by demeaning at every opportunity its laudable attempt to alleviate the effects of the GFC on employment and support the construction industry, while enhancing the nation’s schools - schools that were so much in need of essential infrastructure.
What do you think?