MATTERS OF PUBLIC INTEREST;Building the Education Revolution Program – 24 Aug 2011

I rise to speak in the matters of public interest debate on an issue that is very important: that is, the Building the Education Revolution. One of the delights I have as a senator is being able to meet people from all different walks of life and to share important times in their life with them. Quite often, I am with school communities as they celebrate those important events. It might be the opening of the school year, or the end-of-year awards presentation, or it might be a fundraiser for the school.

Another important occasion I have been joining school communities for is the opening of their new facilities funded under the Gillard Labor government’s Building the Education Revolution, or BER program. This program has provided many students, teachers and parents with 21st century facilities that will enable a better working and learning environment for them all. Teachers will have better facilities in which to provide their students with the best learning opportunities possible. Students will have new and refurbished classrooms, halls and outdoor areas to allow them to experience learning in a variety of situations, including ways that were not possible prior to their school gaining the new facilities. Parents will know that the school they have chosen is well-equipped to give their children the learning opportunities that every Australian child deserves. Teachers, students and parents at schools across Australia are excited by the developments that have taken place, and continue to take place, in our schools. It is for this reason that it is such an honour to be with the school communities as they celebrate the results of the BER funding.

Most recently, on 13 July I had the opportunity to join the St Aloysius Catholic College at Kingston in Tasmania and Corpus Christi Catholic School on 29 July on Hobart’s eastern shore as they officially opened their developments. St Aloysius Catholic College received $3.6 million under the National School Pride Program and the Primary Schools for the 21st Century Program—P21—element of the BER. The school has a new multipurpose hall, middle school learning centre and amenities upgrade. As a result of these facilities, the college will be able to provide simultaneous classes in physical education, music and drama, and share the hall with the local community, including the Kingston-Channel parish.

The middle school learning area will allow teachers in grades 7 and 8 to work as a team and plan lessons using the Australian Curriculum across the two grade levels. A special guest at the ceremony was Sister Eileen Thynne, the first principal of what was then known as St Aloysius School when it was founded in 1960. Sister Eileen is one of 10 Sisters of Charity who led the school between 1960 and 2001 before the school had its first lay principal. The school community has honoured the work and values of the Sisters of Charity by naming the new hall the Sisters of Charity Centre. As part of the ceremony, grade 6 student Mackenzie Adams honoured the traditional custodians of the land and the grades 3 and 4 choir performed. This project, as with all the BER projects across Australia, has required staff, students and parents to work together with the architects, builders and tradespeople to make the building process as smooth as possible and to ensure that disruptions were kept to a minimum. Approximately 120 workers played a part in making this plan a reality for this school community. That is 120 people who had jobs to go to—120 families that had money coming in to put food on the table, pay the bills and put petrol in the car. That is money that was spent in the local community.

Corpus Christi Catholic School received $2.85 million under the National School Pride program and Primary Schools for the 21st Century element of the BER. The school now has a larger hall, an upgraded library and covered walkways. Staff and students will be able to enjoy more open spaces and better lighting as they learn, grade 3 now has a wet area in the classroom, and all children will have use of the vibrant new library facilities.

This year Corpus Christi marks 75 years of learning. It was an honour to join with the school community for the official opening of the BER project in such a landmark year. The Corpus Christi project employed 92 people and is just another example of how the Labor government’s BER program created jobs across Australia. That is another 92 people who had an income and were able to provide for themselves and their families. The Archbishop of Hobart, His Grace Archbishop Adrian Doyle, was with the school community to celebrate this special occasion. I would also like to acknowledge Sister Clement Williams, one of the original students of the school who later served as principal, who was also at the opening.

Students Brady Stacey and Isobel McKenzie acted as MCs while Mrs Rachel Kelly officially welcomed the staff, students, parents and other members of the community to the assembly. Another student, Molly Foale, acknowledged the traditional custodians of the land. It is always pleasing to see students take part in important events. It gives them a sense of ownership, and they have great pride in their school.

As with most BER projects, Corpus Christi’s new facilities are not just for the current school community to enjoy. They will benefit teachers, students and parents who are yet to be part of the school. The wider community will also benefit. I know Corpus Christi’s hall has already been used to hold a Jump Rope for Heart event. I am sure everyone would agree that holding events such as Jump Rope for Heart in school halls means that the halls are being put to exceptionally good use. It encourages people to get active and look after their health and to raise money for important charities. I am currently looking forward to joining with the Huonville High School community as it celebrates the official opening of its BER project very soon.

The BER has been extremely well received in Tasmania, and the schools I have mentioned today are just some of the examples of southern Tasmanian schools benefiting from the BER, and also schools across the nation. All the other schools I have attended have been just as excited by their new facilities. School communities all over the state are reaping the benefits. Franklin Primary School’s new library has given the students access to collaborative work spaces and other new, modern facilities. At Geeveston District High School the new library, IT lab and general-purpose classroom have provided modern new areas for children to learn in, with new interactive learning technologies. The school is also providing access to the classroom for local organisations, providing a benefit to the wider Geeveston community. They find the new IT lab especially useful. At Dodges Ferry Primary School some of the refurbish­ments were designed for use by students with disability, and the ‘Ferry hall’ has once again been made available to the local community. Whether it has been new buildings, extensions to existing buildings, better outdoor facilities or greater energy efficiency, each school has had a say in how its money has been spent. These schools decided what would benefit their school community the most.

In Tasmania the BER projects were managed by school principals and the architects. I congratulate the Tasmanian Department of Education for developing such a successful process that actively involved school communities and provided the best outcomes to suit schools’ needs. The success of the Tasmanian process was acknowledged in the report of the BER Implementation Taskforce. The report declared that the Tasmanian government system attained value for money in its BER implementation. The report also found that the BER resulted in some inspiring buildings and empowerment for school communities.

On 16 June this year the Australasian affiliate of the Council for Education Facility Planners International announced winners and commendations for school building projects. The awards recognise effectiveness in the planning, design and construction of educational facilities. A number of BER projects were amongst the recipients of these awards, including one from Tasmania—Sacred Heart Catholic School in Ulverstone—which was designed by K2Ld Architects.

At the completion of the BER in Tasmania, more than $327 million will have been spent on improvements to government schools, more than $73 million on Catholic schools and $38 million on independent schools. That is more than $438 million being invested in our children—the future of the state and of Australia. The BER has not only improved the education facilities and opportunities for our students but also provided a much needed boost to Australia’s economy. It provided this boost at a time when the world was facing a global financial crisis. It is projected that over the duration of the BER approximately 120,000 jobs will have been created. Apprentices in the building and construction industry stayed in work as a result of work created by the BER.

The Australian economy is in the position it is because the Labor government made the sensible decisions to act. We recognised that investing in our children was an investment that would benefit the nation for many years to come. When the Building the Education Revolution taskforce handed down its final report in July this year, it reported that over 9,000 of the 10,500 projects have been completed since the P21 program was conceived in February 2009. This is a significant achievement and is proof that the BER met its aim: to deliver a substantial boost to the economy.

During the course of its review the taskforce met with many stakeholders to hear of their experiences, which were over­whelmingly positive. The taskforce found that in non-government schools the building work was consistently of good or high quality. In rating government schools’ performances, the taskforce observed the highest quality building work in Tasmania, along with WA and the ACT. Since the government announced the BER program in 2009, the one thing that has been really disappointing to me, and to my government colleagues, has been the negativity of the coalition. They have continually criticised this program, calling it wasteful.

 Senator Nash: It is!

Senator BILYK: Appearing on Sunrise on 13 February 2009, Joe Hockey said:

Well let me tell you, we wouldn’t be spending $14 billion on school halls. I mean that is a phenomenal amount of money. $14 billion … That is just ridiculous.

 Senator Nash: Do you know how much your debt is at the moment? Have a crack.

  The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Furner ): Order!

 Senator BILYK: Mr Hockey is right in one sense: it is a phenomenal amount of money—and it is being put to good use. It is money that has served two important purposes. First, it formed part of the government’s economic stimulus plan, which saved Australia from recession.

Senator Bushby interjecting

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Order! Opposition senators on my left, you were heard in silence. I expect the same for government senators.

 Senator BILYK: I know those opposite disagree, but their views are at odds with leading economists, the Australian Treasury, the Reserve Bank and the OECD—not that I am surprised. The Leader of the Opposition seems to think that his view being at odds with those of the experts reflects on the quality of Australian economists. Well, I think rejecting expert advice for no good reason is actually a reflection on the quality of Australia’s federal opposition. If the opposition had their way, 200,000 Australians who are employed now would have joined the dole queues, Australia would have suffered a recession and Australia’s primary school students would be continuing to learn in second-rate facilities. That would have truly been a waste.

The second important purpose the BER serves is to provide a long-term investment in the educational outcomes of our children. These 21st century facilities will not only benefit the schoolchildren of today but be enjoyed by children and communities for generations to come. The question has to be asked: why has the coalition been so negative about something that teachers, students and parents have all been so excited about? Why the negativity about a program that is providing better education facilities for our primary and high school students? The only people I have met who do not support the BER are those opposite. I have seen a number of their state colleagues alongside me celebrating the openings of these facilities. I am not surprised that federal coalition members are nowhere to be seen at BER ceremonies. If I were opposing a building program that was delivering such great outcomes for students, I would be embarrassed to show my face too.

The other question that I am still contemplating is: why, when the federal coalition have been so against the BER, have their state colleagues been so delighted with it? Will Hodgman, the Leader of the Tas­man­ian Liberals, and his colleagues Vanessa Goodwin, the member for Pembroke, and Jacquie Petrusma, the member for Franklin, have all been at BER openings with bells on. They have been there because they know that the people who elected them to Tasmania’s parliament are benefiting from this program. They know that the children, the next generation of voters, are benefiting from this program, and they want the people to know that they support this investment in our schools—and they are right to support it.

Over four years, approximately 24,000 projects will be delivered to more than 9,000 schools across Australia. This is an achievement that the Labor government takes great pride in. We are proud of the fact that school communities are enjoying new facilities that will enhance learning on a daily basis. The school students of today are the leaders of tomorrow and we want them to have the best possible opportunities as they prepare for their future.