Last week I plaintively asked that journalists in this country focus more on policy. After seeing how most of the commercial news organisations have handled the release of the Orgill Report on the the Building the Education Revolution I almost take it back.
Let’s take The Australian’s coverage:
BER taskforce finds 'very valid concerns' with Labor's schools building stimulus program
Wow it has a quote! It must be right then. OK, let’s go see where they got the quote “very valid concerns” from in the report.
To date, the Taskforce has received complaints in respect of 254 schools; approximately 2.7% of all schools involved in the BER program, and of these over half relate to value for money. NSW Government schools accounted for 56% of complaints and Victorian Government schools for 20%. A full listing of complaints received is at Appendix 1.
From our investigations to date, the majority of complaints raise very valid concerns, particularly about value for money and the approach to school level involvement in decision making.
So let’s go through it. There were 254 complaints. Which sounds like a lot until you realise there were 10,551 projects. Or as the report makes clear that 254 represents 2.7% of all schools. Again lets be clear two point seven percent. Or let’s be even clearer that mean 97.3% of schools did not complain – and Orgill in his press conference made it clear that they asked and advertised widely that they wanted any complaints, and he said he never felt any hesitancy of anyone to provide information. Now of those 2.7% “the majority” – not all but “the majority” raised “very valid concerns”.
Of those complaints “over half” related to value for money. Not all, not most, not two thirds, but “over half”. By my calculation of looking at the complaints received in Appendix 1 of the Report, 143 complaints were for value for money reasons. That is about 56% of the complaints were about tax payers’ money not being well spent – meaning of all the projects about 1.5% of complaints related to value for money.
What were the other concerns? Well thing like:
- Seaham in NSW which had “Concerns about accessing remaining funds”
- The Coast Christian in NSW had “Concerns regarding development application”
- St Joseph’s at Buli had “Concerns about building works after hours and on weekends”
- Carlton Gardens in Victoria had “Concerns about planning approval and design and heritage issues”
- Walford Anglican School for Girls in SA had “Concerns about privacy issues with lights overlooking neighbouring properties”
- Jeparit in Victoria which had “Concerns over ownership of BER project”
Now these may all be “very valid claims” but do they call into question the worth of the BER itself? I would suggest, not.
Now look I am not suggesting everything about the BER was perfect. The New South Wales Government was responsible for most of the cost concerns – and projects done under them were certainly higher than elsewhere, but the Report also notes:
The NSW Government has had the most challenging BER P21 implementation task. It accounts for $3 billion or 22% of the entire BER P21 program (36% larger than the Victorian Government, the next largest education authority, and three times bigger than the NSW Catholic system). An analysis of progress in the figure below shows that relative to the other large government education authorities, NSW has delivered impressively against the required implementation timeframes (95% of projects completed or construction commenced, versus 64% and 60% for the Victorian and Queensland Governments respectively).
Basically saying that NSW was good at doing it quickly, but perhaps went a bit too quick.
Hmmm wonder what was all that “public construction” that sent the red line shooting upwards?
But what does Orgill say?
Notwithstanding the validity of issues raised in the complaints, our overall observation is that this Australia wide program is delivering much needed infrastructure to school communities while achieving the primary goal of economic activity across the nation. There has clearly also been an added benefit of construction industry up-skilling, beyond just sustaining employment.
So not only did the BER create work for builders, not only did it provide valuable infrastructure which will be around for generations to come, but it ALSO provided builders with new skills which they will be able to use on other projects from now on! And it did this despite the project having to be rushed out the door, and yet still achieved a 97.3% satisfaction rate.
Here’s Orgill on the 2.7% complaints figure:
While complaints are not the only measure of stakeholder satisfaction, the Taskforce believes this is an important indicator that, in aggregate, BER projects are being delivered to the satisfaction of school communities.
But will the media focus on the 97.3%? Of course not. No they’ll focus on the 254 schools (they will ignore the 10,551 projects figure). They’ll justify it by saying they are concerned about any Government waste. But really they’re full of it, because they’re not calculating it properly. When asked about “waste” Orgill in his press conference replied that to calculate the waste you had to ask yourself which is more wasteful – the 2.7% of projects that had complaints or the people who would have been unemployed had the BER not happened.
The media for the most part don’t seem to be able to grasp this. Even the usually sensible Annabel Crabb on The Drum tonight was posing the question that defending this program was essentially defending waste. So let’s ask Nobel Prize wining economist Joesph Stiglitz who’s in town to see what he thinks of it:
"You were lucky to have, probably, the best designed stimulus package of any of the countries, advanced industrial countries, both in size and in design, timing and how it was spent - and I think it served Australia well”
He also said on the 7:30 Report last week:
KERRY O'BRIEN: There's been a lot of criticism of waste in the way some of Australia's stimulus money was spent. Is it inevitable if you're going to spend a great deal of government money quickly that there will be some waste and can you ever justify wasting taxpayers' money?
JOSEPH STIGLITZ: If you hadn't spent the money, there would have been waste. The waste would have been the fact that the economy would have been weak, there would have been a gap between what the economy could have produced and what it actually produced - that's waste. You would have had high unemployment, you would have had capital assets not fully utilised - that's waste. So your choice was one form of waste verses another form of waste. And so it's a judgment of what is the way to minimise the waste. No perfection here. And what your government did was exactly right. So, Australia had the shortest and shallowest of the downturns of the advanced industrial countries.
But, sigh, this is mostly ignored by the media. I have often argued that this Government has been hopeless at selling its economic credentials, but given the way the media generally reports economic matters, I have to say it’s not all their fault. The media just has a narrative it wants to tell, and facts just get in the way. And if the actual report has some balance (as does the above report in the Australian) don’t worry the headline will get them. Channel 7’s News had a fairly balanced report, but it’s headline screamed “School Waste”!
If the media think a 97% success rate on a $16b project is no good then they should have fun if the economically challenged Chris Pyne ever gets in charge, because he is still sticking to his figure that the BER has wasted $8b. When asked about that figure Orgill said:
"I can't reconcile that figure with the analysis we have done"
That is a polite way of saying that Pyne must have found the $8b figure the last time he gave himself a colonoscopy.
Perhaps journalism has been reduced to the old adage of seeing the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Because if you can’t see the value of 200,000 people having a job who wouldn’t have, valuable education infrastructure being built that wouldn’t have, and a more skilled building workforce than there would have been, all done at around a 97% satisfaction rate then I have to ask, what will satisfy you?
Because the rest of the world is looking at us in awe and wonder and envy.