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August 16th 2010 print

David Flint

Royal Commission on BER

Only a Royal Commission can get to the bottom of the biggest financial scandal in our history. So why doesn’t Julia Gillard want one?

And who presided over our biggest financial scandal?

The implications of the Orgill interim report on the BER could not be clearer.

The next government, Labor or Coalition must set up a Royal Commission into what could well be the biggest government financial scandal in the history of our nation. This is the only way to find out what happened and where the money went. Was it just incompetence and greed or was there something more sinister?

Was there corruption on a massive scale? Without a Royal Commission we shall never know the answers, even when Mr. Orgill hands down his final report.

The Australian people are entitled to know the answers.

This is not to criticise Mr. Orgill. It is that he just does not have the tools to find out what happened. With the power and authority of a Royal Commission, the truth would gradually emerge. Documentary evidence would be subpoenaed and witnesses compelled to appear. They would have to give evidence on oath. They would be subject to vigorous cross examination. All of this would be done under the glare of public hearings and media reporting. The presiding judge would be manifestly independent, and skilled in legal process.

It is curious that when Ms. Gillard finally accepted after many denials that something was seriously wrong with the BER, she did not recommend a Royal Commission to well and truly get to the bottom of this.

Indeed it is extraordinary that the media are not unanimous in insisting that Ms. Gillard give a guarantee that if she is elected a Royal Commission under a respected former judge be appointed to find these answers. Just recall for a moment how the media called for the AWB Royal Commission and attacked the Howard government over its terms of reference. 

Among the questions which the nation is entitled to have answered is why the responsible minister, Julia Gillard, did not put in place those elementary and obvious conditions which would have avoided this mess.

Why did she not ensure that the public schools be provided with the infrastructure they believed they most needed. Above all why did she not ensure that  taxpayers received value for their hard earned money, and that minimal standards of transparency and accountability apply.

The imposing of such conditions was clearly within the minister’s constitutional powers. Anyone with the minimal administrative or business experience would have done this. Her failure to do this in relation to a programme involving $16.2 billion is breathtaking. So why didn’t she? Where did the money go?

Only a Royal Commission could tell us the answers.

We need to know precisely what happened and where the money ended up. 

From what has emerged in the report and in the media, it is clear that a truly vast amount of money has gone up in smoke.  Some reports suggest that this could be in the vicinity of $5 billion dollars. The headline of a report in The Australian on 12 August 2010 was at the higher end, “$850,000 paid for ‘big shed’ worth $156,000”.

Sydney radio station 2GB’s Ray Hadley (The Australian, 7 August) played a leading role in exposing this waste. He says the Orgill report confirms what he has been saying, that the NSW per-square-metre cost under the program was “simply ridiculous.”

He says that at $3900/sq m, this makes the NSW Department of Education “look like a spendthrift with a sense of humour.” He points out that for about $3200/sq m you can build a high-rise of between 35 and 50 storeys, fully fitted out.

He points out that the report also dismissed the explanation made by the NSW Department of Education director-general, Michael Coutts-Trotter –  that public school halls and covered outdoor learning areas were costing much more than their non-government counterparts because they were better built.  

In spite of its limitations, the Orgill interim report has already confirmed that the Building the Education Revolution stimulus programme was as The Australian editorialised on 7 August, a “gold plated disaster”.  

Where did all the money go? Was it lost through stupidity? Or was there something more sinister? Or was it both?

Only a Royal Commission can reveal this.