The Audit Office report into the Rudd Government’s Building the Education Revolution was released yesterday, finding the scheme was largely successful… not, wait: it was an absolute mess.

The confused media narrative over this issue is quite staggering. As Bernard Keane said (subscriber only) in yesterday’s Crikey Daily Mail, “No performance review by the ANAO … ever gives any program a complete tick.”

At the crux of the report:

There are some positive early indicators that the program is making progress toward achieving its intended outcomes. Lead economic indicators, including construction approvals, show that the introduction of BER P21 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.

But that’s not what made the headlines yesterday:

Audit slams Rudd’s primary school building program

Auditor slams cost blowouts at schools

Principals doubt value of school building scheme

Audit of schools-building program finds projects late, inflexible

“Erroneous piffle” says Possum Comitatus, who is compiling all the “criminally flatulent” reporting on this issue at Crikey‘s Pollytics blog.

At Pure Poison, Tobias Ziegler tracks exactly how The Australian twisted an article originally titled “BER auditor finds some progress on jobs” into “BER audit finds problem but ‘value for money’ of individual projects outside scope” within hours. As he concludes:

The whole thing just seems shoddy, and I don’t see how the public – who won’t go reading the report, and who will only read the snippets and hear the soundbites – get anything resembling the truth out of this type of “reporting”.

So are the punters following their mastheads’ lead on this today? Here’s the confused, often contradictory messages running through Australia’s media:

In The Australian, the editorial, titled “School building audit says program must do better” claims the report “found serious problems”, while another article reports that it “has cast doubt over Kevin Rudd’s claim to have saved Australia from recession”.  Samantha Maiden questions Julia Gillard’s assertion that the BER kept “our nation out of recession”, while Dennis Shanahan both acknowledges that the report “says positive things”, but devotes seven paragraphs to the “flaws” “exposed” by the report, surmising that it has left her with “a political problem”. And education reporter Justine Ferrari questions the depth of the report itself.

The Age‘s editorial runs with the headline “School building program scores a bare pass“, but is quite forgiving, acknowledging that the media has spun the report negatively and unfairly:

..the prevailing tone of media reports leading up to the audit’s release yesterday suggested the government was poised for a caning … this has not come to pass

Michelle Grattan takes a similar line:

The picture emerges of a massive, basically successful program that had some glitches due to its size and the speed of rollout.

The Sydney Morning Herald reports that the auditor “took Gillard to task”, highlighting:

construction delays, inflexible bureaucracy and inadequate monitoring arrangements for the $14 billion scheme.

The West Australian has a curious use of double negatives in its reporting, saying the audit has “failed to back any changes” to the scheme and “effectively cleared the Government of bungling the scheme”

The Canberra Times says the report concluded the program was “too prescriptive” and “outlined several problems with its implementation.”

The Herald Sun‘s Michael Harvey says:

Auditor-General Ian McPhee described a building program strangled by delays, cost blowouts and complicated federal red tape

And the Courier Mail has also run with the “red tape” line.

And in the Daily Telegraph‘s Malcolm Farr leads with “Government’s schools program has its flaws”, claiming the “review has found procedural problems.”

So what’s the real story? Was the BER a scandalous saga or a success? Why not read it for yourself — it’s the only way to get any straight answers today.

Peter Fray

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