Treasurer Josh Frydenberg (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Remember “Building the Education Revolution”? That was the Rudd government’s $14 billion school hall stimulus program in which, in order to prop up the construction industry in the wake of the financial crisis, every primary school in the country got a new school hall built.

Such halls have now been used by a decade’s worth of kids across the country and become fixtures in the local educational landscape. But if you do remember the program, you’ll probably also remember it as being wasteful and useless.

That was how much of the media portrayed the biggest part of the Rudd government stimulus package. The Coalition railed at it. The Australian ran a lie-filled, years-long campaign against it. The ABC and its so-called “Online Investigation Unit” ran story after story about what a “debacle” it was.

They were all wrong. When the ANAO reviewed the program, it didn’t even bother to make recommendations about how to improve its administration — a rare feat for any program, let alone a huge and rushed program designed to get tradies into work as soon as possible. One of its few criticisms was that Julia Gillard’s education department actually pushed the states too hard on making sure money wasn’t wasted — an odd criticism for a program supposedly the epitome of waste.

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When the government commissioned an independent report by Brad Orgill, that found it was a highly successful program that supported 120,000 jobs, had a very low rate of “waste” and saw complaints from just 3% of schools.

None of the journalists or editors involved in the lengthy campaigning against what turned out to be an enormously successful program ever offered any sort of mea culpa. The ANAO report and the Orgill report disappeared without trace in the media.

What about stimulus cheques? Remember them? I do.

In my first year at Crikey I criticised the first round because I thought they weren’t warranted. Boy was that wrong. They, too, were derided by the opposition and the media: cheques were going to dead people; cheques were going to Australians overseas. Joe Hockey was still attacking Wayne Swan for the cheques to dead people years later.

And it’s true cheques went to dead people and went overseas. What were the amounts involved? $14 million to dead people and $24 million overseas. Cue confected outrage.

Scroll forward to the Morrison government’s stimulus program JobKeeper. Companies have repaid over $100 million already. But many companies that grew their profits during the pandemic have collectively received billions in JobKeeper subsidies and have declined so far to repay them. That includes prominent media companies.

So $38 million in dud stimulus cheques v billions in unnecessary JobKeeper payments. The government being too tough in the search for value for money on school halls v a government that appears entirely relaxed about companies keeping undeserved payments, and which won’t even release the most basic information about who has received JobKeeper and how much.

Where’s the incessant stories from the “Online Investigation Unit” or the years-long campaign by The Australian? The waste here has an extra couple of zeroes on it, so presumably the media interest should be much higher than it was in 2010?

The issue is not that there is waste in JobKeeper or there was in the stimulus cheques, or even — at what in retrospect was a remarkably low level — in Building The Education Revolution. These have all been programs put together at high speed in the face of economic crisis. It’s axiomatic that if you rush policymaking and implementation, you’ll stuff up.

But when there’s a crisis, governments need to act fast and you trade off efficiency for speed. Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg did that, and it was absolutely the right call. They saved a million jobs and the economy from a serious depression — just as Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan and Julia Gillard saved Australia from recession in 2009.

The issue is accountability: identifying the waste and how it occurred. Apart from anything else, doing that can provide lessons for how to do it next time.

But while Labor had an ANAO report and commissioned an independent panel for its $14 billion program, the Morrison government hasn’t the slightest interest in asking anyone to look at the $84 billion JobKeeper program. Today’s figures come from a governance advisory firm deciding off its own bat to examine the program.

Maybe Morrison and Frydenberg saw what happened when the ANAO and the Orgill review gave the tick to the school halls program — the media just ignored it. Or maybe for them money being wasted on the bank accounts of corporate executives and shareholders is somehow less “wasteful” than money going to tradies and construction workers to improve schools for kids.

And it seems a lot of journalists and editors agree.