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ABC Pilbara with Kelly Gudgeon, 17 August 2023

Kelly Gudgeon: Now last week I had never heard of a Studio School, but then we found out that the Federal Government had cut some funding for a planned Studio School in the Pilbara. You heard the other day from the CEO of the organisation who said that the plans were still progressing and the school is very early in planning stages for consultation of where the school will be, but that funding was still in their budget for that. Well I did contact Sarah Henderson’s office, she’s the Federal Shadow Minister for Education to get a response on those comments that the school was going ahead and planning would proceed, and she contacted me and said the government has in fact pulled the funding from the Budget to build the Roebourne school. I spoke to her again to get some more clarification of what is happening and to try and clear up the confusion around this issue.

Senator Henderson: Kelly a number of years ago, the then Coalition Government provided $75 million to build three new Studio Schools in the Northern Territory, in WA including in Roebourne, and then to upgrade a fourth school, Yiramalay. Regrettably, we discovered in the Budget a number of months ago and then in Senate estimates that the government made a conscious decision to cut funding from the building boarding schools on country program and also not find the additional funding to build two of the schools because of the increase in construction costs. So as it stands, the government has failed to find this additional funding, meaning that two of those schools have been axed from the current Budget.

Kelly Gudgeon: So the total budget when you were in government, you say was just under $75 million. That would have made all of the three new schools plus the upgrade, that would have allowed for the building of those new schools and the upgrade of the existing one. You’re saying that there has been a massive cost acceleration and increase in costs for building, which increased the amount of money that would be needed to deliver those three schools and the upgrade. So you’re saying that the government hasn’t budgeted for that increase but has also cut $4 million out of that $75 million?

Senator Henderson: That’s exactly right. So when we funded these four schools, $75 million was going to build three new studio schools at Roebourne, at Dhupuma in East Arnhem Land and Windjana in the Kimberley, which has now moved to Manjali and then there was the fourth upgrade of Yiramalay. And so what’s happened is through the pandemic we’ve seen a quite a substantial increase in construction costs. When Studio Schools requested the construction, they discovered that there’d been quite an escalation and they put those additional costs to the government and over two Budgets, the Albanese Government failed to find that additional funding. So that is really regrettable. And then Studio Schools had no choice but to only proceed with one new school, not three new schools. To make matters worse, as the Budget papers show, and as we interrogated the government in Senate estimates, the building boarding schools on country program was cut by $4.1 million, but another $16.2 million was moved for project delivery costs back to Studio Schools, leaving only $54.6 million for construction. We are waiting on answers from the government. They have failed to answer our Questions on Notice about why this money was moved and where that money has gone. We really welcome the fact that Studio Schools has not given up, we do understand that they want to build these schools, but you cannot build schools without money, and that’s what the Albanese Government has failed to deliver.

Kelly Gudgeon: When I spoke to the CEO of Studio Schools this week, she said that the Roebourne school was very much still on the agenda, but the planning for that was in very, very early stages, just consultation stages. So they did have the funding for that consultation already in their budget.

Senator Henderson: Yes, and that’s wonderful, and of course the consultation as to where the school will be located and they work very closely with Indigenous communities to make sure they select the right location and they consult widely. So that is wonderful that work is going on. But there is no funding, Kelly, for the construction of the school. It was going to cost about $22 million and it’s now effectively doubled in cost because of the cost escalation that we have seen through the pandemic. I mean, this happens all the time when projects are budgeted and governments ordinarily will account for additional costs and deliver that money. So the Albanese Government and the Education Minister, Jason Clare, made a conscious decision not to find the additional money to build these two schools. And what that has meant is that the three new schools and the upgraded school have now been cut to just one upgraded school and one new school. So I am calling on the government to do the right thing by these communities to find this additional funding and to make sure that it listens to the voices of Indigenous people in remote communities. I am really appalled by the hypocrisy of the Prime Minister and the Albanese Government in talking about giving children a better education, a better opportunity, a better life when you see what’s happening on the ground in these communities when they’re spending well in excess of $300 million on their Voice campaign. And yet they can’t find this additional money to build the schools that are desperately needed in these communities.

Kelly Gudgeon: Senator Sarah Henderson, Shadow Minister for Education, explaining there the confusion around her claims that the funding has been cut from the planned Studio Schools budget that would have already fully funded a studio school in the Roebourne area I did ask the Minister for the Federal Minister for Education, Jason Clare, to come on the show and respond, But his office instead provided a statement. In that statement, the Minister said the previous government did not allocate enough funding to deliver on their commitment to build these schools. The Albanese Government is investing $70.8 million to construct a new boarding school in the Kimberley region and upgrade the existing studio school at Yiramalay. Studio Schools advised they are working with the local communities to identify the most appropriate site for other schools, including one in the Pilbara and he says once those sites are identified we will work with studio schools on funding.

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