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The Acronym Country

Nick Bryant | 20:55 UK time, Tuesday, 13 April 2010

If there is a problem in Australia these days then a new acronym is sure to follow close behind.

The Rudd government hoped to counter the threat of global warming through a CPRS, a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme - a clear case of Australian acronym one-upmanship, or AAOU, since the rest of the world happily makes do with the simple ETS, or emissions trading scheme.

Its solution to the problem of slow broadband speeds is an NBN, a national broadband network. And a key part of the government's response to the GFC, as the prime minister prefers to call the global financial crisis, was the BER, which stands for Building the Education Revolution.

The BER is a $A16.2bn ($15bn:£10bn) scheme to upgrade schools around the country, by handing out federal money via the states for new classrooms, libraries, kitchens, outdoor learning areas and the like. It has funded more than 24,000 projects in all.

The problem for the Rudd government is that the acronym BER has become something of a joke among certain contractors. For many, BER has come to stand for Builder's Early Retirement, given the widespread profiteering and alleged price-gouging from the scheme.

Take the primary school in the Riverina area of New South Wales, where a project to build a covered shade area for a disabled ramp has mushroomed to $A250,000. Locals reckon the work could have been done for $35,000. There are equivalent stories from all over the country.

Cost blow-outs have become such a widespread problem, in fact, that the government has now set up a BER taskforce - inevitably dubbed BERT - to scrutinise school projects.

The taskforce was announced by the Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard, normally one of the government's more sure-footed lieutenants. This time she has stumbled.

As in the home insulation scheme mess, another policy implemented quickly to mitigate the worst effects of the global downturn, the government's reputation for competence is once being questioned. Inevitably, the controversy also raises broader questions: if the government cannot implement BER, then how will it manage to roll out far bolder schemes like the ETS and NBN? Put another way, can it turn acronyms into action?

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