Nov 9, 2015

Australian Cities motion

Federation Chamber

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (12:38): I rise to speak on this motion. I do want to acknowledge the work of Jane Prentice and her ongoing interest in cities, first in her role as a Brisbane councillor and since then as the member for Ryan. Our cities do face unprecedented challenges in the coming decades. By 2031, our four largest capitals—Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth—will have all but doubled in size. The other capital cities— Adelaide, Canberra, Hobart and Darwin—are expected to grow by nearly 30 per cent. Congestion is estimated by Infrastructure Australia to cost the nation $53 billion at this time unless action is taken.

The cities of Australia’s future must be more productive, sustainable and liveable. Yet, without leadership and investment from the national government, this challenge becomes even greater. Labor have always recognised cities policy as a priority of the national government. As the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport in the former Labor government, I set about returning cities policy to the heart of government following the coalition’s disengagement from the space. Over the period of the Howard government, not a single dollar went into any public transport project around Australia.

In government, we set up the Major Cities Unit, which produced the annual State of Australian cities report to ensure that there was evidence based policy. We established the Urban Policy Forum and we established Infrastructure Australia to drive investment to projects based upon contribution to productivity rather to any particular mode of transport. We released Australia’s first ever national urban policy, Our Cities, Our Future. And we invested. When we took office, Australia was 20th among OECD nations when it came to infrastructure investment as a proportion of GDP. When we left office, Australia was first. We doubled the roads budget and we allocated more investment to public transport than all other governments combined between Federation right up to 2007.

The coalition came into government and trashed that record. They abolished the Major Cities Unit, disbanded the Urban Policy Forum and cut funding from every single public transport project that was not under construction. Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show that infrastructure work conducted for the public sector declined by more than 20 per cent after the 2013 election based on the last quarter’s figures. This year’s budget included a $2 billion cut in infrastructure spending over the next two years over the allocation by the conservative government itself in their 2014 budget.

I welcome the change in direction we have seen in recent weeks and support the appointment of a minister for cities, but this change must be one of substance not just titles. Indeed, there is a lot of catching up to do. I am concerned that the minister for cities is working within the Department of the Environment rather than the department that actually drives infrastructure investment. This does not make sense. It appears to have confused the coalition too. At least five of Mr Turnbull’s ministers lay claim to having some level of responsibility for cities. There is Jamie Briggs, the minister. Then there is the minister he report to, the Minister for the Environment, Greg Hunt. Then there is the minister for major projects, Paul Fletcher, who reports to Deputy Prime Minister and the actual infrastructure minister Warren Truss. Then, somewhere in the mix, there is Josh Frydenberg, who is minister for northern development and has responsibility for infrastructure in that part of Australia.

So there has been a lot of talk in the cities policy area but no investment and no real change in substance. The Major Cities Unit remains disbanded. The only policy announcement has been the Gold Coast light rail project stage 2. But that was funding that was a saving from the Moreton Bay rail link. The funding that has been allocated for projects without a proper cost-benefit analysis such as the Perth Freight Link and WestConnex remain still with no business case and no transparency developed.

An elected Labor government will invest directly in public transport and in our cities. We will restore Infrastructure Australia to the centre of government activity to ensure that funding decisions on major projects are made on the basis of demonstrated public benefit. We are committed to cities policy and we will invest in our nation’s cities to ensure they are productive, sustainable and liveable long into the future.