Ladies and gentleman,
Over the past six days the nation has seen an outpouring of tributes to the late, great Gough Whitlam.
If there has been a theme, it was Whitlam’s imagination for a better future for Australia and his courage in making his vision a reality.
Former US President John F Kennedy put the task of reformers this way: “Things do not happen. They are made to happen.’’
If ever there was an infrastructure project that required vision, if ever there was a project that required determined action to make it happen, it is High Speed Rail.
I’m pleased you are holding this forum today.
Its title – Bring it on – could not be more pertinent.
It’s a great opportunity to remind Australia that High Speed Rail is an economic game-changer for our nation.
A reminder that it will allow for travel between interstate capitals in as little as three hours.
A reminder that High Speed Rail would also turbo charge the economies of regional communities along its path.
High Speed Rail isn’t something we can leave to our children or our grandchildren to build.
We must begin now.
We must act to preserve the corridor and finalise the planning needed prior to construction.
Nation builders anticipate and create the future.
We know some of what the future will bring.
Recent projections by the Australian Bureau of Statistics suggest our population will be about 50 million by 2060, including eight million people each in the cities of Sydney and Melbourne.
This of course will be reflected in the size of our cities, both in their footprints but also in terms of their density.
Sydney-to-Melbourne and Sydney-to-Brisbane are already in the top 10 busiest aviation routes in the world.
Given increasing aviation use, they will become even busier in the future.
Change is powerful and its effects can never be underestimated.
Bill Gates had this in mind a few years ago when he said: (and I quote):
We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next 10.
Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction.
In that spirit I think we can assume that by 2060 Australians will on average fly much more frequently than they do today.
When I was a boy, airline travel was very expensive.
I was in my 20s before I took my first aircraft journey.
But in recent decades increasing disposable incomes and the emergence of low-cost carriers have boosted air travel.
Air travel is five times cheaper than it was 20 years ago.
A Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development research paper forecasting aviation movements to 2030 noted that continued passenger growth at major airports was already testing the capacity of airport infrastructure.
It said international air travel would grow strongly to 2030, with both domestic and international passenger movements through capital cities almost doubling.
And that’s just by 2030, not 2060.
A 2010 report by the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics which examined movement through the nation’s capital city airports forecast growth of 4.2 per cent a year to 235 million by 2029-30.
These are facts that need to be seriously considered in the context of the viability of High Speed Rail.
We should also consider the possibility that in coming decades, growing incomes will open interstate travel to more Australians, which could lead to even more demand on our aviation sector.
Unless we want to build more airports all over the country, there’s a limit to the capacity of existing aviation infrastructure to cope.
Looking forward again to 2060, it’s unlikely that governments of the time will, like the current government, refuse to act on reducing carbon emissions.
I predict that by 2060, all governments will have established market-based mechanisms that will provide clear cost signals in favour of low-emissions technologies.
That puts High Speed Rail in the box seat.
It is far cleaner than aircraft travel.
It is more convenient.
And it is a better experience.
No-one who has ever been on the Eurostar fast train from London to Paris arrives wishing that they had travelled by air.
LABOR’S URBAN FOCUS
I’ve been pleased to address the Australasian Railways Association and other groups about my support for High Speed Rail on several occasions.
But since I last addressed you, Labor has sharpened our focus on High Speed Rail in terms of its contribution to cities policy.
Labor wants to put the productivity, sustainability and liveability of cities near the top of the national political agenda.
One of our aims is to ease the burden of traffic congestion in our capital cities, which has become so bad that many Australians live in drive-in, drive-out suburbs where they live but where there are no jobs.
This is leading to increasingly long daily trips to and from work.
One way to address this problem is to invest in urban rail to improve public transport.
Unfortunately, under the current Government, that won’t happen.
But another is to strengthen the economies of regional Australian cities and towns so they can take some of the development pressure off state capitals.
That’s where High Speed Rail comes in.
The line for this project would travel through the Gold Coast, Casino, Grafton, Coffs Harbour, Port Macquarie, Taree, Newcastle, the Central Coast, Southern Highlands, Wagga Wagga, Albury-Wodonga and Shepparton.
There’s also Canberra, Australia’s largest inland city.
Connecting these great regional cities to a high speed mass transit system would connect them to massive opportunities for economic development.
Think of the tourism potential.
Imagine the possibilities of being able to live in regional Australia and commute to a capital city on a daily basis.
Or imagine the potential for city-based businesses to establish themselves or divisions of their operations in these regional cities, taking advantage of lower costs in regional Australia while still being a short ride away from the nearest state capital.
Of course, our capital cities are always going to keep growing.
As the High Speed Rail Feasibility Stage II study produced last year noted, employment growth in the central business districts of our east coast capitals will double over the next 30 years.
It also noted there were limits to the capacity of public transport to cater to the extra demand.
The report continued (and I quote):
In that case, regional locations within two hours’ travel by HSR that have capacity for increases in business growth could assist in making the metropolitan centres more globally competitive by providing less-congested future growth options.
This could allow regional centres to serve as secondary locations for lower-cost back office functions and new start-up businesses requiring less frequent access to the major centres.’’
If we add to this factor the rising importance of digital communications and the possibilities it offers for working from home, it becomes clear High Speed Rail has a real value as a driver of regional economic development with beneficial spinoffs for capital cities.
High Speed Rail can help provide options for Australians who want more out of life than sitting in their cars for hours a day.
It can provide more options for businesspeople who understand the link between productivity and contented workers who live near their workplaces.
I notice that the ARA has today released a new report into the potential for High Speed Rail to boost regional development.
I’m pleased with this new contribution to the debate.
It’s an important contribution in the context of the pressure on Australian cities I discussed a moment ago.
The Aurecon report says experience across the world is that regional cities that have been linked to High Speed Rail have experienced accelerated economic development as a result.
It also notes that while the $114 billion cost estimate of this project in Australia was based on a delivery cost of $65 million per kilometre, similar projects in Europe, for example, have come in at less than half that cost.
Those figures certainly bear further investigation.
I’ve had a chance to read this report and I commend it to you.
I hope also that the current Government will take heed of its contents and act.
THE FAILURE OF IMAGINATION
Regrettably, under the current government, High Speed Rail is stalled.
In this year’s Budget, the Government scrapped $52 million in funding that was included in the 2013 Labor Government Budget to create a High Speed Rail Authority to progress the project and begin the process of securing the corridor.
The Authority was to bring together representatives of the state and territory jurisdictions with a stake in High Speed Rail along with experts including a representative of the ARA.
Participants were to work together to progress planning.
Critically, the authority was to start to acquire the corridor for the line before it is built out by urban sprawl.
Not only did the Government dump this plan, but it also sacked the High-Speed Rail Advisory Group, the committee which recommended the establishment of the authority.
That committee included former National Party leader Tim Fisher, Business Council of Australia head Jennifer Westacott, the chief executive of the Australasian Railway Association Brian Nye, as well as senior bureaucrats and independent experts.
This was a poor decision.
The group was in no way aligned with the former Labor Government.
It was made up of accomplished people who looked at the facts and recommended a way forward.
It did not advocate the immediate construction of High Speed Rail.
It simply proposed that we start planning and purchasing the corridor.
Now, even as I stand here speaking, people who own land that would be required for High Speed Rail could be planning, as is their right, to develop that land.
As we speak the states and territories along the route, as well as the many local councils involved, are not engaged in the co-operation that would be needed to deliver this project.
At the same time, international experts with experience in building High Speed Rail continue to visit our shores.
I know that the current Government says it supports High Speed Rail and I am grateful for that.
But you have to be disappointed with the lack of concrete progress.
I must say however, that I was pleased to see an article in today’s edition of The Australian in which businessman Maurice Newman, who chairs the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council, acknowledged the potential regional development impacts of High Speed Rail.
I can only say to Mr Newman that I strongly agree and I urge him to use the influence he has with the Government to secure genuine bi-partisan support for the project.
In August last year, the High Speed Rail Advisory Group I mentioned earlier warned that the greatest immediate threat to High Speed Rail in Australia was not cost, timing or technology.
It was inertia brought about by inaction.
Regrettably, the current Government is sitting on its hands as ill-informed critics tell the community the project is too expensive, too hard, too ambitious and too far off to warrant serious consideration.
Just like the conservatives who, in 1946, voted against the construction of the Snowy Mountains Scheme, our current decision makers seem unwilling to build for our nation’s future.
As the advisory group’s report warned (and I quote):
If we don’t take action to progress the project now, we may not get another chance.
This brings me back to the comment by John F Kennedy which I mentioned at the start of this speech.
“Things do not happen,’’ Kennedy said. “They are made to happen.’’
More specifically, Nation Building does not just happen. National Building is made to happen.
Today, we have a choice.
We can take modest steps now that begin the necessary planning for High Speed Rail, reducing future construction costs.
Or we can do nothing.
I’m for acting.
That is why nearly a year ago I proposed a Private Member’s Bill – the High Speed Rail Planning Authority Bill 2013 – designed to create the planning authority proposed by the High Speed Rail Advisory Group.
It was the first Private Member’s Bill moved in this Parliament.
It would create an 11 person high-speed rail authority to bring together all affected jurisdictions as well as rail and engineering experts to progress planning and, critically, focus on the corridor.
The 11 members of the board are outlined in the bill.
They would include:
- One member from each of the states or territory affected—Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory;
- One member representing the Local Government Association;
- One member nominated by the Australasian Railway Association; and
- Five members appointed by the minister for infrastructure on the basis of qualifications or expertise.
The Bill proposes that the Authority’s roles would include consideration of land use planning relating to the corridor, safety, public consultation and measures to minimize environmental impact.
It was my hope that the Bill would provide an opportunity for the new Government to embrace High Speed Rail and put it beyond the reach of party politics.
That’s critical, because this is a project so big it will span the lives of many parliaments and, presumably, several prime ministers.
Regrettably, the Government has chosen not to bring this Bill on for debate.
So it’s just sitting on the notice paper, waiting.
The best thing that could happen on High Speed Rail is for a bi-partisan commitment, not just to support High Speed Rail, but to act now in concrete ways.
We need to legislate to create an authority to put the issue beyond party politics and beyond the life of one parliament or one government.
I’ve often said that my aim in creating Infrastructure Australia in 2008 was to disconnect the infrastructure delivery process, which is necessarily long-term, from the short-term political cycle.
That’s important for projects than take 10 years or so to conceive, plan, assess, fund and deliver.
It’s even more important for a project like High Speed Rail, which is similar in its scope to the Snowy River Scheme, which took 23 years to build.
The way forward is for all Australian political parties to embrace High Speed Rail and agree to act on the four key recommendations of the High Speed Rail Advisory Group.
Those recommendations were:
Formally commit to high speed rail and settle arrangements with state and territory governments;
Protect the corridor;
Refer High Speed Rail to Infrastructure Australia for initial assessment;
Establish a High Speed Rail Authority
Like any big project there will be naysayers.
There always are.
In 1949, the Minister for Public Works and Housing, Nelson Lemmon, faced critics of the Snowy River Scheme.
… those critics, in the main, will be people who have little faith.
This Government has faith in its engineers, its people and the future of Australia.”
So do I.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.