Doorstop at offices of Infrastructure Australia
October 3 2008
The Hon Anthony Albanese MP
Member for Grayndler
Minister for Infrastructure, Transport,
Regional Development and Local Government
Leader of the House
Subject: Government’s ‘nation building’ agenda; Liberal Party’s threat to block the Building Australia Fund legislation; Bob Debus; ALP National Secretary; Tim Gartrell
ANTHONY ALBANESE: The Rudd Labor Government was elected with a mandate to build the nation. We’ve established Infrastructure Australia to give us independent advice to make sure that we have a rigorous cost benefit analysis of any project which is being put forward.
For 12 long years, the previous government ignored infrastructure needs of the nation, and that had an impact on economic growth. The Reserve Bank warned on 20 separate occasions of capacity constraints, particularly in infrastructure and skills, restricting the potential growth of the nation. And that’s had a real impact. It means that working parents are stuck in their cars, rather than spending time at home with their kids. It means export bottlenecks at our ports and that reduces national income and economic growth. It’s had a real impact, but the Rudd Government is turning that around.
Yesterday, the Rudd Government, along with state premiers and territory chief ministers announced that we would bring forward the Infrastructure Australia audit and an interim priority list to December of this year. That will mean that it can be fed into the Government’s budgetary process for the coming financial year. That’s important, because infrastructure can make a major contribution to giving a boost to the economy and, particularly, given the uncertain financial times which are around.
The Opposition have expressed some concern about our proposals, and, indeed, they’ve suggested that they may well block the legislation that we’ll be introducing into the Parliament in coming weeks to establish the $20 billion Building Australia Fund.
The Australian public, the Australian business community and, indeed, even as late as last week, the International Monetary Fund have all given strong endorsement to Labor’s nation building agenda. And the Opposition should get out of the way and support Labor’s agenda.
The fact is, they had nothing to say about infrastructure for 12 long years. Now that the Commonwealth is getting on with the business of nation building, doing it in a rigorous way with integrity and proper analysis to ensure value for taxpayers’ dollars, they are sniping at the sidelines. They need to get out of the way and recognise that the Australian public do, indeed, want a Commonwealth Government that’s committed to providing national leadership on nation building.
QUESTION: You call it nation building, but they say it’s a slush fund. Can you guarantee that this money won’t be going to prop up failing Labor governments – state Labor governments?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well, they’re very confused in their analysis. I noticed that Mr Robb this morning was critical of the fact that there will be a proper process for assessment of projects, and seemed to suggest that the COAG meeting yesterday should have just announced projects without having the independent, rigorous analysis that Infrastructure Australia will bring to the process.
Now, he can’t have it both ways. The fact is that the Government put up Infrastructure Australia legislation as one of our first pieces of legislation earlier this year. At the end of the day that was supported by both houses of Parliament, and it came into law. Hence, we’ve created Infrastructure Australia.
Now, it’s a body made up of Commonwealth, state and territory representatives, but also representatives of the private sector. And it’s getting on with the business of a rigorous cost benefit analysis, not just of projects that have been submitted by the state, but of projects that have been submitted by the private sector. It’s also important to recognise that many of the projects which Infrastructure Australia is giving consideration to, go across state boundaries. They are truly nation building projects.
And that’s why it’s important that this rigorous cost benefit analysis be undertaken by Infrastructure Australia, and that they are able to make their recommendations to the government in the form of an interim report at the end of the year.
QUESTION: So if you could break it down, what kind of things are on that priority list?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well, Infrastructure Australia, of course, will undertake their work. But the preliminary thoughts of the board, when it’s had its number of meetings, the last of which was on Wednesday of this week in Melbourne, is that they’re looking at export infrastructure, particularly unclogging our ports. They’re also looking at urban issues, particularly urban congestion.
So road and rail improvements, improvements to our port infrastructure, but also communications infrastructure. Broadband could add some $20 billion to the national economy if it’s got right. And these are the sort of projects that Infrastructure Australia is examining.
QUESTION: How important is it in the current financial times, the crisis we’re currently going through, to push through these projects?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well, we know that investment in infrastructure has a very positive impact on the economy. We know, of course, that it’s medium and long term, and what we shouldn’t do is allow for the issues which are currently facing the globe, through the global financial crisis, to distract from the need for a long term nation-building agenda.
The Rudd Government’s been committed to this for some time. We went to the election campaign saying we would create a new department of infrastructure. We did that. We would appoint a Cabinet level infrastructure minister. We did that. We said we’d establish Infrastructure Australia to provide that independent advice to government, and we’ve done that. And we said that we’d put aside nation building funds, and we’ve done that.
We’ve got a $76 billion nation building plan, of which $20 billion will be in the Building Australia Fund. It’s important that the legislation be supported by the Senate when it comes to determine their actions in the coming weeks. And I’m, quite frankly, very surprised that the Opposition, having at the end of the day given support to the Infrastructure Australia legislation, is now questioning whether they will support the Building Australia Fund.
QUESTION: Mr Albanese, you have a mandate but that’s no blank cheque. Isn’t it very valid that the Opposition should rightly express concerns about how this funding will be allocated?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well, this is an opposition whose idea of nation building was funding a $60,000 toilet in Loche, in a marginal seat in South Australia, that came to a value of many hundreds of dollars for every man, woman and child in that town. That funded a million dollars for an ethanol plant in Gunnedah that doesn’t exist. That funded a cheese factory that had closed down in Victoria. That had, apart from these short term funds aimed at marginal seats, through the Regional Partnership Program, had no infrastructure plan for the nation.
Mr Robb has made comments, as the Shadow Infrastructure Minister today. The fact is that for 12 long years the Howard Government didn’t bother to have an Infrastructure Minister because they didn’t think that nation building infrastructure was the business of the Commonwealth Government. They simply should get out of the way.
Infrastructure Australia is a rigorous body that brings, for the first time, independent analysis through a cost benefit analysis of each and every project that they are examining. And that rigour is something that was sadly lacking from any of the very small relative amount of projects that were funded by the Howard Government, that basically consisted of a couple of ministers sitting round with the back of an envelope and the chart based upon the margin of particular seats. That was their analysis. The Rudd Government has established a rigorous process.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: The fact is that in terms of the different state projects, the audits have all been forwarded, Western Australia is having, as is its right, a re-examination of its input, as is New South Wales, given there are two new governments there. In terms of other projects, we’ve had a process of private sector and community input. That closes on October 15.
I understand, from Infrastructure Australia, that a number of very promising proposals have been put forward through that process as well. It’s important that Infrastructure Australia is able to undertake its work. Undertake its work at arms length from the political process, make recommendations forward, and they’ll be doing that, and they’ve brought that forward now until December.
QUESTION: That decision to bring it forward by a couple of months, will that, in effect, have any effect on start dates on these projects or is it just the same?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well, what it will do is ensure that the Government can have discussions which are part of the Government’s budget process. So it is positive, the fact that it has been brought forward. Infrastructure Australia is working very hard, led by its chair, Sir Rod Eddington, and the other Infrastructure Australia board members. But also the officials in Infrastructure Australia who consist of Commonwealth appointees, but also a number of state public servants at senior levels who’ve been seconded to undertake this work.
QUESTION: Does it mean that any of these projects will start any earlier than they might have done?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well, it’s up to – the point is you can’t have an independent process and then pre-empt that process. We await Infrastructure Australia’s report, which will take place in December. But it is obviously the case that the sooner the work is undertaken in a rigorous fashion, the sooner work can begin. And we know that there is a massive infrastructure backlog in this nation due to 12 years of national neglect from the Commonwealth and we’re determined to turn that around. We’ve got a process to ensure that there’s proper value for taxpayers’ funds being expended on any of these infrastructure projects.
QUESTION: What do you think of the Crime Commission having a – a file on Bob Debus?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Look, I understand that is now the subject of the – an investigation, so it wouldn’t be appropriate to comment further, other than the comments that have already been made.
QUESTION: Would you be concerned to have a file on you, [indistinct] to find they had a file on you?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Look, I make no comment.
QUESTION: Okay. The other last question – one question I had was what do you think about Karl Bitar taking over from Tim Gartrell. Would he make a good National Secretary?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Look, Tim Gartrell has been an outstanding National Secretary. He provided great leadership in the 2007 election campaign and he’ll be a big loss to the Party. As the National Secretary for five years and then as a Labor Party official in the national office for over a decade, he is a hard person to replace. We’ve got a process to replace him. There are a number of quality candidates have put themselves forward. I have a vote in that process, so it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to pre-empt that process, but discussions will continue. And I’m very confident that we’ll have an outstanding national secretary to replace Tim.
QUESTION: May I ask just one more question – sorry. When would you like to begin seeing some funding allocated for any of these infrastructure projects? I understand you have your process of course.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: We have a process and the Prime Minister made it clear yesterday, that the process wouldn’t be compromised. We want Infrastructure Australia to make sure they undertake a proper cost-benefit analysis of projects and that there’s rigor there to ensure value for taxpayers’ dollars.
Once that occurs in December, the Government will receive the report. We have our budget processes, of course, and they’ll then be subject to going through those – those processes. But quite clearly there is a great need, after 12 years of neglect, for action on infrastructure. The Rudd Government’s committed to nation building on infrastructure. We have $76 billion of national building funds in total, of which $20 billion will be a part of the Building Australia Fund.
We have to get, of course, the legislation through first. And the legislation will be introducing into the House of Representatives in coming weeks. We’d call upon the Opposition to act responsibly and to support these funds, to listen to their local communities, to listen to the business community, to take account of the reports and calls from everyone, including the IMF, down to the Reserve Bank of Australia’s 20 calls to address the capacity constraints in the economy and to support our legislation.