Jan 8, 2014

Doorstop interview – Parliament House, Canberra

Subjects: Infrastructure Australia, Coalition’s infrastructure funding priorities, toll roads, Qantas, government secrecy on asylum seekers 

ALBANESE: Thanks for joining me. Infrastructure Australia have released this document – Urban Transport Strategy – that provides a blue print for a way forward to ease urban congestion in our cities.

It confirms the need for an integrated approach to transport infrastructure investment. Transport infrastructure is vital to make sure that people can get to and from where they want to go, but also to move freight in and around our cities and between our cities and communities.

What this report emphasises is that you can’t have support for just one mode.

It emphasises the need for an integrated approach between the passenger transport and freight transport, between public transport and our road network.

And it’s important that the Abbott Government get this message – that the idea that they will only invest in roads and will have no investment in urban public transport – indeed the thought that they will take billions of dollars that have been allocated for urban public transport and take that away from State governments in the first Abbott-Hockey Budget – is one that will ensure that families continue to spend more time in their cars travelling to and from work than they do at home with their kids.

It’s an obvious approach; it’s an approach which emphasises the need to ensure our cities are more productive, more sustainable and more livable.

And it’s one that emphasises the need for proper analysis of projects on a case-by-case basis, a proper economic analysis of the cost-benefit of particular projects and that it is that analysis by Infrastructure Australia which should guide investment in our national transport network.

So this is important document.

It’s time for the Abbott Government to recognise that they have made a strategic mistake in saying that that public transport is off limits, that that distorts the market. It not only ensures that public transport suffers but, as this paper indicates, it also ensures that the road network is not as efficient as it would be otherwise because it is more congested.

So it’s time for the Abbott Government to work co-operatively to acknowledge that there is a need for investment in vital projects such as the Cross River Rail project in Brisbane, the Melbourne Metro project – for which funds have been allocated in the budget, as well as for urban public transport in Western Australia – a fact that the Barnett Government have made very clear will be put back without this investment by the Abbott Government that had already been allocated in the budget.

REPORTER: Would Labor put the money instead into urban rail or is there (inaudible) … some magic source of cash given the current state of the deficit?

ALBANESE: Certainly it’s a matter of what of what your priorities are.

Our priority was always infrastructure investment. What we did in Government was to increase the public transport Budget.

We allocated more funds since 2007 to 2013 than had been allocated by every government combined from Federation right through to 2007.

But we also doubled the roads Budget.

Infrastructure for Labor and nation building investment was a priority. Why? Because it produces a return. If you increase productivity and you increase economic growth, then you get a return to the budget.

We also of course rebuilt one-third of the interstate rail freight network. That was absolutely vital. And if you look at some of the big projects that are going ahead, whether it be the Moorebank intermodal project in Sydney or the preliminary stages of intermodal for Melbourne in Melbourne’s west, then what you see is, if you like, they are physical depictions of why you need that integrated approach between rail and road, with those inter-modal facilities.

The Moorebank Intermodal project, which is proceeding and has been established by the establishment of a government business enterprise and then will run by the sector, what that will do is do more to ease traffic congestion in Sydney perhaps than any other project and that is now recognised by the incoming government and by the NSW Government.

But when it was first put forward that was opposed as well, indeed the Liberal Party ran ads against that project at the 2010 election campaign with the member for Hughes campaigning very strongly against that project.

So there is evidence that the Coalition can change its mind. What they need to do is change their mind. What they are doing at the moment though, is talking about road projects, talking about infrastructure but they have to be the right ones.

For example, in South Australia, the Torrens to Torrens project in Adelaide on the South Road is ready to go.

They’re saying they won’t fund that, they will fund Darlington interchange project, which is not ready to go, which will lead to a two-year delay in infrastructure investment in South Australia.

So it’s a matter of the right projects. The only project indeed that’s been advanced by the Abbott Government that had not already had funding allocated by the former Labor Government is the East-West road project in Melbourne and for that we simply said we want to see the business case.

You can’t say that you are going to have proper analysis and yet
introduce legislation into the Parliament, which they have, which would rule out or enable the Minister to rule out whole sections of funding for transport, including public transport, and then allocate funds without there being business case presented to the Government for a particular project.

REPORTER: Given the budget deficit do we need to look at more toll roads to build the infrastructure that is needed?

ALBANESE: Well it’s a matter of looking at the specific examples. If you have a new road such as the F3 to M2 in Sydney, which was the agreement finalised between the former Labor Government – myself and Duncan Gay as the NSW Roads Minister – we had an agreement between the Commonwealth and the state and Transurban as the operators of most of the existing road network around Sydney, the M7, the M2 whereby there will be concessions made
on those tolls – an increase in timing in which they will allocated – which will assist in funding that road project.

Now we supported that and we also supported the fact there should be some differential toll whereby freight users pay more than the average passenger car, which doesn’t occur at the moment on the M7.

So it’s a matter of making sure that you have the analysis that is there.

What people I don’t think want to do, though, is to pay new tolls on old roads.

And that is what we have is said. Roads that have already been paid for by taxpayers should not be paid for again and that was our position with regard reintroducing a toll on the M4.

REPORTER: inaudible. (Question related to suggestions of change to restrictions of the foreign ownership of Qantas) 

ALBANESE: We are very firm because we understand exactly what a break-up of Qantas would mean.

If you reduce the restrictions that are there and eliminate completely the Qantas Sale Act, it’s there for a very good reason. It’s there to protect the Australian national interest. And that’s why Qantas have said that that is not their first priority. Qantas itself is saying that what they need are other measures of which we’ve made a number of suggestions and the Government, for reasons that I can’t comprehend frankly, has failed to make a decision on Qantas that they said they would make last year.

If you simply open up Qantas to a free-for-all terms of the market, what you will see, particularly given what the price of Qantas is at the moment, where you have a share value that is less the cash reserves of the company, what you will see, therefore, is an obvious move which would be to come in to split up the company.

If you split up the company, as occurred in places like Canada when Air Canada was moved in on from some of the equity companies, what you saw was a breaking-up and, if you have a look then, you had the Government had to step in ensure to ensure the people in regional communities could have some access to aviation.

Qantas plays an important role in our national economy and is not just another company.

If it is split up, then the consequences for Qantas Link, for people in
regional communities are severe indeed. And that is what you would see. That is what the risk is if you remove all of the restrictions that are there.

Furthermore, if you have a look around the world, nation states recognise the need to have airlines that are their national airlines that operate as such.

Whether it be Singapore or any of the countries in the UAE, whether it be the United States, which has ownership restrictions in terms of the national carrier. Whether it be the fact that Air New Zealand – the government had to intervene there to make sure that the airline could continue to play that national interest role.

When Australians have been in difficulty overseas Qantas has, without exception, played a role and that is just one of the reasons why, particularly as an island continent, we have an interest in ensuring that Qantas remain a strong Australian airline.

REPORTER: Seven News understand that one of the boats was drained of fuel by the Australian Navy. Do you think that was a responsible course of action?

ALBANESE: Well I can’t comment on events of which the facts aren’t known. That’s the problem. The problem is that where you have a government that is failing to act in a transparent manner and acting in Australia’s name but not telling Australians what is going on, then you will have speculation.

I mean in a democracy you need transparency. This is not North Korea. This is the Australian democracy and the Australian people have a right to know what is going on in their name.

REPORTER: Inaudible. (Question related to Immigration Minister Scott Morrison not holding his weekly press conference this Friday to report on the handling of asylum seeker vessels.)

ALBANESE: We’ll there should not be a weekly conference. There should be information given to the Australian people as it occurs and frankly the Australian people do have a right to know. Otherwise what you will have is a range of speculation, you have reports in the Jakarta Post and on social media and you don’t know if they are fact or not.

That is just one of the reasons why that isn’t appropriate. It is appropriate in a democracy that you have accountability and you have transparency. That is not occurring at the moment.

REPORTER: Inflatable boats to turn asylum seekers around?

ALBANESE: Well again the facts are not known. What is important is that the government has a responsibility to outline what the facts are. To be transparent to be open and to be like a democratic government should be. This is not North Korea. This is not a Stalinist regime. The government needs to get its act together and tell the Australian people what is going on because it’s being done after all in the Australian people’s name.

REPORTER: Just back on Qantas, in 2009 the Labor government supported the recommendations of an aviation White Paper …

ALBANESE: I commissioned that White Paper.

REPORTER: … that recommended foreign airlines be allowed to own more than 35 per cent of Qantas. Would you regard that as a compromise?

ALBANESE: Well that is a matter for the government to come up with a proposal. At the time it was not possible to get that change through the Parliament. But that isn’t a priority for Qantas in terms of discussions that have been held.

I think the key elements of the Qantas Sale act are 51 percent Australian ownership, a board based here in Australia and making sure that Qantas can continue to be a successful Australian airline.

In terms of the government’s response, I responded when requested, and the government released some of this information. I didn’t do it in the public glare, you might have noticed. I did it properly in terms of defending the Australian national interest prior to the election.

What we have seen from the incoming government is just a failure to act, a failure to defend the national economic interest. Qantas is not just another company; it is one that plays a vital role, not just in terms of an iconic brand, but plays a vital role in the Australian national economic interest and the government should act accordingly.

REPORTER: Well Qantas wants some kind of help from Canberra though it won’t say publicly exactly what that is. But the ideas include an investment by Canberra or a debt guarantee to help the company cut borrowing costs. Now do you support either of those options?

ALBANESE: I think I’ve put my views pretty clearly on the table in the past and I’ve had discussions with Qantas. I’ve suggested that measures such as ensuring that any commitment from the government should be one that isn’t simply a one way. It should be a two-way exchange.

A small investment by the government in the airline would ensure that the government got something out of it because at the moment I think that Qantas shares, given the price they are, probably are pretty good value frankly in terms of a small investment.

So that is something that is worthy of consideration.

But I don’t have access to the advice of Treasury and Finance and the Department of Infrastructure. What is important is that the government act. We have said that we would consider constructively any proposal from the government as a result of discussions taking place with Qantas that ensures that Qantas remains a strong, Australian-based airline.

REPORTER: Do you think that Qantas should say publicly what it wants, or do you think its fine for commercial reasons that it is all behind closed doors. 

ALBANESE: I do not have a problem with discussions taking place in private. But then it’s a matter of when there’s a concrete proposal from the government – it’s not up to Qantas to determine the government’s position, it’s up to the government  to determine its position. The government needs to do that.

Qantas has very clearly said we would like some assistance. They have put forward a range of proposals. They certainly have consulted with both the government and with the Opposition at the leadership level and at the ministerial and shadow ministerial level. It’s important that the government make a decision and then the opposition can determine its response.

What we have here, and I wonder how long the good burghers in the press gallery will continue to show the great patience which has been shown with the new government.  You know I am the opposition spokesman out here doing a press conference. Where is the government?

On any issue of the day, where have they been since September 7?

This is a mob that had a plan to get into government. They do not have a plan for governing and whatever issue that you look at, what you see is characterised by is a lack of transparency, a lack of openness, a lack of a plan, a lack of accountability.

It’s about time that Tony Abbott recognized, now he’s back from the ski fields of France, recognized that he’s just been elected the Australian Prime Minister and he’s got a responsibility to actually be accountable to the people that elected him as Prime Minister. And that’s the Australian people. Thank you.