Hansard – Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2018-2019, Appropriation Bill (No. 2) 2018-2019, Appropriation (Parliamentary Departments) Bill (No. 1) 2018-2019, Appropriation Bill (No. 5) 2017-2018, Appropriation Bill (No. 6) 2017-2018 – Second Reading – Monday, 21 May 2018
This is a government where the spin is so different from the facts. There was not a dollar of new infrastructure investment in last week’s budget. Nothing for Melbourne Airport rail. Nothing for Western Sydney rail. Nothing for Brisbane’s Cross River Rail project. Any new investment commitment announced in the budget does not involve new money; it’s drawn from previously budgeted funds. That’s all there for everyone to see on pages 137 to 144 of Budget Paper No. 2. On program after program, for state after state, there are lines of zeros in the forward estimates.
The fact is that most of the infrastructure investment won’t be delivered for many years to come. This budget is a triumph of spin over substance. As the second president of the United States, John Adams, once said:
Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.
Let’s have a look at their new announcements in the budget drawn from money that was already there—all on the never-never. A paltry one per cent to be invested over the next 12 months. Four dollars out of every $5 invested not this year, not the year after, not the year after that and not the year after that, but some time into the never-never beyond the forward estimates—more than 80 per cent. This is the never-never budget. In the meantime, actual investment is due to fall off a cliff. There’s $8 billion in infrastructure grants to the states in the current financial year. That falls each and every year to $4.5 billion by 2021-22. From $8 billion down to $4.5 billion; almost cut in half.
After last year’s budget, the independent Parliamentary Budget Office said that, over the next decade, infrastructure investment as a proportion of GDP will fall again by half—from 0.4 per cent to 0.2 per cent. It’s a bit like Mr Wimpy in the Popeye cartoons, who used to wander around saying, ‘I will gladly pay you on Tuesday for a hamburger today.’ In this case, Malcolm Turnbull tells Australians, ‘I’ll gladly build you a rail line or a new road, but just vote for me some time in the next year and then vote for me again, and then sometime after that into the never-never I might actually do something.’ This government not only is cutting investment but can’t even deliver its reduced budgets, and the budget papers show that. Over its first four budgets, the difference between what the government has announced and allocated on budget nights from 2014 through 2015, 2016 and 2017—if you look at what has actually been expended over that period of time—is $4.7 billion.
Underspending is everywhere. There has been $2.7 billion underspent on roads. The Northern Australia Roads Program is $190 million underspent. The Western Sydney Infrastructure Plan is $700 million underspent. The Northern Australia Beef Roads Program is $74 million underspent. Even essential road safety, through the Black Spot Program, is underspent. We know that there are black spots across every one of the electorates of the representatives in this chamber—every single one—and yet $100 million is underspent. The Heavy Vehicle Safety and Productivity Program, established by the former Labor government, was maintained after pressure by this government. But what they’ve done is just not spent the money—$134 million. Every time you’re driving on a highway and you think, ‘That is somewhere where, in the interests of road safety, there should be a heavy vehicle rest stop,’ know this: this government has had the funds but hasn’t had the competence or the capacity to actually deliver that project. The fact is that it’s happened almost every year across almost every program. It is a rolling parade of failure. Either the government is hopeless—and we know that it is—or it seriously misleads the nation about its real investment intentions.
There’s an old saying: if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. So it is with the government’s continuing attempt to move away from direct infrastructure grants to the states for major projects and towards off-budget funding. Three years ago it created the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility. It spent very little besides flying board members around the southern capitals to have board meetings. This has become the ‘no actual infrastructure fund’ when it comes to actually delivering. They also cut real infrastructure investment to establish an infrastructure financing unit in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. It was given the task, which Infrastructure Australia has under legislation, of attracting private investment in public infrastructure. A year later, the IFU has not produced a single project—not one. It’s a failed experiment.
The fact is that off-budget funding can work in appropriate circumstances. An example is the Moorebank project in Sydney. I support the off-budget funding of the second Sydney airport because that will produce a return when it is leased, as other airports have been. But, in order to be off budget, a project must achieve two things. Firstly, it has to have revenue that is greater than operating and maintenance costs. Now we know that public transport projects in Australia and, indeed, around the world don’t do that. That doesn’t mean they’re not worthwhile, because they contribute to the national economy by boosting productivity, taking pressure off the road network, making a contribution to economic growth and improving road safety by having less cars and heavy freight vehicles on our roads. But that does not mean that they produce a return.
Secondly, they have to produce a return on capital on the original investment. For example, in order for the Melbourne Airport rail link to be funded off budget to produce a commercial return, it would have to produce more revenue day to day than it has operating and maintenance costs and produce a return on the capital, which is likely to exceed $10 billion. It won’t do that. So this grand announcement on page 1 of the newspaper is worth precisely zero, zip, no dollars, no investment.
The criteria for those opposite, who regard themselves as mini capitalists, would ask if, to have off-budget funding, you would invest your own dollars in this business which would produce a return on your investment as well as an ongoing income stream. The answer to that is simply no. And Mathias Cormann knew that. That’s why the Minister for Finance argued against this in the cabinet processes. Everyone knows this to be the case except, perhaps, this foolhardy Prime Minister who imagines himself not as leading the nation but as the merchant banker for the nation who can somehow put together projects like this for free.
The fact is that this is sham funding. This fantasy follows last year’s $8 billion for the Inland Rail after the former Deputy Prime Minister, John Anderson, in his 2015 study for this government said:
… the expected operating revenue over 50 years will not cover the initial capital investment required to build the railway.
And the CEO of the ARTC, John Fullerton, said to the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit earlier this year:
From a strict ARTC point of view, no, the revenues that flow to us wouldn’t cover the full capital cost and provide a return.
Now, I support the inland rail project, but it’s got to be funded properly. I support Melbourne Airport rail, but it’s got to be done properly. I certainly support western Sydney rail through Badgerys Creek airport, but it also will require real dollars and real investment. And the experts all say that that’s the case.
Here’s what someone from the Grattan Institute said:
So there’s a real risk that these equity investments will end up not even making a positive rate of return, never mind a commercial rate.
… … …
If infrastructure projects are never going to make a commercial return, the government should stop pretending they will.
The chief economist for Industry Super Australia, Stephen Anthony, said:
We’re opening up the potential for more unfunded liabilities but we don’t need more time bombs.
Adrian Dwyer, the CEO of Infrastructure Partnerships Australia says the budgets cuts infrastructure investment by $2 billion over four years. He said:
… the warm infrastructure narrative pre-budget has not been met with cold hard cash in the budget papers.
… … …
At a time when our population is growing and our cities are more congested than ever, we need to see infrastructure dollars trending up not down.
The 2018 budget is not an infrastructure budget. It’s an infrastructure mirage that calls us to look years ahead to an investment horizon that might never be reached. Meanwhile, average Australians looking for better roads and public transport are stuck in an infrastructure desert. This self-delusion will increase our national infrastructure deficit and at this very time refuses to fund, for example, Cross River Rail, which is a necessary prerequisite for funding Sunshine Coast rail. Unless you fix the second crossing, you can’t do anything in terms of expanding the rail network in Brisbane, the Gold Coast or the Sunshine Coast. And that’s why the sidelining of infrastructure Australia is such a major issue reflected in this budget.
In that announcement, with the north-south road project from Torrens to Torrens and the South Road Superway, which we have been calling for repeatedly at press conference after press conference on site to be built, finally Infrastructure Australia says it’s on the priority list on the day that it’s leaked to The Adelaide Advertiser when they’ve had the business case since 22 June last year. Such an undermining of infrastructure autonomy and credibility should not have been allowed by the government, because it’s embarrassing for IA that that occurred.
Spin doesn’t build infrastructure. Investment is required. It doesn’t build itself. Investment is required. Only a Labor government will provide that investment. We’ve done it before and we’ll do it again.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.