Hansard – Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2016-2017, Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2016-2017 – 2nd Reading Speech
The 2016-17 budget was an opportunity for the Prime Minister and his Treasurer to put their personal stamp on the administration of this nation. After the chaos, conflict and disappointment of the Abbott Prime Ministership, banished by his own party members, here was a chance to turn the page. In my own area of infrastructure it was a chance for the coalition to bridge the huge gap between its soaring rhetoric on infrastructure and the everyday reality of cuts, delays and nondelivery.
In particular, I think people had a great deal of hope that the prime ministership of Malcolm Turnbull would lead to a reversal of the Abbott government’s attitude towards urban policy and public transport. It was hoped that the member for Wentworth, who enjoyed taking selfies on trains and trams, might actually fund them. But of course that has not happened. The budget’s opening bid was a $1 billion cut to infrastructure investment allocated in previous budgets—no new money for public transport or roads and nothing for cities policies. Indeed, there was a cut of $18 million of funding that was intended to build infrastructure in order to fund a television propaganda campaign that falsely claimed ahead of last year’s election campaign that the government was increasing infrastructure investment.
Actually, what we know is that under the first two years of the coalition government, infrastructure investment fell by 20 per cent. The Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that quarterly public-sector investment in infrastructure under this government has been lower in all of their 12 quarters since they gained office than any single quarter under the previous Labor government’s first budget after 2008. Each one of their 12 quarters has been lower than the 21 quarters in which Labor was in office. Let us look at the context of that. Firstly, you had the resources sector moving from the investment phase to the production phase, which means that you had a drop-off in private sector infrastructure investment. Secondly, you have the economic circumstances of record low interest rates and a Reserve Bank that, because of those low interest rates, has identified a risk in that those low interest rates have led to increased speculation in the housing market. The Reserve Bank of Australia, no less—both the current governor, Philip Lowe, and his predecessor, Glenn Stevens—as well as, of course, former Treasury Secretary Ken Henry and others, have all called for increases in infrastructure investment, and yet the government has stubbornly ignored this advice. We were promised cranes in the sky and bulldozers on the ground by the Abbott government, which we have not seen. We have not seen bulldozers, just clouds of bulldust in terms of the rhetoric of the Abbott government and now the Turnbull government. The only hole that this government has dug has been the one in which they buried the prime ministership of the member for Warringah.
Indeed, we hear, endlessly, this government proclaim that it has a $50 billion infrastructure program. But, of course, that is not true. The Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development noted at Senate estimates that the program is worth $34 billion over the first five years and then $8 billion at some unspecified time in the future. It is not just that; it is that they are not actually even spending the money that has been allocated—last year, $1 billion less than the funding that was actually in the previous government—and they have underspent, which means a slowdown in the rollout of projects like the Pacific Highway and the Bruce Highway. What we have seen from this government is cuts to projects, delays to projects and deferrals of projects. Cuts to all public transport projects that were ready to go, like the Melbourne Metro and the Cross River Rail project. Delays to the commencement of projects, like Adelaide’s upgrade of the South Road and the M80 project in Melbourne. Quite often what we have seen is an extraordinary propensity to rename projects and then pretend that they are new, whether it be the F3 to M2 in Sydney, renamed as NorthConnex, or the Swan Valley Bypass, renamed as NorthLink, a new name does not make it a new project. We have seen a government running around the country not investing in the infrastructure that is needed.
This is the sort of appropriation where you should have seen investment in projects that are ready to go that would boost productivity. One example is the Port Botany rail link. Port Botany has had an upgrade through the Southern Sydney Freight Line, but it stops at Mascot. The bit between Mascot and Port Botany has to be completed. At the moment, you can have only one train in and one train out. If a train is going out from Port Botany, then the train bringing in freight to the port has to wait until that train has gone through the system—an absurdity in 2017. When we were in office, the more than $1 billion we invested in the Southern Sydney Freight Line was aimed at upgrading the capacity of the port and upgrading the rail network. The Moorebank Intermodal Terminal, which will begin actual construction in the next fortnight, is a vital project to get trucks off Sydney’s roads and to increase the productive capacity of Sydney, New South Wales and the nation. And yet this government has failed to complete that project—an absolute no-brainer. The Cross River Rail project in Brisbane was approved by Infrastructure Australia in 2012, funded by federal Labor in 2013 and cancelled by the incoming coalition government, and four years later the government still says, ‘We need more information,’ even though it went through a very rigorous process of Infrastructure Australia’s assessment.
You would think that, if there is a project the National Party could support, it is inland rail. If only we had a sleeper laid every time they mentioned inland rail, the project would be up and running now. Warren Truss, the former transport minister, said on 28 August 2013 that construction would start ‘within three years’. It is now into the fourth year and still we have not seen any construction. Indeed, the new minister, Darren Chester, Mr Truss’s replacement, said to the Australian Logistics Council on 8 March 2017:
… my challenge in this term of government is to build momentum on this project and make its development inevitable.
So they have gone from, ‘Construction is going to commence in 2016,’ to saying in 2017 that they just want it to be inevitable down the track. This is a government that simply cannot do it properly.
It is not just rail. Look at their dud toll roads. We had the East West Link delivering 45c return for every dollar invested. An advance payment of $1½ billion was made and was criticised by the Australian National Audit Office. The government committed exactly the same mistake and received exactly the same criticism from the Australian National Audit Office over the WestConnex project, where, again, advance payments were made. Milestones were changed to suit payments after the milestone had already been reached. The project was supposed to reach a milestone in order to receive a payment. When it did not reach that, the New South Wales government said, ‘We’ll just change what the milestone is to something that has already been achieved and, therefore, justify the payment being made.’ The proposal for the Sydney Secondary College at Leichhardt, in my electorate, to be turned into a construction dive site still remains. The school’s one oval, which serves 1,000 students at Leichhardt and is right next to the tram sheds, is to be turned into a major construction site. This is an absurd proposal which would damage the educational capacity of that school. The government would never think about doing it at one of the wealthier private schools in my electorate, but Leichhardt high school is fair game. There has been no consultation with parents or the school community. Indeed, a letter delivered to the suburbs of Leichhardt and Lilyfield was how residents first found out about it—and, indeed, how I, as the federal member, was first informed about that. I have had productive meetings with the minister, Stuart Ayres, about making sure that that proposal goes off the table. But at this stage it is still there, which is similar to the lack of proper consultation and the concern that parents have had at St Peters Public School, at Haberfield Public School, and at a range of schools, institutions and community groups around the inner west.
But, in terms of funding, the most extraordinary thing is that the letter to the suburbs of Leichhardt and Lilyfield indicated that the government would consult about the final route of the project. That might not seem unusual, except for the fact that they have started building the tunnel. They have literally started building a tunnel without knowing where it is coming up and without knowing what the route of the tunnel will be. You could not make this up. This is a $16.7 billion project that has blown out—the original costing was $10 billion—by $6.7 billion, and they do not know where it is going.
Then we have in Perth the Perth Freight Link, a project rejected by the people of Western Australia just a couple of weeks ago. It was a project that was supposed to take freight to the port, except that it did not go to the port; it stopped three kilometres short of the port. The route goes through the Beeliar Wetlands. It is a project that simply does not stack up and one where the government’s response has been to threaten the $1.2 billion of funding for the people of Western Australia to have proper infrastructure in terms of roads and, of course, the vital Metronet project to expand public transport.
When it comes to cities, in spite of the fact that there was a change of prime ministership and allegedly a change of policy, we have no replacement for the Major Cities Unit, no return to the producing of State of Australian cities reports, a City Deals process that is just matching commitments to previous commitments made by Labor to build the new stadium in Townsville and in Tasmania around the University of Tasmania, and, in Western Sydney, a vague commitment of a small amount of money without any proper engagement with the local community.
Could I say in conclusion that this record stands in stark contrast to when we were in office, when we doubled the roads budget, we increased the rail budget by more than 10 times, we built or rebuilt 7,500 kilometres of roads and 4,000 kilometres of railways, we delivered the nation’s first aviation white paper, we created Infrastructure Australia.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.