That this bill be now read a second time.
I rise to introduce this private member’s bill, which would provide for the establishment of a high-speed rail authority to oversee the construction of a high-speed rail network along Australia’s eastern seaboard. This is the fifth time I have introduced the bill into this parliament and the last. The fact is that the government has sat on its hands when it comes to high-speed rail and we’ve had five years of inaction. In 2013 the High Speed Rail Advisory Group, established while I was the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport in the former government, concluded that inaction is not benign and that an Australia without high-speed rail is a less prosperous one. That’s why it recommended an authority to oversee the interjurisdictional issues between the Queensland, New South Wales, ACT and Victorian governments, local government and the private sector to drive this change.
This recommendation came from the advisory group that included Tim Fischer, the former Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the National Party, Jennifer Westacott, the head of the Business Council of Australia, a representative of the Australasian Railway Association and a representative of the Rail, Tram and Bus Union. It was a group of people dedicated to driving this change, which was intended to be bipartisan. That’s why I established the advisory group. The authority is needed in order to make a difference now. Infrastructure Australia has estimated that significant savings can be made by preserving the corridor, making sure that all the land which is required is purchased now rather than later on.
The two-stage high-speed-rail study undertaken by the former Labor government was comprehensive in its nature—it went down to the design of the very stations—and it found that the benefits were extraordinary. The benefits are not just in reducing travel times between Sydney and Melbourne and Sydney and Brisbane to under three hours; the big benefit is that this is a decentralisation plan. This is about turbocharging those regional economies. It would, of course, provide significant jobs during construction, but it also would provide a significant economic boost in the medium and long term, particularly for regional Australia.
The idea is that this authority’s immediate priorities would be to finalise the track alignment and to work with Infrastructure Australia on the finalisation of a detailed business case, and it would then be able to go out to the private sector. We know that so many companies who’ve been successful in high-speed rail, construction and operation in Japan, China and Europe would be willing to participate. We know this because they’ve told us that that is the case.
The network would ultimately service two-thirds of Australians.
The first section was anticipated to be Sydney to Melbourne via the Southern Highlands and Canberra, but you could extend that to consider Newcastle to Sydney as well. It would be a game changer. If cities like Newcastle and this great capital city of Canberra were within one hour from the CBD of Sydney, it changes the economics of business being located in those regional cities. Canberra is Australia’s largest inland city. High-speed rail would produce a return of $2.50 of economic benefit for every dollar invested on the Sydney to Melbourne section alone.
The study that I commissioned to assess the project’s viability identified that travel on the east coast of Australia is forecast to grow by about 1.8 per cent every year over the next two decades, which will be an increase of some 60 per cent by 2035.
East-coast trips will double from 152 million in 2009 to 355 million in 2065.
Population growth is greater than what was anticipated in the intergenerational reports—if anything, it was underestimated.
That’s why, in 2017, Infrastructure Australia found that protecting and acquiring the corridor now would reduce the eventual cost of the project by up to $21 billion.
We know that in the worst-case scenario, unrestricted development along the preferred corridor could mean that when the project is built more tunnelling will be required at a cost of $100 million per kilometre in today’s dollars. That’s why we need to get on with this.
The Standing Committee on Infrastructure, Transport and Cities, chaired by my colleague the member for Bennelong, in its recent report Building up & moving out: inquiry into the Australian government’s role in the development of cities concluded in recommendation 5:
… The Committee … recommends that the development of a fast rail or high speed rail network connecting the principal urban centres along the east coast of Australia be given priority, with a view to opening up the surrounding regions to urban development.
This was a unanimous report by the House of Representatives committee, and I congratulate them for it.
We need to stop talking. We need to get on with it. That’s why it is tragic that we had done the work, in terms of the High Speed Rail Advisory Group, to recommend the creation of this authority and to establish funding for it—some $52 million to establish the authority was in the budget when the government changed—but it was reduced to zero, of course, by the incoming Abbott government, who walked away from that commitment.
Now we know that, according to leaked documents, the government has set aside $1.5 billion for preconstruction for high-speed rail, possibly never to be announced, given the change of prime ministership. What we need to do is to make that announcement and to get on with the job.
We also know there is strong interest from the private sector with experience in high-speed-rail technology.
That’s why prior to the last election Labor announced that it would mandate the authority envisaged in this legislation to call for expressions of interest from international consortiums to participate in this project.
These consortiums would bring their expertise as well as their investment.
In addition, a portion of the funding for this major project could come from value uplift, which has been used for infrastructure projects for more than a century.
However, the study completed by the former government dismissed the idea that the project could be funded solely through this mechanism.
We also said prior to the last election that we would enact legislation to preserve the corridor along which the track would be laid.
Governments, of all political persuasions, should always aspire to be better.
At a time when there is much cynicism in the political system, a high-speed-rail network down the east coast of Australia is a true transformational project. It’s one that has the support of the population. It is one that has the support of the business community. It is one that has the practical support of those people who are engaged in the industry itself. It’s one that has international support.
We need to break the nexus between the short-termism of the electoral cycle and the long-term planning that is required to deliver these major transformative projects such as high-speed rail. That’s why I established a committee including people like Tim Fischer. We need to recognise that a project such as this will go beyond one political term or one particular group of people being in government. How do you get that big change that Australia needs? It has to be bipartisan, and that’s why the authority bill should be supported in this parliament.
The member for Newcastle will be seconding this legislation, and I’d encourage the government to bring it on for debate and a vote. I know that there are many on the other side of the House, including the member for Bennelong, who are genuinely supportive of high-speed rail. Let’s get on with the job of actually achieving it. This is a visionary, nation-building project. I commend the bill to the House.