Jun 26, 2014

Infrastructure Australia Amendment Bill

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (12:24): Labor supports the amendments that were put forward to the original flawed Infrastructure Australia amendment bill. We would have had an opportunity to move those amendments back in December 2010 when the House of Representatives considered the legislation. At that time—and I do not blame the minister for this—the government thought it was intelligent for some reason to come into this chamber and gag the debate on the Infrastructure Australia amendment bill. Members might recall that, because it was after, I think, something in the order of 19 divisions later in the evening and after 11 o’clock that that legislation was carried. I note that none of the bills that I am responsible for has been gagged since, and I expect that that will be the case in the future, given that experience.

Had we been able to move amendments then, we would have moved the substantial amendments that are now being supported by the entire parliament. We would have done so with the support of the submissions that were made by the Business Council of Australia, by the Urban Development Institute of Australia, by Infrastructure Partnerships Australia and by anyone who considered the implications of the original bill. The original bill that was brought before this parliament and gagged through this chamber would have taken away the independence of Infrastructure Australia. It provided for the minister to be able to exclude categories of infrastructure, and we on this side of the chamber had our fears about that realised when we looked at the May budget where funding for every single public transport project that was not under construction was removed from the federal budget. That included projects such as the Cross River Rail project and the Melbourne Metro project that were high on Infrastructure Australia’s priority list. Infrastructure Australia has already been conducting rolling audits, with a list published at least annually which has a pipeline of projects from projects that are ready to proceed right through to projects that show some promise but need more work to be done. Cross River Rail was at the very top of the June 2012 Infrastructure Australia priority list.

What the original legislation would have allowed a minister to do is say do not look at public transport. What we say is that if Infrastructure Australia is to be able to do its job it must be independent of the minister and the government. It must be able to look at infrastructure plans of how you deal with urban congestion for cities, for example. That is one of the big challenges. You cannot look at it unless you look at the way that a city functions: how it is planned, what is the road network, what is the rail network, what is the connection between moving passengers and people and moving freight. It is all interconnected. That is why we were very concerned, and the business community shared those concerns. I am pleased that the government has agreed to our position on that.

There is a second major area of amendments that are being considered here and which we support. We were very concerned that the legislation gave the minister power to direct Infrastructure Australia in a range of ways, including what could be published. It is an attempt to take away the transparency of Infrastructure Australia. When I was the minister there were a range of things that Infrastructure Australia had to say, including measures such as tolling the Pacific Highway. I did not agree with that. I would never agree with that, and I think the current minister would have the same view. But it is important that Infrastructure Australia is able to consider issues such as pricing and the way that the road network functions in a way that is independent. That is part of its role.

The other role that Infrastructure Australia plays—and why it is important for the linkages to go between the Commonwealth and the state—is to work in a dynamic way so that they improve the way that the states deliver infrastructure projects. There is much work to be done in terms of states doing the preparatory work for which they are responsible and this legislation—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER:  I thank the member for Grayndler. The question is that the amendments be agreed to. I give the call to the member for Grayndler.

There are a range of measures and the minister will know this.

When the global financial crisis hit, we were looking—for obvious reasons, in terms of the economic stimulus plan—towards the states and territories to put forward projects that were ready to proceed with construction, where we could get jobs saved, with maximum benefit in terms of productivity for the nation. The truth is that most of the states had very little that was ready to proceed. They simply had not done the planning. Infrastructure Australia has a critical role to play in making sure that the states do the preparatory work—the environmental approvals and all of that—is in place so that, when funding is available, it can be made available to the states and we can get that work done.

These amendments improve the bill substantially. It is now at the point where Labor is prepared to support the legislation—as, of course, we always were. What we were determined to do, though, was to make sure that the flawed legislation would be improved and that the independence of Infrastructure Australia would be assured. I note the minister was speaking about appointing board members. All the board members have done their job extremely well, and I would be concerned if there were any politicisation of the board. I certainly did not do that with the appointments that were made by the former government to the Infrastructure Australia board. To the contrary: the only person who had a political background who was ever appointed to the board was a former Liberal government minister in Victoria. People were appointed on the basis that they could get the job done, and I encourage the minister to ensure that that occurs.

It was also very important that the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and Treasury were represented on the board. It made sure that infrastructure was something not at the fringe of government activity but at the core. I encourage the minister to consider ensuring that that direct representation and participation in Infrastructure Australia is there. It is far better to have Prime Minister and Cabinet, Treasury and Finance a part of decision making going forward than to have Infrastructure make a decision and then have to go and lobby Prime Minister and Cabinet and the two key economic portfolios for support. I think that is particularly important.

In terms of the processes, I support the legislation. I will have another contribution, but I might stop there and seek the call again.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER:  I thank the member for Grayndler. The question is that the amendments be agreed to. I give the call to the member for Grayndler.

Mr ALBANESE:  I have some comments to make about a quite extraordinary article that appeared in today’s News Limited publications, by Simon Benson, with attribution to the minister’s errand boy, the member for Mayo. It leaves an impression that the amendments that are now being supported by the government are somehow blocking projects. If that is true, then why is it that these amendments are about to go through unanimously? It is because it is a scurrilous article that has no basis in fact at all. Indeed, there are comments in this which would suggest that the junior minister, the Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development, is of a view that there should be no cost-benefit analysis of major projects. That is what the article suggests—that somehow proper processes are red tape or green tape.

It names a number of projects. It says NorthConnex is it being held up. Well, that was actually funded by the 2013 budget, and funding for that commenced in the 2012-13 financial year. On Badgerys Creek airport, we had extensive studies that showed the importance to the national economy of a secondary airport for Sydney. I have not played politics with that issue. That is a critical issue for jobs, for economic growth and for Sydney’s position as a global city. There is no question—any economic analysis says that Sydney needs a second airport. They all have done, including the extensive joint study which I commissioned, between the federal government and the state government. WestConnex does need to have a proper cost-benefit analysis, and you do have to have an environmental impact statement for a major project such as that. That is the process and that is the law, under state law.

There are absurd statements here. The article says—I assume briefed by the junior representative from the government:

It would also restore power to the states to veto projects.

Anyone with a basic understanding of the way that infrastructure is delivered in this nation knows that these are all state projects. There is not a federal department of public works that does projects. They are state projects that the states manage. For every transport project, every road project, every rail project, planning is with the states. They are state projects. It is states who make submissions to the Commonwealth, and the Commonwealth decides whether to support them or not. The fact that that view is there shows how inadequate this junior minister is and what an embarrassment he is to his portfolio.

The other thing is that, as the minister indicated, there are 29 amendments by the Senate, and five of them are government amendments. They amended their own bill. They passed the legislation through the House of Representatives with a gag motion last December, then it sat there, not being brought on for debate, until June. For six months the government did nothing. That is not our responsibility; that is the government’s responsibility. The amendments got carried on Monday, and then we got asked for discussions about the amendments on Wednesday. To the credit of the minister opposite, the Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development, we had discussions in good faith yesterday—serious, adult discussions.

Meanwhile, junior boy is out there briefing the Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun that these amendments are all a disaster, amendments that he is about to vote for. So the errand boy has shown that he is up to getting the minister’s lunch but not much else with this pathetic performance. I do not blame Simon Benson for this. He contacted me and included a quote from me. There is no reason why he would be on top of the infrastructure legislation late on an afternoon when he is given spin by the government.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER:  I thank the member for Grayndler. The question is that the amendments be agreed to. I give the call to the member for Grayndler.

Mr ALBANESE:  This article has been published. It includes the East West project in Melbourne. We make this point on the East West project in Melbourne: we need a cost-benefit analysis. That is what the government’s policy is. It is still on their website that for projects above $100 million there will be a cost-benefit analysis and it will be published. That is the government’s policy, yet in this article the junior minister is saying that that is red tape. Well, it is this government’s policy, and $1.5 billion as an advance payment has been made this month for a project, including stage 2, $1 billion advance payment for a project that has had no cost-benefit analysis for stage 2. They do not even know where the tunnel is going to come up. There has been no documentation or proper assessment and it will not begin this financial year when the billion dollars is being paid, not even next financial year even but the financial year after that. So much for their budget emergency—$1.5 billion sitting in bank accounts of the Victorian government to make their budget look better. It makes a farce of the rhetoric.

This bill will be carried as amended with the support of the entire parliament. That is a good thing. The government suggested a range of minor amendments, including moving one section in terms of the cost-benefit analysis for specific projects rather than what it might be interpreted as being, for the longer term plans. Certainly the intention of the amendment was clear, that it was about specific projects. The opposition, and might I say to their credit also the Greens political party, were prepared to support an amendment going through the House as a result of the representations from the minister, taken in good faith by me. I have said to the minister, and it is a serious statement, that whenever he wants to talk about serious policy I am up for it and I am up for constructive engagement. That is the way I do business. But what I will not cop is while I am in a room having serious discussions with one minister his errand boy is out there undermining those discussions up in the gallery. That is not adult government; that is student politics. If I were Simon Benson or Paul Whittaker, I would be upset with the government for giving them this level of spin that is just nonsense. The proof that it is nonsense is a fact that the government is supporting this amended legislation through the parliament today. It will go through unanimously.

I put on the record here that if the minister wanted to have a minor amendment bill or what have you to fix up that little bit, if he thought it was important, there would be support from the opposition. But there is no doubt that as a result of the scrutiny that has taken place, particularly the Senate inquiry and the submissions from the business community, that this legislation, flawed when it originally went through, taking away the independence of Infrastructure Australia, has been substantially improved. Infrastructure Australia must be at the core of recommendations. The budget had funding for programs like the Perth freight project that simply do not have any analysis. There is no funding in the WA budget for it, there have been no proper assessments and no planning. That is not the way to do business. The way to do businesses to depoliticise the infrastructure debate, and Infrastructure Australia is the key to that. I commend the legislation as amended to the House.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Craig Kelly):  The question is that the Senate’s amendments to the Infrastructure Australia Amendment Bill 2013 be agreed to.

Question agreed to.