Mar 17, 2008

Infrastructure Australia Bill 2008


Second Reading

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler—Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government) (5.54 p.m.)—in reply—I thank those members of the House who have contributed to the debate on the Infrastructure Australia Bill 2008 and the creation of Infrastructure Australia. I want to make some comments in summing up those contributions. One statement in particular was made by the shadow minister for infrastructure, the member for Wide Bay, in his speech in the second reading debate that was illustrative of where the coalition are at when it comes to infrastructure development. This statement, I think, epitomises the coalition’s lack of understanding of the infrastructure challenges faced by Australia today. After the member for Wide Bay, along with a number of other coalition members, spent a considerable amount of time blaming the states for the nation’s infrastructure problems, after he tried to mount an argument that spending money on infrastructure is inflationary and after he pointed out that any new infrastructure prioritised for development will not actually be built for years to come, the member for Wide Bay asked the following question:

So what is Infrastructure Australia going to do that is not already being done under the current AusLink process?

I think the member should have a look not just at the legislation but at the speeches given by government members during this debate. We know that for almost 12 years infrastructure was not given priority by the previous government. There was no federal infrastructure minister, there was no leadership and it was easier to blame the states than to get on with the job. However, it is clear that, when it comes to planning on infrastructure, we need to do much more than just have the AusLink process. We need a coordinated approach to infrastructure that is whole of government and that recognises that there are relationships between our transport—that is, roads, rail, shipping and aviation—infrastructure and our water infrastructure, energy infrastructure, communications infrastructure and social infrastructure. We need to do much better on these issues in future than we have done in the recent past. The idea of Infrastructure Australia conducting an audit and producing an infrastructure priority list for the nation beyond the term of an electoral cycle is a critical element.

In last year’s budget, the coalition established AusLink 2, which was to run in future years with a budget of $17 billion. But in the election campaign it promised projects worth more than $20 billion. That showed pretty clearly that the planning mechanisms had not lasted from budget day to the days of the election campaign, and that of course excluded the other areas of infrastructure from the national debate. We know that CEDA has stated that investment in infrastructure generates higher returns than investment in other sectors of the economy, yet in the economic debate in the parliament the opposition has confused the issues of capital expenditure and recurrent expenditure. It has failed to acknowledge the importance of capital investment in infrastructure. To have sat back and filled the previous government coffers with over $390 billion additional revenue from the mining boom and let Australia slip to 20th out of 25 OECD countries for its investment in public infrastructure is economic mismanagement at its worst.

In terms of the role of Infrastructure Australia, it is quite clear that we have a commitment to re-engage the Commonwealth with our cities policy. We are the most urbanised country on earth. We need plans for regional development, but we also need plans for our cities, and our Infrastructure Australia agenda is a part of that. Business group after business group—for example, BCA, Australian Industry Group, Engineers Australia and CEDA—have called for national coordination of infrastructure, but nothing happened under the previous government. Indeed, the member for Barker made an extraordinary contribution in the second reading debate in the House when he said:

Infrastructure Australia is not actually an original idea. It was the Howard government that in 1996 conceived the idea of a national infrastructure council.

That is an extraordinary comment to make in 2008. It is an acknowledgement that they had thought about it in 1996, but they just did not do anything about it for 12 long years. Indeed, the opposition spokesperson, the member for Wide Bay, has stated:

Infrastructure failures have damaged our growth and our quality of life over the years.

He was absolutely correct when he said that. That identifies the problem and we have identified the solution—doing something about it, getting that coordination going, saying no to the blame game and no to a disjointed approach to infrastructure and saying yes to national coordination, and working with the different tiers of government but also, importantly, with the private sector.

The Rudd Labor government are firmly focused on the future. We know that there have been 20 warnings from the RBA about unsustainable inflationary pressure being put on the economy. We have had back-to-back interest rate increases. We know that infrastructure shortfalls are costing us 0.8 per cent of GDP and that our infrastructure backlog is conservatively estimated at tens of billions of dollars. We know that working families are experiencing long-term water restrictions and slow internet speeds and are spending too much time in their cars commuting rather than being at home with their children. Infrastructure has a social implication as well and we need to integrate economic policy with social policy.

On our 99th day in office, the Prime Minister and I, along with the member for Blair and the member for Oxley, turned the sod on a critical road project in south-east Queensland—the upgrade of the Ipswich Motorway. It represents a $700 million injection of funds for stage 1 of the Wacol to Darra project, which will eventually upgrade a road used every day by 80,000 cars and trucks. In other critical areas like broadband, we have rolled up our sleeves. The Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Conroy, announced last week the panel of experts to assess proposals to build a new national high-speed fibre broadband network. There is much more to do and it does take time for infrastructure, from conception to finalisation, to be put into place. That is the reason for more urgency in this debate.

Infrastructure Australia will drive investment where it is needed most. Infrastructure Australia is much more than just AusLink; it is a different way of proceeding in acknowledgement that the old ways simply were not working. I have been extremely pleased with the support, particularly from the business community, for this infrastructure agenda. Last Friday, I addressed a gathering of hundreds of businesspeople in Melbourne. All of them were extremely supportive of this agenda. The announcement of Sir Rod Eddington as the chair of Infrastructure Australia has been extremely well received by those engaged in the infrastructure agenda and by the broader community. I think the fact that someone of his stature has been prepared to take up this position shows how serious the Labor government are about our economic reform agenda for this term of government by placing Infrastructure Australia as one of the central features. I commend the bill to the House.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.