Jun 19, 2012

Matter of Public Importance – Pacific Highway Duplication

ANTHONY ALBANESE – I thank the Member for Lyne [Rob Oakeshott] for moving this Matter of Public Importance debate today.  I, frankly, was shocked that members of the National Party and the Liberal Party refused to even stand up out of their seats and support this debate being conducted today.

This is an absolutely vital national issue.  It is an issue for all those communities along the North Coast of NSW.  But it is also an issue for all those who travel along the Pacific Highway.  It might just be once a year, around the Christmas holidays.  But there are people, right throughout this nation, who have been impacted in a very personal way because of road accidents that have occurred on the Pacific Highway.

In 1989 there were the two worst accidents in Australia’s history – they still remain a tragic record – the Clybucca incident, and then one further up the road, just months around, in Grafton.  It is as a result of that that we had a coronial inquiry.  The coronial inquiry recommended the full duplication of the Highway.

On this issue, it is a fact that governments, Federal and State, Labor and Coalition, have not done enough on this issue.  That is a fact.  But when I became the Minister in 2007, I absolutely committed to doing my best to ensure that we actually had some reality to match the rhetoric about what needed to be done on the Pacific Highway.

We have provided, prior to this year, $4.1 billion of funding from the Commonwealth for this highway.  That compares with $1.3 billion over the 12 years of the Howard government; during that period state governments put in $2.5 billion.  You do not need a calculator to work out that that is almost double, and yet what we have from the state government of NSW today is this absolute nonsense that somehow this is the responsibility of the Federal government alone.

I was extremely critical of the NSW Labor government when they did not do their bit on the Pacific Highway.  Indeed, I took $50 million from the NSW Government – Rees bungle cost $50 million – when they were doing the wrong thing.  I was out there at press conferences saying they needed to do more, and do you know who was backing me in? Not just the Member for Lyne but every State Coalition member, from Premier O’Farrell to Andrew Stoner to Duncan Gay.  There was quote after quote.

Andrew Stoner, Deputy Premier and member for the seat right in the middle of the Highway said:

“Nathan Rees can’t pass the buck on this issue.  The upgrade of the Pacific Highway is a State Government responsibility, so it’s up to them to get the job done. … If elected to government in 2011, we will make the upgrade of the Pacific Highway a top priority.”

It is not ancient history.  It was in 2009.

Premier O’Farrell on 8 March 2011, two weeks before the election, said:

“Only the NSW Liberals and Nationals are committed to completing the upgrade of the Pacific Highway by 2016.”

That was two weeks before the election, where they won nearly every seat.  When you cross Sydney Harbour Bridge and drive to Queensland, every single seat along the way is held by a Coalition member, without exception.

The Roads Minister [Duncan Gay] said in 2007:

“I would hope this time he – then Roads Minister Eric Roozendaal – would say, ‘Yes I will match that money and save the lives of people in NSW that have to use this highway’.”

I repeat: ‘match that money’.  That is what they were calling for.  It is not surprising that they were calling for that.  Indeed, when they were the State Opposition they were saying this.

Again, the Deputy Premier on 21 October 2009 said:

“I pay credit to the Rudd [Labor] Government …  for increasing the funding…  The Pacific Highway is a State road that effectively causes the loss of one life a week.

“The State Government must increase its commitment…  As … Mr Albanese pointed out … the Federal Government is actually carrying the State…”

The roads organisations follow this issue day after day.  The NRMA president said:

“It was the Howard Government that set the 50/50 funding split for the Pacific Highway from 2006 and the NRMA has supported this approach since day one.

“While in Opposition, the current NSW Government frequently called on the NSW Labor Government to match Federal funding for the Pacific Highway dollar-for-dollar and we supported this call too.”

To now suggest that funding should suddenly be reverted to an 80-20 model would ensure further long delays in finally upgrading this dangerous Highway.  That was on 27 February this year.

We had agreement after agreement.  The AusLink 2004 White Paper said:

“The Government will partner with the NSW Government to commence new duplication and upgrading projects by investing an additional $480 million in the Pacific Highway in the five-year period.  The NSW Government will be expected to at least match this level of funding.”

The Pacific Highway reconstruction program NSW said:

“Under the Pacific Highway Reconstruction Program the Commonwealth will match on a dollar-for-dollar basis additional expenditure on the Pacific Highway in NSW, up to a maximum of $75 million a year…”

That was in 1996.  The Memorandum of Understanding signed in June 2006 was by the Leader of the National Party [Warren Truss].  It would be 50-50 matching funding.  That was the position that was put forward.  It was in the AusLink agreement as well.

In 2007 the Federal Coalition, in a statement by the Prime Minister [John Howard] – this was during the election campaign for the existing program—said:

“The Coalition Government is willing to provide our share of the additional funding needed to fully duplicate by 2016, if the NSW Government will match our funding commitment to a faster completion.”

So this is not something that has been plucked from nowhere.  This is something that has been in place since 1996.  It was called for by those opposite.  It was called for by the State Coalition, not year after year, not month after month, but day in and day out.  The communities on the North Coast of NSW had every right to expect that it would happen under the O’Farrell Government when it was elected.

This was not a tough State election campaign where they thought: ‘Oh, we’d better promise more money.  We’re not sure how we’ll deliver it, but we’d better make a promise otherwise we mightn’t get across the line’.  This was a landslide.  There are 93 seats, with 20 on one side and 73 on the other.  Every seat from the Sydney Harbour Bridge to the Queensland border is held by the Coalition.  They knew what they were doing.  The people on the North Coast were entitled to think that they would keep their word.

Yet this is what we have.  Last year when we put in the Federal Budget $750 million of new money as part of our $1.02 billion of additional funding for the Pacific Highway, ‘dollar-for-dollar matching’ was what we said.  The State Government in the Treasurer’s speech on budget night and in questions in the Parliament that week said they would match the $750 million.  Yet there was a sleight of hand.

In a letter from the Minister for Roads on 28 May to myself it said:

“As noted, NSW has committed $468 million under the current agreement.  Funding beyond 2013-14 would normally be negotiated in the context of formulating the Nation Building Program.  This will now take place as part of finalising the Pacific Highway intergovernmental agreement.  As you are aware, more than $7 billion in additional funding is required to complete the Highway duplication by 2016.”

People who pay close attention to this – a number of people do; particularly the people on the North Coast – will know that on Federal Budget night we allocated additional money to the Nation Building Program and said that it would be available on a dollar-for-dollar basis up to $3.56 billion, which was half the assessment from NSW, of the remaining costs: $7.1 billion.

But last week in the NSW Budget that $7.1 billion became $7.7 billion because they ripped off $300 million between last year’s budget and this year’s.  They took a further $300 million – the matching amount – from our funding commitment because they knew that it was a matching amount.

So $7.1 billion became $7.7 billion.  A tough task became even tougher.

They say, ‘There’s pressure on our budget.  We’ve lost $5 billion of revenue.’ This Government had to take a $140 billion hit to revenue as a result of the Global Financial Crisis.  But I went into our budget processes and argued the case.  This lot (the Nationals) just rolled over.  In NSW they rolled over for the Liberals.

So they have $3.3 billion for a project (North West Rail Link) that will cost at least $14 billion, and they have abandoned their commitment to the Pacific Highway.

I have a meeting scheduled with the Roads Minister for next Thursday.  The NSW Government has between now and next Thursday to get on board.  The National Party of old would not have rolled over.  McEwen would not have rolled over like this.  They would have demanded support for this national project that has been recognised by Infrastructure Australia.

Yet the current leader of the National Party [Warren Truss] signed documents about the 50-50 funding when he was the transport minister.  But, to give him some credit, at least he was not the local member, the transport minister, leader of the National Party and Deputy Prime Minister like the former member for Lyne [John Anderson] was at the time.  They had the other leaders – the former member for Richmond was another National Party leader – and local members all up and down the coast and they still did not do anything to fix this problem.

But they have an opportunity, and we ask nothing more and nothing less than that they keep to their word and do what they said they would do, which is to do their bit.

What will we do?  We have on the table dollar-for-dollar funding.  The money will go to the Pacific Highway.  We will provide 50 per cent of the funding.  It is a matter of what the timeframe is.  We know that 2016 is achievable.  Those opposite have said that it is not achievable.

I make this point: last week we had the extraordinary position where people on the other side of the Chamber were talking about pork-barrelling.  The Member for Dawson [George Christensen] said:

“You can only write it down to pork-barrelling and vote buying.”

Of the current action on the Pacific Highway, 92 per cent is in Coalition seats.

If you want an example of a national government raising above politics it is this Government and this project.  All we ask is that those opposite do what they said they would do.  They have that opportunity in the next couple of weeks.  They need to deliver on their commitments, because this project is too important to play politics with.