Feb 24, 2012

Pacific Highway should be above politics – Opinion – The Northern Star, Lismore

No other highway in the country has been the subject of so many promises over so many years. And no other highway has seen so many deaths – at last count 809 over the past two decades. In January, a young boy died in the most tragic fashion at Urunga when a B-double truck slammed into his family’s holiday home. And no-one could forget the two shocking bus crashes that happened in quick succession in 1989 leaving 56 people dead and 63 injured. 

The tragedy of so many lives lost on a dangerous, inadequate highway is a mark of profound political failure. The coronial inquiries that followed the bus accidents 23 years ago produced a long list of improvements to vehicle and road safety. Top of the list was the call for the Pacific Highway to be duplicated. 

I said in Federal Parliament last year that some things must be above politics and this highway is one of them. I also spoke of my personal connection to the highway. My name, Anthony, comes from the young cousin I never got to meet who was killed on the highway at Halfway Creek between Grafton and Coffs Harbour. His parents renamed their motel Anthony’s Motel and I was called Anthony in his memory. 

Both the Federal and NSW Governments support the completion of  duplication by 2016. This deadline was in fact set by the former Prime Minister John Howard yet when he left office, less than 40 percent was duplicated. Throughout the Howard years, the persistent call, backed by the then NSW Coalition, was for NSW State Labor to ‘match the Federal funding’. Here is a statement from John Howard in October 2007: “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.” 

In fact during the period of the Howard Government, NSW Labor more than matched it, spending twice as much ($2.5 billion) compared with the Federal Coalition’s $1.3 billion. The loudest calls during the Howard years for matched NSW/ Federal funding were from the current NSW Roads Minister Duncan Gay. 

In October 2007 on ABC News Mr Gay urged the then NSW Labor Treasurer to say: “Yes I will match that [Federal] money and save the lives of people in NSW that have to use this highway.”  Or this from his Federal colleague Luke Hartsuyker in February 2006: “The Pacific Highway is a State road, designed, built, owned and maintained by the NSW Government.” 

There are no end of examples of who said what when. And it is always easy to be bold from the comfortable sidelines of Opposition. But the documented reality is that the current Federal Government has already committed three times more ($4.1 billion) than the former Howard Government ($1.3 billion) during its almost 12 years at the helm. Had the Howard Government made a similar commitment to this, the Pacific Highway would today be a modern, duplicated road. 

Right now, 1,600 construction staff are at work on the highway. There’s the Ballina, Bulahdelah and Kempsey bypasses, duplication of the road between Sapphire and Woolgoolga and upgrading and realignment of the road at Banora Point. Work is beginning to duplicate the road between Tintenbar and Ewingsdale, and at Devils Pulpit.  By mid-year, we will have selected the company to build the section of the Kempsey bypass that includes Clybucca, the site of Australia’s worst single vehicle crash 23 years ago. 

A fully-duplicated highway will boost productivity and most importantly be safer for the thousands of travellers and locals who use it each day. Already work has cut travel times from Newcastle to Queensland by 2.5 hours. 

The Federal Government is doing a lot but more needs to be done. This can only happen in partnership with the State Government. The community wants us to stop the politics and get on with shared funding to achieve our 2016 deadline. Government is much harder than Opposition. It is also where you can make a difference with action, not just words.