Imagine loading the kids into the car in Brisbane, heading south to Melbourne to visit the grandparents, knowing that you will not face a single car, bus or truck coming the other way. There’ll be no overtaking risk with oncoming traffic, no fear of a tired truck driver veering over your side of the white line and every likelihood that you will arrive in one piece. That is because you will have spent the entire trip on a fully duplicated highway, all 1700 kilometres of it.
Last week, the Federal Government committed the final piece of Commonwealth funding to make that scenario a reality. With the final stretch of the Hume Highway due for completion near Holbrook next year, that just leaves the Pacific Highway. And as anyone who uses that road knows, there are still long stretches of single carriageway where a brief lapse of concentration can have tragic consequences.
The Pacific Highway is one of Australia’s most important roads. Each day and night, hundreds of heavy vehicles jostle for space with locals, holiday makers and people who travel the road for business. Since two devastating bus crashes in as many months in 1989 left 56 people dead, almost 1,000 others have lost their lives along the Pacific Highway. The sad white crosses that dot the side of the road remind us of that.
Last week, the Federal Government set aside $3.56 billion from this year’s budget for the Nation Building Program. The proportion of this funding that is matched by the NSW Government is available for the Pacific Highway. If fully matched, it will be enough to ensure the full duplication by 2016 and more workers can join the 1600 already working at upgrades along the route.
The fact is that even prior to this week’s Budget announcement, the current Federal Labor Government had already committed three times more funding ($4.1 million) than the former Howard Government ($1.3 billion) during its almost 12 years at the helm.
No-one is asking more of the NSW Government that they demanded in opposition. Throughout the Howard years, the constant call from the then NSW opposition was for NSW Labor to ‘match the Federal funding’. Take just one of the many documented examples demanding a 50/50 split, in this case from the now Roads Minister Duncan Gay. In October 2007 on ABC News, Mr Gay urged the then NSW Treasurer to say: “Yes, I will match that [Federal] money and save the lives of people in NSW that have to use this highway.”
Recently, NRMA President Wendy Machin described the NSW Government’s call to change the 50/50 funding split as disingenuous. She said the Howard Government had set the 50/50 split and that the NRMA had 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,” Ms Machin said.
I urge the NSW Government to heed the words of the NRMA president and put politics aside. Road safety is at stake. Productivity is at stake. This road should have been duplicated decades ago. That it is not speaks of considerable political failure. The people of Australia deserve a modern, safe road. The 2016 deadline is only four years away. A matching grant in the NSW Budget next month will end decades of political squabbling over this vital road.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.