Sep 5, 2017

Regional Development and Decentralisation Committee Report

Federation Chamber
Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (18:16): I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this debate as the shadow minister for regional development, and to be able to outline what four years of neglect and failure mean in our regions when it comes, particularly, to energy, to the National Broadband Network, to infrastructure investment and to water policy. Energy is what I will begin with.

When it comes to energy, there’s a bit of a debate as to whether there should be a new coal-fired power station in Northern Queensland, or whether, indeed, renewable energy is the future. Last fortnight, I visited Hughenden, Kidston and the Kennedy Project in north-west Queensland with the member for Kennedy, Bob Katter. There we looked at the reality of what is happening on the ground, not because of the coalition government, but in spite of the federal government. There we looked at exciting projects which are taking place.

The Kidston Solar Project is about 280 kilometres north-west of Townsville. It sits on the side of the abandoned gold mine, which ceased production around the turn of the century. The developer, Genex, came up with the quite ingenious idea of redeveloping the site as a solar and pumped hydro facility, taking advantage of the existing mine infrastructure. The company is installing 537,000 photovoltaic cells mounted on a tracking system that will follow the sun across the sky. Once fully commissioned early next year, this facility will generate enough electricity to power more than 26,000 homes, with its second stage set to add more capacity, making it the largest solar farm in Australia.

As part of stage 2, the company will utilise the old mine’s tailings dam to create a 250-megawatt pumped storage hydro project. Some of the power produced by the sun by day will be used to pump water up to the dam, and at night the water will be used to drive turbines. This integration of solar and pumped storage will provide stability to the grid and a pathway to the 24/7 supply of renewable energy.

I also visited what will soon become the site of the Kennedy Energy Park located outside of Hughenden. This project will combine solar, wind and battery storage to create renewable energy on a scale comparable to Queensland’s large coal-fired power plants like Tarong and Stanwell—enough electricity to power up to a million homes. Both projects have been strongly backed by the Palaszczuk Queensland Labor government, but they might have withered on the vine without the mitigation of risk through the support of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, both of which were set up by the former federal Labor government and which are agencies that the current government tried to abolish when it came to office.

The current government is also continuing to resist Professor Finkel’s recommendation of a clean energy target to provide the certainty for investment that’s required. Regional Australia will particularly benefit from certainty in investment and job creation. On the ground, the ideological conflict between the Abbott forces and the Turnbull forces in this coalition government are completely irrelevant to the people of Hughenden, to the people who are creating jobs and to the people who are developing north-west Queensland.

Moving to other opportunities for decentralisation when it comes to infrastructure, we hear a lot of rhetoric from this government about infrastructure investment. What we don’t actually see is dollars. When it comes to the Bruce Highway and the Pacific Highway, the major routes up the east coast of Australia, we haven’t seen new investment from the coalition government. What we’ve seen is the government relying upon the investment that was put in place by the former Labor government. Projects which the member for Maranoa mentioned, such as the Warrego Highway, were already in the budget. We haven’t seen any additional investment there. The Parliamentary Budget Office has advised that over the coming decade infrastructure investment as a proportion of GDP will fall from 0.4 per cent to 0.2 per cent—a halving of investment. Over the forward estimates, from an estimate of over $9 billion that was supposed to be spent last year, investment declines to $4.2 billion in 2021—it falls off a cliff—and it is regional Australia that will suffer as a result. There will be not only fewer short-term jobs and less activity in the construction sector but also, in the long-run, much less economic activity.

There is one powerhouse project that the government could support to support regional economic development and decentralisation, and that is high-speed rail from Brisbane to Melbourne through Sydney and Canberra. High-speed rail would provide an economic stimulus to towns along the route such as Lismore, Coffs Harbour, Port Macquarie, Taree, Newcastle, the Central Coast, the Southern Highlands, down through to this great inland city, the bush capital of Canberra, then through Wagga Wagga, Albury and Shepparton. Yet this government has withdrawn the funds that were there to establish a high-speed rail authority when it came to office.

The next issue that the government could address is the National Broadband Network. The National Broadband Network is vital for creating the same business and economic opportunities for people, whether they live in the CBD of our capital cities or whether they live in a regional centre. In terms of the competitive advantage that the NBN would bring to regional Australia where it has been turned on properly in places with fibre to the home and with fibre to the business, it has certainly done that. It would enable a business in Coffs Harbour to compete on the same basis for international contracts and international business opportunities as one based in George Street in Sydney. Yet this government has this so-called hybrid model, which is essentially that if you can afford to have fibre connected to your home, you can pay for it. But for everyone else it is a matter of privilege. And sometimes it is just a matter of accident. Depending upon where in a regional town you live, you might have fibre on one side of the street and copper—second-rate delivery—on the other side of the street. That will impact the economic value of those homes. It is quite extraordinary that the National Broadband Network has had to concede that its development of fibre technology is such that it can be rolled out more cheaply than the millions of metres of copper wire that have been purchased by the current government—it is quite extraordinary that that would happen—in 2017.

Lastly, when it comes to the proper management of our water resources, particularly in the Murray-Darling Basin, we have seen a failure by this government to manage those issues properly. We have referrals to various corruption agencies as a result of that, but it is a complete failure of government leadership. Whether it is high-speed rail, water management, energy, the National Broadband Network, rail or road infrastructure, this government is failing regional Australia and that is why it is suffering a decline of support in regional Australia. The huge gap between the rhetoric and the reality of this government means it stands condemned.