I welcome the relatively brief statement by the Prime Minister on his record of infrastructure delivery in his first year in office.
I suspect that in delivering his account, the Prime Minister was thinking of former Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who once said:
You don’t tell deliberate lies, but sometimes you have to be evasive.
In infrastructure, talk means nothing. Only results matter.
Despite going to the election giving Australians the impression it would maintain Labor’s six-year focus on nation building, the government is struggling to deliver results. It continues to present old Labor projects as though they are new. It continues to treat its election promises as though their delivery was somehow optional.
The government has also run up the white flag on traffic congestion by scrapping all Commonwealth investment in the best remedy to solve the problem—better public transport.
Just a few days before the election, Tony Abbott told that National Press Club a line that he has repeated today, that there will be cranes and bulldozers at work on major new infrastructure projects within one year of the election.
As recently as last week, a Senate estimates committee heard there were no cranes at work, no bulldozers either—just clouds of bulldust. Today’s statement by the Prime Minister is more of the same.
Before addressing the statement, let me remind the House of the infrastructure record of the former Labor government.
We inherited an infrastructure deficit. The Howard government had squandered the windfall receipts from the mining boom on middle-class welfare and electoral bribes.
That money should have been used to build roads, railway lines and ports. Over the following six years, and despite the global financial crisis, Labor rolled out an infrastructure investment program which yielded results that can best be illustrated by a single statistic. When Labor took office, Australia was 20th amongst OECD nations in terms of infrastructure investment as a proportion of GDP. When Labor left office Australia was first.
Looking at it another way, Labor lifted total infrastructure spending from $132 per person to $225 per person.
While others talk about infrastructure, Labor delivers. We are nation builders. We realise that, as John F Kennedy once said:
Things do not happen. They are made to happen.
Over six years Labor: established Infrastructure Australia to provide, for the first time, a system for evidence based decision making on infrastructure; doubled the roads budget and upgraded 7500 kilometres of road; rebuilt or built anew 4,000 kilometres of railways. About a third of the national railway network was rebuilt.
As a result of that investment, we reduced the freight rail journey from Brisbane to Melbourne by seven hours and the journey from the east to west coast by nine hours.
We committed more to urban passenger rail than all previous Commonwealth governments combined from Federation right up to 2007. We created the nation’s first aviation strategy, the nation’s first port strategy, the nation’s first national freight strategy.
We initiated planning for the second Sydney airport. We focused on cities by establishing the Major Cities Unit and the Urban Policy Forum, including experts from government, planning and development sectors to advise government in better long-term planning—a proud record of achievement.
We did not just throw money at building new toll roads and pretend we were meeting our nation’s infrastructure needs. We established a process for evidence-based decision making on infrastructure and collaborated with states and local government to make sure that we got it right. Then we delivered in spades.
During last year’s election campaign, the then opposition leader made infrastructure a central plank of his platform. A year later, his promises are undelivered and his platform is tottering.
I know why.
During the period of the Labor Government, the then opposition leaders never had a positive idea and took no time for serious policy consideration. The now Prime Minister was too busy being negative. He turned, indeed, the Coalition of yesterday into the Noalition.
As election time approached, the most negative opposition leader in Australian history realised he needed to find a positive narrative, so he turned to infrastructure. The problem was that his ideas were too narrow, not thought out and came with with no proper planning.
That is why these plans are now crumbling and why this first year has been dominated by broken promises.
Let’s look at a few.
The then opposition leader promised to retain the independence of Infrastructure Australia. He also promised to reappoint its chairman, Sir Rod Eddington. He failed to do so. And one of the government’s first actions was to launch an assault on Infrastructure Australia’s independence.
It proposed legislation that would have given the Minister for Infrastructure the power to dictate its research agenda and to censor publication of its findings. The proposal went so far as to suggest that the minister should have exclusive power to exclude entire classes of infrastructure from Infrastructure Australia’s consideration.
This was a sneaky, backdoor attempt to warn Infrastructure Australia off the government’s ideological no-go area of public transport.
Fortunately, the government ultimately backed down on this ridiculous plan due to pressure not just from the Parliament but also from outside—from the Business Council of Australia, from Infrastructure Australia itself, from the Property Council and from the Urban Development Institute of Australia. It folded as a result of this pressure.
Another key coalition promise was to require all Commonwealth infrastructure spending worth more than $100 million to undergo a proper cost-benefit analysis. That analysis was to be ticked off by the experts at Infrastructure Australia. The government has treated this promise with contempt from day one.
In its first budget, it handed $1.5 billion as an advance payment for Melbourne’s East-West Link project. Indeed, $1 billion of this is for Stage II, which not only did not commence last financial year when the payment was made; it will not commence this financial year and not even next financial year. Yet a billion dollars has already been paid for this project.
We can only conclude that the payment was designed to pad Premier Napthine’s budget bottom line in advance of the Victorian state election. We should also never forget that this favour to a political mate came at a time when the government claimed it was facing a budget emergency.
So much for the budget emergency—making advance payments years in advance of any construction.
That compares with what the assistant minister told the Civil Contractors Federation—and the minister may well remember this. On 6 June he said:
So we are driving the state governments very hard to give us timetables to ensure that we’re meeting the expected time of delivery of these projects.
…that we’re hitting milestones, that we’re only making payments to states when they actually deliver the milestones, that they’re not getting money in their bank account prior to milestones being delivered …
But that same $1.5 billion dollars arrived in the Victorian Government’s bank account, years in advance of anything actually happening.
The government also provided a concessional loan for Sydney’s WestConnex project—another project without a cost-benefit analysis.
For anyone who knows anything about Sydney, Stage I of the WestConnex project goes to Haberfield and Stage II goes to St Peters—to the west of the airport. I am a supporter of the concept of taking people to the city and freight to the port, but the road needs to do both of those things if it is to stack up—yet the money has already been paid.
If you thought East-West and WestConnex were bad, have a look at the so-called Perth Freight Link. It used to be known as Roe 8. This project seems to have been pulled out of a Weet-Bix packet – no cost-benefit analysis and no clarity on details.
Even the Western Australian Liberal government is in the dark. In June, the WA government’s Parliamentary Secretary for Transport, Jim Chown, told a parliamentary committee:
… at this stage we have not actually got plans that are worthy of public scrutiny.
He said that a month after the budget announcement. This is the Liberal Party person in government responsible for this project—an extraordinary proposition.
The government currently has legislation to institutionalise cost-benefit analysis on projects funded to the tune of more than $100 million. There is a fundamental problem here, though: the analysis would come after the projects have been funded.
So you determine what projects will have a cost-benefit analysis after you have determined that they will receive more than $100 million of government funding.
News flash: do the cost-benefit analysis prior to determining where the funding will go. That is a fundamental principle of what should happen.
This explains why there are problems. Just ask one of my constituents. Vince Crowe received two letters from a representative of the WestConnex Delivery Authority on 26 June 2014—on the same day.
The first letter said, ‘We’re going to buy your property,’ and the second letter said, ‘We don’t need to buy your property’—on the same day. That is what happens when you do not get planning right.
Such misadventures are bad enough, but the government’s biggest mistake is its refusal to spend a cent on public transport.
You cannot deliver solutions to urban congestion without dealing with both road and rail and without having strategies for transport. If you are going to have the infrastructure of the 21st century—as the rhetoric goes—you need to deliver on urban public transport, you need to deliver on high-speed rail and you also need to deliver on the National Broadband Network.
And one of those infrastructure challenges is just that. The 21st century is the information age. All Australians deserve fibre to the home. All Australians deserve best practice. When we talk about analysis paralysis, an example is that, over the last 12 months, there have been eight separate inquiries into the National Broadband Network—eight separate inquiries. So we need to be serious about that.
The government’s infrastructure strategy has been to take money off projects that had cost-benefit analysis, like the Cross-River Rail project and Melbourne Metro—to take money from urban public transport—and give it to roads.
The government does deserve credit for the work that has been done on Badgerys Creek.
But Badgerys Creek needs to have not just roads, but rail. It needs to preserve the corridor, but it would be logical—when you have the rail line being built to Leppington funded by the former state Labor government—to extend it further and to connect with the main western line. That would be the smart thing to do.
When the Prime Minister was attempting to spin the 2014 budget he claimed he had delivered significant infrastructure investment. The truth is that his statement today repeated a range of projects, many of which are just about ready to open.
Gateway WA and the projects on the Bruce Highway that he mentioned, like Calliope Crossroads, are projects that have been underway for years.
The so-called asset recycling plan has been spoken about by those opposite in the form of interjections. The truth is that the only thing that was recycled there was the money. They took money from the Building Australia Fund, called it the Asset Recycling Fund, and pretended that there was new investment where there was not.
The truth is that the former government lifted infrastructure investment from 20th in the OECD to first.
This current government needs to give a commitment that it will maintain that investment at first place. It is simply that.
I commend to the government the advice of Henry Ford, who once said:
Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.
The government should get infrastructure investment right. If they do that the nation will benefit.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.