May 11, 2011

Matters of Public Importance, Upgrade of Pacific Highway

Mr ALBANESE – I do indeed thank and congratulate the member for Lyne for moving this MPI and for his unwavering commitment to building duplication of the Pacific Highway. The M1 is Australia’s most important road right up the east coast. In 2012, next year, we will complete the duplication of the Hume Highway—a great achievement. What we have done with our commitment in the budget on Tuesday night is take the next step to making sure that we can deliver the full duplication of the Pacific Highway by the year 2016. That is absolutely vital.

I want to begin my contribution by talking about the day of 20 October 1989. Not far from Grafton, the driver of a semi-trailer loaded with fruit juice went to sleep. With a massive concentration of ephedrine in his blood, he had done everything he could to stay awake. His vehicle careered across the road into the path of a passenger bus, splitting it open and throwing passengers onto the road. Twenty-one people died in that crash and a further 22 were injured. It was the worst accident of its kind in Australian history. That record did not last for long. Two months later, at Clybucca near Kempsey, two fully loaded tourist coaches, each travelling at 100 kilometres an hour, collided head-on. Seats were ripped from their anchor bolts, people were trapped within the bus and 35 people died that day and 41 were injured.

The coronial inquiries that followed both disasters produced a long list of improvements to vehicle and road safety. But top of the list was the call for the Pacific Highway to be duplicated. This is something for someone who travels up and down the Pacific Highway and it is also something on a personal note. My name ‘Anthony’ comes from my young cousin whom I never got to meet. He was killed on the Pacific Highway at Halfway Creek. He was killed before he was of school age. After the war, his parents went up to this area to build the Halfway Creek Motel, and they did it with their own hands. My uncle was an ex-service man. My cousin ran out onto that road and was killed just before I was born. This is where I get my name ‘Anthony’ from. Later on—and people who are familiar with the area would know this—the name of the motel was changed to Anthony’s Motel at Halfway Creek. And the name has changed a number of times since my uncle passed on. So I understand very well why this highway is far more important than petty politics. I have a personal commitment to it, and I am very proud that we have delivered on it prior to Tuesday night with $3.1 billion of funding. That compares with $1.3 billion over the 12 years of the Howard government.

Look at the political makeup of the electorates, federal and state, along that highway and you will see that there is no question that this is a commitment that is above politics for the Australian Labor Party. It is a commitment that we are about doing the right thing, like all those who live and work on that coast but also all those who travel, even if it is once a year, up and down that road when they go north to get a bit of warmth for their holidays.

The fact is that over the period 1996-97 through to 2008-09, the federal contribution to that road was $1.3 billion. The state contribution to that road was $2.5 billion. The federal government did not step up and do its fair share during that period. Since then it has been fair to say—and I have been openly critical of them—that the former state Labor government did not do its fair share on the Pacific Highway. Our commitment of $3.1 billion compared with $500 million under Nation Building Program 1.

We found, in a very tight budget on Tuesday night, an extra $1 billion for that road. That is made up of two parts. There is $750 million of new money. In addition to that, after negotiations an agreement was reached between this government and the state government to redirect $270 million from the M4 East to the Pacific Highway. Those negotiations included personal discussions between the Prime Minister and the Premier of NSW, discussions between myself as the minister and the Premier of NSW and the state transport minister and also discussions between the new head of the Department of Premier and Cabinet, Mr Eccles, and Mr Terry Moran, the head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Duncan Gay made a statement to the parliament on this just this week and the Prime Minister reiterated that statement. Duncan Gay said this yesterday:

The NSW Liberals and Nationals have been advised that the M4 East extension is not currently shovel ready and that further work is required to define the scope of the project to complete the planning process and carry out an environmental assessment including consultation with the community.

In other words, if we wanted to spend the $300 million, even if we wanted to extend this congested motorway, we could not do so. That is what the New South Wales Minister for Roads told the parliament yesterday. Hence there is an agreement that $30 million would be retained in the allocation for the M4 East should the NSW government put forward a suitable proposition for expenditure of that and $270 million would be spent—because otherwise it would just be sitting there not used—on the Pacific Highway.

There have been some quite absurd statements made by some people in the coalition, both federal and state, over the past two days. The fact is there was $3.1 billion; there is now $4.1 billion. The maths of that are not hard. That is the federal contribution and commitment to the Pacific Highway over a seven-year period. The fact is that that will not be enough over the longer term to fully duplicate it. We have asked for the $750 million to be matched dollar for dollar by the NSW government. It is true that there is not an agreement in terms of that being signed off on by the NSW government in relation to the $750 million, but our commitment there should come as no surprise.

We viewed the $270 million differently because it had already been allocated to NSW and we asked NSW to make a small contribution to top that up. They did not do so, so that stands: no matching contribution to that part of the component. We accepted that when that was put from the Department of the Premier and Cabinet to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. That is the level at which this discussion has occurred over the last fortnight. So let us have none of this nonsense about surprise with regard to that. It was negotiated on and agreed to between the two levels of government as a good outcome for NSW.

It is true that we had not announced the additional $750 million before the Budget. It is also true that we want that to be matched. We will sit down with the NSW government and we fully expect that to be matched. But I want to say this to the NSW government, as I have said to the NSW transport minister and the roads minister: this is not an ambit claim.

We can only achieve the full duplication if it occurs.

I say to people such as the member for Cowper, get on to your National Party colleagues and tell them to do the right thing. Your mob did not when they were in government federally. That is the truth. You know that is the case. But you have an opportunity in the state. Let there be no doubt as to our resolve. We ask nothing more and nothing less than that the coalition in NSW be consistent with their statements. The new Premier said on 9 April 2010:

The Pacific Highway should be above party politics. It is an on-going partnership between the Federal and State government.

The Deputy Premier, Mr Stoner, said on ABC mid North Coast radio on 18 February 2011:

We have committed an additional $5 billion on top of the infrastructure money already in the forward estimates in the state budget fast track vital projects and I cannot think of any more important than the Pacific Highway.

Those are pretty clear statements from them. Now that we have stumped up the money we expect that to occur as well.

The roads minister, Duncan Gay, talking about the then NSW government on ABC News when money was coming in from the federal government as a result of our commitments, said:

And I would hope this time he would have been a statesman and say, ‘Yes I will match that money and save the lives of people in New South Wales that have to use this highway.’

It cannot be clearer. This money, when added to by the $750 million minimum contribution from NSW, will allow all the planning to be completed and will allow the Kempsey bypass construction activity to continue in a seamless fashion for the Frederickton to Eungai section. That is the section where the Clybucca bus crash happened. How can we as a parliament sit back and play petty politics with the worst accident in Australia’s history, with the coronial inquiry held more than 20 years ago, when we have not fixed it? I am committed to fixing it. I am not going to sit back and watch anyone, be they the Premier of NSW or anyone else, evade their responsibilities, wash their hands of it, say it is too hard, get up in parliament and talk about who said what to whom and when and, frankly, try to talk their way out of any responsibility for this vital road.

Construction is taking place right now on the Kempsey bypass, Ballina bypass, Bulahdelah bypass, Sapphire to Woolgoolga duplication, Glenugie upgrade, Banora Point upgrade—more than 1,000 workers on site right now. In 2009 we announced, not as part of any budget and with no big page 1 spiel for it, $58 million extra so the planning work could take place on the Frederickton to Eungai sections so that it is ready for construction, because we know that, if we are going to meet that time line, every opportunity has to be met to put money in. We had already announced $35 million on the section between Port Macquarie and Kempsey. Once again, why? It was to get it shovel ready, and now in addition to that we have the extra billion dollars.

The fact is that, in infrastructure projects that have been identified by Infrastructure Australia, NSW got $2.06 billion from the Building Australia Fund out of a total of $7.4 billion. It has now got another billion dollars on top of that for this priority project, taking its contribution to well over a third, well over its share. We have seen, I believe, that this is absolutely necessary. We know that the Leader of the Opposition has said that transport infrastructure is a state responsibility. That is his view.

He said the provision of federal funding for projects of transport infrastructure is as silly as the state government having to “buy new tanks for the army”. We do not take that view. He has an opportunity tonight to back in our commitment, to call upon his coalition colleagues to actually join the task, because this is one that should be above politics.