Oct 28, 2016

Speech to Queensland Business Infrastructure Forum – Gold Coast Convention and Exhibition Centre

Let me start by expressing my condolences for the dreadful accident at Dreamworld earlier this week.

This event has shocked the whole nation.

It’s a tragedy for the families of those who lost their lives and for the entire Gold Coast community.

Over coming weeks the relevant authorities will work their way through the factors surrounding the accident.

But for now, the priority remains helping the families of the victims.


Many of you will have travelled here on the Gold Coast Light Rail.

This was a transformative project for the Gold Coast.

It shows what governments can do when they work together – local state and federal.

Patronage grew by 16 per cent in its second year of operation to 21,000 trips a day.

The State Labor Government is getting on with the second stage, which will connect the line to the heavy rail system at Helensvale.

It’s due for completion in time for the 2018 Commonwealth Games.

Gold Coast Light Rail is proof positive that when governments provide public transport that is convenient,
Australians will use it.

That’s an important lesson for the entire nation.

That’s because in 2016 traffic congestion is one of the biggest problems facing this country.

In cities right across Australia, traffic congestion is eroding people’s quality of life.

But it is also eroding productivity and putting a hand brake on the economic growth needed to create jobs for our children.

Indeed, Infrastructure Australia has warned that unless we act now, traffic congestion will cost the economy $53 billion a year from 2031.

That’s why projects like the Gold Coast Light Rail are so important.


We need more public transport and we need it soon.

We need all levels of government on the same page on this important issue, because it’s not just about public convenience, as important as that is.

As Bill Clinton once said: It’s the economy, stupid.

That was what was in the mind of the former Labor Government in 2009 when we decided to get behind light rail here on the coast.

We realised Gold Coast Light Rail would not only provide a great asset for  travellers, but that it would also boost the local economy.

In the process, the project would help drive national economic growth.

And that’s how it panned out.

In 2016 our nation continues to seek ways to sustain growth in the wake of the decline of the investment stage of the mining boom.

We need new ideas, new industries.

But to support those new industries, we need railways, roads, ports and other infrastructure.

If we invest in these nation building projects, the construction and other activity will help support and sustain growth.

It’s not just me saying that.

Former Reserve Bank of Australia chairman Glenn Stevens and his successor Philip Lowe have both made the point that there is only so much they can do to stimulate the economy by reducing interest rates.

Both have noted there is a role for infrastructure investment as valuable tool in broader economic policy.


That is why it is so disappointing that the Turnbull Government is sitting on its hands when it comes to new infrastructure projects, particularly public transport projects.

Indeed, if the current government had its way, there would be no Gold Coast Light Rail.

Under the Opposition leadership of Malcolm Turnbull, they voted against commonwealth funding for the Gold Coast Light Rail back in 2009.

Of course, that did not stop local Coalition MPs elbowing each other out of the way to be photographed by the media riding the first service on launch day.

That’s the way it is with this government: They are happy to ride on trains; they just don’t want to fund trains.

It’s pleasing that the commonwealth is now providing funding for Stage II using savings made in the construction of another Labor initiative, the Moreton Bay Rail Link.

But the sad fact is that this investment is a one-off.

The Turnbull Government has not invested a dollar on any new public transport initiative.

It’s also a fact that Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show total public sector infrastructure investment fell by 20 per cent in the Coalition’s first two years in office.

But it gets worse.

In the 2015-16 financial year, the Turnbull Government cut infrastructure investment by nearly $3 billion, or more than 35 per cent, over what it had promised in its 2014 budget.

Incidentally, that cut included the $18 million cut from funding allocated for actual infrastructure projects to fund a pre-election propaganda blitz.

Rather than using this public money to build things, they spent it on television and newspaper advertisements saying they were delivering record investment.

That kind of deception is Orwellian.

It’s also bad for the economy and bad for jobs.


These facts highlight the chasm between the Federal Government’s rhetoric on infrastructure and the reality of its performance.

The existence of this gap is ironic when you consider the way in which the Prime Minister seeks to promote himself as a public transport enthusiast.

When he was stalking Tony Abbott for the Liberal Party leadership throughout the first nine months of 2015, Mr Turnbull frequently posted photographs of himself riding on trains, trams and buses.

He did this because he knew Australians were dismayed by Tony Abbott’s blanket refusal to fund public transport anywhere in the country.

But since he ousted Mr Abbott, Mr Turnbull has taken on his predecessor’s peculiar policy toward public transport.

He still enjoys being photographed on trains.

Indeed, just a few weeks ago he sought credit for the opening of the Moreton Bay Rail Link to Redcliffe even though, once again, his party opposed the project when the state and federal Labor governments funded the line.


Federal Government inaction is also evident in Brisbane’s Cross River Rail project.

This is one of the most urgent infrastructure projects in the country.

If we don’t build a second rail crossing of the Brisbane River in the next few years, the existing Merivale Bridge will reach full capacity.

The moment that happens, the bottleneck will be a drain on economic and job growth in Brisbane and Queensland.

The project should be underway right now.

Back in 2013, the then Federal Labor Government actually reached agreement with the then Newman
Coalition Government to build Cross River Rail.

Infrastructure Australia had assessed the project and declared it ready to go in 2012.

But at the last minute, the Newman Government backflipped.

And as soon as Mr Abbott became Prime Minister, he withdrew the Commonwealth funding offer, along with funding for each and every public transport project in the nation that was not already under way.

The Moreton Bay Rail Link was underway, so it escaped the Abbott axe.

The history of this project makes a mockery of Mr Turnbull’s refusal during the recent federal election campaign to commit to reinstating the funding that Mr Abbott cut.

Cross River Rail should be well under construction by now.


The Federal Government has also cut funding for a range of other important Queensland projects.

In the 2015-16 Budget, funding for the ongoing Bruce Highway upgrade was cut by $94 million over what was promised in 2014.

Funding for the Gateway North project fell by $50 million, the same amount cut from the Coalition’s pet project – the second crossing of the Toowoomba Range.

Programs including Black Spots, and bridges renewal were also cut.

The Government has also cut financial assistance grants to councils, which are usually used for road maintenance, by $199 million over three years.


What this nation needs is a bipartisan approach to infrastructure investment.

Building the railways, roads and other infrastructure needed to support our needs and also to create jobs and growth are critically important.

They should be beyond politics.

That is why the former Labor Federal Government created Infrastructure Australia in 2008.

Its independent experts are outside the political system.

They assess projects on the basis of whether they are actually needed, whether they will provide a productivity return to the community and how they fit in with existing assets.

Politicians should always be making investment decisions. We are accountable at the ballot box.

But we should make those decisions on the basis of expert advice.

We know from the current Government’s experience that when you ignore the expert advice, you can end up making huge mistakes.

Back in the 2014 Budget, the Coalition funded the proposed East-West Link in Melbourne without consulting Infrastructure Australia.

It later emerged that the project would have returned only 45 cents for every dollar invested.

The project was a dud.

And during this year’s federal election campaign, Mr Turnbull announced about $850 million for 78 new transport projects around the nation.

Seventy-six of these projects were in seats held by the Coalition at the time of the election.

Most of these projects were small – small enough that they would normally be delivered by state or local government.

For example, Mr Turnbull found $1 million to upgrade a road in the Hunter Valley community of Gresford used for an annual Billy Cart race.

That’s not nation building.

It is crude pork barrelling.

Imagine if Mr Turnbull has used that $850 million for a transformative project that would boost national productivity and economy growth, a project like Cross River Rail, for example.

It’s time for all political parties to accept that the delivery of infrastructure is a central part of economic policy.

We also need to listen to the experts about which projects will have the greatest economic benefit.

We need to commit to a pipeline of projects based on the expert advice and be ambitious enough to actually commit the funds to make them happen.

That’s how you produce growth.

It’s how you produce jobs.

In previous years, we always had the mining sector to sustain construction.

But it’s over as mining has moved to the production phase.

It’s time for all governments to step up to their role in driving economic growth.

To do that, we have to put aside the politics and self-interest and think about the future – both short term and long term.

In the short term, we need to invest in infrastructure to sustain economic activity.

If we choose the right projects, we’ll also be serving the long term by ensuring that in coming decades, our nation has infrastructure that is fit for the purpose of supporting ongoing jobs and growth.

I’ve heard a lot of people complaining in recent years about how today’s Australians should not be leaving a legacy of debt for future generations.

I agree.

But it is just as important that we don’t leave future generations an infrastructure deficit.

Our population is growing rapidly.

We need to accept our duty to leave future generations with an economy capable of generating jobs for all Australians.


That includes communications.

Earlier this week I visited Roma to participate in the Australian Regional Tourism Network summit.

I enjoyed the opportunity to rub shoulders with people from all over rural and regional Australia who are doing everything they can to promote tourism in their communities.

Understandably, much of the focus was on marketing.

I spoke to many people.

The issue that was most frequently raised was the inadequacy of the Federal Government’s broadband service, not just when it came to their businesses, but also their daily lives.

It is beyond me how a Federal Government that runs on a mantra of jobs and growth could be so blind to the importance of communication in driving jobs and growth.

I’m all for innovation.

But the bottom line here is that in the 21st century, Australia won’t be able to capitalise on our innovation unless we have world-class broadband.

In the 21st century, world-class broadband is as important to the success of a business as roads.

Indeed, fibre to the home and business ought to be considered a basic utility, like water, electricity or sewerage.

It saddens me to watch the current Government delivering 19th century copper-based technology that, within a very short time, will have to be torn out and brought up to date to keep our nation internationally competitive.

Based on the feedback I get as I travel the country, Australians are saddened too.


Let me conclude by giving you a brief rundown of where Federal Labor is at with regard to individual projects here in Queensland.

I remain very proud of the record of the former Labor Federal Government in which I was proud to have served as Minister for Infrastructure and Transport.

Projects we delivered included $5.7 billion for the Bruce Highway over six years.

That followed an investment of only $1.3 billion by the former Howard Government over 12 years.

That’s four times as much in half the time.

There was also Legacy Way, investment on the Pacific Motorway, the Ipswich Motorway, the Warrego Highway and the Townsville Ring Road.

We also started planning for a high-speed rail link between Brisbane and Melbourne via Sydney and Canberra.

Unfortunately, while Labor got the ball rolling on High Speed Rail, the current government has dropped the ball completely on this visionary project.

In this year’s election campaign we presented a comprehensive infrastructure policy.

It included investment for Cross River Rail, the merge between the M1 and the Gateway Motorway, the final stage of the Ipswich Motorway upgrade, the Gladstone Port Access Road and a new stadium in Townsville.

And we proposed the creation of a $10 billion infrastructure financing facility designed to encourage more private investment in public infrastructure.

We also had a comprehensive policy for improving the productivity, sustainability and liveability of Australian Cities, backed up by our strong support for public transport but also covering areas like urban design and active travel.


Brisbane and the Gold Coast are international cities.

But with growth has come pressures, including traffic congestion.

It is a privilege to make decisions that that have made material differences to people’s lives.

Backing Gold Coast Light Rail was one of them.

Next time you take a ride on the light rail, look around you.

Without light rail, just about every adult on the tram would be driving their car to get to where they were going.

And just like you, they would be stuck in traffic.