Speech to the Bus Industry Confederation National Conference – ‘Collaborating for change – toward better Australian cities and regions’ – Hobart
It’s great to be here today once again speaking to the Bus Industry Confederation National Conference.
This Conference will examine the impact of technological change and how your industry can harness the fruits of innovation in transport.
This is an important contribution to ensuring governments adopt the right policy settings and make the right investments to back your efforts.
Today I want to address some of the mistakes of the recent past that have worked against the development of properly integrated transport systems, particularly in our cities.
Before I expand on that, I want to recognise the role the Bus Industry Confederation has played in advancing debate on cities policy in this country in recent years.
I’m proud about the former Federal Labor Government’s efforts to enhance the productivity, sustainability and liveability of the nation’s cities.
We picked up the policy tradition pioneered by Gough Whitlam and Tom Uren in the 1970s.
Not just in theory, but in practice.
We invested more in public transport in 6 years than all previous Governments combined since Federation.
Also a fact is that your organisation played a critical role in framing the public debate, both before Labor won office 10 years ago and since.
You have been ahead of the curve.
Your advocacy has ensured that all political parties are now talking about cities and the way we move around them, even if for some, the talk is not matched by action or investment.
Back in 2014 I addressed the National Press Club about Labor’s approach to urban policy and released our 10-point Plan for Better Cities.
As part of that I expressed my support for the concept of the 30-minute city – one in which most of a citizen’s needs could be met within 30 minutes’ from their home by foot, bicycle or public transport.
I know that your 2016 discussion paper on this matter aimed even higher, aspiring to a 20-minute city.
I share your optimism.
But in the business of politics I’ve always found it wise to under-promise and over-deliver.
The secret to achieving a 30-minute city is for governments – federal state and local – to work together.
It is also to engage constructively with the private sector and communities.
It’s not enough to simply agree in rhetorical terms that we all want to improve the productivity, sustainability and liveability of our cities.
It makes no sense for one level of government to decide that it has all the answers on cities when its vision is not shared by the other levels of government.
Enhancing productivity, liveability and sustainability in our cities should be a given.
The past few years provide a stark example of what can go wrong if someone decides that they know best.
In 2013, incoming Prime Minister Tony Abbott cancelled all Commonwealth public transport investment.
This decision was based partly on the view he had outlined in his 2009 book Battlelines, in which he argued that Australians did not want public transport.
Mr Abbott wrote that there weren’t enough people wanting to go to the same location at the same time to justify any other mode of travel than the private motor car so roads should be the sole focus of investment.
His Government reallocated all the public transport investment that had been put in place by the former Labor Government to toll roads – roads that Mr Abbott had promised as part of his election campaign.
This was an absurd proposition.
The result of Mr Abbott heading off on his own frolic was that states and councils had no Commonwealth support for their efforts to deliver on public transport.
Nor was there any policy leadership from Canberra on integration of different modes of transport or on other relevant policies areas like planning, provision of open space and urban design.
Although states are now going it alone on projects like the Melbourne Metro and Brisbane’s Cross River Rail, the result of Mr Abbott’s folly was five wasted years.
Five wasted years during which traffic congestion has worsened, reducing economic productivity and the ability of our cities to drive economic growth and job creation.
There’s always room for different perspectives.
But ultimately, we all know that effective cities require integration of transport modes. And these modes must also connect through active transport.
That’s how we tackle traffic congestion and boost productivity.
The current Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, came to the leadership declaring he supported public transport.
But while he enjoys taking selfies as he rides on trains, trams and buses, Mr Turnbull has yet to provide significant new investment in trains, trams or buses.
Looking forward I am concerned that under Mr Turnbull’s leadership, the Government is again veering off in a different direction.
This shift is not about the type of infrastructure we need, but how it is financed.
In this year’s Budget the Commonwealth slashed its level of direct infrastructure grants to the states.
In the next four years Commonwealth direct investment in infrastructure will fall off a cliff from a promised $9.2 billion promised in the 2016 Budget to $4.2 billion by 2020-21.
The Government proposes to instead focus on equity injections for projects like the Western Sydney Airport and the Inland Rail project.
But it is also seeking to shift the burden of funding public infrastructure to the private sector.
The Government has sidelined the independent Infrastructure Australia and created the new Infrastructure Financing Unit, which it has tasked with using innovative financing arrangements to enlist more private investment for public infrastructure projects.
There is a place for financing mechanisms like value capture and availability payments in funding major projects.
Indeed, in 2013, the former Labor Government used such mechanisms to set up funding arrangements for the Melbourne Metro and the Cross River Rail Project in Brisbane – projects cancelled by Mr Abbott in 2013.
However, it is dangerous to adopt the view that private investment in public infrastructure can replace public investment in infrastructure without having a major impact on reducing the productivity benefits of overall transport investment.
This Government is making the mistake of considering infrastructure projects through a frame of whether they can provide a return for private investors.
If we did that we would distort our transport systems. We’d have an abundance of toll roads and a shortage of railways.
It’s the wrong approach.
The correct frame through which governments should consider infrastructure projects is not whether they can provide a return to a private investor.
It is whether a project can provide a return to the national economy.
That return includes a whole range of issues.
They include the ability of projects to deliver productivity gains for the broad economy.
But there’s also the issue of inclusion and equity – issues that your organisation has highlighted many times.
Not everyone owns a car.
People who don’t own a car still need to move around.
They need to work to contribute to the economy and support themselves and their families.
They need to access education that will allow them to improve their circumstances and, over time, make a greater contribution to the economy.
Meeting these broader social concerns is in fact an economic policy – one that the Government’s approach ignores.
This does not serve the public interest.
It’s also at odds with the approach of the states, which people look to for the delivery of effective transport systems.
There’s a live example of the folly concerning a proposal to extend the F6 south of Sydney toward the Illawarra as a toll road.
Recent media reporting has revealed that when Government bureaucrats were considering improved connectivity between Sydney and Wollongong they were told to ignore the option of rail.
This is in spite of the fact that completing the Maldon-Dombarton rail freight project, with relatively minor upgrades to the Illawarra passenger line, would be cheaper and produce greater travel time reductions.
They were told to deliver a toll road regardless.
That’s absurd. It looks at only half of the economic equation.
COLLABORATION AND EVIDENCE
So my message today is that we don’t need a completely new model of infrastructure investment.
What we need is genuine collaboration across Government and the private sector in the public interest.
We need to forget the politics. Forget the ideology and the experiments.
We need to work together and base our investment decisions on evidence.
That’s why it is disappointing that the Government has sidelined Infrastructure Australia.
The former Labor Government created Infrastructure Australia to create an evidence-based approach to infrastructure delivery.
The very design of this independent organisation was based on getting the politics out of infrastructure delivery.
And importantly, project assessment was designed to include the consideration not only of the cost and benefit of a project, but the way in which that project enhanced the existing transport system.
That kind of approach will deliver a 30-minute city.
Maybe even a 20-minute city.
A Labor Government will abolish the IFU and allocate its funding back to Infrastructure Australia for the re-establishment of the Major Cities Unit, which will focus heavily on the productivity, sustainability and liveability Australia’s cities.
Let me turn now to our regions.
Cities are important but passenger transport in just as important in our regional areas.
In my view it’s an area in which the Federal Government needs to be more involved.
I don’t just mean funding regional roads, but thinking more seriously about regional connectivity – villages to towns to regional centres to cities.
These links are important.
Once again, it’s not just about equity and service provision; it’s about productivity and economic activity.
Regional connectivity delivers real economic benefits.
While cities make up 80% of the value of our GDP in our knowledge centres, our growing regions are becoming more important in this sense and that is why it is important to keep people connected through good rail services and, where they are not available, coach services.
At the same time we need to make sure the people living in the country are not left behind.
We need to make sure that young people in regional areas have the same opportunities as those in cities.
That means offering transport choices for them to get to school, to TAFE, to employment, to sport and social activities.
The same goes for single mums and the elderly.
Your industry acts as a social safety net for thousands upon thousands of people.
That’s a fact we have to keep top of mind, especially in these times of transport disruption and new commercial mobility services moving into areas that are traditionally public transport space.
We must not lose sight of the important role public transport plays in the social transit space.
It is not all about mass transit – I know BIC is doing some interesting research work in the social transit space and regional transport that I look forward to receiving when it is complete.
The theme of this Conference, Moving People – Mobility as a Service is really all about where bus, public transport and services fit in the mix of mobility options that are being presented to us today.
Buses are the work horse of public transport in every capital city today.
I can’t see that changing in the future.
Buses move more people than rail every day.
With a growing and ageing population and increasing urbanisation a reality, mass transit is going to be a key to making our cites and growing regions liveable and workable.
Buses will be a big part of that mix.
Looking ahead to autonomous vehicles, which maybe not as far away as some think, we are going to have to be cognisant of the labour challenges this places on all industries.
About 100,000 people earn their living driving in this country.
Much as factories of the past have become mechanised and run by robots, driverless vehicles will have an impact on your workplaces.
And a move to electric and hydrogen vehicles will change the nature of your workshop and mechanical repair requirements.
These are things that BIC is already looking into as outlined in your submission to the Federal Inquiry into the Social Implications of Autonomous Vehicles.
It’s a good thing that your industry is already thinking about these types of issues.
Once again, your industry is ahead of the game.
The job of elected representatives is to keep up with you.
I aim to do just that.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.