VISION: THE KEY TO NATION BUILDING
SPEECH TO IRISH-AUSTRALIAN CHAMBER OF COMMERCE
MELBOURNE – FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 21, 2018
Thanks for the invitation to speak to you today about the important issue of infrastructure investment in this country.
It’s a good opportunity to survey the current infrastructure landscape and also to outline Labor’s approach should we be privileged to form government after the next federal election.
Let me start by talking about the essential ingredient of any effective infrastructure policy.
Jonathon Swift once said: “Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others’’.
When it comes to infrastructure, vision is about imagining a better outcome and taking the necessary steps to achieve that vision.
Good infrastructure policy is about responding to capacity constraints.
But great infrastructure policy – the kind we should aspire to – is about anticipating future needs and delivering responses before they become obstacles to economic growth.
Great infrastructure policy is forward-looking and creative.
It creates prosperity.
Take the Snowy Mountains Scheme.
This visionary piece of nation building has created and sustained hundreds of thousands of jobs in this country.
In the words of another great Irish thinker, George Bernard Shaw: “The possibilities are numerous once we decide to act and not react’’.
The next Labor Government will have two challenges when it comes to infrastructure.
The first is to address under-investment under the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison Government.
Earlier this month analysis by the independent Parliamentary Budget Office found that on the current trajectory, Federal infrastructure grants to the states, expressed as a percentage of GDP growth, will fall by half from 0.4 per cent to 0.2 per cent over the next four years.
In the lead-up to this year’s Federal Budget, the Government attempted to address public concern about traffic congestion by announcing a range of public transport projects around the nation, including the proposed rail line to Tullamarine Airport.
However, 85 per cent of its proposed investment won’t appear for at least four years.
While the investment is needed now, the Budget documents show it has been pushed off into the Never-Never.
The Coalition’s cuts have been felt hardest here in Victoria, which last year received just 8 per cent of Federal infrastructure grants despite being home to a quarter of the national population.
The second challenge facing a Labor Government will be to move the policy focus from a game of catch-up to the use of infrastructure investment as a facilitator of future growth.
This will require a significant shift.
It will require better planning, increased investment, as well as genuine co-operation with other levels of government and the private sector.
But perhaps most importantly, it will require a serious regional development program to promote growth in rural and regional Australia so it can take some of the pressure of growth off capital cities.
In 2007, one of the first decisions made by the incoming Coalition Government was the cancellation of all Federal investment in public transport not already under construction.
With the stroke of a pen, then Prime Minister Tony Abbott scrapped billions of dollars’ worth of planned investment in rail projects in major cities, including the Melbourne Metro, Brisbane’s Cross River Rail, as well as projects in other capital cities.
It came just months after the independent Infrastructure Australia produced research that showed that unless Governments acted, traffic congestion would cost the nation $53 billion a year in lost productivity by 2031.
For the past century, Australia has been one the world’s most urbanised nations.
Four out of five of us live in cities.
Until recently, our population was small enough that people could live in capital cities while still enjoying the space that comes with living in a house and yard.
But this is changing.
Accelerating population growth, combined with strong jobs growth in and around central business districts, means our cities are not just developing outwards, but also upwards.
This fundamental transformation of Australian cities must be accompanied by transformative infrastructure investment, particularly in public transport.
Labor has already committed to work with the Queensland Government on Cross River Rail, which would dramatically increase the capacity of the south-east Queensland rail network.
We’ve also announced investment for the proposed Western Metro from the City to Parramatta, as well as Western Sydney Rail – a new line running from north to south through Sydney’s west via the new Western Sydney Airport.
We’ve announced support for the Perth METRONET, the Sunshine Coast’s Beerburrum-to-Landsborough line duplication, and, back here in Melbourne, the Frankston to Baxter Upgrade, as well as an extension of the Number 11 tram route.
Decentralisation must be part of the response to crowding in Australian cities.
However, decentralisation won’t happen unless there are jobs in regional centres, along with efficient rail links to capital cities.
On jobs we’ll collaborate with state governments, councils and the private sector to identify and invest in projects that will stimulate growth.
Our City Partnerships program, which will replace the existing City Deals framework, will work from the bottom up, on the basis that local communities are always better placed to understand local priorities than bureaucrats in Canberra.
A Labor Government would also advance a High Speed Rail link between Brisbane and Melbourne via Sydney and Canberra.
High Speed Rail would revolutionise interstate travel.
But it would also turbo-charge the economic development of the regional centres along its route, including the Gold Coast, Casino, Grafton, Coffs Harbour, Port Macquarie, Taree, Newcastle, the Central Coast, Southern Highlands, Wagga Wagga, Albury-Wodonga and Shepparton.
All of these centres would be better placed to attract business investment and new residents if they were within a short train ride of a capital city.
Finally, I’d like to talk about process.
Good process is an essential prerequisite for good outcomes.
In 2008 the former Labor Government created Infrastructure Australia as an independent advisor to government.
Its job was to independently assess proposed infrastructure projects on the basis of cost-benefit analysis and create a pipeline of projects both sides of politics could support on the basis of demonstrated economic benefit.
The Coalition has undermined this process.
Mr Abbott ignored Infrastructure Australia’s recommendations to fund projects like the Melbourne Metro, instead funding unassessed toll roads like the ill-fated East-West Link here in Melbourne.
Later, Malcolm Turnbull tried to sideline Infrastructure Australia by creating the Infrastructure Financing Unit to work with industry on innovative financing mechanisms for private investment in public infrastructure projects.
But Infrastructure Australia already performed this role.
You don’t hear much about the IFU any more. It has been a failure.
I’m also concerned that Infrastructure Australia is aligning its research outcomes with the Government’s political agenda.
As an example, let’s consider the history of the Cross River Rail Link in Brisbane, which would add a second rail crossing over the Brisbane River in the city’s CBD.
When Infrastructure Australia produced its 2012 National Infrastructure Priority List, Cross River Rail was classified as “ready to go’’ and rated the nation’s most-immediate infrastructure requirement.
Now, since the Coalition has refused to back the project, it has somehow fallen down Infrastructure Australia’s list of priorities.
A Labor Government will restore Infrastructure Australia’s independence and return it to the centre of the infrastructure development process.
We’d also recreate the Major Cities Unit within Infrastructure Australia, which was also abolished by Mr Abbott in 2013, to bring renewed focus on the productivity, sustainability and liveability of Australian cities.
This country stands at a critical stage of its development.
We have two choices on infrastructure.
On one hand there is the current path.
It is based on the view that building railways and roads is some kind of expensive inconvenience that should only be undertaken when serious capacity constraints erode profits and generate intolerable political pressure.
One the other hand, we can embrace nation building as an opportunity to address capacity constraints while also creating the foundations for long-term, sustained economic growth.
Indeed, Treasury estimates that good infrastructure investment has an average multiplier of four times its cost over the 25-year life of an asset.
So I’m for the latter.
It will require a careful program of evidence-based decision-making, sustained investment in both cities and regions and creative thinking in the national interest.
FRIDAY, 21 SEPTEMBER, 2018
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.