ISSUES: Pacific Highway Upgrade & Duplication
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Can I just begin by refuting suggestions aired on Channel Nine News last night (19 January). Channel Nine News suggested that funding had been withdrawn from the Urunga section of the [Pacific] highway in favour of funding a section of the highway in the electorate of Mr Rob Oakeshott. This was on the basis of suggestions by Andrew Fraser. It’s not the first time that Andrew Fraser has got his facts wrong, and it’s not the first time that Andrew Fraser has been engaged in quite outrageous attacks, sometimes against members of his own party.
Can I say, this with regard to the Federal Government’s record on the Pacific Highway: when we came into office, the previous government had spent $1.3 billion over 12 years. During this period, the NSW [Labor] government spent $2.5 billion. So the State government funding was almost double what the Federal government was.
I have a deep personal commitment to fixing the Pacific Highway. I know of its importance in terms of road safety, but also in terms of national productivity. I have fought at each budget to get additional funding for the Pacific Highway, and in the last budget, a budget that was very tight, we secured additional funding of $1 billion, on the condition of matching funding from the state government of $750 million.
That bought the Federal contribution up to some $4.1 billion since 2007 – more than triple what the former Howard government put in.
I make this point: had the Howard government – which had National Party transport ministers throughout its entire 12 years including local members on the north coast of NSW – funded the Pacific Highway to the extent we are, the highway would today be fully duplicated, and this would be an academic debate.
QUESTION: So can you absolutely rule out that funds were diverted from the Pacific Highway project to the Oxley Highway?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: It doesn’t even make sense and what that question shows, with due respect, is just how little attention to detail was put into the story. What there is…
QUESTION: [Interrupts] With respect Minister…
ANTHONY ALBANESE: No.
QUESTION: [Interrupts] With respect Minister, if you’re going to criticise Nine News, will I get a chance to ask you a question too about this?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Absolutely, you can have as many questions as you like.
QUESTION: Thanks Anthony.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: We had a billion dollars additional, and indeed I stood up with Andrew Stoner, the Deputy Premier, at the end of last year and brought forward half a billion dollars into this financial year. As a result of that, three projects are occurring.
One, an expression of interest has already been called on one section of the Pacific Highway, the section from Oxley Highway to Kundabung. It’s not the Oxley Highway; the Oxley Highway is the Pacific Highway at that section. It is funding for the Pacific Highway.
[Two,] there’s Frederickton to Eungai, which is the section where the Clybucca bus crash occurred in 1989 which saw 34 people lose their lives – the worst ever road accident in Australia’s history. The planning had not even been done on that prior to 2009.
Urunga is the third area of the highway that can be funded as a result of the additional funding which has been granted and brought forward by the Commonwealth.
Now I received a letter from [NSW Roads Minister] Duncan Gay. I responded to him yesterday before this story broke and Mr Gay will certainly confirm that he had an immediate response from me.
Mr Gay will also confirm that state governments do planning and that there are three stages – you have an expression of interest, then you have a tender, then you have construction.
The earliest this work can occur – because the planning hasn’t even been completed yet – is early 2013, so I’m advised by the State government.
At the moment there is work taking place with 1,600 people on the highway at the Bulahdelah bypass; at the Kempsey bypass which is in the electorate of Cowper; at the Woolgoolga to Sapphire section up to Arrawarra; at the Glenugie section; at Banora Point; and work began at the end of last year on the Devil’s Pulpit upgrade.
We need to have not just one new piece of work, there needs to be multiple works undertaken if we are going to meet the objective – the joint objective first announced by the Howard Government as part of its AusLink White Paper – of a full duplication of the highway by 2016.
QUESTION: [Interrupts] Now you used Duncan Gay… you used Duncan Gay, Minister…
ANTHONY ALBANESE: You’ll have plenty of opportunity.
The fact is that what we have is a situation whereby work will commence as soon as possible.
And I’ve made it very clear that there is a need for additional funding for the Pacific Highway. This needs to happen in partnership, as was suggested by the former Howard Government as well, on a 50/50 funding basis.
I’ll be campaigning for additional Commonwealth funding in future budgets. This needs to be matched by the State.
What we don’t need is this idea that sets one community against another. You can do the Urunga bypass without stopping work on other sections of the highway where there have also been tragedies.
QUESTION: Duncan Gay has contradicted your story. He released a statement to Nine News, and he said that they wanted the Urunga to Nambucca bypass ahead of the work in regard to Oxley, and they were disappointed that the work proceeded in the electorate of Rob Oakeshott.
And they named Rob Oakeshott.
Does Federal Labor favour Rob Oakeshott when it comes to road projects?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well you have to actually look at what’s there. This isn’t something that can be argued about and speaking over people won’t assist the process.
QUESTION: A yes or no answer would be great.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: We are getting work done on the highway, and the answer is that there has been no political decisions whatsoever done on the highway.
The [Nine News] story was wrong.
The fact is when we announced the extra $1 billion in the Budget last year – as state correspondents in Macquarie Street might recall, it’s not that long ago – Duncan Gay, along with Luke Hartsuyker and other National Party MPs said there was no additional money for construction on the Pacific Highway. Warren Truss said it in the Federal Parliament, and they said it in the State Parliament.
They were wrong. The $1.7 billion of additional funding, including the bring forward of $500 million, has ensured that each of these works can occur.
And if you have a look at where the big funding proposals are taking place right now, they are not in Rob Oakeshott’s electorate. Rob Oakeshott is a decent man and the idea that he would say take money off one section of the highway to give it to another is quite frankly offensive.
The fact is that Rob Oakeshott, like other people who are fair dinkum about the highway, including Andrew Stoner, the Leader of the National Party in NSW, who I stood with and made this announcement (the bring forward of Federal funding) at the end of last year, acknowledged that we need to do more work not less – and not stop the works that are taking place.
The largest projects currently underway on the Pacific Highway are both in the electorate of Cowper, a safe National Party seat held by Luke Hartsuyker. There’s the Kempsey bypass, $613 million, fully funded by the Commonwealth – not one cent of State government money – and the area from Sapphire to Woolgoolga and onto Arrawarra, again, a massive project taking place in the electorate of Cowper. They are the two biggest projects that are occurring right now. That is where most of the 1,600 workers are currently working on the Pacific Highway.
But the fact is this: if we’re going to get the Pacific Highway fully duplicated what isn’t needed, and what communities are sick of, is buck passing and blaming.
When State Labor was in office I was critical of them for not providing enough funding.
And a perusal of the Hansard reveals there are many occasions on which Andrew Fraser, for example on 21 October 2009, says things such as “I pay credit to the Rudd [Labor] Government,” pays credit to me personally, and says the State government is not doing enough given that it is, to quote him, “a state road”. That is what Andrew Fraser has had to say.
Now the Federal government does not do the planning on roads, and Duncan Gay will confirm that the planning has not been completed on the Urunga bypass. The earliest construction can begin is 2013. Quite frankly, we’ve got the money there right now, brought forward. If it can be done earlier that will be fantastic. But they are the facts of the matter. This isn’t an academic debate. This is real and needs to be conducted in that way.
QUESTION: So you’re saying the NSW Government has actually been the ones that has – have let Urunga slide?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well certainly it is the case that the planning has not occurred in terms of Urunga.
QUESTION: Isn’t that incredible that it hasn’t in how many years?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: It is incredible that that hasn’t occurred. It is also incredible that on the Frederickton to Eungai section – where 34 people lost life in 1989, which lead to the coronial inquiry, which lead to the recommendations regarding the duplication of the Pacific Highway – the planning hadn’t occurred. We provided money [in November 2009] for that to occur.
QUESTION: Minister, isn’t it sad that the upgrades that you have announced last night when you spoke to Nine News, and more details have only occurred after an 11 year-old boy died up at Urunga?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: It is indeed a tragedy that anyone loses their life on this road. Each and every person is one too many.
As you’re aware, Kevin, because I’ve spoken to you about it, my name is Anthony after a young boy – my cousin – who was killed on the Pacific Highway at Halfway Creek while my mother was expecting me.
My family knows very deeply the tragedy that occurs, and there’s no greater tragedy than the loss of a young life.
I am passionate about doing something about the Pacific Highway. On my watch, I have ensured that more money has gone into the Pacific Highway than occurred under any previous transport minister, many times over. It is a tragedy that all the planning hasn’t been completed. It should have been. Both levels of government, all political parties, bare some of blame for that. I’m not seeking to blame any individual because I think frankly, the politics of that are just disgraceful. And Mr Fraser’s attempt to blame Rob Oakeshott for a tragedy is quite frankly beneath contempt.
Rob Oakeshott has at no stage ever argued for anything other than more money for the Pacific Highway, not just for his electorate, but right up and down. Because, guess what? When you travel along the Pacific Highway, you don’t just travel in your own electorate.
The Pacific Highway is an issue for all people who live on the North Coast. But it’s also an issue for all those who at one time in their life will drive up and down the Pacific Highway.
Full duplication doesn’t solve all of the issues, we know that. Indeed, there was a tragic loss of life in the electorate of Lyne on a fully duplicated section earlier this year. But full duplication will make a difference, and we know that at the moment there’s single lane stretches running right through a whole range of towns.
The areas that have been fixed, the areas that are currently under construction, as well as the areas between Port Macquarie and Kempsey that need to be fixed, have all been the scene of tragedies.
I’m happy to exhaust any more questions.
QUESTION: I’m happy, Minister, with that. Yep. That’s fine. We’ve got some more stuff on Nine News but that’s all good.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well on the Pacific Highway, I am happy to be accountable for any of my actions. I’m here. I’m making myself available. You’d be aware I haven’t looked at notes except for Andrew Fraser’s quote. I have been more on top of this issue than any other. I take this issue very seriously.
And I do object to the inferences that people would play politics with people’s lives.
QUESTION: But you also agree that Andrew Fraser has a right as an opposition politician to make connections that you obviously wouldn’t make yourself. That in a democracy he can say things you don’t like, make conclusions you don’t agree with. It would be wrong of us to ignore him simply because he isn’t the Federal government.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: People have got to be responsible and I do not believe that the Channel Nine report last night was responsible. That’s something I’ve indicated to you. It’s something I now indicate because you’ve asked me publicly.
QUESTION: Are you satisfied that the NSW Government is now cooperating as far as the planning is concerned?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Look, when I sat down for my first meeting with Premier O’Farrell, I gave him a table of all the funding that had occurred year to year. I indicated to him that it was an ongoing commitment. It’s been identified by Infrastructure Australia as a priority for funding. I have had subsequent meetings with Andrew Stoner and Duncan Gay. I met with Andrew Stoner and Duncan Gay prior to MYEFO and asked them how much can we get done right now of the Pacific Highway?
They indicated in terms of funding that $500 million could be brought forward. They welcomed that. I stood up at the Kempsey bypass and made that announcement with Andrew Stoner. Since then there’s been further discussions. There have been some statements – it is true – not just by Andrew Fraser but also by the local Federal member, saying we need to do this section rather than that section.
My view is you’ve got to get started on all of it. That has always been my position.
And there are real efficiencies also in terms of staging of the project. You can get cheaper outcomes and better outcomes for taxpayers if, for example, the capital equipment and the workforce that’s working on the Kempsey bypass keeps going onto the Frederickton to Eungai section and keeps going on the section further south. There are real efficiencies that can be got here.
But both levels of government need to put their shoulder to the wheel. The truth is more money will be needed.
QUESTION: Did you go against your own department and the Roads officials here in NSW by going to the Oxley Highway project over Urunga? That’s the direct allegation of the Roads Minister here in NSW, Duncan Gay.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well he has not made that allegation to me.
QUESTION: He made it on the news last night.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well he didn’t appear on the news last night.
QUESTION: But he had a statement on the news.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: I noticed he didn’t appear on the news last night. And I noticed also…
QUESTION: [Interrupts] You’re not denying it Minister?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: …that if you talk to him, I’ve made…
QUESTION: [Interrupts] Did you go against the advice?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: I have it made it very clear – well Kevin, you can talk over so that you can use the a grab on news tonight if that’s the objective here, because…
QUESTION: [Interrupts] No, I just want a yes or no answer, Minister. You have criticized my news.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: I have.
QUESTION: You have criticised Andrew Fraser.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: And now I’m criticising you for talking over me.
QUESTION: Yeah, and that’s fine. So I’m asking you…
ANTHONY ALBANESE: When you’re finished I’ll answer.
QUESTION: I’m finished.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: There has been no suggestion whatsoever by me at any stage, that we should not proceed with all of the works. That has been my position. It continues to be my position. We brought forward funding to ensure that that could occur.
The problem with the logic of your suggestion is this: have expressions of interest been called for Urunga? No. Has there been a tender process and a design decided for Urunga? No. Can construction commence before 2013? No. I don’t say that; the State government says that.
What you’ve got to have is the planning done before you can build the road. And we don’t do the planning.
So it is, quite frankly, outrageous for you to ask that as a professional journalist, who’s operated in the State Parliament for many years, who knows that the State government does planning.
QUESTION: You also had a comment last night on the news, Minister, so we didn’t stitch you up.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well you chose a comment that didn’t relate to the story at all. It didn’t refute the suggestion that was made earlier in the news and in the read-over that money had been transferred from one project to another which is why I regard the report last night as unprofessional and unreasonable.