Subjects: Federal infrastructure investment in Victoria, Melbourne Airport Rail Link, Donald Trump, penalty rates
ANTHONY ALBANESE: This year’s Budget has seen Victorians once again being dudded when it comes to Federal infrastructure funding. There was a lot of talk prior to the May Budget that Victorians were going to benefit, including the $5 billion that was allegedly coming for the Airport Rail Link. Of course, that construction funding didn’t eventuate and in the Budget Papers what we saw was actually a statement saying they would look to provide equity funding for the Airport Rail Link. We know that that doesn’t work and we know that no public transport project operating anywhere in Australia produces a return in terms of revenue that is higher than its operating and maintenance costs, let alone pays back the capital that will be required to construct a rail line to the airport.
But what is worse is the figures that we see when we actually look at the detail in the Forward Estimates. This year, 2017-2018, there are no new dollars. In the coming year there is just 0.4 per cent of any new allocation of funding that was in the Budget for Victoria coming through and over the Forward Estimates going right up to 2021-22, the figure is 9.1 percent.
So having endured during the period of the Turnbull and Abbott governments around about 8 per cent to 9 per cent of Federal infrastructure funding in spite of the fact that one in four Australians live here in Victoria and in spite of the fact that Victoria is Australia’s fastest-growing state and Melbourne is Australia’s fastest-growing city, the Federal Government is once again dudding Victorians with this figure.
When they talk about projects, you have to look at the detail. For the North-East Link, for example, they speak about a $1.75 billion announcement and yet only $200 million is available before the 2023 financial year. When you look at Monash Rail, that figure is just $23 million out of $475 million. When you look at Frankston to Baxter – the rail line electrification – that figure, out of $225 million, is just $60 million.
And of course there is no actual construction funding in the Budget for the Airport Rail Link. That is why Victorians are entitled to wonder what it takes for Victoria to get its share of Federal infrastructure funding. What it takes is the election of a Labor Government led by Bill Shorten that will actually end the discrimination that has occurred and the punishment of Victorians for having the temerity to elect an Andrews Labor Government here in Victoria.
REPORTER: These are long-term projects. Construction wouldn’t be starting in the short-term future. I mean, how much money should they be allocating to something like Monash Rail or the Airport Rail?
ALBANESE: Well quite clearly when you talk about no dollars at all for the Airport Rail Link. In the Budget papers themselves, they said that this is going to be an equity injection, that is off-budget financing for this project. That’s just a recipe for it not happening, because unless you have on-budget funding you won’t get that construction and the Government is saying that it will be off-budget funding into the future.
Similarly, with other projects it is true that projects step up from the beginning. But the fact that you have right up to 2023 just 9.1 per cent of the funding being available, that would require an election or a re-election of the Turnbull Government, then another re-election of the Turnbull Government and then sometime in the future beyond 2023 before actual real funding of any significance flows.
Now the Government should have been fair dinkum with the Australian people when they made these announcements. For example Frankston to Baxter – the electrification – that is a commitment that we made in the lead-up to the 2016 election. That has been spoken about for some time. We are not talking about a completely new rail line. We are talking about an electrification and certainly one that will increase the capacity substantially on that line.
So in terms of these projects I think that the public are entitled to be very sceptical about a Government that knows that it is under pressure for the fact that Victorian has received over the period in which it has been in government under 10 per cent of the funding. And you compare that with a project like Westconnex in Sydney, where the $1.5 billion grant has already been forwarded, where the $2 billion loan has already been made available and that is a project that hasn’t even had its final approvals for the final stage of that project made yet. This Coalition Government has been quite prepared to make payments to governments which they regard as friendly to the Coalition, particularly NSW, that receives something in the order of 45 per cent of the infrastructure budget in the current financial year. But they haven’t been prepared to provide that support for Victorians. What they have done here is make big announcements, not for the current term, not even for next term but for the term after and surely Victorians deserve much better than that.
The options were certainly there over the recent years to fund, for example, to provide assistance to – the work that the Andrews Labor Government are doing on level crossings. That is work that makes a real difference to urban congestion and to safety on Melbourne’s road system and of course improves productivity on the road network as well. They could have provided funding for the Melbourne Metro project that is under way now and yet they ripped $3 billion of funding out of that in Tony Abbott’s 2014 Budget. What we are seeing is a pattern of behaviour here from the Federal Government. Malcolm Turnbull likes coming to Melbourne. He likes taking selfies on trams. He just won’t fund them
REPORTER: On another issue, do you think Trump is simply grand-standing with this summit in Singapore?
ALBANESE: I think we are entitled to wish for a good outcome of this summit. We want to see the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula and certainly I hope that there is a positive outcome from this. The fact that Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un are sitting down and having a discussion is in itself I think a positive step rather than trading criticism over the Internet or over Twitter in each other. I think that the whole world, and particularly our region, has an interest in a positive outcome and I certainly hope that there is.
REPORTER: Back on infrastructure, do you have a preferred route for Airport Rail?
ALBANESE: We will wait and see the outcome of the work that the Victorian Government is doing. Certainly in the briefings that I have had up to now what we need to look at is not just at what happens with the Airport Rail Link but look at what the flow-on impacts are. Certainly a route that goes through Frankston builds on the work that we did with the Regional Rail Link and will provide for increased capacity and reduced travel times from Ballarat, Bendigo and Geelong. So certainly there is a bonus in that particular route.
But I do take it as positive that Malcolm Turnbull has said that he is prepared to look at the outcomes and to work co-operatively with Victoria and of course at the end of the day, the Victorian Government runs the public transport system here and they are the ones running the study. But what we need to do is to make sure that we get it absolutely right. We have waited a long time for there to be an Airport Rail Link. It’s quite clear though that it won’t be free and the idea that the Commonwealth’s contribution will be off-budget and will essentially be at no cost in effect to the taxpayer is something that I don’t believe is realistic. And I don’t think that we should confuse issues like what happens to the defence land around Maribyrnong. That should be considered on its own merits rather than it distorting getting the best possible route for this rail line.
REPORTER: Can I ask you about Monash Rail? There is division between the state and federal governments about whether light rail or heavy rail is the best option. Do you have a preference?
ALBANESE: I would look at the appropriate study. I certainly don’t have an ideological view in favour of one or the other. What is clear is that the Monash precinct – I was there just a few weeks ago – that is a growing area. We see the university has led to a whole range of very high-value jobs. We have of course the major shopping centre in that vicinity. We have also had considerable growth in terms of housing in that area. And so there is a need for public transport. That was identified by the Andrews Labor Government first. The concern here is that the Federal Government has said there is money available but frankly up to 2023 the figure of $23 million is very much a minimalist contribution so we need to actually look at this. I’d await what comes out of the Victorian detailed work and the business cases before I would finalise what my view would be on that.
REPORTER: Just on another issue, penalty rates for some workers are set to be cut from July 1. How quickly would a Labor Government restore them or would you need to wait for the Fair Work Commission to go through its processes?
ALBANESE: We have said that we are opposed to the cut in penalty rates and we are opposed for very good reasons. We have just seen a long weekend in Victoria and New South Wales and what we saw there was at the club where I was yesterday, people being paid penalty rates for giving up their long weekend. They deserve to be compensated for that and what’s more, they rely upon those payments to pay their mortgage, to feed their kids, to look after the necessities of life.
We know that real wages haven’t been keeping up with inflation. The Government, the Reserve Bank, every economist, has identified wages not keeping up with inflation as a real issue that is holding back the economy. So it seems to me that it is quite absurd that at a time such as this, we would be cutting penalty rates. Certainly Labor would be committed to restoring penalty rates that have been cut as soon as possible.
In terms of penalty rates also I do note that a whole range of employers – good employers – are keeping faith with their employees and will continue to pay penalty rates after July 1 because they value their workforce and they value what they contribute to the companies that they work for. After all, if you don’t have loyal employees, you won’t have successful companies and loyalty is a two-way street and I congratulate those companies who have said that they will continue to pay those penalty rates.
REPORTER: Can you define as soon as possible?
ALBANESE: Well I am not the IR spokesperson so Brendan O’Connor will get down to the detail and Brendan O’Connor has certainly campaigned on this as has each and every member of the caucus because we see this as being a fundamental issue of fairness. I know myself, when I was at university working the Saturday night shift at Pancakes on the Rocks from 11pm to 7am, the reason why I gave up my Saturday night was because of penalty rates. It made a difference. It helped me work my way through my economics degree at university. That was essential for me. But what’s more, for many people for whom it’s their full-time job, it is those penalty rates that really make a difference. It’s the penalty rates that allow them to buy a present for their kids. It’s the penalty rates that allow them to have night out of with their wife or husband. That makes a difference to people’s lives and the idea that you will just cut that back in such a savage way is something that I don’t believe is fair.
REPORTER: Just back on infrastructure again, are there any other projects in Victoria that a Labor Federal Government would be looking to fund and back?
ALBANESE: Well there is a range of projects. Of course, we have already announced the tram extension during the Batman by-election. We are particularly interested in public transport projects and of course Labor is also very interested in advancing High Speed Rail in a real way from Melbourne to Sydney. The study that we did showed that there was a significant positive when it came to benefit over cost. We also will look at projects that boost productivity. When we were in government we looked at expansion of the inter-modal system to improve the freight network here in Victoria. And certainly many of the regional roads as well need fixing up. We did a lot of work on the Princes Highway East and West when we were in government, on the Geelong Ringroad. But we’d particularly look at the areas where you have the expansion of the population, I am particularly proud of the fact that the Regional Rail Link is the largest-ever investment by a Federal Government in a public transport project in Australia’s history and we would look at working with the Victorian Government as we have in the past.
You know, when we were in government, we were able to work with both Labor and the Liberal Government, which was who we finalised the agreement with on the Melbourne Metro, We actually had the Deputy Secretary of what was my Department of Infrastructure on the management board looking at taking that project forward. Now the Commonwealth has of course withdrawn from that project and I think that is most unfortunate indeed. But we would work co-operatively with Victoria and I am sure would be able to make a difference as we did the last time we were in government on projects like Regional Rail but also projects like the M80, the Princes Highway, and other road projects. Thanks very much.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.