ANTHONY ALBANESE: I’ve been very pleased to open this Infrastructure Australia conference on infrastructure finance reform. We know that Infrastructure Australia has compiled a list of $86 billion worth of nationally significant projects and that there’s a much greater infrastructure need for Australia than even that figure. So we know that government won’t be able to do that alone, we will need private sector investment to be encouraged. That’s why we had a number of measures in the Budget to do just that, such as uplifting early losses; such as ensuring that tax arrangements can go, regardless of ownership, when ownership changes. That has made investment in brownfield infrastructure much more difficult than it would be otherwise as a result of these changes. So we’ve responded to the needs of the business community with these changes in our Budget.
We’re also making record investment. We’ve doubled the roads budget, we’ve increased the rail budget by more than ten times and we’ve committed more to urban public transport since 2007 than was committed by all governments from Federation right through up to 2007. But we know that we will need to encourage private sector investment. Today’s meeting is engaging with infrastructure leaders and the business community to provide solutions which will come from Infrastructure Australia through recommendations to the government.
QUESTION: A lot of public-private partnerships haven’t worked, particularly with roads areas, is that not warning bells to the government?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: One of the issues has been patronage forecasting. In the past, the way that a number of projects have been contracted out it has encouraged overly ambitious forecasts of patronage numbers. That has dampened down some of the investor confidence when it comes to infrastructure projects. So one of the issues that the government is addressing is having that looked at by Dr Robert Bain. He’ll report to the government about patronage risk and forecasting measures, what’s gone wrong in the past, how that can be improved.
Of course it is the case that it is investors who’ve suffered, on at least a couple of occasions, not the public sector. The public have actually got a very good deal out of the mistakes that have been made due to that overly ambitious patronage forecasting that’s occurred. So contrary to what some people think in many cases this has actually led to a good deal. What it has done though is to inhibit future investment in terms of infrastructure projects because the risk management wasn’t appropriate. Part of today’s conference is dealing with those issues.
QUESTION: But the public could also be viewed as a loser in some respects on this because these days we now pay road tax as well as many road tolls. Is that double dipping?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: In terms of financing what today’s conference will be looking at, at arm’s length from government, is an attempt to get the politics out of the issues, have a discussion between the business community, industry leaders, people who actually build the infrastructure, to provide solutions in a way forward. We think that’s a good thing for the recommendations to then be considered by the government.
QUESTION: But road tolls are still very much part of the government’s plans?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well no. The Commonwealth Government doesn’t impose road tolls. That’s a decision for state governments. What we’re doing is putting up a proposal to facilitate discussion. In terms of the actual running of roads that will be a decision for specific state governments and those decisions will be made on their merits.
QUESTION: Minister, the carbon tax is about to go through the Senate today. If Tony Abbott wins the next election he will have a mandate to scrap it won’t he?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well Tony Abbott says, and said prior to the carbon price going through the House of Representatives. He said I have dedicated my political life, whatever’s left of it, to stopping this carbon tax. Then today, when it’s about to go through the Senate, Tony Abbott has fled off to the Tory Party conference in London. It is extraordinary and says a lot about his priorities.
You can’t rant and rave about pricing carbon and then not even be around for the vote. The vote’s happening today, Tony Abbott knows the vote is happening today. It’s been scheduled with a special meeting of the Senate and yet Tony Abbott, who said – staked his political career on stopping the pricing of carbon, when it is priced today he’ll be nowhere to be seen because he’s embarrassed by his own commitment. And it’s as unreal as the other statements that Tony Abbott has made about pricing carbon. What we see from Tony Abbott is big talk. But when it comes to 1 July next year, will Tony Abbott roll back the increases to pensions? Will Tony Abbott change the tax system so he puts a million people back into the tax system by decreasing the threshold from $18,000 down to $6000? This is an Opposition that are big on rhetoric but fail when it comes to substance. And we’ve seen it again with the disarray they’re in over the response to the mineral resources rent tax whereby they last week were going to oppose the superannuation improvements. Friday they decided they were going to now support it but they didn’t even consult their Finance Shadow Minister and they don’t know where the money’s coming from.
QUESTION: Greg Combet’s been out this morning defending the twenty-three, sorry, $23 a tonne level compared with around – I think it’s around eight to $12 in Europe saying that within three and a half years by the time the prices flow to Australia the two will probably mesh. But that’s wishful thinking isn’t it to say that within three and a half years Europe would’ve recovered sufficiently to be at that level?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: No. In terms of the price what we have is a fixed price for a period before we move to a market based price through an emissions trading system. The Government attempted to get an emissions trading system through the Parliament on a number of occasions that was blocked by the Liberals and by the Greens in spite of the fact that an agreement was reached with Mr Turnbull when he was leader of the Liberal Party.
This is a good process that we have gone through. Today will be a historic day when it goes through the Senate. In politics often we debate things that might make a difference today or next week. This is about this generation and generations to come. It’s about protecting the planet in terms of our kids and our grandkids. This is an important reform and a historic day. Tony Abbott’s been missing on this historic day – flown off to London.
QUESTION: It’d be good not to have Tony Abbott around today. You’ve got a brief respite for the anti-tax brawl.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well, I think that Tony Abbott’s relentless negativity is beginning to show through with his disapproval rate and I think that Tony Abbott is in hiding from his own position and you can’t just run around as a walking vuvuzela and make a single noise of no, no, no, no, at everything that happens. And what’s occurring with Tony Abbott is that when people first hear the walking vuvuzela, it’s an interesting sound, it gets your attention but over a period of time when you realise it’s just one noise and it’s a monotone and its relentless and it’s not about the future, just about his past, then I think the Australian people will increasingly be agitated by his failure to show any leadership at all. All opposition and no leader.
QUESTION: Have you had any further talks with Alan Joyce.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Yes, I have.
QUESTION: And what came out of that?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Those discussions will remain private.
QUESTION: Was there any sense that the relationship between the Government and Qantas has been mended in the last week?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: I have made it very clear that whether it is Qantas or the unions, I’ve had discussions with all the parties, I’ve encouraged them to come to an agreement in their common interest. They have a common interest in coming to an arrangement. This is a service-based industry, one that relies upon its workforce to deliver those services in the best way possible and the workforce have an interest in Qantas being a profitable and successful company. What I have called upon publicly is what I’m engaged with privately which is for them to get this deal done.
QUESTION: Are you confident it’s going to be able to be done within that 21 day period or can we expect spending another 21 days and thereafter arbitration?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: That will depend upon the goodwill of both Qantas and the unions. There is no reason in my view why this deal can’t be done during that time.
QUESTION: How concerned is the Government and you personally perhaps about the ongoing plight of this young lad in Bali, in light of this apparent media deal that’s been signed?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: I’m concerned and the Government is concerned and I don’t want to add to any of those issues. I think the Australian consular staff are working very hard on these issues and I’m hopeful of a quick resolution.
QUESTION: What’s your take on the polls?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: I think increasingly the big figure that’s a problem for Tony Abbott is the fact that his relentless negativity is jarring with the Australian public. The more people look at Tony Abbott as an alternative prime minister the more they see that he’s not a leader.
QUESTION: The approval ratings of Julia Gillard aren’t high enough for her to retain office.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: The fact is that polls come and go. What you have to look at is trends. The Labor vote, primary vote, has been going up at the rate of a percentage point a week over recent weeks. Still, of course, needs to be higher. We’ve got more to be done but we’re taking the tough decisions early in our term. We’ve had the carbon price go through, it’ll go through the Senate later today. We’ve also got the Minerals Resource Rent Tax so we’ve got big issues being undertaken by the Government, a very positive agenda and that positive agenda is [indistinct] infrastructure financing. It follows on from the actual infrastructure investment yesterday. I was on the Hume Highway opening – I opened a bypass, an important investment, creating jobs, that sustained us through the global financial crisis. I think the Government will continue to emphasise our strong economic management and how strong Australia’s position is economically compared with our partners in the rest of the world.
QUESTION: [Indistinct] approval rating for Labor going?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: In terms of our economic message, I think people can see how strongly Australia’s performed compared with what’s occurring in Europe. They know that the Government leadership was provided during the global financial crisis, they know from the time when the world was shedding 20 million jobs we were creating more than 700,000 jobs here in Australia and I think increasingly they can see that Tony Abbott’s empty rhetoric is literally empty as he sped off to London when the carbon price was [indistinct].
ANTHONY ALBANESE: We tend to think that it’s a good idea to keep the discussions with independents as private and those discussions will be continuing. Thanks very much.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.