Subjects: Cabinet reshuffle, Darren Chester, Barnaby Joyce, John McVeigh, Inland Rail, infrastructure policy.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Thanks very much for joining me. I want to give a response to the reshuffle of the deck chairs that we have seen from Malcolm Turnbull this afternoon. Of course, the problem for the Government is not one of personnel. It is one of performance and it is one of policy. This is a Government that doesn’t have an agenda and it has been reinforced by a reshuffle that is all about payback, personal vendettas and not about the best interests of the Government.
I want to begin by paying tribute to Darren Chester, the outgoing Minister for Infrastructure and Transport. He remains a person of integrity and I have respect for him. He will stay on as the Member for Gippsland and I am sure will continue to be a strong advocate. You can have significant policy differences with someone on the other side of politics while retaining respect for them and his shabby, frankly, treatment in this reshuffle says it all about Malcolm Turnbull’s lack of control of his Government.
Malcolm Turnbull couldn’t provide a single reason why Darren Chester was dumped not just from Cabinet, but from the Ministry and quite right rejected the rather insulting offer of a Parliamentary Secretary’s position. I would have expected nothing less from someone who wanted to retain their self-respect.
Barnaby Joyce is moving into the position of Minister for Infrastructure and Transport. Barnaby Joyce is someone who often I think is not take terribly seriously. This is someone whose last performance as Agriculture Minister was receiving a novelty cheque for his benefit that he subsequently gave back to Gina Rinehart at a function in Canberra. This is someone who presided over the debacle of water in the Murray-Darling Basin, a debacle that has seen various inquiries taking place with regard to potential issues of corruption, with regard to delivering that plan.
And this is a guy who talks about building dams; he just hasn’t built any.
This is a guy who talks about Inland Rail and yet hasn’t dug a hole on any new section of that railway line, which of course relied upon Labor’s $300 million injection in its first three budgets to just talk about it as if it was theirs.
He has a big challenge because infrastructure funding has fallen off a cliff. Over the next ten years the Parliamentary Budget office indicates that it will go from 0.4 per cent of GDP to 0.2 per cent. That is, it will halve. Across the forward estimates it declines from the anticipated, what was expected to be, a $9.2 billion investment in 2016-17 that appeared in the 2016 Budget, down to $4.2 billion in 2020-21. That is more than half of the infrastructure Budget has been slashed.
The first thing he could do is stop pretending that there is some $75 billion program for infrastructure across the forwards because it simply isn’t true.
Indeed, in yesterday’s MYEFO announcement we saw another billion dollars cut from that which was announced just in May, some $574 million less on major road projects in the current financial year than what they said they would spend in the May Budget. For Western Sydney Infrastructure, some $348.8 million less spent this year than what they themselves said they would spend in the May Budget.
The fact is that across their first four Budgets there has been an under-spend of some $4.8 billion. That is, they make announcements about what they will do, but when it comes to actually investing the funds, they cut the funds from their own predictions.
I’m also concerned that Barnaby Joyce is on the record seeing public transport and dealing with urban congestion in our cities as being something that should be ridiculed. Well, 80 per cent Australians live in our major cities. Our major cities produce some 80 percent of our gross domestic product. And yet Barnaby Joyce has ridiculed investment in public transport over a long period of time.
He needs to turn that around and he can start with his former state of Queensland by investing in the Cross River Rail project that was recommended by Infrastructure Australia in 2012. He can also begin by abolishing the Infrastructure Financing Unit that is in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, showing that as Deputy Prime Minister he has some authority, and putting that money back into Infrastructure Australia and the creation of a Major Cities Unit within Infrastructure Australia to deliver on those issues.
He needs to match the Government’s rhetoric with actual investment in infrastructure because that is an absolute necessity.
In the reshuffle as well we have seen John McVeigh rise to the position of Cabinet Minister for Regional Development with responsibility also for Local Government. As a former Regional Development Minister and the current Shadow, I know how important those portfolios are and I am somewhat concerned that John McVeigh could be at this press conference and I wouldn’t know, because I wouldn’t recognise him.
It is remarkable that someone who has not troubled the scorers has become a Cabinet Minister at the same time as someone with experience like Darren Chester has been consigned to the backbench.
This Government doesn’t believe in quotas for women. It doesn’t believe in any form of positive discrimination except for, apparently, positive discrimination in favour of people who are mates of Barnaby Joyce and I think it’s a very ordinary outcome and the challenge for John McVeigh is to deal with local government with respect, after they had their funding cut in the 2014 Budget with the freeze on financial assistance grants, a freeze that has been a permanent cut to their funding.
The challenge for him is to deal with real investment in our regional roads, to deal with real investment when it comes to rail freight, to actually increase the spending of projects like the Pacific Highway and the Bruce Highway, rather than simply rely upon the investment that had been put in there by the former Labor Government.
So this is a very disappointing end to the year for Malcolm Turnbull with this reshuffle. It is very obvious that the Prime Minister couldn’t even defend the makeup of his own Cabinet. It is very obvious that the National Party are in a state of internal war, which means at least they can have something to chat about with the Liberals, with their ongoing warfare between Malcolm Turnbull and the Tony Abbott forces.
But the problem is, this produces a bad outcome for Australia. What we need when it comes to infrastructure, transport, regional development – is a Government that is actually serving the interests of the Australian people, whether they live in our cities or in our regional communities. Happy to take questions.
JOURNALIST: On that point, how concerning is it that front benchers and cabinet members are being chosen based on geography?
ALBANESE: It’s quite extraordinary. I entered the Parliament in 1996. The truth is that you need time to get on top of the way the Parliament works, the way the committee system works, the way the departments work. You get experience and you learn something new every day. The fact that people have been chosen as Cabinet Ministers in their first term, without the Government being able to point towards something dynamic that they have done, some major policy initiative that they have done – just simply point to where they live, is quite extraordinary.
John McVeigh, I literally don’t think I have met and I can’t recall a word that he has said in the Parliament, or anywhere else for that matter. There will be newspaper editors and TV producers struggling with their files to produce a photo of what is now a senior cabinet minister in the Government, and that I find quite extraordinary. Along with his neighbour, the colleague in Maranoa, David Littleproud – who I do know – who has also been selected for the Cabinet in his first term.
What governments need, particularly a Government that is struggling for a sense of purpose and a narrative, need, is the best people in the right jobs. And what is very clear here, is that you have an Infrastructure Minister who’s concerned about Inland Rail but needs to answer how the funding for that project will occur, because at the moment it is off-Budget. Everyone knows that it is not a project that will produce a return to government and therefore at least a portion of the funding needs to be on-Budget. Everyone who looks at it, every business person in the country, knows that is the case. So he needs to address that, but he also needs, I think, to broaden himself and to be aware that the infrastructure challenges for Australia are serious and they need someone serious to be in charge of them.
JOURNALIST: Will Barnaby Joyce be a formidable Parliamentary opponent?
ALBANESE: Barnaby Joyce at the moment – the problem is that his own side laugh at him when he speaks. It’s true sometimes they are laughing with him rather than at him and sometimes he can be very funny. I’ve got nothing personally against Barnaby Joyce. I have a reasonable personal relationship with him and I will always try and work constructively with ministers in the Government – as I have it must be said, with Darren Chester, Fiona Nash, the previous Regional Development Minister, and I do on an ongoing basis with Paul Fletcher, because these issues, due to their very nature, are long term. I have now seen off two Cabinet Ministers for infrastructure, I have seen off a number of urban infrastructure ministers and regional development ministers. I’m still here and I am available for advice, is what I would say to Barnaby Joyce.
But Barnaby Joyce needs to take issues seriously, needs to understand that he can’t continue to be the joker that he has been up to this point because infrastructure impacts on every Australian. The big challenges of urban congestion need to be dealt with, as well as regional roads, as well as regional freight – getting freight off roads and onto rail. All of these challenges are massive, as are water infrastructure, energy infrastructure, communications infrastructure – that he has serious responsibility for delivering.
I hope that he is able to use his position as Deputy Prime Minister to bring some weight to the portfolio and reverse the cuts. But if the Government continues to have this fantasy of using a big number, based upon ten-year figures and based upon double counting of projects, then he will be a failure.
The fact is, that the sector have judged this Government’s performance on infrastructure and on cities and on regional development very poorly indeed. It is one of the areas that they have fallen down on. I hope that they’re able to lift their game, but the challenge is there for Barnaby Joyce, to have a little bit less rhetoric and more substance. Thank you.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.