Subjects: Unemployment; Townsville Ring Road; local jobs plan; TAFE; Bruce Highway underspend; Mackay Ring Road; Rockhampton Ring Road; NAIF donations; Aurizon; Adani.
CATHY O’TOOLE: It’s great to have our Shadow Minister Anthony Albanese here. Anthony is Shadow Minister for Infrastructure and Tourism. In Townsville our unemployment rate is now higher than both the state and national average. Since Labor left government our unemployment has almost doubled. This is not acceptable. We know that it’s really important for our local people to have jobs and infrastructure is one way that we can get those local jobs for our workers. Youth unemployment is also completely unacceptable. I would now like to hand over to Anthony to speak more about infrastructure spending.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Thanks very much, Cathy. It’s great to be back here in Townsville. Behind us is Stage Four of the Townsville Ring Road, a project which we announced when I was the Minister back in 2012 and which I attended the opening of, following the funding and completion of Stage III of the Townsville Ring Road. It is Labor that builds infrastructure, but the other thing that we understand, is that we need to maximise local benefit from that build. And that’s why today Bill Shorten has announced in Maryborough our local jobs plan. What this will mean is that for any project with Government funding of above $10 million there’s got to be a local plan and someone designated to deal with local small and medium businesses, to make sure that local employment is being boosted. What we don’t want to see is contracts given for major projects and then the contractors – sometimes a multi-national company – will want to bring in their own suppliers and use their own supply chain that they’ve used in other areas. What that does is remove local small and medium enterprises from bidding for work, whether it be the supply of the bitumen and the raw materials that go into building a road or railway line, or a port. Or whether it be the other factors that come into building a major project.
At the same time, we have already announced our project to build local apprentices. We’ll fund, of course, 100,000 TAFE free places. We will contribute $100 million for the upgrades of capital investment in TAFE. And we will require that any project which has Commonwealth funding has to have at least 10 per cent of local apprentices. That’s all about making sure that after a project is completed the benefit in the local community and for local jobs and local employment flows through; that we’re skilling Australia. How often have we heard: ‘We need to get in overseas people to do these jobs, because local labour is not available’. We will address that. We will make sure there is proper labour market testing, so that if local labour is available it’s used and given preference, as should occur. Secondly, we’ll make sure that the training occurs as well.
The other thing I want to say today is that the latest Senate Estimates figures show that there is a $700 million underspend on Bruce Highway investment over the next three Budgets according to the difference between what the Government on Budget Night have said they would invest and what the actual figures now show they intend to invest over the next three years. To put that in some perspective, that $700 million could have funded – Townsville, of course, Ring Road Stage Five looks like it’ll be a total cost of around about $180 million. It could have funded the second stage of the Mackay Ring Road. It could have funded almost the entire Rockhampton Ring Road as well. What we need is a government that actually does what it says it would do when it puts projects in the Budget and makes announcements – that it has the funding there to make sure that it happens. This $700 million underspend means less jobs are being created, means the highway isn’t as safe as it should be. And it’s really set back the plans for upgrade of the most important road in Queensland which is, of course, the Bruce Highway. Labor will work with the Queensland State Government to make sure that we further progress major projects; that we don’t announce one thing but then actually have much less money spent, with much less jobs created. I think together, our plans to fund infrastructure, to have a local jobs plan, to make sure that there are local apprentices trained, together what this is about is making sure that when we build infrastructure we really build the community here in Townsville.
REPORTER: Why do you think that they have done this, is it a way of smuggling a budget surplus in the back door for their forecast?
ALBANESE: Well quite clearly that has occurred. It’s not just the Bruce Highway. We have literally billions of dollars of underspend. Each and every Budget, whether it be road projects, rail projects, even projects like black spots road funding have been underfunded and that’s where the Government will – no doubt in April it’s foreshadowed announcing a surplus; but that’s on the back of cuts that have been made and these are cuts not from another government, these are cuts from what they themselves said they would spend on Budget night. And that’s why it’s so dishonest of the Government to talk about its infrastructure plan. They haven’t been able to get on with the business of, for example, advancing Stage Five of this Ring Road project. They are happy to come and open projects, and I was here with Matt Canavan for the opening of Stage Four with Cathy O’Toole. But that was a project that was fully funded by the former Labor Government last time I was the Minister. What they haven’t done here in Townsville, or right around the country indeed, but particularly in the north; is deliver. And whether it’s this, or whether it’s the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (NAIF) that has been a complete flop that we now know that they have actually spent more on the board members and meetings and bureaucracy than they’ve actually delivered on the ground here in this region, through the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility, which I’ve designated should be called the No Actual Infrastructure Fund because that’s what it means for Townsville and for the north.
REPORTER: Speaking of Stage Five of the Ring Road, the local State Government members here have called for the feds to put their money where their mouth is. The same clearly goes for Labor heading into an election. Would you fund Stage Five of the Ring Road?
ALBANESE: What we’ll be doing is making commitments in the lead-up to the Election. But very clearly it took a Labor Government to fund the port access road, to fund Ring Road Stage Three, Ring Road Stage Four, to actually invest in infrastructure and not just say on Budget Night, but to actually deliver it, to deliver this road that is behind us at this media conference today. And Cathy O’Toole is a very strong advocate, she’s making strong representations. We’ll have further things to say, but quite clearly this is a project that needs completion, the next stage is Stage Five.
REPORTER: Your concerns about the bureaucracy levels within the NAIF, would they not be exacerbated by Labor’s plan to partition part of that fund off, to create a separate tourist fund, thus doubling up on that bureaucracy?
ALBANESE: Not at all. What they’ve done, is this fund has been operating for four years and hasn’t actually been able to deliver anything for this region. What this region needs is hard infrastructure funding, but it also needs funding for tourism infrastructure. We make no apologies for the fact that we announced, years ago now, the $1 billion that we would use from this fund for tourism infrastructure here in the north. We know that the tourism sector is absolutely vital to future jobs creation and to sustainability of this region and that’s why we would we would do this. Of course, what has occurred with this bureaucratic nightmare that is the NAIF, is lots of meetings usually held not, of course, in the north. Often held pretty close to me in Sydney. Sending people flying in from all around the country to a meeting in Sydney to discuss what is good for the north. This has been a debacle. We now know about donations from NAIF Board Members to the Liberal and National Parties from the very beginning. This fund has been problematic, we said that when it was first established, we were critical because we couldn’t see that it would deliver actual grant funding which is what’s needed for a range of projects here in the north.
REPORTER: What concerns you about these donations revealed today that the board members are making to the LNP? Because if your criticism is that NAIF aren’t doing anything, then clearly their donations aren’t helping them get certain projects ahead. What’s the conflict there?
ALBANESE: The conflict is people who have been appointed to government positions around about the same time have made donations to the LNP and the Minister says he doesn’t know about that. I’m not going to comment on any of the individual circumstances, but what’s very clear is that the NAIF has been a failure. That the appointments to the NAIF board have been problematic and what I hear when I visit this region – and I’m regularly here with Cathy O’Toole the local Member for Herbert, I have been here at least three or four times every year – and what she tells me and what other people on the ground tell me, tourism operators, people who are interested in growing jobs in the region, is their frustration with the whole NAIF structure. And the whole way that this Government hasn’t actually been able to deliver on jobs because it makes announcements and then nothing happens. This $5 billion announcement was made a very long time ago, one would have thought that would have been out the door by now and would have resulted in real projects, employing real people, making a real difference here on the ground here in Townsville. The fact is that it hasn’t.
REPORTER: A large number of North Queensland Aurizon rail workers are currently on strike between Mt. Isa and Hughenden today, it will be for a 24-hour period. Are you concerned that Aurizon have said they won’t come back to the negotiating table on the enterprise agreement until mid-February and that they want the union to agree not to strike before they come back to the table?
ALBANESE: The company needs to negotiate in good faith. They need to recognise that there’s a common interest here between employers and employees. Industrial relations work best if people are around the table negotiating in good faith and getting a good outcome and the company should be doing that.
REPORTER: Just a question on Adani. It’s emerged today that the State Government has referred an environmental management plan for the black-throated finch to an independent environmental board. There has been concern that board is stacked full of Greens sympathisers. What do you make of that?
ALBANESE: That’s a matter for the State Government. I have no idea who is on that board. If the State Government have made that decision that’s a matter for them.
REPORTER: Just quickly on the issue of black-throated finches again …
ALBANESE: I am not an expert on black-throated finches it must be said. I don’t know if there are any around Marrickville, but I haven’t seen any.
REPORTER: Well the reason that I bring it up is because one of the other habitats, apart from the Galilee Basin, is the area in which we stand right now, the Townsville Ring Road. There are concerns that Ring Road environmental approvals were pushed through a lot faster, in relation to that finch, than they have been for Adani. Is this a case of double standards?
ALBANESE: We have appropriate environmental law and both federal and state. It’s important that law be implemented without fear or favour. I can’t comment on any particular fauna that are impacted because I’m not an expert on it. And that’s why you have people examine these issues who actually are experts on – I don’t know if you’d know a black-throated finch if it was sitting on my shoulder at the moment. I don’t know if anyone here would, that’s why we should leave it to the experts.
REPORTER: I think that mention of the Ring Road brings us back full-circle with Claire’s original question. A lot of talk about concrete funding being required, a lot of talk about getting things done, but in that Labor plan, is Stage Five of the Ring Road in there?
ALBANESE: We will have announcements between now and the Election. But, very clearly, we funded Stages Three and Four and we think it’s important that the Ring Road be completed. We will obviously have discussions with the Queensland Government. They are doing some of the preparatory work in terms of planning, but the thing about this project is that it is ready to start later this year or in 2020. So this is a project that does require support. I would hope that we will be in a position to be the Government because then we would act consistently with our approach towards infrastructure and nation building, consistent with our approach backing in the Ring Road here. Thanks.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.