SUBJECT: Infrastructure in the Illawarra; Infrastructure Australia; recycling; press freedom; Hong Kong protests; climate change; national security.
SHARON BIRD, MEMBER FOR CUNNINGHAM: Welcome everybody to beautiful Wollongong and to our fabulous working harbour. I really want to thank our Leader, Anthony Albanese, for joining us today. Anthony is no stranger to our region, let alone this particular port. He’s well understood the challenges and the opportunities that our area provides as part of, not only developing jobs and employment opportunities for our local people, but being part of the state and national growth and opportunity for jobs diversification of our economy and so on. So we’ve had a great meeting this morning with some of our peak organisations such as the Business Chamber, the Labor Council, RDA Illawarra and Wollongong Council, talking about exactly what those challenges and opportunities are and I want to thank all of those people for taking the time to talk to Anthony today. It’s obviously very important to our region that we have governments who are engaged and understand how significant and important we are. And it’s really encouraging that Anthony has had that long-term commitment and continues to have that by coming down here to visit us today so early in his leadership. We really appreciate it. I might ask Fiona to say a few words from slightly further south here and then get Anthony to have a talk and Stephen to wrap up for us.
FIONA PHIILLIPS, MEMBER FOR GILMORE: It’s lovely to be here today as the Member for Gilmore. I think my first visit here as the Member for Gilmore. It’s great to be here with Anthony, Sharon and Stephen, great supporters of the South Coast. I think the big thing in the electorate of Gilmore, of course, is bringing forward infrastructure funding, particularly for the Princes Highway and also to help our local hospitals. So, I’m really excited to have Anthony. We’ll be travelling down to the Shoalhaven a little bit later on and talking more about the Princes Highway.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Thanks very much. It’s great to be here in the Illawarra with Sharon Bird, Stephen Jones and Fiona Phillips. Particularly good to have a new member for this region here and I look forward to attending her electorate office as a thank you, and the opening of that this evening. This morning we’ve had really constructive discussions with the Business Chamber, with Regional Development Australia Illawarra, with Wollongong Council and with the South Coast Labor Council, talking about the needs of the Illawarra. And it follows today’s report from Infrastructure Australia which speaks about the costs of urban congestion in our cities, both capital cities and regional cities, doubling over the next 15 years unless we take action to bring forward infrastructure investment. That’s what was asked for by the Reserve Bank Governor just last Friday as well.
Here in the Illawarra, we need to build the Maldon-Dombarton freight line. That’s a project that was begun, and actually construction began, including the pylons standing there further to our north west, before it was stopped midstream as an infrastructure project. We know that project would create 200 direct jobs, but if you count indirect jobs, a thousand jobs over two years in terms of construction and ongoing, a boost for jobs. This port here is a deep-water port. It sustains over 3000 jobs here in the Illawarra. What we need to do, is to make sure that we have investment such as that project brought forward.
We also need to bring forward projects like Picton Road and Appin Road. We need to bring forward the investment on the Princes Highway. The Reserve Bank of Australia has called for that.
The Business Council of Australia, the union movement, every economist in the country, knows that all of the economic indicators at the moment are flat lining. We have economic growth that was downgraded just last Friday from two and three quarter per cent to two and a half per cent, putting it below trend. We have productivity that’s gone backwards for four quarters in a row. We have consumer demand that is flat lining and the lowest retail trade figures since the 1990s. We have household debt that is spiralling. We have a national debt that’s being doubled on this Government’s watch. All of the economic indicators showed the economy slowing. That’s why the Reserve Bank has reduced interest rates to just 1 percent. One third of what they were under the Global Financial Crisis. And yet you have a Government that’s complacent. You have a Prime Minister who is conducting a victory tour and he’s saying ‘nothing to see here’ when it comes to the economy, in spite of the fact that we know that families, including those here in the Illawarra, are increasingly under pressure just to pay their household bills, to keep up with energy costs.
You have a Government that’s in its third term that doesn’t have a sense of purpose. You have a Government that doesn’t have an energy policy; it now has 16 different energy policies out there, the latest of which is to float nuclear power plants, particularly of course, one supported by Fiona’s Liberal opponent in the recent federal election to put one down in the Shoalhaven or at Jervis Bay.
We have a Government that doesn’t have a policy to increase wages. It doesn’t have a policy to deal with the skills crisis. And today, they’re talking about, rather than training Australians for jobs, they’re talking again about importing more labour rather than ensuring that Australians get opportunities. In this area the youth unemployment rate is around 20 percent. We want to give people in our regions those opportunities.
So I thank our hosts today. It’s been good to be able to meet with the Business Chamber and with other leaders in the Illawarra. And there’s a unity of purpose going forward. We know what has to be done. We should be getting on and doing it. Happy to take questions.
JOURNALIST: Should the Government be spending more on infrastructure?
ALBANESE: Well, quite clearly the Government should be. The Government comes out with some big figures on infrastructure. But when you look at the detail, the investment simply isn’t there. Take the Princes Highway, a $500 million big figure statement, but when you look at the detail across the next four years of that 10-year period, there’s just $50 million. So, $50 million almost in the first half, $950 million back ended to after the election after next. That is simply not on. We know that those projects could be brought forward.
We know that a project like Maldon-Dombarton, where there was money in the Budget in 2013, was cut by the Abbott Government. What we’re seeing today is the chickens coming home. For the cuts that were there in Tony Abbott’s first budget where he ripped every single dollar out of any rail project that wasn’t under construction, including Maldon-Dombarton, Cross River Rail, Melbourne Metro, Adelaide Light Rail, Perth Airport Rail Link. They were all cut by Tony Abbott’s Government, and that has had a consequence for urban congestion in both our cities and our regions.
JOURNALIST: What commitment would you give to the Maldon-Dombarton?
ALBANESE: Well we committed $50 million in the lead up to the last election. We committed that as well prior to 2016, and we committed funding in 2013. The Federal Government and State Government should work with the private sector to make sure this project happens. It’s even more important now because it can link up with passenger movements as well, going to the south-west growth centre that will occur around the Aerotropolis at Badgerys Creek Airport. It’s also a fact that the Government received a report, the New South Wales Government, received a report from Transport New South Wales that said the priority of commuters going from Wollongong to Sydney was rail. And one of the ways you could speed up passenger rail is by making sure that you have this freight link here.
JOURNALIST: Would you agree that all governments, federal and state are partly to blame for the lack of infrastructure?
ALBANESE: Well no. I’d agree that the Federal Government, since 2013, has cut infrastructure investment. They ripped the guts out of it in 2014 and you can’t have a Government that says very explicitly – they didn’t hide it, to be fair – Tony Abbott said the Federal Government should not invest in rail, that it has nothing to do with the Commonwealth. And there are consequences for that. And at the same time, he took that money and didn’t invest in roads either. The only roads that he was prepared to fund were toll roads essentially, that were run by the private sector, that many of which have haven’t gone ahead at all.
So, he took money from projects that were happening like Cross River Rail, Melbourne Metro and others, gave them to projects that weren’t happening and still aren’t, like Perth Freight Link, and East West Link in Melbourne. And that’s had an impact on infrastructure investment that fell under the current Federal Government.
The State Government have put a lot of money into Sydney. What they haven’t done is put money into the regions like the Illawarra, and that has had consequences. There is not, in terms of the Federal Government, not a dollar has gone into infrastructure in the Illawarra, here in Wollongong. That is a real problem and it shows what their priorities are.
They’ve also undermined Infrastructure Australia. And we saw just in the last sitting fortnight of Parliament, when we were saying we support drought funding being funded separately with real dollars being attached to it, they used that legislation to shut down $3.9 billion from the Building Australia Fund so that they could put back, in two years’ time, $100 million into the drought fund and $100 million to be available the year after. It says everything about this Government’s priorities and their failure to prioritise infrastructure, the fact that they played politics with the Building Australia Fund, which was an important component of Infrastructure Australia, which is why we would recreate the Building Australia Fund if we’re elected to government in 2022.
JOURNALIST: But surely this issue goes back further than 2013?
ALBANESE: What you need is a pipeline. The fact is that when we were in government, we established Infrastructure Australia. We established a Major Cities Unit. We increased road funding by more than double. We increased rail funding in general by more than 10 times in terms of the Rail Freight Network. We rebuilt one third of the interstate Rail Freight Network and we invested more in public transport in those six years than had been invested in the previous 107 years from Federation up to 2007. We established the National Broadband Network with fibre to the premise. So, Kiama down the road here has fibre to the premise. I opened, as the Communications Minister, the fibre to the school there and we had demonstrations. It was making an enormous difference there but they stopped that when they came into government and rolled out a second-rate option.
When it comes to water, they haven’t built a dam. When it comes to energy infrastructure, they have 16 separate policies. They got rid of the policy framework that was there, that was driving investment, that was seeing us meet our emissions targets and with boosting the economy. And they have replaced it with uncertainty which has led to real issues for the business community themselves saying we want certainty, we want to invest. And even when they came up with a policy, such as they did with the NEG, that went through their party room not once, but twice, they not only abandoned it, they knocked off the elected Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull for his support for that project.
JOURNALIST: So, what would be the one critical infrastructure that you would pick to build in New South Wales to ease the billions of dollars’ worth of congestion that is forecast?
ALBANESE: Well you can’t do one. What you’ve got to do is get the planning right. You get the planning right so it all works together. But you start with projects like Maldon-Dombarton should be an absolute priority, with Picton Road, with Appin road, with the Princes Highway. You start by making sure that we boost our regional infrastructure so that it can take pressure off the capital cities as well. That’s why we established the Major Cities Unit which was very consciously aimed at regional cities, not just capital cities, to make sure that we have got those infrastructure decisions right and that you have independent advice to government, through Infrastructure Australia and the Major Cities Unit, that drives that change through the economy. That’s what should be happening.
Under this Government, Infrastructure Australia has been downgraded in importance. They’ve abolished any funding mechanism that’s connected to Infrastructure Australia, so that now they can make recommendations but there’s no funding attached. So, it has become an academic exercise rather than a body that has real teeth. And we would have done the same with the Major Cities Unit, that we would have tasked with overseeing city partnerships in our capital cities and in our regions, to drive that change through the economy.
JOURNALIST: Regarding the Maldon-Dombarton, the State Government has put forward an expression of interest, and no one was suitable. Isn’t it just saying, doesn’t that prove and there isn’t any private sector interest in building the line.
ALBANESE: No, the opposite was in fact the case. What happened was that we helped to fund that process. There were two bids went forward, what would normally happen with bids is that governments would work with the winning bidder if there are any shortfalls to deal with it. The fact is that this stacked up, this project, more than a decade ago. That’s why it was begun by the Labor Government a long time ago, before Nick Greiner who actually stopped the project. So this is a project that has stacked up for a long period of time. And what we know is that there were private sector investors coming forward to us when we were in government, which is why we promoted this project in 2013, because private sector interests came forward saying they were prepared to invest in this project. And the Port Authority itself will tell you that this is a vital project to grow the port here at Port Kembla, which has a number of advantages, obviously, over Port Botany in terms of access, in terms of congestion, in terms of road congestion, over a port in the middle of a Australia’s largest city. Port Kembla has enormous advantages. We’re not taking that opportunity at the moment and that’s a shortfall of government vision.
JOURNALIST: Given the scale of the recycling and waste emergency in Australia, is $20 million enough to help out, from the Federal Government [inaudible]
ALBANESE: Well, this is a crisis and we do need to deal with it across all levels of government. Of course, local government has a critical role to play here as well. The Government once again has been asleep at the wheel. We have a third-term government searching for an agenda that has just discovered this as an issue. The Government clearly needs to do much more in terms of recycling, in terms of waste management, to make sure that our national economic interest is looked after.
JOURNALIST: Media executives, including Michael Miller of NewsCorp, say we are living in a state of secrecy and the public’s right to know is under threat. Do you feel the Government is using terror laws to control the media?
ALBANESE: Well, the fact is that it’s a pity that we have a Federal Government that’s not prepared to speak up for media freedom. I think that the media play a critical role in our democracy. We also need appropriate protections for whistleblowers, and what we’re seeing under this Government is these quite extraordinary raids on the ABC, on News Limited journalist Annika Smethurst and the way in which no one from the Government has been prepared to say why it is that the information that was revealed by those media outlets was not in the national interest. The fact is, that it was in the national interest for Australians to be informed that there was proposals and discussion within government which would see spying on Australian citizens without their knowledge. That was in the Australian national interest. That’s why we have a media, to make sure that government is held accountable and and to make sure that in a democratic society, knowledge is power. And it’s important that the media be able to inform the public of what is going on in the society that we all live in.
ALBANESE: One tick, this is just a follow up.
JOURNALIST: Channel Nine received a letter from the Assistant Secretary Attorney-General strongly encouraging them to conduct a self assessment of their registration obligation after the airing of the Steve Dickson story. Is this appropriate?
ALBANESE: Sorry, I must say I’m not familiar with that detail.
JOURNALIST: Just to what’s going on in Hong Kong. Are you concerned that China’s flexing its muscles there? I think they’ve referred to some of the protesters as terrorists, does that alarm you?
ALBANESE: Well, I am concerned, people have a right to demonstrate in a peaceful manner. And I am concerned about what is happening in Hong Kong. It is very important that the Hong Kong system of two systems one China that was established be respected. It’s important that people have a right to protest and that they’re able to be respected for doing that. It’s also important of course, that this protest be conducted in a peaceful manner. So I’d call for the authorities to ensure that there is restraint there, that they respect people’s rights to have their say.
JOURNALIST: You mentioned Picton and Appin Roads. (inaudible) they want to see it to motorway standards. Is that what you’re talking about by improvements?
ALBANESE: Well, absolutely. Motorway standards, so that you have essentially grade separation, so that your avoid the sort of accidents that have occurred. This is an issue of road safety, but it’s also an issue of productivity. We we know that there’s going to be considerable investment, for example, around the aerotropolis around Badgery’s Creek. People need to be able to access those jobs, the connections between Wollongong and southwest Sydney are critical. I understand there was an accident again today. There’s too many accidents on those roads. There’s an acknowledgement, and I’m somewhat perplexed at why it has taken too long, so long for Appin Road. We made a commitment before the 2016 election, so did the Coalition. They got elected and nothing’s happened. They need to explain why it is that when the Government makes these infrastructure announcements with, quite frankly, rubbish figures that take into account money that’s actually not in the budget that takes into account money that’s actually not a grant, but a loan. It takes into account a whole range of double counting and they come up with this big figure in a decade’s time. When you look at the detail, some of the projects, even smaller projects don’t begin until 2026 or 2027, projects like Linkfield Road in Brisbane. One of the things that’s going to happen over the next few years is that people will go back, and I’ll give the Government the big hint here, we have the list with the timetable over ten years of when the infrastructure projects are going to be rolled out. When people voted on May 18, they voted for the Coalition because of one of those projects. I think they had some anticipation that projects were going to begin, or even some of them be completed, the smaller ones, during this term.
When we get to the next election in 2022, when the Government hasn’t so much as dug a hole for projects that they said would happen, we will hold them to account. We will hold them to account over projects also like to Princess Highway – $500 million, big figure, but $50 million, not even this term, over four years, so over a term and a half of government. This is appalling, at a time when we have this having a real impact on the economy, on jobs, and at a time when the Reserve Bank of Australia, and every economist worth their salt, is saying we need to bring forward infrastructure investment right now.
It’s extraordinary that the Government is just so complacent, so arrogant, so determined that in its third term, they don’t need an agenda for this term. Well, we will hold them to account.
JOURNALIST: Locally Wollongong Council last night voted to declare a climate emergency. What do you make of the growing number of councils who are making that statement themselves and would you declare one at a Federal level?
ALBANESE: Well, what we would do is actually act on climate change. And it’s not surprising that other levels of government are trying to step in to make a statement, because what we see is a failure of Government action. And today I’ve got to say, for Scott Morrison to go our Pacific Island friends and say that he’s going to help out, when all he’s doing is allocating from the very much smaller foreign aid budget, money towards climate change, some $500 million, is I think an incredibly weak response. This is from a Government that still has as a senior minister, of course Peter Dutton, who Scott Morrison had to inform him about the boom mic that captured him making jokes about people drowning in the Pacific.
This is a Government that talks about new coal-fired power stations, although nothing happens. Talks about nuclear power, having a parliamentary review, but nothing will happen. This is the Government that doesn’t have an energy policy. What I will do, what we would do, is act on climate change. That’s what people want. People don’t want, I think, sort of a rhetorical position. What people want is action on climate change. We would do that. We’d look to drive that change through the economy, because that change will be good for job creation, and would be good for the economy as well as being good for the environment. Thanks.
ALBANESE: Sorry, I couldn’t hear that.
JOURNALIST: Mark Dreyfus says he thinks that terror levels have plateaued. Do you agree?
ALBANESE: I’ll leave the assessments about those issues to the experts and that’s what we should do.
STEPHEN JONES, MEMBER FOR WHITLAM: Thanks very much, Anthony and thanks for coming down today. Sharon and Fiona are delighted to have you here. The sign on the boat behind us says paradise and on a day like today you can see exactly why. Of course, we’ve got to work hard at keeping Wollongong and towns throughout regional Australia in a state of paradise, frankly when need the Government to get out of the grandstand and get onto the playing field. We need the Government to start acting and investing in infrastructure. It’s not just Labor who is saying that, everyone from the heads of business, to the Reserve Bank Governor is saying there has never been a better time to be investing in productive infrastructure. Illawarra Labor MPs have singled out the Maldon-Dombarton rail link and in answer to a question that was asked earlier, the obstacle to building the Maldon Dombarton rail link is not finance. There’s never been a cheaper time to borrow money to invest in infrastructure like this.
The obstacle to the Maldon-Dombarton rail link is political will and requires the Prime Minister and his Treasurer to work with the Premier and her Treasurer to get that rail link done. And whenever we raise the issue of investing in infrastructure with the Government they raise two objections. Our number one priority, they say, is bringing the Budget into surplus and there are capacity constraints in building more infrastructure. Well, a surplus isn’t an end in itself. A surplus is a necessary tool in improving the economy. There are no infrastructure constraints in regional areas and that’s exactly where we should be using the money to invest in great projects like the one that we’ve talked about today. Thank you very much.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.
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