May 6, 2011

Transcript of Press Conference – Commonwealth and Parliamentary Offices, Sydney

Subject: Second anniversary of Labor’s recession-busting, job creating Economic Stimulus Plan; 2011 Budget; mud holes and the upgrade of the interstate rail network

ANTHONY ALBANESE: It’s now two years since the Government acted in response to the global financial crisis, and it’s appropriate that we assess the impact of the Government’s economic stimulus plan as we lead up to Tuesday night’s budget.

This document that I’m releasing today Investing in Australia’s Future is an analysis of the Government’s economic stimulus plan and its success when it comes to having nation building infrastructure which supported jobs during the global financial crisis but also put the Australian economy in a much stronger position to sustain our prosperity well into the future.

It is worth remembering that whilst the world was shedding 30 million jobs Australia has created 740,000 jobs. Had we not acted to insulate Australia from the global financial crisis there would be 200,000 Australian families out of work, failing to put bread on the table for their families, being on welfare and having an impact on the budget.

In the stimulus plan we provided an extra $1.2 billion to improve the reliability, speed and effectiveness of the interstate rail network. Indeed more than one third of the interstate rail network has been rebuilt. We laid 152 kilometres of new track and upgraded 750 kilometres of existing track. Of those seventeen projects eleven have been completed already.

We invested and brought money forward in fourteen road projects, collectively worth over $6 billion. Twelve of these are currently running on time and on budget, and two of these – the Northern Expressway and the Port Wakefield upgrade in South Australia – have already been completed.

These projects will cut travel times and improve safety for some half a million motorists and truck drivers every day, and deliver back to the community economic, social and environmental benefits worth more than $14.4 billion.

We also delivered the Federal Australian Government’s first ever investment in high risk level crossings program – 300 identified as the most dangerous around the country; 300 of them completed, making a big difference at these high risk level crossings.

We fixed also more than 600 blackspots – 600 of the worst areas having an impact on safety in our suburbs and in our regional communities. Six hundred announced; 600 completed. This resulted in jobs being created right around Australia in the short term, but also making a real difference to road safety in the long term.

This economic stimulus plan was indeed, I believe, something of which the Government is quite rightly proud, and it stands in stark contrast to what the Opposition said at the time.

We need to remember that Tony Abbott said on 5th February 2009: “I think we’re going to get massive debt and a deep recession.”

Julie Bishop, the Deputy leader, said on 2nd February 2009: “It certainly will not ward off recession.”

Andrew Robb, the Shadow Finance Minister, said on 26th April 2009: “The recession will be deeper and longer because of the Government’s misguided spending.”

And so that he doesn’t feel left out, Barnaby Joyce, who was then the Shadow Infrastructure Minister, on 18th March said: “We are heading towards a recession.”

So the Opposition at the time wanted to sit back, watch the impact of job losses. We chose a different path. Today’s report highlights the success of that path and I think it is a record of which the Federal Labor Government can indeed be proud.

Happy to take questions.

QUESTION: Is anything being wound back?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: No we’ve made sure that in terms of the Economic Stimulus Plan, all fourteen road projects and the seventeen rail projects – all of them are on time and on budget. As we know the Government is determined to get the budget back into surplus. So what we’re seeing as these projects are completed is a withdrawal of economic stimulus spending.

That’s the right thing to do under these circumstances. It is the right thing to do to make sure that we create the space needed in terms of the difficult economic situation which we face. This means softness in the short term, but in the long term we know that the prospects in terms of the mining boom are going to be a considerable level of investment in the Australian economy, creating pressure. Of course we’ve seen a substantial increase in infrastructure spending as a result of fixing the consequences of the natural disasters in January.

It is an extraordinary result that more than half of the roads that were damaged in Queensland have already been fixed, some 6,000 kilometres. A remarkable result, and that work continues apace.

QUESTION: Minister in relation to the re-sleepering program between Sydney and Melbourne at least one consultant warned the ARTC not to use its new method of side insertion for that stretch of track. How concerned are you that this has led to proliferation of mud holes and speed restrictions?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well safety of course always comes first and that is why the ARTC has imposed speed restrictions on the affected sections of that track.

I’ve asked my department to ensure that an independent assessment of the full line between Melbourne and Sydney was undertaken to examine these issues. I’m advised that that investigation is almost complete, and I’ve indicated that I’ll make the findings public. But I do think that we need to take a little bit of a step back. We have renovated more than one third of the network. We’ve upgraded 3,700 kilometres and yes, it is the case that in places such as recently with the flooding in the west, where you had rail track under metres of water, it would be astonishing if there weren’t consequences of that. The ARTC, I have every confidence, is getting about doing their job. It’s always important to have independent reviews and assessments, and I’m doing that.

QUESTION: With relation to that independent review though, earlier the ARTC said that the mud hole problem on the main south line was the result of dodgy ballast, faulty ballast, late in the ’70s, over an 80 kilometre stretch of track, now the preliminary findings of your consultants say that it’s actually dodgy soil, and something like 600 kilometres of track, on both sides of the border, I mean, which is it?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well, we’ll wait and see, and I will do what I suggest maybe you should do, which is to listen to the experts on this. I think it’s very important that we do this, but it’s also important to put it in a bit of perspective.

Have there been any major issues on this track, given the scale of the renovation and the task that we’ve done? In my view, this has been an extraordinarily successful project.

QUESTION: There are two things coming out of that, Minister, I mean on the one hand, that form of re-sleepering wasn’t used on the northern line, so north from New South Wales up to Queensland, and the same problems don’t seem to be occurring, so I’m not saying that there are questions being asked about all of the re-sleepering program, it’s just this area where the side insertion was used.

ANTHONY ALBANESE: No, I’m going to wait for the report as is appropriate, and then I will release it. That’s the appropriate response for a minister to undertake.

QUESTION: And it’s not just one or two people, it’s quite a number of people concerned with this that have expressed doubts about the ARTC’s regime of maintenance, for example, Railroad, the freight transporter to the west, has expressed concern about maintenance on the western line, how concerned are you that those complaints may have legitimacy?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: I’ve asked for this review to be undertaken. That’s the appropriate response. But I am very confident about what we are doing with the ARTC in making sure that we’ve injected funds and that the maintenance of course is done properly without taxpayer input. It’s done by the ARTC.

I’m very confident that ARTC is well managed. That is the government’s objective, and this is for a whole range of reasons. There are productivity benefits. There are also considerable environmental benefits such as maximising the amount of rail freight that is on rail rather than road. That’s a good outcome. It’s a good outcome economically, it’s a good outcome socially. Rail is safer than our roads in terms of heavy vehicle accidents, and I ask you to put it in a bit of perspective. I haven’t yet received any questions here today about heavy vehicle accidents on roads, not one, not one, and when it comes to rail, it is much safer. It has economic benefits. It has environmental benefits. I am unashamedly a supporter of freight going on rail for long distances.

This is a program which if you look at the reports, and if you look at when we received the report, you can examine it. There will be full scrutiny of it. We’ve been up front about it. But we have done an amazing achievement in one term of office, in renovating one-third of the national rail network, taking hours off freight travel from Brisbane to Melbourne, and making it more efficient.

I refer you to the article I wrote today in the Australian newspaper, which speaks about a major Australian corporation, in Woolworths, giving consideration to greater use of rail. That’s a good news story. There are those who will always try to find a difficult news story. I’m going to stay positive, I will release the review for all to see. We’re being very transparent about this process.

QUESTION: Minister, with all these projects on time, and on budget, or completed, does that mean then we’ll see a reduced amount maybe of road and rail spending in the budget?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: I’m not here to make budget announcements but the government has made it very clear that we’re meeting all of our commitments. We’ve also made it clear that we’re going to return the budget to surplus in 2012/13.

So I don’t think people should be anticipating massive new expenditures on Tuesday night, in any area. However, the Government has been determined to make sure that we get infrastructure investment right, because what infrastructure investment does is produce good budget outcomes in the long term, by boosting productivity, by making sure that revenues are increased. So it’s good for the long term fiscal position of the budget.

QUESTION: Minister, even the independent safety regulator in New South Wales says there’s a correlation between these mud holes and decoupling of trains, and the side insertion of the concrete sleepers. Now you’re saying that you will have an independent consultant’s report into this, but will you also release information about temporary speed restrictions in more recent times, and the results of the testing on the main south line? We’re talking about one section of line.

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well, with due respect, you’re aware of what the restrictions are? To suggest…

QUESTION: We’ve had information leaked to us, but we haven’t been given the full information.

ANTHONY ALBANESE: That’s nonsense. We’ve been very transparent in this, we will continue to be so, and any information will always be available.

QUESTION: If you’re transparent, why haven’t we – why do we have to FOI your department for people to get this information?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Hang on, I gave you an opportunity. I’m happy to stay here all afternoon if you like. Your question?

QUESTION: Well, we’ve received information that some of the AK car testing results on the main north, south line, show major track defects. We’ve FOI’d your department for that information. Now if it’s all been released, if it’s all transparent, why do we have to FOI the department?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Have you asked me for that information?

QUESTION: Well, I’m asking for it now.

ANTHONY ALBANESE: No, have you asked me for that information? I stand up…

QUESTION: I’d like to ask you now, that’d be good.

ANTHONY ALBANESE: I’ve said at press conferences all the time, if you want information, it’ll be made available.