ROBBIE BUCK: The WestConnex is in the news once again this morning, this time with revelations that the Commonwealth Auditor General’s office will be reviewing the infrastructure project.
It is the country’s largest transport road project; 33 kilometres long, costing $17 billion all up. It is after a request from the Federal Opposition.
Anthony Albanese is the Federal Opposition Transport and Infrastructure spokesman and he joins us this morning.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Good morning, Robbie. Good to be here.
BUCK: Why the request?
ALBANESE: Because what you have had is an absence of proper process. When we set up Infrastructure Australia to have independent oversight of infrastructure bids from State Governments or from the private sector. The idea was pretty simple – you do the business case, you see what the productivity benefits are and then you make a decision and then funding would flow from the Commonwealth.
BUCK: This audit is only to do with the federal side of the funding?
ALBANESE: Yes, absolutely.
BUCK: And how much is that?
ALBANESE: That is a total of $3.5 billion. A $2 billion loan that has been finalised and $1.5 billion in grant funding of which $1.2 billion has already been forwarded. That’s the concern here.
You have in the 2014 Budget, Tony Abbott’s obsession with toll roads. You had announcements on WestConnex, East West Link in Melbourne and Perth Freight Link in Perth; and advanced payments made.
So what the Commonwealth did was make a payment of $750 million in the May Budget, and then a payment in June 2014. They did that in order to make the Budget figures look worse for Labor’s last year in office, 2013-2014. That was done before there was any business case, before there were assessments by Infrastructure Australia –
BUCK: So what are the concerns you have; the allegations, if you like, about the process? What are you expecting the Auditor’s report is going to show?
ALBANESE: What they showed in the East West Link audit that they conducted was that there was bad process and bad value for taxpayers.
BUCK: That was in Victoria, but what about here?
ALBANESE: You have in WestConnex, I expect, similar things. You have a project that was expected to cost $10 billion, that now costs $16.8 billion. A project that was originally about taking traffic to the port. That is what Infrastructure NSW said was the number one priority. And that makes sense: there are issues. That is why we announced the Port Botany freight project yesterday –
BUCK: Which is something different –
ALBANESE: But it is all the same. If you take trucks off the roads and put it on to rail then you don’t need this massive expenditure in terms of road infrastructure.
BUCK: Does that mean that if you are elected at this next election that you will scrap the WestConnex?
ALBANESE: Well, we can’t. It is a State Coalition Government project. That’s the truth of the matter. There will be people who promise various things during the election campaign; it is a State Government project. They are proceeding with it. What this audit does is an audit into the Commonwealth Government’s involvement, and in particular the financing of the project.
BUCK: So, in that case it is just a political stunt, then?
ALBANESE: No, it’s not. It is very important that the Commonwealth’s interests are protected. One of the concerns I think that the local community have about WestConnex is the lack of transparency.
People still don’t know what is going to happen to the traffic when it comes up at St Peters, what happens to the traffic when it comes up around Haberfield and what is happening at Rozelle. There needs to be a light shone on this. Good infrastructure brings the community with it and engages with the community, it doesn’t hide.
BUCK: The Roads Minister, Duncan Gay, has responded to the announcement of the audit. He says that the project has already been looked at by Infrastructure NSW, through cabinet and Infrastructure Australia. He says they have all been given a clean bill of health: what is your response to that?
ALBANESE: The NSW Auditor General produced a damning report about the processes for NSW and one of the things that has happened since then is less transparency; a corporate structure that has been set up that makes it very difficult for journalists and organisations such as the ABC to seek documents.
When you are talking about public funds I think there should be transparency and the NSW Government have not been open to proper examination of this project.
BUCK: Okay Anthony Albanese, thank you very much for your time this morning.
ALBANESE: Good to be with you.