Subjects: Barnaby Joyce; Inland Rail; South Australian infrastructure; Victorian infrastructure; Australia Day; Indigenous Voice to Parliament.
GRAHAM RICHARDSON: In our Canberra studio awaiting me now is Anthony Albanese. G’day mate, how are you?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: I’m very well thanks Graham. Good to be with you.
RICHARDSON: Good. Now I was listening to Question Time today because I don’t have a life. But you don’t have one either, you were in Question Time. That’s even worse.
ALBANESE: I don’t have a choice though, Graham.
RICHARDSON: No, that’s right mate, you have to be there. I don’t, but I still watch it. Isn’t that ridiculous? But I must say I am not uplifted by it, but I watched it and I note that Barnaby got up and had a few very spirited efforts today to show everybody he was unaffected. He accused you, I think, of getting three things wrong in a press release. You didn’t know where his railway went and you got a couple of other things wrong. What’s your answer to those things?
ALBANESE: Well of course Barnaby Joyce was wrong, as he has been wrong all week, and as he is consistently wrong when it comes to infrastructure. The only project he seems to know anything about at all is Inland Rail. We asked about Tasmanian infrastructure the day before yesterday and he responded by saying ‘oh, but they are going to get the Inland Rail’. He forgot about that little thing called Bass Strait in between the north island and the south island of this great continent. But he then today, when talking about the Inland Rail, forgot a number of things.
One, he forgot that it was in the Budget in 2013, the $300 million of new money going forward and I indeed sought to table the report of the Government’s own Inland Rail Taskforce. They appointed John Anderson to do work on the project who pointed out of course, pointed to the Budget papers from 2013, the fact that the funds were there, on top of the $600 million we put into fixing up the existing route.
Not all of the Inland Rail is new. Some of it is taking the existing route and essentially filling in the gaps that are there, so that you have a continuous route. The problem is that not only does the Inland Rail not go to the Bass Strait; it doesn’t go near water anywhere. It doesn’t go to either Melbourne Port or Brisbane Port. It stops at Acacia Ridge, some 38 kilometres short of the Port. Now why would they do that? They’d do that because they wanted to change what the cost-benefit looked like. They wanted to change how much the project cost in order to make it look more viable because they have put it all off-Budget. It’s there as an equity injection, which means that it’s supposed to produce a return to government, a profit to government, rather than it affecting the Budget bottom line.
But the problem is the 38km in between Acacia Ridge and the Port are the most expensive part of the project, not surprisingly, and what we are going to have if you could believe the announcement of what their model is, is double-decker trains going to Acacia Ridge and then all of the freight being put on trucks going through the most densely populated area of Brisbane. I quoted again, in giving my personal explanation to Parliament, the CEO of Brisbane Port. I think he knows what is happening with this project. It’s a pity that Barnaby Joyce doesn’t.
RICHARDSON: Yes, I figured, knowing you as long as I have, that you wouldn’t get that much wrong. It’s not like you. You always study it and make sure that you are getting it right. But of course I note they are all claiming he is a wonderful, wonderful Minister for all of this infrastructure. I think today he mentioned the highways too, didn’t he? He’s always on about the work they have done on the highways, for roads. Have we really done well on the roads, or is there more to be done?
ALBANESE: No. The problem for Barnaby is that he’s really not on top of his brief at all. We asked questions about the fact that South Australia in the year 2020 – so at the end of the forward estimates, when you have Budget papers, you have this year and then you have three years going forward – South Australia for example, the funding just goes off the end of the cliff. They get $95 million total in transport infrastructure investment in a few years’ time. That’s 2 per cent of the national budget.
What they haven’t done is to invest in either roads or railway lines going forward. You need that pipeline of projects so that as one project finishes, another steps up. What is happening now is that the projects that were underway when we lost office in 2013, projects like the Redcliffe Rail Link – it’s open. A whole lot of the projects on the Pacific Highway and Bruce Highway – they are open. Gateway WA is open. And they haven’t filled the gap. There’s not that pipeline so that the Parliamentary Budget Office, which is an independent organisation as you know, it’s set up to make reports objectively, says that infrastructure investment will fall by half over the next decade from 0.4 per cent of gross domestic product – the national economy – to 0.2 per cent. Now, if you are going to be serious about creating jobs and growing the economy, you can do two things; you can invest in infrastructure; or you can invest in people through education and training and skills. This Government isn’t doing either and they now have an Infrastructure Minister who used a term to describe the Cross River Rail Project, which will benefit Brisbane, the Sunshine Coast and the Gold Coast, beginning with ‘bull’. I wouldn’t use the full term on family TV on Sky News here. But that is the contempt that he has for the 80 per cent of Australians who live in our cities.
We also raised the Northern Australian Roads program. Now, they allocated last year $100 million to that program for expenditure. They spent $12 million. So $88 million unspent, and it’s not like there’s not a need. When we asked about that, Barnaby Joyce spoke about the Nullarbor Plain. Now, I don’t know if you have a map handy, but the Nullarbor Plain isn’t quite in the Top End. It just shows Barnaby really isn’t on top of the detail. He’s capable of giving a rant in the Parliament, but he’s not on top of his brief, and he’s showing no sign of getting on top of his brief.
You have proposals around that will threaten the very existence of regional airports. Some of the proposals that are there for security upgrades, I can’t see how they could possibly be afforded. There was a proposal around, still kicking around, not ruled out, to remove the firefighting services from some of the airports around Australia, like Rockhampton, Ballina and others with between 330,000 and 500,000 passengers per year. In a report to the Government he has failed to rule that out. He’s really just not on top of his brief, and he of course wasn’t on top of his brief in agriculture previously.
We’ve got all sorts of problems with the Murray-Darling Plan. We saw just crude pork barrelling with moving APVMA up to his electorate, which meant that people didn’t move from Canberra, which is also a regional city here of course. And it meant that they are now employing people, apparently, from overseas on special visas because they couldn’t get the staff and expertise to move up there.
RICHARDSON: It’s very easy to make those decisions about decentralisation and move departments. It’s very hard to get people who have invested in a home and whose kids are at a school locally, and just say to them, ‘you’re going to move to Tamworth from Canberra tomorrow afternoon’. People just don’t want to do that.
ALBANESE: Particularly when it’s so crude. I mean, that was just crude.
RICHARDSON: Rude, crude and unrefined. Can I just refer you to a couple of other issues? Two of them in particular. First off, Australia Day. Obviously the Greens and others are pushing for a change in the date. Where do you stand on that?
ALBANESE: Australia Day commemorates the arrival of Europeans way back in 1788. It’s a part of our history. Our history, of course, didn’t begin then. It began at least 60,000 years before then. The Australia Day commemorations that I attend, now in the Inner West Council – previously there were a few of them – one of the most uplifting things that happens on that day, is that people do recognise the fact that we’re all privileged to live in this great continent with the oldest continuous civilisation on the planet.
So I think we need to respect the First Australians, we need to acknowledge the history also, not only did it not begin in 1788, it didn’t end there either and those of us who have come since, who are descendants of migrants – whether on the First Fleet or the most recent arrivals, we also celebrate what is modern Australia. It’s also a day when we reflect on where we’re headed. So I’ve raised an idea. I don’t say it’s the idea, I just say it’s an idea, to instead of change the date – it concerns me that would be quite divisive – to enhance the date, by having the referendum on recognising the First Australians in our Constitution but also to consider having, on the same day, a referendum going forward to recognise that we need an Australian head of state.
It seems to me that way you would also maximise the potential for success. I mean, who would go along on Australia Day and say ‘no, we don’t want an Australian as our head of state’? Australia Day is also a day on which without exception – any Australia Day event I’ve been to, in the more than 20 years now I’ve been a parliamentarian – respect is given to the First Australians. But it’s unfinished business; the fact that there is not proper recognition in our Constitution; that there is not also a voice to the Parliament whereby there is proper consultation with the First Australians about the things that impact on them.
RICHARDSON: That was the next question because, obviously Bill Shorten announced this week that Labor wanted to have a body to advise the Parliament, and I note Malcolm Turnbull quite strenuously and vigorously put that down today.
What’s your view on that? It just seems to me that it would be difficult to see how it would work. If it’s merely an advisory body, and you have a whole lot of people voting for it, you get a big turnout in Aboriginal Australia and then you have it, how does it function, what does it do? It seems to me that, aren’t you inviting real trouble if they recommend something and then you knock it back? It would seem to me that’s the start of an argument.
ALBANESE: The first thing to recognise is what it is. It’s a voice. What it’s not, is another chamber of Parliament. It’s not that. It would have no power to legislate. In my portfolio of Infrastructure and Transport and all the different forums that I had, I established Infrastructure Australia which was experts to advise the Government on projects which would impact the nation building that’s required.
I established an Urban Policy Forum to advise on cities made up of groups like the Property Council; the Australian architects; various Lord Mayors around our cities; the Planning Institute of Australia. To suggest that there is something radical about the First Australians saying ‘well, when the Parliament is considering legislation that will impact on us, we should at least have an opportunity to say what our view is’ – not to determine anything, not to have a vote in the House of Representatives or the Senate, but to determine so that we can put forward a voice. Literally a voice, not a determination, a voice to the Parliament. It seems to me that is a pretty reasonable proposition and there is a need to have a national conversation about that, quite clearly. This came out of extensive consultation right across the nation leading up to the Uluru Statement from the Heart. But I think the First Australians, frankly, are pretty generous to those who have come since.
I noticed that in my local council of the Inner West, the Greens put up a motion about not participating on Australia Day, not having future citizenship ceremonies. They were quite happy to sit there on Australia Day just a few weeks ago, and not say anything at all, let alone say anything to the Indigenous people who participated and really highlighted the citizenship ceremony. What a great thing that we had, these young Indigenous dancers performing, someone telling us about the digeridoo, the way that it worked. Talking about culture with people who were our newest arrivals and who that day, were pledging their allegiance to this great country.
It seems to me, the generosity of the First Australians should be met by the generosity of us, those who have come since; by saying ‘yes, we will give you a voice’. I won’t be a determining voice, because we have a democratic country, where we value one person, one vote. But we will listen to you. Just like across government there is a whole range of forums, committees, structures that give advice from people who are impacted by decisions, to government.
RICHARDSON: We have to leave it, I’m getting calls, I could listen to you all night. But the difficulty with it is all of those other bodies aren’t going to have an election, with thousands upon thousands of people voting. It gives it a different flavour to you appointing an infrastructure body. So I think it’s going to go up for debate. I think Noel Pearson, it’s something he has been pushing really hard and he seems to get a lot of the things he pushes. I think he is one of the better Australians. But this won’t be easy.
ALBANESE: Of course it won’t be easy, which is why it requires a discussion. But Noel Pearson has also put up a constructive idea, speaking about the 25th and the 26th of January. It just seems to me that what we need – there are too many people in politics today who are looking for an argument. What I want to look for is a solution.
RICHARDSON: I watched Question Time, Anthony. I think everyone is looking for an argument. I really do have to go. Thanks so much for your time, we’ll talk to you again soon.
ALBANESE: Thanks Graham. Happy Valentine’s Day!
RICHARDSON: I never expected to get that from you, and by the way, no; there is no relationship between Anthony and I, I can promise you. It’s the only thing I have never been accused of.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.