Subjects: Michael McCormack, infrastructure investment, Inland Rail, Barnaby Joyce.
DAVID SPEERS: Returning to – here in Parliament House – Michael McCormack sworn in as the new Nationals Leader, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Transport and Infrastructure today. He took his place there in Question Time this afternoon. Across the chamber in the Shadow portfolio, as always – Anthony Albanese. Thank you for joining me this afternoon.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Good to be here David.
SPEERS: I say as always, because this is now the fourth Minister for Transport and Infrastructure, the third in three months, is that right?
ALBANESE: It’s a revolving door David. If only they committed to spend more money in infrastructure and do things every time there was a new Minister we would be doing okay.
SPEERS: What are the three things he should do from your perspective as the Minister?
ALBANESE: Well there are a number of things he should do. The first he has to do is just to stop this ridiculous figure that they use that just isn’t true, in terms of spending. Spending is falling off a cliff over the forward estimates. Last year in 2016-17 they budgeted to spend $9.2 billion. They only spent $7.5 billion, that is one of the things that has been happening …
SPEERS: They’ll allocate the money …
ALBANESE: They’ll allocate money and then they don’t spend it. Over the first four budgets, $4.8 billion has been effectively cut from what they said themselves in their own budgets, to what the actual outcome is.
SPEERS: Does that return to consolidated revenue, or is that then spent elsewhere?
ALBANESE: The truth is it disappears. Finance and Treasury get hold of it and it’s gone. It’s for across the board. It’s for major road and rail programs, but it is also the Black Spots Program, it’s funding for local government, it’s the Beef Roads Program. Across the board we’ve seen these under-spends that effectively means there are cuts. That comes down to competence and being on top of the portfolio.
SPEERS: Well just on that, I mean he has only been in there five minutes, only sworn in today. You did kind of give him a break today I noted. Is that a fair assessment? Labor laid off the new Minister today?
ALBANESE: Well I think on day one it would be unreasonable to expect him to be on top of the portfolio. Of course we asked questions during the last sitting week about Barnaby Joyce, about Tasmanian infrastructure, for example, where I was today, making announcements about new funding for the Bass Highway. What Barnaby Joyce answered, when we asked about the fall off in Tasmanian infrastructure investment from the Federal Government, and the fact that there isn’t a single new major infrastructure project underway in Tasmania that wasn’t initiated prior to 2013, not one – there have been cuts – and Barnaby Joyce answered about the Inland Rail. Now there is something called the Bass Strait, David, in between …
SPEERS: It doesn’t quite stretch that far …
ALBANESE: It doesn’t even get to Melbourne Port so …
SPEERS: Maybe that’s a project for a future government, getting right across the Bass Strait. Speaking of Barnaby Joyce, and I take your points on the portfolio, we’ll see what Michael McCormack does on those issues. But Barnaby Joyce, we learnt this afternoon, Malcolm Turnbull did launch, or did ask his department secretary Martin Parkinson, to look into Barnaby Joyce. But that was called or went in on Friday when he resigned. Is that appropriate or do you think Parkinson should still be looking into various matters?
ALBANESE: Well the question that Malcolm Turnbull didn’t answer today in Parliament was why he waited nine days from the time in which issues of whether the Ministerial Code of Conduct had been complied with, until he asked Martin Parkinson to investigate. Now that happens to coincide with issues that were raised about the Inland Rail Project. What we know about Inland Rail is that it doesn’t go to the Port of Brisbane or to the Port of Melbourne. We know that it is off Budget. One of the big challenges for Michael McCormack is that last Friday the head of the Australian Rail Track Corporation confirmed yet again that this is a project that won’t produce a commercial return to Budget – a return on investment.
SPEERS: Are you saying it shouldn’t go ahead?
ALBANESE: No, what I am saying is you shouldn’t bodgy up the figures and at the moment it is off-budget, that is, it is not affected the Budget bottom line. It’s an equity injection, so an investment, rather than a grant and that makes a big difference in terms of Budget because if the Government changes that decision then all of a sudden $8 billion goes on to the Budget deficit. Now the fact that it isn’t going to produce a commercial rate of return, the head of the Australian Rail Track Corporation has confirmed that. I think there will be questions certainly raised in Senate Estimates this week about how it is that Finance have possibly approved it being considered as an off-budget measure that will produce a return and therefore doesn’t hit the Government bottom line. It is a very important issue because we are talking about a potential hit to the bottom line of $8 billion.
SPEERS: I sense that you are very keen to focus on the portfolio matters and fair enough, rightly so. Do I detect that you are not so keen to keep pursuing Barnaby Joyce yourself Anthony Albanese?
ALBANESE: I think the policy issues are ones that I concentrated on a couple of weeks ago in terms of raising those issues because they do go down to Barnaby Joyce’s management or mismanagement of the portfolio. That’s the mess …
SPEERS: But in terms of matters around his relationship, when they became partners, jobs for Vikki Campion?
ALBANESE: I have never been interested in the private matters. The issues that the Prime Minister has said will continue to be investigated and are legitimate public concerns is the issue of taxpayer funds and whether there has been any abuse of them. The fact that today we found out that Vikki Campion didn’t have an email address while working for Damian Drum.
SPEERS: What does that tell you?
ALBANESE: Well, it tells you that a staff member who can’t be contacted by email needs an explanation of how that occurred.
SPEERS: Do you think that was a dodgy position?
ALBANESE: That is up for others to assess based upon the facts and I think that there is a legitimate concern certainly there about taxpayers funds and whether they were used appropriately. And whether the ministerial standards were complied with isn’t something that is an academic exercise. That is something that is important because it goes to the heart of the functioning of Malcolm Turnbull’s Government and whether he presides over a government takes those standards seriously.
SPEERS: All right Anthony Albanese, Shadow Minister for Transport and Infrastructure, thank you.
ALBANESE: Good to be with you.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.