SPEECH TO PARLIAMENT ON INFRASTRUCTURE AMENDMENT BILL
Mr HOGAN (Page) (19:15): Can I say from the start that as a representative of Northern New South Wales, the regional community of Page, I welcome the Infrastructure Australia Amendment Bill 2013 as being long overdue. Nation building and developing Australia’s infrastructure for this century, with an eye on the next, must be at the heart of any good government. It is important for the nation and for regional areas like mine. This amendment bill will strengthen Infrastructure Australia by re-establishing it as an independent, transparent and expert advisory body.
As a regional representative, I can personally testify that nationally significant infrastructure projects are crucial to growing Australia’s productivity and improving living standards. I gave my maiden speech to this House almost three weeks ago. Since then, underpinning everything I say in all my speeches has been the theme of the need to build nation-changing infrastructure as a way of creating jobs—jobs not just in the construction phase of a particular piece of infrastructure but also from the economic flow-on effect.
The Pacific Highway is a crucial part of our nation’s economic artery which connects the major cities on Australia’s eastern seaboard from Brisbane to the north, via the Bruce Highway, and from Brisbane south to Sydney, to Canberra and to Melbourne, via the Princes Highway. While this federal coalition government has rightly committed to funding the final significant section of the Pacific Highway between Ballina and Woolgoolga to the tune of $5.6 billion, it was done despite Infrastructure Australia, not because of it.
In the five years since Infrastructure Australia was created, it has become apparent that the current structure of the organisation does not provide the necessary degree of independence and transparency needed to give the best advice to the national government about the infrastructure priorities that will reverse Australia’s slide in productivity. However, this amendment bill will strengthen Infrastructure Australia in its governance, clarifying the scope of its responsibilities and entrenching its role as a key adviser to government.
One of the problems of the existing structure is Infrastructure Australia’s inability to correctly and independently identify projects as national priorities. For example, while it compiles priority project lists, these projects are based on state and territory government projects, and the prioritisation is based on the extent to which these project business cases are advanced, which in some cases is irrelevant.
While I have great respect for our state governments and for our federated system of government, the needs and wishes of a particular state are not the same as those of the nation. This House is charged with looking at the broader, bigger picture: the national picture. It is only the national government, not state governments, which can advance national priorities. And it is only by taking this larger national view that we can improve the nation’s productivity.
It is my sincere hope that by ensuring Infrastructure Australia’s independence we can avoid the political squabbling which until the last election threatened to delay the completion of the duplication of the Pacific Highway. Although the duplication of the highway was named as nationally significant, it was dogged with delays when the previous Labor government wanted to argue about the funding split with the state. These arguments became highly political. The previous federal Labor government—and I credit it—lifted funding on the Pacific Highway from a fifty-fifty funding split to 80-20. This, though, coincided with when we had a state Labor government. When the state Labor government was defeated, the federal government in its wisdom decided that it should lower its spending commitment to the Pacific Highway. What rationale was that based on except the fact that the state government had changed from a Labor government to a coalition government? That type of rationale and that type of decision making is absurd, and it is not what the Australian people deserve.
The families in my electorate were angered when the previous federal Labor government made such a political statement with infrastructure that was of such national importance. They did not care who funded the highway or who promised what; they just wanted it fixed. This double standard by the previous federal Labor government was not good enough.
Businesses are the same. They need certainty. They need to know that a project will be completed by a certain date. They cannot create sustainable jobs without planning certainty.
Thankfully, we as the new government recommitted to funding that necessary infrastructure at 80 per cent federally, and I am a proud member of the government that has committed to that.
On a different tangent, to show the inconsistencies of the previous Labor government with areas of infrastructure of national importance, we also saw this type of politicisation within the RDA funding which members of the previous Labor government go on so much about. Regional funding was meant to be as it was: for regions. The previous Labor government decided that the Perth Airport qualified as regional spending.
Mr McCormack: No, surely not!
Mr HOGAN: There are members in the House shaking their heads in disbelief that they did. When questioned on how the Perth Airport qualified under regional spending—wait for it— they said that people from the regions fly into the Perth Airport. That was their rationale for their spending on that.
It is not just the headline-capturing multibillion dollar infrastructure projects that this country needs. It is also the small but no less important projects that must be put on the national agenda and understood for the economic value they create. As part of the policy this government took to the election on delivering the infrastructure for the 21st century, we also promised to invest $300 million to upgrade wooden bridges in our rural communities. Within the electorate of Page, this is badly needed infrastructure. Both the Clarence Valley and the Kyogle council areas have hundreds of these wooden bridges. This upgrade is essential to their financial survival. We are not talking here about giving the Sydney Harbour Bridge another coat of paint. We are talking about the 800-odd wooden bridges on the New South Wales north coast. There are 30,000 nationally that are in dangerous disrepair. Many of these bridges are literally falling apart and pose risks to motorists, school buses and every truck and vehicle that crosses them. All of these 30,000 wooden bridges across regional Australia are a vital link connecting our towns and rural communities to the city. They are unsafe and sometimes impassable for standard trucks, let alone B-doubles.
Earlier this year, Graham Kennett, who heads the infrastructure division of Kyogle council, which is in my electorate, called the area’s deteriorating bridges a ‘massive, massive problem’ and a threat to their financial viability. He was quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald saying it was the ‘only extreme risk’ the council faced. Indeed, Kyogle has seen some serious near misses. The Mills Road bridge has collapsed three times since 2004, most recently last year when the bridge failed under a loaded gravel truck. In 2008, a council water tanker transporting water to nearby homes fell through the Simes Road bridge. Luckily it was not a school bus. But a 12-tonne school bus still plies its way every school day over Grieves Crossing—one of 13 bridges in serious disrepair along Gradys Creek Road in the Kyogle Shire local government area. Grieves Crossing is rated over four on the New South Wales government’s one-to-five condition scale. A rating of level five is deemed ‘critical, beyond repair’. Who knows how many school buses cross similar bridges every day across the country and how many businesses and farmers have difficulty getting their products into town? What better way to raise the nation’s productivity than by fully utilising the labour and natural resources we already have in abundance?
Of course, the new Infrastructure Australia will not instruct parliament what to do. But as a legally and financially separate entity it will be in the position to provide the government and the community with frank, open and honest advice. To help achieve this, the amendment allows for the appointment of a chief executive officer who is responsible to the board, rather than the current arrangement, which sees them as responsible to the minister. We saw far too many examples of where that type of governance structure was abused by the previous Labor government. With this greater level of independence comes greater transparency. What we need—and this bill will deliver it—is more robust and evidence based assessments of Australia’s future needs. We need a greater understanding of the critical issues facing the nation’s infrastructure and land transport system.
This amendment tasks Infrastructure Australia with four things, and it is worth going into some detail on those four issues. Firstly, it must undertake a five-yearly evidence based audit of our infrastructure assets base. That is common sense. This audit will be robust and proactive. An evidence based audit will allow the private sector to better plan its involvement in particular projects and use its knowledge to suggest innovative funding and financing initiatives. It would also allow the public sector to ensure funding capacity and project management skills are allocated to support planned projects.
Secondly, it will develop a top-down priority list at a national and state level. I have already mentioned that it is a national body that is in the best position to look at what infrastructure is needed for the national good, not the good of the states.
Thirdly, it will develop a 15-year infrastructure plan. This allows the nation’s good to be put outside the three-year political cycle. It means, as a nation, we can start to develop a long-term vision for where we want to be and what infrastructure we need to get there. There are substantial benefits to delivering a clearly articulated pipeline of national infrastructure projects. It will provide the community with a higher degree of transparency about what, where and when projects will come on to the market so that we can encourage much more private sector investment in these projects.
Finally—and what a great example this is—it will evaluate infrastructure, both socially and economically, and publish the results, including a cost-benefit analysis if a project is worth more than $100 million. We are now all well aware of an example of the previous Labor government. We are made aware of this daily in question time by the now Minister for Communications, who comes in and articulates to us the debacle that was the NBN, run by the previous Labor government. I am sure, Madam Deputy Speaker, you remember the dollar value examples that he has given us and the fact that many millions—in some cases tens of millions or hundreds of millions—of dollars was spent on this infrastructure project with no cost-benefit analysis and no analysis of what was going to happen, when it was going to happen or how many people were going to get connected. The revenue figures were completely out of tune as well.
This amendment bill means no more of Labor’s pie-in-the-sky and expensive NBN. I could talk for another 15 minutes about the flawed delivery of Labor’s NBN and its refusal to provide a proper cost-benefit analysis. I, like the rest of the nation, am over Labor’s inability and abject refusal to put their thought bubbles through proper economic analysis, so I will simply say, ‘Thank goodness our colleague Malcolm Turnbull is now in charge of rolling out an affordable and effective NBN.’
This amendment is about increasing the nation’s productivity, creating common wealth and providing more jobs. This bill is good government at work.