Wednesday, 28 September 2022
High Speed Rail Authority Bill 2022; Second Reading
I can inform the House that the opposition will support the High Speed Rail Authority Bill 2022, but we will introduce some substantive amendments to it—not to change the intent, but to bring greater accountability and transparency to the new agency that this government is forming. We acknowledge that this was an election promise. The Australian people have voted. They have given a clear indication of their intent. It is important that we allow the government to get on with it but also make sure that transparency and accountability for this new agency is put in place. That will be through the amendments that we put through this place. We would like to work constructively with the government to work through those to make sure that we can give confidence around where high-speed rail may go into the future.
High-speed rail has a long history of support on both sides of this parliament, as far back as the 1980s. We have sought many ways in which to expedite it. While we acknowledge that this new authority will put greater emphasis on it, there are already existing agencies that have undertaken much work around the possibilities and opportunities of fast rail in this country.
It's important to understand that the cost of high-speed rail is significant. We acknowledge the fact that in the election the now government pledged $500 million towards that, and the New South Wales government has recently pledged around $500 million towards that as well. But, to put this into context, there was a review undertaken in 2012 that estimated the cost of fast rail across the eastern seaboard at around $131 billion. So $500 million will not scratch the sides. If you look at what is estimated by some experts now in real dollar terms today, it's somewhere between $200 billion and $300 billion. That is a significant amount of money that Australian taxpayers will have to bring forward.
Therefore, we believe it is imperative that there be accountability measures and transparency for the Australian people around such an investment and also around the journey towards delivering this. There has been, as I articulated earlier, since the 1980s much intent to try and bring high-speed rail to this country but little delivery. It's important that we have that accountability for the people of Australia in spending their money in trying to bring this to fruition. Understanding the opportunities that are there, it's important that we are honest with the Australian people about the challenges that this piece of infrastructure will bring.
It's also important that this doesn't come at the expense of other infrastructure items, particularly Inland Rail. The former infrastructure minister here who is behind me, the member for Riverina, has been a champion of Inland Rail, along with the member for New England, in making sure we can get freight from Melbourne to Brisbane in 24 hours. That was a real economic mindset that he bought to the portfolio in trying to get freight out of this country and to start to pay the bills. You can only pay the bills when you put product from this country on a boat and it goes overseas and we get paid for it. Getting those supply chains moving more efficiently means money will come back to this country quicker and into the pockets of those that have the courage and conviction of their own wallet to have a go. This is a significant investment in our nation's future. The member for Riverina championed this and has delivered much of it. It's important that these commitments towards high-speed rail are not at the expense of Inland Rail or the many other projects particularly for regional and remote Australia, such as roads and airports, in making sure that we are the ones that pay the bill for this.
So, in giving support to this bill, much of what the opposition want to talk about in terms of what we would be asking for is around ensuring that there are arrangements for the Productivity Commission and Infrastructure Australia to undertake independent assessments of the cost-benefit analysis of high-speed rail. We have to be honest with ourselves. If it costs too much, if it's not affordable, if it's not achievable, let's look each other in the eye and say, 'It can't be done.' We need those reports to be made public and tabled here in the Australian parliament. This is the people's House. The Australian people should see this with the transparency that both sides of the House should be prepared to give. It's their money.
We also believe that extensive consultation with those communities along proposed corridors need to be continued. But also I think it's important to understand—and we acknowledge that there will be a five-member board—that on that board there should be at least one person from regional Australia. This will traverse much of regional Australia along the eastern seaboard, and it's important that those voices are heard—that their lives will be impacted by this is—and have representation on that board.
This is all about equity, transparency and accountability. That's all the opposition is asking for. We don't intend to get in the road of what we have all agreed is something we should explore. But it's important that we are honest with the Australian people and that we have the measures that give them the confidence that this parliament, this government, and future governments are honest with them about the future of high-speed rail in this country and that we're prepared to make those decisions predicated on science and economics.
If we all believe that, then the sound amendments that we're putting forward aren't irrational; they are ones that both sides should work constructively towards, to making sure we give confidence to the Australian taxpayer. After all, it's their money.