House debates

Wednesday, 28 September 2022


High Speed Rail Authority Bill 2022; Second Reading

6:26 pm

Photo of James StevensJames Stevens (Sturt, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak in support of the High Speed Rail Authority Bill 2022, with the caveat given by the Leader of the National Party that we in the coalition have some amendments that we intend to move on this bill to put some more robustness and accountability mechanisms in place around this new authority. But I'm absolutely a supporter, as we are in the coalition, of major long-term infrastructure concepts like high-speed rail and having a framework to look, very properly, at the feasibility of something such as this, which, as has been outlined, in its completed vision will see the linking of our major east coast metropolises of Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane and other major centres along the way. People will have different views about which other centres should or should not be picked up on the route.

Can I firstly say how outrageous it is that Adelaide isn't being considered to be linked to this. That is bitterly disappointing. The people of Adelaide are tuning in right now to this debate to hear whether I can succeed in convincing the government to not treat Adelaide like a second-class city in this great continent, let alone Commonwealth. But evidently we don't make the cut. Nonetheless, that's not going to prevent me from doing the right thing by the people of Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and other communities that would benefit from this.

We've just got to be realistic here, though. There are benefits. There are also costs. The benefits are obvious, and I don't dispute any of them. I hope the benefits outweigh the cost of this piece of infrastructure. I just point out that there are two major high-speed rail projects in places we in this country could understand very well. One is in California and the other is in the United Kingdom. The UK one involves linking London. I think it goes up through Birmingham to Manchester and/or Liverpool, picking up other Midlands centres through there. My recollection on the California high-speed rail project is that it is from Los Angeles to San Francisco. I think there may be longer-term plans for Sacramento and down to San Diego. Those are both projects that link a much larger number of people than this one. The reports are that they are struggling financially. They're progressing, but they are struggling financially from what their initial concept was from a costing and time frame point of view.

I certainly don't hope that befalls the work that this will allow to progress around looking at high-speed rail in this country. But I think it is very important that we temper some potential realistic outcome of a process that this bill and this authority will facilitate, which is undertaking all of the proper robust planning and processes to consider this. I note the government's commitment, which no doubt will be put in place in the upcoming October budget, specific to Sydney to Newcastle, and I'm sure there are benefits to that proceeding. That is a worthy project, even if this authority finds that the broader vision doesn't necessarily stack up financially.

The scale or the quantum of the estimated cost has also been commented upon. I know that we're dealing with some figures, which are more than a decade old, that approach $100 billion, and there's speculation from previous contributions that this project could cost a few hundred billion dollars. Just using the term 'a few hundred billion dollars', without being able to pin it down much more specifically than that, just goes to show how much work needs to be done and how impossible it is for us to say, at this point in time, whether there is any likelihood or not of the cost-benefit analysis and all the various other elements of planning that will see this progress. But we definitely support doing that body of work.

It's just as important if we find that it doesn't stack up economically as if we do, because this is a debate that's gone on for a long time—way more than 10 years. I lived in Canberra for a couple of years as a child in the nineties, and they were talking about Canberra being a part of some kind of rail link. High speed in those days may have been different to what we call high speed these days. I've certainly been on some very high-speed networks. The maglev from the Shanghai airport into—it doesn't go into the middle of Shanghai unfortunately. You get off and then get in a cab, depending on where you're going to. It doesn't connect that well with the broader rail network. But that, from memory, gets to over 300, maybe up towards 400 kilometres per hour. It's a magnetic, sort of suspended thing. We are talking about speeds in excess of 200, I believe up to 250 kilometres per hour. I've had the opportunity in Japan, and of course in Europe with the TGV and other connections to experience high-speed rail. It would be fantastic, if it stacks up economically, to have that option of getting from Melbourne to Sydney.

I'm sure a lot of Melbourne and Sydney members will excuse themselves from this vote, because they'd love to take that high-speed line to Canberra and back rather than all the challenges of flying on the short hop that you need to. It's worth doing that work, but I am very cautious. We support this because we need to do the work and find out the answer to the ultimate question of what are the economics around the broad vision of linking Brisbane to Melbourne and everything along way.

Of the places that have done it, obviously Japan is one of the best examples and France as well. Neither of those examples involve connecting just two cities. They are a major network, and that I think has lent itself to the economics there. Of course, the populations of both those countries and the cities that they interconnect are larger than what we're talking about here, but I don't necessarily believe that the economics don't stack up, particularly around linking cities like Sydney and Melbourne. I'm sure it's not the case since the pandemic, and I don't know what data is available, but certainly I seem to recall, at times, the Sydney to Melbourne air route was the second busiest on the planet. I think that's after Tokyo to Osaka, but I'm not sure if I have got that right. It's certainly one of the most lucrative air routes. Any of us that sit in the Sydney airport or the Melbourne airport, looking up at the board, are not surprised at the number of passengers that move between those cities and the number of flights that go between those cities. Certainly for those cities there is really only one option, which is flying.

To drive from Sydney to Melbourne is beyond that reasonable amount of time for the purposes that most people are doing that travel. High-speed rail certainly should be able to compete between two great, wealthy cities like Sydney and Melbourne, which, as has been pointed out in this debate, are also growing extremely rapidly. Realistically, we know the time frame that we are talking about to link cities like Sydney and Melbourne with each other in a high-speed rail corridor. That first trip is way more than one decade away, and you would see the population of those two cities, by the point in time at which a link is put in place and the first passengers were using it, be way beyond five and maybe even six million inhabitants each. That's why this is very worthy.

The broader point I make before finishing is that we in the coalition and in this country do a better job than most at recognising that these major expenditure decisions, particularly infrastructure decisions, should have a lot of robustness around them before decisions are made. There are a lot of spectacular white elephants around the world that have been linked to political decisions, promises made out of populism and seeking to win votes, that have not been judicious allocations of public funds. I really do commend the creation of Infrastructure Australia, which I absolutely acknowledge occurred under the Rudd government when they were elected. The now Prime Minister, from memory, was the infrastructure minister that put that in place. I was not an elected member; I was the chief of staff of the Premier of South Australia when we put in place the Infrastructure SA body, which was modelled on Infrastructure Australia, with great support from Sir Rod Eddington in particular and from Mark Birrell in designing that mechanism for the South Australian government. This was so they could get maximum value from working with Infrastructure Australia to have robustness around infrastructure projects when we were making decision about putting billions and billions of taxpayer dollars—in the case of this proposition, hundred billions of dollars—towards them, subject to how the financing of it was structured.

And so we are lucky that we are now in what I think is towards the 15th year of Infrastructure Australia and have processes in place that ensure that we are making the best decisions on these major infrastructure projects. I think that has become part of the culture now in federal politics, which is a great thing. No-one is suggesting with any seriousness that we embark on major infrastructure projects that a body like Infrastructure Australia has said should not be invested in, and that's very important.

Having said all of that, we're creating an authority here that probably will have some interaction with Infrastructure Australia but will be doing a lot of the work that Infrastructure Australia would do on this kind of proposition, because, of course, it is of such magnitude that it is appropriate that we have a special statutory body to take control and governance over this nation-building infrastructure proposition. I wish them well. I wish the idea well. I sincerely hope it stacks up. The spectacular magnitude of what expenditure we could be committing to is why I believe the amendments we will be seeking to move are very important, why we must make that decision with the best possible facts before us—particularly the economic analysis and the cost-benefit analysis of the expenditure—before we lock into such a significant project for the nation. On the basis of those comments, I welcome the opportunity to support this bill and I commend it to the House.


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