Monday, 24 June 2013
Infrastructure (Priority Funding) Amendment Bill 2013; Second Reading
That this bill be now read a second time.
If you come into inner-city Melbourne on any given weekday morning you are almost certainly going to see a line of cars down the Eastern Freeway trying to get into the city. As you look at any picture taken from Hoddle Street out towards the east and down the Eastern Freeway you will see three or four lanes of cars side by side, chockers; you will see a bus lane that has a couple of buses moving in it; and you will see a great swathe of green down the middle of the freeway—land that was set aside more than 30 years ago for a rail line out to Doncaster. You will also find on any given morning people who are trying to come from the west into the city struggling on overcrowded trains and quite often being left at the platform.
As a result, anyone with any sense of rationality looking at Melbourne's transport system has said over the last few decades that there are two critical projects we need to build. One is to finalise that rail line out to Doncaster that we have been promised for so long. The other is to build the Melbourne Metro rail, coming in from the west and then looping in towards the city stations. That will provide another river crossing and greater opportunities for people from the west to come in to work, but also to get into the city without having to use their cars.
Despite the fact that those projects have been on the table for a while and despite the fact that the Melbourne Metro project is ranked by Infrastructure Australia in its highest category, as being ready to proceed, what we have in Victoria is a state government that is ignoring both those projects and is instead pushing for tunnel, a tollway, coming from the east through the middle of inner-city Melbourne into the city. This tunnel will not just wreck inner-city Melbourne and turn it into a rat's nest of on and off ramps; it will not only wreck some of the greatest suburbs that are drawcards for people to come and live, work and play in the city; but it is also completely unfeasible because the people coming in from the east in the morning do not want to get over to the west, as the tunnel proponents tell us, they want to get into the city or to the south. As a result, all that this proposed tunnel will do is extend the massive traffic jam that is the Eastern Freeway in the morning right through the city; it will do nothing to shift people. That is why it is not on Infrastructure Australia's priority list.
Despite the fact that it is not rated highly on Infrastructure Australia's priority list, we have governments intent on progressing it. Currently it is the Victorian Liberal government and the federal opposition who want to progress it. Labor at the state level started the idea of the east-west tunnel, and when there was a debate in this place a little while ago several members of the Labor Party spoke in favour of it. To its credit, though, the Labor Party has announced a significant investment in the Melbourne Metro rail project. That is very good, but it will all amount to nothing if there is a change of government in September. So this bill provides us with an opportunity to Abbott-proof inner-city Melbourne. I urge the government to take up this bill, because it will ensure that that investment that is promised into the Melbourne Metro will be prioritised over the road projects that at the moment are not even on Infrastructure Australia's ready to proceed list.
What this bill will do is introduce an element of rationality into transport planning in our cities—something that has been missing for a very long time. It will say that if there is a rail project listed high up on Infrastructure Australia's list, that should get priority over a lower down road project. Exempted from that, of course, are important safety projects and upgrades that are already underway, and there will be areas where there is no competing public transport project—in regional and rural areas, for example—so it is not intended to address those and it would not. But what it would say is that in our inner cities, where we have been crying out for safe, clean and efficient way of moving people, of getting them to and from work and to and from the city, if such a project is a goer it should be prioritised and we can Abbott-proof inner-city Melbourne before the election. (Time expired)
I grew up in Western Sydney. Before I got my drivers licence I always knew it would take at least an hour to get from the west to the east of Sydney, and that I would need to leave more time than that to get to the train station to get the train into town. Then I got my licence and the only thing that changed was that I saved half an hour. It would still take an hour of travelling and the only time you could get around the city was late at night in the off-peak time. These days, in the morning and the evening, despite all the investment that has occurred in the city, there will still be days where it would be quicker to get to Goulburn than it would to get into the city from Western Sydney. It is a fact of life that the most pressing priority for governments—federal, state and local—is to free up the movement of people in the biggest city in the country.
I have worries from time to time that Sydney is becoming the Southern Hemisphere's version of LA, where we are a lot more reliant on cars to get around and that we will be stuck in gridlock. But then I actually visited LA and found that their traffic moves quite well—and there are a number of reasons for that that I want to reflect on later. But certainly that issue of congestion is, according to the Planning Institute of Australia, costing our economy this year $13 billion. So, when it comes to infrastructure, Western Sydney is all ears, all eyes, all mind on this issue because we know what it means for us.
You can guess on infrastructure and you can either rely on some of the impressions that I talked about earlier to guide you or rely on public sentiment, and certainly that is an important factor. But what you want to do is make sure that when it comes to infrastructure, you have this degree of independence, that someone is reviewing the plans, that the people in the know are able to bring their expertise to these issues, particularly on something as vexed as infrastructure. That is what this government has sought to do.
When we established the Infrastructure Australia Act and set up Infrastructure Australia, we put in place an independent body to advise the government on infrastructure matters—a good move. It developed the national priority project list and updates it annually. Funding decisions do remain with the government, but under federal Labor all 15 of the 15 projects identified on Infrastructure Australia's priority list as ready to proceed are ticked off and ready to go. They have all been funded. It is worth noting that they include major rail projects such as the regional rail link, Gold Coast light rail, the Seaford rail extension, Brisbane's Cross River Rail and Melbourne Metro.
Under the Nation Building Program, I am proud that the government have already increased investment in rail tenfold—not a small investment; it is significant. In Sydney, we are investing $840 million in the northern Sydney freight corridor upgrade, which is currently underway. That will help reduce travel times and make Sydney's rail network more efficient. We are also investing nearly $1 billion in the southern Sydney freight line. That actually opened in January this year, clearing the largest single bottleneck on the interstate rail network and building a dedicated freight line. We committed $2 billion for the Parramatta to Epping light rail link, which will benefit Western Sydney, but the New South Wales government has failed to support the project.
I do have concerns about the bill. Firstly, it proposes an amendment to the Infrastructure Australia Act to direct a federal minister in decision making. Infrastructure Australia determines priority projects by identifying the most appropriate solution to the nation's transport issues—that is, assessments are deliberately mode neutral. This amendment could result in a situation where some of the highest priority projects in the nation are not funded simply because they are road projects.
Many places in Australia are not served by rail transport, including many rural communities, suburbs in our cities and some of our most important commercial and industrial places. So it is important to take this balanced approach to nation building with investment in both road and rail. No-one is denying the importance of rail investment and this is why we have made it. The biggest threat, frankly, to rail investment comes from the opposition:
We have no history of funding urban rail and I think it's important we stick to our knitting and the Commonwealth's knitting when it comes to funding infrastructure is roads.
That was the Leader of the Opposition on 4 April this year. (Time expired)
Even by Greens standards, the Infrastructure (Priority Funding) Amendment Bill 2013 is a crazy piece of legislation. It will effectively stop road construction around the nation until every rail project conceived and approved by Infrastructure Australia is funded first. Rail does play a very important role in delivering transport services and moving freight around our country, and it is appropriate that we should spend money on rail. But this legislation introduces a draconian new law that would prevent any road projects from proceeding unless they were urgent or there were significant safety issues involved, otherwise all of the money that the Commonwealth allocates to road and rail has to be spent on rail.
It is quite clear under this arrangement that there would be no money available for the important road projects. In Queensland, for instance, Cross River Rail is on the list of projects that have been considered by Infrastructure Australia as ready to proceed. The Melbourne Metro stage 1 project is also on that list. These two projects together, according to Infrastructure Australia's, estimates will cost about $6 billion. However, most observers believe the real cost to build those projects will be $10 billion to $15 million. That means that every single cent that this government has allocated under its Nation Building Program will have to be spent on these two city rail projects before a single dollar is available for a road either in the city or in the country.
I have already had the Greens candidate in my electorate of Wide Bay write to the local newspaper calling for all funds to be taken from the Bruce Highway upgrade in Queensland and spent on passenger rail. The Bruce Highway is responsible for one in six of all fatalities on the National Highway. The Greens view is that no money at all can be spent on upgrading this road until the cross-river tunnel is completed in Brisbane and the metro rail is completed in Melbourne. Of course, there may well be other rail projects over a period of time that will get on this particular list.
It is no comfort to the flood-stranded people in Rockhampton to know that the Greens believe they should stay cut off until the tunnel is built in Brisbane and in Melbourne because that is the priority that should be adopted. It is quite extraordinary that this Greens agenda should deliver a message to all people who live outside the areas that have the privilege of passenger rail services that they are not allowed to have any money spent on their roads. This is, quite frankly, a ridiculous piece of legislation. I am looking forward to telling the people of Australia, particularly those who live in regional communities, about the sort of people the Greens like to pretend they actually support and represent from time to time and that as far as the Greens are concerned no money at all can be provided to roads in regional communities and in cities unless every single rail project is completed first.
This is not the kind of legislation that I would hope the government would support. It is certainly not the sort of legislation that the coalition will support. We recognise that it is important to invest in rail and to make sure that our transport systems work effectively.
There is a need to build major new railway lines and, given a chance in government, the coalition will certainly give those priority. But the intention of the Infrastructure Australia arrangements are that it be mode neutral, that we pick the best projects. In some cases that would be rail; in other cases it would be road. We should not have legislation that restricts the government of the day or the minister of the day to giving absolute priority to passenger rail services over any other project there might be in the country, no matter how worthy those projects might be. (Time expired)
I rise to speak in opposition to the member for Melbourne's private member's bill—the Infrastructure (Priority Funding) Amendment Bill 2013—but in doing so acknowledge on his part that there is a desire to see a significant interest from the federal government placed on rail infrastructure. Indeed, that interest exists. But I do oppose this private member's bill that he puts before the House, essentially for the reasons that you have just heard from the member for Wide Bay. It does make no sense that you would have in place a piece of legislation that would require that only spending occur in relation to rail, with some very small exceptions, without reference to the need to invest in road infrastructure.
This government has had an unprecedented commitment to infrastructure in Australia. We have set up Infrastructure Australia, a body to examine the key pieces of infrastructure which need to be developed in this country. Then we have put our money where our mouth is and we have committed to that. In rail alone, we have seen a 10-fold increase in expenditure in relation to rail in this country under this Labor government.
But there is a process in play here which the member for Wide Bay described. There is an independent process of assessing the key infrastructure needs of this country and that is an assessment which is done in a mode neutral way because there are some very important road projects which need to be funded as well. Particularly in regional areas, there are often circumstances where rail alone will not solve the infrastructure issue and where rural communities are necessarily required to use roads. For example, between Geelong and Colac we have seen the duplication of the Princes Highway, which is a very important piece of road infrastructure for what had been a very dangerous piece of road for my constituents.
That said, we as a government have done more for rail than any federal government since Federation, particularly in developing our urban rail networks and our connections to those. The best example of this in my neck of the woods is the Regional Rail Link, which is a $3.2 billion project that will provide for better rail connections for Victoria's regional cities, such as Ballarat and Geelong, into Melbourne. It does this by having a dedicated line for those regional trains into Southern Cross station. When trains are currently entering the Melbourne metropolitan network, they experience what people in cars experience, which is in effect a traffic jam. So, by having a dedicated rail line into Southern Cross station, this will provide for a much faster commute—not because the trains are able to go faster but because they are free of traffic—and that in turn should see a better frequency of trains going into Southern Cross station and provide a much better rail link for people from Geelong into Melbourne.
That is a critical piece of infrastructure for a city like Geelong. Increasingly, Geelong is becoming a lifestyle city where people who want to work in the Greater Melbourne area are choosing to live their life in Geelong. But that only works if there is a good commuter connection between Geelong and Melbourne, and the Regional Rail Link is going to provide that. It will provide that in a way which sees the commute time reduced and which sees a greater frequency of trains so that there is an ability for people to get on those trains, get a seat and to be able to travel in comfort.
The one point I would make in relation to rail is that, whilst there is an intent on the part of the member for Melbourne in putting forward this private member's bill to promote rail, the biggest danger for the development of our rail infrastructure in this country would be the election of an Abbott government in September this year. The Leader of the Opposition could not have made it more plain that an Abbott government stands opposed to the Commonwealth playing any significant role in the development of urban rail. He says it is simply not the Commonwealth's knitting. Well, we are the rail government. (Time expired)
I am pleased to rise to speak briefly on the Infrastructure (Priority Funding) Amendment Bill 2013, a private member's bill moved by the member for Melbourne, which, if it were passed, would fundamentally defeat the purpose and intention of Infrastructure Australia. The job of Infrastructure Australia is to set and implement national priorities for infrastructure. On this side of the House, we believe that that is a sensible thing to do. We have some questions about the effectiveness with which Infrastructure Australia has worked under the present government but the basic concept, we think, is a very sensible one.
There are limited funds available for infrastructure—many other good things compete—and there is a need to prioritise among the many competing priorities. That is a very tough concept for the Greens to understand because they are in favour of a lot more spending on everything, even at the same time as they want to bring an end to the resources sector, which generates much of the wealth which goes into the government's tax coffers. The notion that there is a limited amount of money to be spent is a fundamental one and therefore we need to set national priorities, including priorities between different projects of the same kind of infrastructure and between projects of different kinds of infrastructure—the choice between roads or rail or ports or water.
The approach proposed in the bill before the House this evening would mandate that rail would automatically get priority over road. It would take away the capacity of Infrastructure Australia to rank the projects based upon an assessment of their merits and would substitute for that a politically motivated preference for one kind of infrastructure project over another
On this side of the House, we say that is not a sensible approach and for that reason we do not support the approach which is contained in the bill before the House this evening. We do see merit in Infrastructure Australia. We think it needs to work better but we do not think the fetters and the constraints that are proposed in the bill before the House this evening should be supported. We think they are driven by politics rather than facts.