Tuesday, 26 August 2014
Asset Recycling Fund Bill 2014; Consideration of Senate Message
I rise to speak against this motion. The House should immediately consider the Senate's message insisting on the amendments to the Asset Recycling Fund Bill 2014 which were previously rejected by the House. The House should take heed of these amendments. They are sensible, they improve the legislation, they increase scrutiny and they ensure value for the public dollar.
The government wants to put the amendments on the backburner because it is trying to avoid scrutiny. The government is simply desperate to avoid any type of accountability over its attempt to encourage states to sell publicly-owned assets to fund new infrastructure projects. For months we have seen the Treasurer squirming about, looking for a way around the Senate on this issue. On a number of occasions the Treasurer vowed that he did not care whether this bill was approved by parliament, because he intended to use an appropriations bill to raise the funding—which he apparently believed could not be amended by the Senate. However, the Parliamentary Library, the Clerk of the Senate and any cursory examination or knowledge of the way appropriation bills work show how out of touch and how incompetent this Treasurer and this government are. The distinction between the odd-numbered appropriation bills—that is, those that provide for supply in the ordinary functioning of government—and even-numbered bills, which are about funding to the states, means that this could not be done to avoid scrutiny. Indeed, what could be more relevant for the Senate to consider than a bill which has at its heart making payments to the states?
We know that in this legislation, in spite of the government's rhetoric, there is not actually a single dollar of new funding for infrastructure. Indeed, in the government's statement of reasons regarding their rejection of these amendments, they say the following about Senate amendments Nos 5, 6, 12, 13, 15, 33, 34 and 36:
Without the proposed transfer from the Education Investment Fund to the Asset Recycling Fund the Asset Recycling Fund will not be viable for the purposes for which it is to be established.
Where are the rest of the funds, apart from the Education Investment Fund, coming from? They are coming from the existing Building Australia Fund. The only thing that is being recycled here is federal government money to pretend that there is new investment where, indeed, there is none. All this is is an ideological crusade to say, 'Privatisation is good, regardless of where it is and regardless of whether it is for essential services' and to therefore offload the federal government's responsibility to invest in infrastructure to the states and the private sector, in particular through encouraging privatisation. Indeed, one of the amendments that has been put forward and passed by the Senate is to rename this bill the 'Encouraging Privatisation Bill', because that is exactly what this legislation does.
The most extraordinary rejection by the government, though, is the amendments that go to ensuring that there be proper cost-benefit analysis for all projects with a value above $100 million. This is the same objection that the government has to the amendments proposed by Labor to the land transport bill—which the government refuses to bring on in the Senate and which is holding up the Roads to Recovery legislation. What is the objection when the government went to the last election saying that they would do just this? They said that for all projects above $100 million there would be cost-benefit analysis and there would be consideration by Infrastructure Australia. But what we have seen is the opposite. In the budget, in spite of the so-called budget emergency that they talk about from time to time—and it is quite unclear at what time of the day there is a budget emergency or not, depending on which government minister is speaking—why is it then that $1½ billion has been made as an advance payment for the East West project in Victoria and $2 billion made as an advance loan for the WestConnex project in Sydney without any proper cost-benefit analysis and without any transparency whatsoever?
For the Victorian East West case, stage 2, for which $1 billion has been advanced, not only did not begin last financial year when the payment was made but it will also not begin this financial year. It will not begin for two years, even under the best-case scenario of the government. And yet they have made this payment forward. This is the same government whose assistant minister was out there saying that payment should only be made upon milestones being met. A very sensible proposition is that you make sure that the actual infrastructure is being built, that the road is being built, that the railway line—under the former government, as well; no railway lines being built under this government—is actually being built.
The extraordinary proposition that the government have to the objections to Senate amendments (19), (23), (27) and (31), is:
The amendments add red tape with no additional benefit …
So they have gone from having proper analysis to having a situation whereby they say that proper analysis is simply red tape. That is contradictory to recommendation 2.3 of the Productivity Commission inquiry report into infrastructure. In volume 1, pages 39-40, the PC's inquiry made very clear that there needed to be published business cases and BCRs.
The ACCC had made it very clear when Rod Sims—the head of the ACCC—called for, in September 2013, 'better, more transparent cost-benefit analysis'. The Reserve Bank of Australia's Philip Lowe, the Deputy Governor, stated in November 2013:
… there is no substitute for rigorous and transparent cost-benefit analysis.
The department itself—the department of infrastructure and transport—during the Infrastructure Australia bill Senate inquiry said, and I quote:
Developing a priority list based on transparent and rigorous assessment by a body genuinely independent of political and jurisdictional imperatives will assist future national planning and help achieve the best value for money in infrastructure investment.
The Business Council of Australia said:
All evaluation and prioritisation to be supported by transparent cost–benefit analysis.
Infrastructure Partnerships Australia's Brendan Lyon said in August 2014:
The more you can get transparency and rigour into major projects the better off you will be.
Urban Development Institute of Australia, Engineers Australia, Ai Group, Industry Super Australia, the AAA—Australian Automobile Association: all of them make it clear the importance of proper cost-benefit analysis. Here you have the Senate passing amendments to ensure that that would occur and now also insisting on the amendments, and the government is not only rejecting the amendments but also trying to say that, contrary to the advice received by the opposition—and now it seems to have been dropped by the government—that they would try get around this legislation by some other way.
This is what the Parliamentary Library, supported by the Senate Clerk, had to say about it:
It is often incorrectly assumed that the Senate has no power over appropriation bills, and in this case the Treasurer appears to be making that erroneous assumption too.
Slapping down the Treasurer, who does not seem to know the way that appropriations are made in this parliament, and who seems to be trying to avoid proper scrutiny by this parliament into the legislation. This government are a shambles! They had a plan to get into government but they do not have a plan to govern. And we see it day after day with their failure on this critical legislation. It is an extraordinary proposition that the government continue to reject the amendments that have been made in the Senate. They try to stand over the Senate and say, 'If you do this, we'll make cuts in other areas or we'll put in new taxes.' What they should be doing is sensibly getting on with governing. In terms of this issue, here they are breaking their own commitments.
Another series of amendments that they seem to object to is allowing payments from the fund to be the subject of a disallowable instrument. Why not have accountability for taxpayers' funds being made in this parliament? What is the possible objection to it—particularly given the fact that there is no new money in this bill? It is simply taking money from existing funds that had around them proper accountability, that had around them a situation whereby there needed to be, in the case of the Building Australia Fund, approval of Infrastructure Australia. It could only be used for proper infrastructure, priority-list projects—
I will just interrupt the member for a moment. He is allegedly speaking to this motion on the basis that it be made an order of the day for a later hour this day, whereas he is really giving a full contribution that will be made when it should be re-listed. He really has to be relevant to the motion as that is before the chair, particularly as he has chosen to take a full 15 minutes.
I certainly am. I am explaining why. I hope to convince those opposite of why it should be brought on now and dealt with. It should be brought on now, it should be dealt with and the government should support the legislation as it has been amended in the Senate to provide proper accountability. I am giving examples of why it is—
That is right. I am doing that, because this is a government that is handing over taxpayers' money. It needs to be dealt with as a matter of urgency, rather than simply being deferred by the government.
There was no notice given to my office of when this would be brought on—no notice, no discussion. Pick up the phone as a minister and say, 'We will debate this at a particular time.' The motion that is before the chair defers it to the never-never at the whim of a government that has shown that it is incompetent and incapable of handling the legislative processes of this House or the other house. That is why it should be brought on now. If the government wanted to have a discussion about when it would be brought on, it should have done that. It has chosen not to, which is why we are objecting to the motion that is before the House.
We know that for the East West Link project you have made an advance payment. You have a government in Victoria that is desperate to sign a contract for a project that has not had a proper cost-benefit analysis. Indeed, during Senate estimates at the time when this legislation was first dealt with, on 26 May, Infrastructure Australia was asked:
So Infrastructure Australia has not seen the full business case?
Then there is the question:
But it does not recover costs?
IA, Infrastructure Australia, says:
Not for the core benefit-cost ratio.
It does not recover costs?
As presented, yes.
So what we are talking about is government funds being used for projects that do not even get a dollar back for every dollar invested. They are bad investments for the taxpayer.
That is why this motion should not be supported. That is why we should deal with this legislation now. It has been around for a long time. Let's have some certainty. Let's pass the legislation with the amendments that have been supported in the Senate.