Tuesday, 23 May 2023
Gippsland Electorate: Infrastructure
Darren Chester (Gippsland, National Party) Share this | Link to this | Hansard source
I rise to raise my concerns with the complete lack of respect demonstrated by the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government towards the people of Gippsland since coming to office one year ago. The delays in the infrastructure program caused by the dysfunctionality of the minister's office are actually putting lives at risk in my community.
I come here with some degree of reluctance to make this speech tonight, because I have tried to work constructively with this minister from the day she took office. I engaged with her office and engaged with her advisers within weeks of her taking on this portfolio, because I knew how important it was for my community, and I knew about the delays that had already occurred in trying to get the federal department to get some action out of the state department to actually build the infrastructure that my community needs to change lives and to save lives. So I am reluctant in standing here today and expressing my extreme disappointment and frustration with this minister's complete incompetence and lack of respect for Gippslanders.
I wrote to the minister, on the first occasion, in July last year. I've written to her six more times since then. Finally, being exasperated by the lack of response—not a single response from the minister—I raised my concerns on ABC radio. The minister came onto the radio program and said herself to the ABC:
Well, I actually have responded to Darren, so I'm not sure where those letters have gone astray, but I have signed letters, I've seen them across my desk and I've signed them. So, we'll chase that up for him today.
That must have caused quite a furore in the minister's office and the department, because 10 days later I got a letter from the minister, acknowledging that in fact I'd written to her seven times and this was actually her first response on any of the issues that I had raised with her.
These are issues that I raised in relation to funding programs and concerns about priorities in my community. There was not a single political comment in any of those letters. All were genuine requests for information and genuine offers as to how I could work with her to establish local priorities which would save lives in Gippsland. Also, it's important to note we're not talking about a funding program with any risk of any blowouts. This is a set amount of funding from 2019, $300 million for the Princes Highway in Victoria, to allocate within the headroom to fix intersections and to improve sections of the highway where we know there has been a crash history or there is a risk of people losing their lives. I also asked the minister for a detailed breakdown of previous work that had occurred in partnership with the state government, to get some understanding of how much money may still be available within that fund. The reason I was so determined to work with the minister to try and achieve a positive outcome is that I know that investment in safer roads, better roads, will save lives of people in my community—the people I love, the people I work with, my family, my friends and my workmates right throughout the region.
Not getting a reply for 10 months was one thing. Then, to find out that the minister now is obsessed with the review process, which is an opportunity to cancel projects, makes me sick in the guts. This review process is going to put at risk projects that I have been working on now for the best part of three years, trying to get a recalcitrant state government to stump up its money, trying to get a department here in Canberra to stop being a dumb bank just taking orders from state governments and actually look at the local priorities and work with the community to improve these infrastructure outcomes for our region. We're at the point now where lives are at risk. There are several highway intersections and arterial roads which are directly impacted by this minister's review, and there is simply no guarantee whatsoever that that money will still be there after the review process has ended.
Gippsland has been punished twice. First of all, the state government—the state Labor ministers—failed to do the work, and now we're being punished because they haven't gotten on with the job and started construction. We're being punished by the federal minister as well as the state minister. You wouldn't see this in an episode of Utopia.
So I say to the minister and her department: just do your job. If it's too hard, just leave. Let someone else do it. The federal department has failed Gippslanders. The minister has failed Gippslanders. I've been trying to get these projects started for the best part of four years. I've worked constructively with the minister from day one, and she has shown my community no respect whatsoever. In all seriousness, if projects like the Marine Parade upgrades, the Eastern Beach intersection and the McEacharn Street roundabout don't go ahead, there will be blood on the hands of the bureaucrats who failed to get the work started. We need to get on with the job of delivering the infrastructure that our community needs.