House debates

Tuesday, 23 May 2023


Infrastructure Australia Amendment (Independent Review) Bill 2023; Second Reading

4:32 pm

Photo of Julian HillJulian Hill (Bruce, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I didn't want to miss the opportunity to make a contribution on this bill. I know this is a challenging bill for the Liberal and National parties.

Opposition Member:

An opposition member interjecting

Photo of Julian HillJulian Hill (Bruce, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

No, it's true. I was supposed to speak on it when it was last listed, last time. I think I'm the last government speaker, but I didn't want to miss this chance, because infrastructure policy has been a long-standing interest of mine, having been a senior public servant in the department of infrastructure in Victoria, working for both sides of politics. But it is a challenging bill for the Liberal and National parties. I might issue some trigger warnings at the start, some phrases I'm going to use which may upset them: 'independent review of Infrastructure Australia', 'Infrastructure Australia will be restored to an independent advisory function', or, put more plainly, 'Infrastructure will no longer be a slush fund for the Liberal and National parties to rort', or, 'we can't appoint our own National Party mates to Infrastructure Australia anymore when this bill goes through.'

Infrastructure Australia was a terrific initiative of the now Prime Minister when he was infrastructure minister under Prime Minister Rudd. It was set up to provide expert advice to the Australian government on infrastructure investment. It was a great initiative to ensure that scarce taxpayer dollars are directed transparently to the projects of greatest national impact with independent assessments of things getting into the pipeline and of the benefits of the costs, and to provide that advice to the Australian government and the states and territories. They should be projects of genuine national significance, but, since then, in the wasted decade when those opposite were in government, in the ATM government—the Abbott, Turnbull, Morrison government—throwing the cash around like the ATM—

Thank you, member for Fisher. I'm glad you appreciate that one. But since then, in that wasted decade, Infrastructure Australia has lost its way. They were sidelined, they were stretched too far, they lacked focus, they became a plaything for the National Party because apparently when the coalition, the Liberals and Nationals, are in government there is a God-given birthright to give the infrastructure portfolio to the National Party to treat as one giant piggy bank—a slush fund—to throw money around at whatever project comes up in a National Party seat, regardless of the cost benefit.

A government member: Shame.

It is a shame. It is a matter to be ashamed of. Billions of dollars of taxpayer funds were—I'm not allowed to say 'puked up against a wall'—wasted on projects that just did not stack up. They were not the highest priority.

This bill amends Infrastructure Australia's legislation to ensure that it advises the government and actually assesses projects of national significance. The changes respond to an independent review by Nicole Lockwood and Mike Mrdak, AO, former secretary of the department. They'll provide greater alignment between Infrastructure Australia's work program and advice to government, which needs to make informed investment decisions, not just make stuff up and announce stuff by press release.

I haven't had time to go back over and reassemble the figures. It would have been nice, wouldn't it? I sat through question time after question time as the previous government—then Prime Minister Morrison, then Treasurer Frydenberg and the whole sad lot of them—kept announcing things. But then we'd get to the end of the financial year and they wouldn't actually build what they announced. The whole point of infrastructure, apparently, was to issue press releases and say what you were going to do but never actually do it.

Under this government, Infrastructure Australia's focus will continue to be on transport, water, energy and communications infrastructure to connect cities and regions and grow the economy, supporting the conditions for economic growth. There is a new slimmed down, modern governance model which provides for Infrastructure Australia to have three expert commissioners with the eminence, authority and standing to restore its position as a national leader in infrastructure. Another trigger warning: the commissioners will be appointed through a merit based process. They won't be mates of Barnaby Joyce, as the previous board was stacked with. It will be a merit based process, an independent recruitment process where the people appointed measure up against the job description. Membership of the National Party is not one of the qualifications to get the job.

I also just want to respond to some of the comments made in the debate by those opposite that were utterly hysterical nonsense about a review which is now underway, an independent review of the Infrastructure Australia pipeline to support the refocusing of this critical national organisation. The minister's commissioned that review. It'll happens over the next couple of months. Infrastructure Australia should be focused on genuinely nationally significant projects, not every little idea that every local council has, every state and territory government has or every National Party MP has—the conga line of rorters bringing their ideas into the minister's office that was their government.

Under the Liberals and Nationals, the 150 priority projects grew to more than 800 projects. The list grew by nearly 500 supposedly priority national projects. Five hundred of them were under $50 million. They are not nationally transformative. They're not going to connect our ports to the rail network and grow the productivity of the country. Eighty-one per cent of them were in Liberal and National Party seats. That was just a coincidence, of course! Apparently congestion doesn't happen in Labor seats. It doesn't happen in the cities. They stacked the pipeline, using taxpayer money, with their mates appointed to the board to create this fake pipeline of fake projects that they knew were never going to get built. The whole point of listing them as a priority was to try and fool communities and voters into thinking that somehow putting out a press release saying that you'd developed a new priority project meant anything. It didn't mean anything. It was hundreds of billions of dollars for projects that were never going to get built.

But worse than that is that it was not just repainting bus lanes, as it was for some of them. Apparently repainting bus lanes was a national infrastructure priority. But it's worse than just the fooling and misleading and the corruption of public administration in the process. It actually generated tens of millions of dollars of actual waste. That's because they created this industry of highly paid consultants, firms and lobbyists, wasting millions of dollars of ratepayers' money from councils and tens of millions of dollars of state government money with the states and territories paying these consultants, lobbyists, designers, advocates and economists to create these business cases. Apparently the whole game was to somehow get on the Infrastructure Australia priority list of now 800 projects. Eight hundred projects cannot possibly be a Commonwealth listed priority. You can't say, for a country of our size, that you've got 800 national priority infrastructure projects. In their quiet moments, they know perfectly well that what we're saying is right, and most of them—not all of them; a few of them are extra dodgy—know that what they did was wrong and that it's not good public administration.

So, we're going to stop that game to get on the list. I'm going to spare the member for Fisher and give someone else a go. I'm not going to go through the rorts of the Urban Congestion Fund, the sports rorts, the regional growth rorts and all the other funds rorted of billions of dollars. I'll just finish with this. On the Urban Congestion Fund—a $4.8 billion slush fund set up by former Prime Minister Morrison, with no guidelines, no transparent process, and literally no-one in the world being asked to apply for this—the bureaucrats still cannot explain why these projects were picked. They were picked by the government. They were picked in the secrecy, the sanctity of the cabinet room. They included—my personal favourite—the set of traffic lights outside Josh Frydenberg's electorate office, in a two-lane road bordered by two narrow suburban side streets. That was a national infrastructure priority under the former government. Then there were the car park rorts throughout the former Treasurer's electorate. Well, that didn't end very well, did it? I think people saw through that.

But my very favourite thing out of the Urban Congestion Fund, if we're talking about Infrastructure Australia, was that, of all those billions of dollars of funds, none of them were referred to Infrastructure Australia for assessment—it was just a slush fund to try to get through an election—except two. Two projects were referred to Infrastructure Australia. Two of them were road projects in the electorate of Aston. And guess what Infrastructure Australia said? They said: 'These do not stack up. These are not national infrastructure priorities.' So, what did they do? They fake-funded them anyway. When I say 'fake-funded', I mean that they committed about one-sixth. They announced about one-sixth of the money that was going to be needed to build the project and put it out in press releases just before the election. They trumpeted it in the by-election. But this time nobody fell for the con trick, because I think Australians woke up to this mob. It was a fake government led by a fake prime minister. Everything was about the announcement, never about the delivery.

This fake pipeline of 800 national priority infrastructure projects illustrates the point. We are getting on with cleaning up their mess.

4:42 pm

Photo of Kate ChaneyKate Chaney (Curtin, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise in support of the Infrastructure Australia Amendment (Independent Review) Bill 2023, with some qualifications. It's essential that we have strategic long-term and evidence based decisions about infrastructure investment, because a well designed and resourced national infrastructure network can encourage economic and job growth, improve access to health and social services, and encourage connections within and between communities. On the flip side, a poorly designed or inappropriately resourced national infrastructure network leaves communities isolated, restricts business growth and leaves us vulnerable to natural disasters or economic shocks. And infrastructure planning doesn't happen organically. It requires long-term vision and rational interconnected decisions.

Given the importance of good infrastructure planning, it makes sense to have an independent advisory body to apply more-rigorous oversight in decision-making and take the politics out of major infrastructure projects. This was recognised in 2008 by the Labor government when it established Infrastructure Australia, and in 2013 the coalition government added to the model, recognising the need for a more transparent, accountable and effective adviser on infrastructure projects and policies. So, there's bipartisan acknowledgement that Infrastructure Australia has the potential to be an important independent adviser to governments. That's why I'm rising to lend my support to the improvement of Infrastructure Australia, particularly as we approach a period of challenging economic times.

The broad intent of the proposed changes is to better enable Infrastructure Australia to deliver on its mandate to provide quality, independent, cross-sectoral advice to the Australian government on nationally significant infrastructure that supports the economy, builds the nation, and addresses the challenges and opportunities of the future.

Over the last 10 years we've seen the power of Infrastructure Australia to provide advice, according to its mandate, diminish. This is in part owing to political board appointments and in part owing to a history of the organisation being undervalued, and poorly tasked and directed by government. There has also been criticism about funding for nationally significant projects being committed before a business case was published or assessed by Infrastructure Australia. This is ludicrous and goes to some of the worst criticisms of government decision-making. Large investment decisions spending taxpayer money must be driven by sound reasoning and appropriate cost-benefit analysis, not by the need for announceables. So I welcomed the government announcement last year that they would be conducting an independent review of Infrastructure Australia which was open for public submission.

The review was well timed, as Australia is facing some huge challenges on the infrastructure front. More than 60 per cent of Australia's population live in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth, and the pace of growth and change in our cities have put many legacy networks under strain. Rising road congestion, crowding on public transport, and growing demands on social infrastructure—including health, education and green space—are all key challenges for Australia's governments. Almost a third of Australians live in our smaller cities and regional centres, and one in 10 of us live in small towns with populations of fewer than 10,000. Right now, we have a new raft of challenges when it comes to infrastructure development, including: supply chain challenges, the rising cost of materials and a significant shortfall between available labour and demand; decarbonising of the transport infrastructure sector and understanding how this changes our infrastructure needs and how we should be constructing infrastructure; and population growth and geographical population shifts.

We already have a pretty poor track record of delivery of large-scale national infrastructure projects. The Grattan Institute reported between 2001 and 2016, Australian governments experienced cost overruns of $28 billion on transport infrastructure alone. The Forest Highway, south of my electorate, and the Hunter Expressway are great examples, with the two projects coming in at five times the cost initially quoted. The Grattan study showed projects that are most likely to have significant cost overruns are those they refer to as premature announcements—things like political announcements pre-election—with 74 per cent of the value of cost overruns occurring in this context, despite them making up only 32 per cent of projects. Once politicians have announced a project, they and the public treat that announcement as a commitment, and two-thirds of those projects get built. While I'm all for keeping promises, I'm also very much in favour of promises being made only when the work has been done to determine whether the project makes sense and how much it will actually cost. We need to ensure that Infrastructure Australia is contributing to better and better-informed decisions.

I want to acknowledge the importance of regular independent reviews of government and statutory bodies. To encourage public faith in the government process, we need to ensure our institutions are interrogated by experts and that their views are published and/or available to the public. Particularly in this case, where environmental and economic challenges have evolved, it's so important to ensure our institutions remain fit for purpose and don't become either a money-wasting burden or ignored lip-service. This independent review had 59 submissions, and the key issue the review acknowledged was getting the balance right between the independence of expert investment advice to the government and the influence of that advice in government decision-making processes. The review found a clear mandate was required to strengthen Infrastructure Australia's role in the Commonwealth infrastructure ecosystem. This bill goes some of the way towards doing this.

I, along with major interest groups, am pleased that an objects clause will now be included in the Infrastructure Australia Act, that the infrastructure priority list will be refined, and that Infrastructure Australia may consider any reports prepared by state, territory and local governments. This will go some way to clarifying the role and scope of the Infrastructure Australia.

I am also pleased to see that the new bill requires Infrastructure Australia to consider the environmental and carbon emissions impact of the projects and take into account Australia's emissions reduction target. As we start the huge task of decarbonising our economy, we need to ensure that we are farsighted with our decisions in terms of both what infrastructure we build to contribute to Australia paying a key role in green energy exports and how we build that infrastructure to contribute to meeting our own target. These amendments are a welcome addition to those passed in the Climate Change (Consequential Amendments)Act, which said that Infrastructure Australia must consider Australia's greenhouse gas emissions target when auditing projects and advising government.

On governance, this bill slashes the current 12-member board to a three-member commission. While on the face of it this seems like it would streamline the process and could create a more independent advisory model, I have a few concerns. Given the vital role of Infrastructure Australia and the need for a long-term vision, it will be imperative that decisions made by the commission are not influenced by short-term partisan concerns. I will be supporting a number of crossbench amendments that would strengthen the integrity of the Infrastructure Australia board, including amendments put by the members for Mackellar, Fowler and North Sydney on transparency in appointments and disclosure of interests.

My second concern is that the bill does not implement the review's advice that the commission should be supported by an advisory board. While I note that the minister has referred to the establishment of an advisory board by administrative instrument, I would like to see the requirements for this board established in legislation so that there are scrutinised requirements for the membership of the board. Again, I will be supporting the member for Fowler's amendment to include an advisory board or council in the bill.

My final concern is a broad and significant one. Many submissions to the review drew attention to the fact that the advice of Infrastructure Australia was often ignored. This included government announcing or committing to projects prior to receiving advice or an assessment from Infrastructure Australia, particularly around election time. Australia lost a lot of faith in government in the last term of government when they saw projects coming out that did not appear to be built on a decent business case. There is no point having a body like Infrastructure Australia doing the long-term planning if that advice is not heeded. The member for Wentworth's proposed amendment requiring a cost-benefit analysis for any project over $100 million will assist, but there is still no requirement that advice be listened to. This may be a matter for good practice rather than legislation, but only time will tell whether Infrastructure Australia will become embedded in the decision-making process of the federal government. It will be up to members like me to hold government accountable to the intent evidenced by these changes to Infrastructure Australia to strengthen the credibility and force of its recommendations.

The government's commitment to taking the advice of Infrastructure Australia seriously would be strengthened by accepting the member for North Sydney's proposed amendment relating to the regular tabling of Infrastructure Australia's reports, which was a key recommendation of the report. Any decisions taken by the government in contravention of the advice of Infrastructure Australia should be accompanied by a fulsome explanation to the Australian people.

In conclusion, I will be supporting the bill because I believe that, if it is used as intended, it will contribute to greater transparency and accountability in government decision-making. Depoliticising major infrastructure investment is consistent with better long-term, evidence based planning. I will be using my position on the crossbench to continue to monitor the implementation of this bill to ensure that its intentions are met.

4:53 pm

Photo of Andrew WallaceAndrew Wallace (Fisher, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on this Infrastructure Australia Amendment (Independent Review) Bill 2023 with grave concern for the future of vital infrastructure projects in my electorate of Fisher. Let me read a quote:

This is a government that doesn't have a plan for long-term infrastructure investment, that hasn't produced a pipeline of projects, that has gutted Infrastructure Australia and, therefore, will damage Australia's future economic growth and prosperity.

Do you know who said that? It was the current Prime Minister of Australia. He said it on 21 May 2018, just five years ago, when he was the opposition leader. Actually, at that stage he was probably the shadow infrastructure minister.

The Prime Minister has prided himself as being a prime minister of infrastructure. He was pumping up his chest and fluffing up his feathers today in question time, talking about how when he was the infrastructure minister this, when he was the infrastructure minister that. The reality is that, when we were in government over the last nine years, we had put in place a program of $120 billion worth of infrastructure for this country. Now, I'm all for infrastructure around this country, but what I want to do is spend the next 15 minutes talking in particular about some of the major infrastructure projects on the Sunshine Coast and how those infrastructure projects are now at risk.

Since 2016, when Ted O'Brien and I were elected to this place, we have made it our driving passion to make sure we got as much money as we possibly could for infrastructure, both road and rail, to benefit the Sunshine Coast. Up until when Labor won the election last year, we had been successful in gaining infrastructure funds for the Sunshine Coast to the tune of around $5.3 billion. We heard story after story after story—and I have lived on the coast 30 years and seen just how much the Sunshine Coast was abandoned by previous governments in relation to infrastructure. We saw infrastructure moneys going to Brisbane, the Gold Coast and, of course, Melbourne and Sydney, but very rarely did we see federal funds going to the Sunshine Coast.

This has got to be seen in light of the fact that the Sunshine Coast is now the ninth-largest city in this country and one of the fastest-growing regions in the country. We are tipped to have around 500,000 people living on the Sunshine Coast by 2041. We're going to be hosting numerous disciplines on the 2032 Olympic Games. So it's incredibly important that we are able to move people around not just within the Sunshine Coast but from Brisbane to the Sunshine Coast and from the Sunshine Coast to Brisbane.

So Ted O'Brien and I set about annoying the absolute hell out of Darren Chester, the then infrastructure minister, the member for Gippsland. In fact, Darren Chester had a pet name for me: he used to call me 'Canberra's Biggest Pain in the'—I can't say what comes next! But it's a moniker I take with great pride because I wanted to be a pain, let's say, in his neck, because that's what my job was to do. My job was to be a pain in his neck to get funding for my region.

We got funding for the duplication of the North Coast railway line. That was a project that the federal government didn't need to put a cent—not one cent—towards, but we knew that, if it were left to the state government of Queensland, it would never have been done. The state government of Queensland has this pathological dislike for investing money on the Sunshine Coast. We went to the Labor state government—this is going back to about 2017-2018—and we said, 'We will fund half of this project.' I think it was a $720 million project, and we offered half the cost even though we didn't need to put a cent towards it. And what was Mark Bailey and Annastacia Palaszczuk's response? Despite us not having to put a cent towards it, they said: 'We're not content with 50 per cent. We want you to pay more than 50 per cent.' Ultimately, that project has now started, but, because we couldn't agree on the level of funding from the Labor state government, they shrank the scope of the works. The duplication of the railway line was supposed to go from Beerburrum—it's the member for Gippsland himself! I was just talking about you!

It was supposed to go from Beerburrum to Landsborough, but the Queensland state government's version of doing a deal with the federal government was basically just to shrink the scope of works. They brought the duplication back to Beerwah. That was their concept of meeting us halfway, which is extremely disappointing, of course, if you live on the railway line north of Beerwah.

Another project that is near and dear to my heart, and one that Ted O'Brien and I secured just last year, at the beginning of 2022, was half the cost of building the North Coast railway line into Maroochydore: $1.6 billion. From Beerwah, running a spur line into Caloundra, up to Kawana and into Maroochydore is very, very important. Back when the railway line was built, 100 years ago, everybody lived in the hinterland; no-one lived on the coast. Now the coast represents 85-plus per cent of the population base of the Sunshine Coast. Yet, we don't have a train line. We don't have a railway line. So Ted—the member for Fairfax—and I set about getting funding, and we secured $1.6 billion.

I was really pleased to see that in the last budget, in October last year, the new Labor infrastructure minister—nothing like our old infrastructure minister, I hasten to add—kept that $1.6 billion in the budget, waiting for Queensland Labor to match it. But what do we hear from Queensland Labor? Crickets. Nothing. What do we hear from Mark Bailey? Nothing. What do we hear from Jason Hunt? Nothing. What do we hear from Rob Skelton? Nothing. We came to Queensland Labor with $1.6 billion—half the cost to build this project. What did we have to put towards this project? Zip. Nothing. Nada. But we came to them and said: 'We'll give you $1.6 billion. All you have to do is match it.' We are still waiting. We are still waiting for Queensland Labor.

They told us last year that they would do a review and that review would be handed down at the end of 2023. Now they're saying 2024. Do you know what? Do you know what's happening in 2032? It's a little thing called the Olympic and Paralympic games. We're lucky enough to host a number of disciplines on the Sunshine Coast. How the Premier of Queensland thinks they're going to get people—hundreds of thousands of spectators—from Brisbane to the Sunshine Coast and back without rail is beyond me. It's absolutely beyond me.

Just last week Annastacia Palaszczuk did a shuffling of the deck chairs on the Titanic when she reshuffled her cabinet. What she should have done was shuffled Mark Bailey out of his position back to the backbench and put someone in the job that is actually prepared to do the work. This is an incredibly important project for the Sunshine Coast. The old minister for infrastructure—'old' being the operative word—who's sitting behind me, used to call me Canberra's biggest pain in the beep! I will be—and am—George Street in Brisbane's biggest pain in the beep until we get funding from the Queensland state government to match what we did.

Another really important project for infrastructure on the Sunshine Coast—get this, Member for Gippsland! The member for Gippsland was, I think, the infrastructure minister at the time, in 2019, when we announced another project that we would half fund for the Queensland department of transport. Now, did we have to put any money towards this project? No, not a cent. But we came up and offered another $160 million—once again, because the Queensland state government is so incompetent and so inept that we had to do the heavy lifting for them when we were in government. This was in relation to the Mooloolah River Interchange. We offered $160 million to build this $320 million stage 1 of the rejuvenation, the renovation of the Mooloolah River Interchange. Get this—you won't believe this—

Honourable Member:

An honourable member interjecting

Photo of Andrew WallaceAndrew Wallace (Fisher, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

You'll believe anything. Well, get this. Fast-forward a couple of years, and Australia is now in the grips of its worst housing and homelessness crisis. The state government has signed up to stage 1. We've signed up to stage 1. The federal government has put in $160 million. The state government has put in $160 million. And now the federal government is saying: 'Whoa! Hang on a minute. We're not so sure we want to go ahead with this project.' But guess what: 130 homes have been resumed; around 400 Sunshine Coast locals have been evicted from their homes to make way for this interchange. And now, only days before these 130 homes are due to be demolished, the federal government says: 'Hold the phone. Wait a minute. We're now going to do a three-month review on all these projects.'

So, at a time when around 400 Sunshine Coast locals have been evicted from their homes, at a time when it is virtually impossible for them to find another home on the Sunshine Coast, they have been evicted, and now this project may not even go ahead—vital infrastructure, which, as with the rail project to Maroochydore, is now at risk because this government wants to do a review. And we all know what that means. When the Labor government talks about doing a review into infrastructure, what are they really talking about?

Photo of Darren ChesterDarren Chester (Gippsland, National Party, Shadow Minister for Regional Education) Share this | | Hansard source

It's a fancy word for cuts.

Photo of Andrew WallaceAndrew Wallace (Fisher, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It's a fancy word for cuts. You get a prize, Member for Gippsland. It's a fancy word for cuts. That's why he was the infrastructure minister—because he's smart. It's a fancy word for cuts. So, the Prime Minister is up there, pumping up his chest, fluttering up his feathers and saying, 'I'm going to be the Prime Minister for infrastructure,' when the infrastructure minister has called this 90-day review.

Going back to the Mooloolah River Interchange, just for a moment: around 400 Sunshine Coast locals have been evicted, at a time when the federal government have announced this $10 billion Ponzi scheme called the National Housing Fund, the idea being that they borrow $10 billion, invest that $10 billion and hope like hell that the investment they receive is going to be more than the money they're paying out for the interest. And the balance—what's left over—they'll give to the state and territory governments, in the hope that they might actually get something out of it. This is a Ponzi scheme. It could very well result in not one additional home—$10 billion being borrowed by this federal government, when they've just effectively evicted 400 Sunshine Coast locals out onto the streets. Shame on this Labor government. I will continue to hold you to account until you back these projects in.

5:09 pm

Photo of Dai LeDai Le (Fowler, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

Infrastructure is one of the critical pillars of our society. It's great to hear that the member for Fisher and the previous government have invested infrastructure funding into regions such as the Sunshine Coast. We are still waiting for the $150 million promised for Fairfield Hospital at the last state election, so we really need that infrastructure funding investment. It is a key reason why election after election we hear politicians make promises to build this infrastructure and that infrastructure to entice voters, especially in marginal seats. Many of us know that infrastructure and pork-barrelling are a dynamic duo, with politicians winning and losing seats over car parks, roundabouts, railways and highways. But I am sure I speak on behalf of many members of this House when I say that infrastructure funding or any funding should not just go to communities in marginal seats.

I thank the minister's office for discussing this review with me in detail and I wholeheartedly agree that a revamp of Infrastructure Australia is needed. I hope that this legislation will not only amend Infrastructure Australia processes but also provide accurate impartial insights into the infrastructure projects that are needed the most.

For my community and Fowler, infrastructure funding is desperately needed for our multicultural, migrant and refugee communities. We have settled hundreds of thousands of people over the decades, yet successive governments have failed to invest in major infrastructure projects. It is as if our refugee communities are simply an afterthought. When tens of thousands of Syrian refugees were settled in Fowler in 2012, escaping the atrocities of war, Fairfield and Liverpool city councils welcomed them with open arms. That is what we do. It is great that the Australian government contributes to addressing the world's humanitarian needs but it is not just about bringing people here. It is about having infrastructure and plans in place to ensure we can support and enable people to thrive later on. With a lack of investment into our public infrastructure such as our Fairfield Hospital, our trains, our local schools, our really congested roads, our local community were forced to bear the social and economic costs of a huge influx of people who were in desperate need of a roof over their heads, jobs to match their skills, schools to send their traumatised school children to, and services to assist them to integrate successfully into this new foreign land called Australia. Yet to this day we somehow still miss out on so many critical funding rounds of both state and federal governments.

I remember growing up in Bossley Park. Back then our migrant communities were forgotten and demonised, and it seemed for a long time that nothing would change. We had one car park in the Cabramatta CBD and a pink toilet, which people had to pay 50c to use. I think we were the only suburb in all of Australia where we had to pay to use the public toilets. This is what sparked my political journey—campaigning for better local car park for our often quiet but hardworking community. We were not asking for much at all. I am proud to say that my advocacy led to Dutton Plaza Car Park being renovated and redeveloped into a multi-storey car park with a shopping precinct.

I also have to thank my Fairfield Council mayor and councillors for fighting with me to give our families and residents better local infrastructure facilities.

My community had few expectations for infrastructure and we took what we got. But in the last few decades, our children have grown up through the trials and tribulations of growing up 'out west' and have transformed Western Sydney into a rapidly growing and thriving economy. Many of our young people in Fowler have realised that they have the right to speak up and to not accept to be treated as second-class citizens. They have earned the right to ask for what they deserve. They too have paid taxes. They know they can expect to have more than just a car park and a toilet.

This brings me to Western Sydney Airport, one of the most significant pieces of infrastructure to be developed in our growing region and is part of Liverpool council. There are opportunities in this significant development for my communities both in Fairfield and Liverpool council LGAs. Not only would there be jobs in the construction and manufacturing of facilities but airport operations, retail as well as adjacent activities, one of which includes the construction and servicing of a business park, bringing more liveliness to the Western Sydney region.

While unemployment has remained low for the rest of Australia, Fowler's unemployment rate has been steadily around 10 per cent for many years. So it is fantastic that this airport is expected to support over 28,000 direct and indirect jobs by 2031. But it is critical that we have a proper public transport link that will connect the airport to the Fairfield, Liverpool and Parramatta CBDs. My electorate of Fowler will essentially become the midway point between Western Sydney Airport and the Sydney CBD; therefore, it only makes sense that a metro link connecting the airport with Parramatta, Liverpool and the Sydney CBD would go through my electorate, making it easier for workers to travel to and from the airport, as well as to the city.

With nearly 45 per cent of my electorate using predominantly petrol cars to get to work, you can imagine both the congestion on our roads and the carbon footprint. If we are to transition to a greener future, a fast and efficient transport link for commuters to get cars off the roads would be required. So I was elated to hear that the east-west metro line made it onto the Infrastructure Australia Infrastructure Priority List. This will benefit the people of Fowler and beyond. But then, during the election campaign, Labor announced it would scrap the line for buses in favour of another line from Leppington to Macarthur.

Now, I'm not saying that we should not have it, if that's what they want to build, but the East West Rail Link is also vital. My community and I were devastated by this news. To add insult to injury, the New South Wales Liberal government, at the time, gave us breadcrumbs in their WestInvest program. They couldn't even provide the $25 million for the health and wellness centre for the Cabramatta area. So, as we watch other electorates get hundreds of millions of dollars in funding, you can just imagine how our community felt. We weren't asking for a football stadium. We weren't asking for a superhighway. Why is it that my community gets treated like we're asking for the world, when we're simply asking for facilities that not only benefit my electorate but the entire Sydney CBD?

In my meeting with the infrastructure minister, she said that the priority list for Infrastructure Australia was essentially meaningless and that there was no funding behind the hundreds of projects on it. I was gobsmacked. I understand there are currently 166 projects on the priority list, which is far bigger than a priority list should be. The Grattan Institute reported that during the 2019 federal campaign only one of the coalition's 71 transport promises valued at $100 million or more had a business case approved by Infrastructure Australia. For Labor, it was two out of the 61 projects. What is the point of a priority list then, if, firstly, the priority list has hundreds of projects in waiting and, secondly, governments don't even fund projects that are on the priority list?

I'm sure this is not the vision our Prime Minister had for the body when, as the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government at the time, he set up Infrastructure Australia in 2009. Therefore, I fully support the current minister's goal of bringing integrity back to Infrastructure Australia. The government needs to consider further accountability and transparency to safeguard it for future generations, not just for this government but beyond.

But I fear that history will repeat itself. The new government will not make all of the recommended changes in the legislation provided in the independent review conducted by the head of Infrastructure Western Australia, Nicole Lockwood, and former infrastructure department head, Mike Mrdak. For example, one of the recommendations is that Infrastructure Australia provide two annual reports to inform the government's budgetary processes on current projects, project outcomes and updates. However, the government has rejected this, with concerns that it could breach cabinet-in-confidence. I don't understand how just having visibility of spending on an infrastructure project and where it is at may be breaching cabinet-in-confidence. I asked the question: what could possibly be so secretive about such infrastructure updates that are ultimately for the public benefit? Surely two people with high-ranking roles within infrastructure departments would also have some knowledge of how cabinet processes work and wouldn't have recommended it if it weren't viable.

Furthermore, I understand that ministerial discretion is required in some cases, but I have concerns with the amount of discretion given in the appointment of the commissioners, as well as the advisory council. The public has the right to know who is making nationally significant infrastructure network decisions in the first place, so I urge the government to consider whether future commissioners should disclose any conflicts of interest or ties to any major political parties. While this does not stop people with vested interests from being on the commission or advisory council, it gives the public the opportunity to know who is making certain infrastructure decisions and why. Accountability and transparency mean we will have more informed voters who can see the pork-barrelling for what it is and are willing to speak out against bad funding decisions.

This one-year-old government has been outspoken about previous governments' pork-barrelling approach to funding on infrastructure projects. Therefore, I encourage this new government, wanting to set a different integrity bar when it comes to spending taxpayers' money to build up our people and our country, to ensure that infrastructure spending will not leave the people and the community of Fowler behind. We all pay taxes. We all need roads. We all need public transport. But we must focus on the priority areas that are in dire need first. I want to see a system that prioritises infrastructure where it's needed most, not where the swing voters are. After all, how are we supposed to call ourselves an egalitarian society if we cannot equitably distribute basic needs to function as a society?

5:20 pm

Photo of Henry PikeHenry Pike (Bowman, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Infrastructure Australia Amendment (Independent Review) Bill 2023. As the title suggests, the bill aims to amend the Infrastructure Australia Act 2008 following an independent review of Infrastructure Australia, commissioned by the current minister and released in December last year. Consistent with the independent review, the bill provides a new object for the act, namely for Infrastructure Australia to be the government's independent advisor on nationally significant infrastructure investment planning and project prioritisation. The bill amends the Infrastructure Australia Act 2008 to repeal many current functions of Infrastructure Australia, and creates a series of alternative new functions, including: to conduct audits or assessments of nationally significant infrastructure; to determine adequacy and need; to conduct or endorse evaluations of infrastructure projects; to develop targeted infrastructure lists and plans; and to provide advice on nationally significant infrastructure matters.

The bill, though quite controversially, replaces the current 12-member Infrastructure Australia board with three commissioners appointed by the minister, comprising a chief commissioner and two other commissioners. The governance structure proposed by the government in this bill represents a distortion of one of three governance recommendations suggested by the independent review, including preserving the status quo with a corporate board rather than commissioners. There can be no doubt that the new governance model concocted by this government will make Infrastructure Australia far less independent. It seems strange this decision is coming from this government, as I think Infrastructure Australia and its independence is one of the key achievements that the Prime Minister can actually lay claim to during his time as infrastructure minister.

By coming up with this new governance structure, largely off their own bat and without corresponding recommendation from the independent review despite the name of the bill, the government will be recasting IA as an entity that does the government's bidding. Consider the implication of these changes on the independence of Infrastructure Australia: all three commissioners will be directly appointed by the minister and answerable to the minister; the commissioners must have regard to government policy; and the commissioners must evaluate all proposals submitted by the government without exception. Beyond the scope of this bill, the government requires the commissioners to form an advisory council of senior officials from PM&C, the Department of Treasury, the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, Communication and the Arts, and not one private sector seat at the table. As the advisory council is referenced nowhere in the bill, its composition, guidelines and functions are all off the radar as far as this parliament is concerned. Add to that the complete loss of independence and the consequential loss of critical industry expertise, stripped from the board, no requirement that commissioners with expertise and experience be appointed, and what could possibly go wrong?

Taken together, these are very significant changes that effectively repurpose and restructure Infrastructure Australia as an almost entirely new entity in all but name. It should be noted the 2021 ALP national platform did vaguely reference the possibility of some realignment of Infrastructure Australia under Labor, in declaring that Infrastructure Australia would be charged with identifying the long-term strategic pipeline approach to be the centre of a Labor government's investment and decision-making process. In fairness, Labor did flag a review of Infrastructure Australia as a pre-election commitment. Unfortunately, that's where the fairness largely ends, because Labor did not at any time flag the wholesale redefinition or dumbing down of Infrastructure Australia by changing its governance structure, revoking its principal purpose and replacing its many functions. There was no pre-election commitment from Labor to transform Infrastructure Australia into something else with the same name. There was never any suggestion that a reformed Infrastructure Australia would be much closer to government, less independent and less authoritative. And it should not be imagined or conceived that it was. In essence, these changes will bring Infrastructure Australia back into the political fray.

Given that Infrastructure Australia was established in 2008 by the Rudd government and, more significantly, that it's design, form and function were the responsibility of the then Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government—our current Prime Minister—

Honourable Member:

An honourable member interjecting

Photo of Henry PikeHenry Pike (Bowman, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

That's right. We recall that well—I'm sure many in this chamber will find it curious that the creator now considers his creation so deeply flawed that it requires this significant change. But, although the Prime Minister was the minister responsible for the establishment of Infrastructure Australia, those of you with a long memory might recall that the instinct to override and politicise IA was there right from the very beginning. IA was sidelined from real decision-making and forced to play catch-up and chase its tail to justify projects that the previous Labor government had already announced without consulting its supposed expert advisory body. Labor's road and rail funding projects, its big spending response to the global financial crisis and its infrastructure election commitments were all announced without being fully assessed by IA. Headline projects such as Darwin Port, Sydney's West Metro, and the Adelaide's O-Bahn—you'll appreciate that one, Deputy Speaker Stevens—had to be scrapped when eventual assessments recognised that these projects weren't value for money. However, millions were wasted in pursuing these projects prior to IA assessment. Members may also recall that the now Prime Minister didn't submit the NBN to Infrastructure Australia scrutiny, so perhaps the seeds of doubt about whether an independent statutory body providing advice on infrastructure priorities was a good thing for government were there in Labor's minds from the very start.

The coalition has no issue whatsoever with an independent review of Infrastructure Australia to improve its processes, provided that the independence and the diverse governance structures of Infrastructure Australia are respected. Unfortunately, this bill doesn't quite do that. The coalition acknowledges and sees some merit in each of the 16 recommendations made by the independent review. The Albanese government, however, is not so inclined. They have cherry-picked which recommendations they want to follow. The government has failed to support eight of the 16 key recommendations of the independent review that they themselves promised, commissioned and announced. That's barely a 50 per cent pass mark. There are no prizes for guessing which of these recommendations ended on the cutting room floor. Of course they're the ones regarding governance, collaboration, transparency and expanding Infrastructure Australia's mandate specifically to include nationally significant economic and social infrastructure. The coalition is concerned that several provisions in this bill suggest that the Albanese government aims to limit the remit of Infrastructure Australia so that the organisation loses all effective independence and operational authority and is instead reduced to a narrow pipeline for pet projects routinely fed into it, almost exclusively by Labor state and territory governments.

Labor's national platform that they took to the last election proudly states that Australia cannot afford to let infrastructure be decided by politics and vested interests. I couldn't agree more. Public investment in meaningful, high-value, nation-building infrastructure should not be determined by politics or vested interests, but this bill, quite deliberately, does the reverse. When you read the text of the bill and the explanatory memorandum, it doesn't take long for the penny to drop, and to realise that this bill has one primary aim—not to reform, restore or refine functions of Infrastructure Australia to make it more effective and fit for purpose but rather to disempower and shackle Infrastructure Australia. This bill will severely and fundamentally restrict the independence of Infrastructure Australia in both its governance and its function. The bill will effectively make Infrastructure Australia little more than a lapdog of vested interest politics and pet projects of the Albanese government and the Labor Party in every state or territory across mainland Australia. The true aim of this bill is to bring what was, and still should be, an independent and authoritative corporate Commonwealth entity into alignment with the government's wishes.

Infrastructure Australia is an important body. It is important that the parliament provides the organisation with a clear mandate for its future operations. In this regard, the opposition does not seek to frustrate passage of the government's legislation; however, there are real concerns that this bill will result in an Infrastructure Australia that's far less independent and less authoritative. The opposition proposes to support the passage of the legislation with amendments, and I commend those amendments to the House.

5:30 pm

Photo of Josh BurnsJosh Burns (Macnamara, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am very pleased to speak about the Infrastructure Australia Amendment (Independent Review) Bill 2023. This bill goes to the fact that we have not taken away any funding but we are going through, with a fine-tooth comb, the infrastructure pipeline that those opposite left us. Why do we need to? Why is it important that the incoming Labor government—

Opposition Members:

Opposition members interjecting

Photo of Josh BurnsJosh Burns (Macnamara, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I can hear some chirping from the opposition over there, and maybe they will enjoy this contribution! Why would we need to do a 90-day review of their infrastructure programs? Maybe I can take you on a journey through my electorate of Macnamara. In my electorate of Macnamara in St Kilda East we have a magnificent high street called Carlisle Street. It's right in Balaclava. The Sandringham line runs through Balaclava station. The previous government had a commitment of $15 million for a commuter car park behind Balaclava station. With ministers like the member for New England in charge, you really would have thought that they would have dotted the i's and crossed the t's on the $15 million that they had allocated to the Balaclava station from the Commuter Car Park Program, their signature infrastructure program.

All was going fantastically until one small snag came up. There was one small snag on the $15 million that these people opposite allocated to a commuter car park in my electorate. They hadn't actually told the state government. They hadn't told the local council. Had they bothered to pick up the phone to the two organisations that have stewardship over the piece of land that they allocated money to, they may have realised that actually the exact piece of land that those geniuses opposite allocated $15 million of taxpayer funds to had already been allocated to a social housing project. They allocated $15 million to build a car park without even picking up the phone to the other layers of government to work it out—'Hey, guys. It's the federal government here. It's Scott and Barnaby, the member for Cook and the member for New England. We want to build a commuter car park. Are you, by chance, happy with that?' Had they bothered to even do that, they would have found out that the land behind the Balaclava station was already designated for social housing.

I was very pleased to go with the Minister for Housing to open the 49 apartments at the place where the previous government had allocated $15 million. The housing is going to a range of people, including a few people with a disability and some single parents. It's a fantastic community project. Those houses are a wonderful new addition to the Balaclava community. I was very pleased to be there on that day.

Another reason why we had to go through their projects that we inherited with a fine-tooth comb is the regional infrastructure grants program. The member for Barker is in the chamber now. He considers himself a good representative of regional Australia.

An honourable member interjecting

Yes, sure. The member for Barker's constituents in regional Australia are proud regional Australians. I do question, though, how many residents in the member for Barker's regional electorate have been for a swim in the North Sydney Pool underneath the Opera House. There was $10 million used from the Regional Infrastructure Fund for a pool underneath the Sydney Opera House. If ever there was a landmark that screamed 'regional Australia', it's the Opera House!

Opposition members interjecting

I'm hearing some interjections from the member for Barker. Maybe they're just upset that they didn't get $10 million to build a pool in the member for Barker's electorate. But it is just another example of why we had to introduce this bill and go through with a fine-tooth comb all of the ridiculous decisions that they had put in place.

There's another one worth mentioning. Those opposite like to talk about economic management. They like to talk about how they get value for money for taxpayer dollars. If you've got a piece of land that's worth $3 million and you spend $30 million, and you call that value for money—

Opposition members interjecting

I'm hearing a lot of interjections. Maybe those fiery interjections should have been voiced in the party room when their colleagues were purchasing pieces of land worth $3 million for $30 million. It almost made the Auditor-General's head explode, going, 'What on earth are you people doing? Why are you spending $30 million on a piece of land worth $3 million?' They treated taxpayer dollars with absolute disdain, and everything became 'How can we try and manipulate things on behalf of the Liberal Party?'

That's not how we're going to do things. That's not how we're going to build infrastructure. That's not how we're going to govern for Australians. We are here to ensure that Australians are getting taxpayer value for money. We're going to ensure that we invest in the sorts of projects that will benefit communities, states and our country, and we are going to ensure that the infrastructure investments that we make are in the national interest as well.

There's a final one I'll mention that goes to the absolutely incompetent way the opposition managed infrastructure projects. Now, some infrastructure ministers in the previous government were not as bad as others. Some infrastructure ministers are more equal than other infrastructure ministers! And, dare I say, that's something the member for Gippsland and I agree on. There are some infrastructure ministers that are better than others. But, in the great state of Victoria, in the electorates of Aston and La Trobe, you've got the Wellington Road, which is a road I've driven on many, many times. The Wellington Road duplication project is an important project and one that the previous government allocated $10 million to. If you didn't know anything about the project, you'd think, 'That's fine; they've put a bit of money on the table for that project,' except that, in the classic way in which the previous government managed these things, that project cannot get done for—the estimates are—less than around $640 million.

They come in here and they pretend to have invested in infrastructure, but, with the projects they actually committed to, they were either trying to build car parks in certain electorates, and infrastructure on pieces of land when they hadn't even spoken to other layers of government. They're building regional infrastructure in the middle of Sydney—the Darling Harbour regional infrastructure project! For goodness sake! That was one of the most absurd uses of taxpayer funds—$10 million for a pool in the middle of North Sydney. They purchased for $30 million a piece of land that was worth $3 million. Then they pretended that they were committed to infrastructure projects like the ones in our great state of Victoria, but they didn't actually put the money where their mouth was.

It was a constant stream of incompetence and a constant stream of using taxpayer dollars on behalf of the Liberal Party, and Australians saw through it. Australians saw through it. That's why in the great electorate of Aston we now have the finest member for Aston that we've had in over 30 years. After 30 years, the people of Aston have finally got a decent representative. We're going to work through this list of infrastructure projects right around our state, clean up the opposition's mess and build a better future on behalf of all Australians.

5:39 pm

Photo of Tony PasinTony Pasin (Barker, Liberal Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Transport) Share this | | Hansard source

I really do feel for the member for Macnamara. I think he's woken at night in a fright. The Greens are hunting him at home. He gets on his feet in the Federation Chamber, and who comes in but the member for Ryan! Goodness! I really do feel for the member for Macnamara; it must be tough.

Sometimes politics can be a bit of a mystery bet. Effectively, you don't know what you're going to get. Increasingly that's the case with those opposite, but I never thought the election of a Labor government led by Anthony Albanese would be as weak on infrastructure as they are presenting themselves to be. This Prime Minister was a minister in a former government who was passionate about infrastructure. He wanted to be known as the Prime Minister for infrastructure—an infrastructure prime minister—and, to be honest, right now he's the Prime Minister for no infrastructure.

The reality is that there is a litany of things I can talk about in relation to reviews and other things—we will get there—but I just cannot believe we are now 12 months into this government and we are literally now starting a process of a root-and-branch review of the $120 billion worth of infrastructure that was bequeathed to those opposite. Before the member for Macnamara says we can't build that road for that, it's important that we understand that these build projects are always in partnerships with the states. In terms of metropolitan projects, there is an obligation that states meet 50 per cent of the costs of those projects. In terms of regional projects, there is an important 80-20 split.

But I'll come to the root-and-branch review a bit later because there were revelations last night at estimates which have sent shock waves from this building all the way back to local governments, who are, of course, responsible for maintaining a whopping 600,000 kilometres of the national road network. For the benefit of those who might not be across this detail, our nation has about 800,000 kilometres in its road network; 600,000 kilometres or so are managed by our friends in the local government sector. They woke up to news from events overnight in this place which, quite frankly, have shocked them, resulting in extreme anxiety and real cause for concern.

But, in writing to speak to the Infrastructure Australia Amendment (Independent Review) Bill 2023, I wanted to make a few observations. I suppose, at least in relation to this review, that it commenced during the first 12 months of the term for those opposite, not effectively at the anniversary in relation to the one more recently announced. Unfortunately, what we've heard from members who have provided contributions before mine is that this has done nothing to strengthen Infrastructure Australia. It's weakened it. It's brought it out of its position of independence and effectively brought it to heel at the foot of this Labor government.

Infrastructure Australia, of course, was the creation of the now Prime Minister when he was the minister in the Rudd government, and I held real hopes for this review. It's important and it should be noted we're not going to stand in the way of these changes, but we do want to note some of the failings. It's important that Australians have confidence that their government is investing in infrastructure and ensuring that it is achieving value-for-money results in relation to those infrastructure investments, and so Infrastructure Australia is tasked with that obligation. There was, of course, a review undertaken. There were 16 recommendations, and you would expect that those opposite, having commissioned the review, having appointed specifically those undertaking the review, would adopt all 16 recommendations. You'd expect that, but it's not all well at home in Laborland, because only eight of the 16 recommendations are going to be adopted. Interestingly, those recommendations that go to a greater level of transparency, it probably doesn't surprise many in this place, particularly on this side of the chamber, have been left on the cutting room floor. We are now moving away from an independent body of 12 board members, which effectively is the status quo—some of whom are elected, three currently elected by state agencies—to a model where we would have three commissioners. When we talk about independence, these commissioners will be appointed by the minister, accountable to the minister and very much do the minister's bidding. I should say there is no requirement for any of them to live, reside or have interests in regional Australia, which is a telling omission in my respectful submission. Infrastructure Australia is of course responsible for undertaking business case analyses on behalf of the government, or at least those opposite would have us believe that. I am looking forward to seeing the major projects those opposite have been championing for some time are subject to business case analysis by Infrastructure Australia.

But more broadly, what we are seeing in the country right now in and around infrastructure investment and decision-making, aside from there being a massive pause being struck as this review of the infrastructure pipeline is being undertaken, which took the minister 12 months to decide to undertake, is a three-month process. We are told that the nature of that review is currently being designed. It is like an aeroplane—it is being flown and built out at the same time. But what we do know is that after that best-case scenario 90-day period there will then need to be consideration by the minister of the recommendations of that review. Then those recommendations will need to go to cabinet and then, after that, those discussions will need to be included in discussions with the partners—namely, the states. We are looking at process those opposite say will take 90 days, but I am confident will bleed well into, if not the end of this year, early next year.

But while we are talking about what shock waves came out of budget estimates last night, let's have a think about what we know today. The minister opposite has said that every project that is not under construction or that was committed to by those opposite in the lead up the 2022 election is under review. So to the extent we understood that position before this time last night, it was projects under review. But in response to a very direct question, departmental officials told budget estimates last night it is not just projects under review but it is also programs. I appreciate, both programs and projects start with 'p'. There is some lovely alliteration but there is a significant difference. It is one thing to say that projects are under review, but programs introduces a whole new level of uncertainty for the sector, for local government and of course for those people that rely on road investment to manage and maintain their businesses.

So what programs are we talking about then? Aside from the many projects we have spoken about in this place before, let's talk about the programs. The Bridges Renewal Program is now under review. This is a program that was established in 2015-16 and is addressing much-needed bridge repair work right across the country. In my electorate, the Barossa Council has enjoyed grants from this program. Members have seen these grants all across regional electorates.

The Heavy Vehicle Safety and Productivity Program is a program the Transport Workers Union of Australia absolutely loves. Obviously councils are supportive of it. They make many applications. We've had seven or so rounds of this program. It's been around since 2010. So: Bridges Renewal Program, 2015; and Heavy Vehicle Safety and Productivity Program, 2010. This is about making sure our network is fit for purpose. Combinations are getting longer and combinations are getting heavier, and we need to make sure our infrastructure can meet the challenges. We need the efficient movement of freight around this country, from paddock to port or from paddock to plate. Subjecting these programs to review has done nothing but throw uncertainty out into the marketplace.

I have spoken about programs that have been with us for a while—Bridges Renewal, 2015; and Heavy Vehicle Safety and Productivity, 2010. But one program that I thought is widely and universally celebrated in this country is the rolling program that this Roads to Recovery. This was a program that was implemented by the Howard government in 2001. It's subject to review. I've spent some time serving my community in local government, and I can tell you local government officials regard Roads to Recovery funding as about as certain as the hills in Switzerland. Well, not now, not as a result of what we heard last night in budget estimates and not because of the minister who sits opposite. It is subject to review, and we know what a review means in the context of this place and in terms of government more generally. These are hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Australian Local Government Association, before the most recent budget, had a budget submission, and they didn't ask for Roads to Recovery to be reviewed; they asked for annual funding for Roads for Recovery to go from $500 million to $800 million. Instead, what they've got is no increase and the uncertainty that comes with a review. I don't think when delegates from local governments arrive in a couple of weeks from all across Australia to meet in Canberra that they'll be happy with that response. They will be talking about local roads and community infrastructure and those other programs that have been cut as well, but I reckon deep down they're most concerned about what is happening potentially to Roads to Recovery.

Roads to Recovery is a longstanding program—2001, with respect, Deputy Speaker. But there is a program which I think is much more important and has been with us for longer. In fact, it's a program that has been fixing dangerous sections of roads continuously since 1996. There wouldn't be one person in this place that begrudges the $110 million a year provided to the federal government's Black Spot Program. Let's be clear: this is funding that is provided to intersections and to road sections that have taken lives. Invariably, this funding is insufficient to meet even the reactive projects let alone get to the proactive projects, and I said there wouldn't be a person in this place who begrudges that funding. Then why, why, would it be subject to a review? Surely those opposite could have seen within their purview to say, 'We're undertaking a root and branch review of the $120 billion of infrastructure in the pipeline, but there are certain programs that are off limits: Roads to Recovery, one; Black Spot, two.'

At the absolute minimum, I know how passionate members in this place are about road safety in particular, and this is at a time when the national road toll is, quite frankly, at an unacceptably high level. We have exceeded last year's levels. We are on track to set a new record that nobody in this place wants, and, at that very same time, the minister instructs her department to undertake a review not just of every program that is under construction right now or committed to by those opposite at the 2022 election but also every single program, including the much loved Roads to Recovery Program and the critically important Black Spot Program.

5:55 pm

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

I rise to speak on the Infrastructure Australia Amendment (Independent Review) Bill 2023, which encompasses some very concerning reforms to Infrastructure Australia. Long-term infrastructure planning for our nation is a topic that we could have a lot more bipartisanship around. Some decisions that government make are very instantaneous. Other ones are in the medium term. Ones like infrastructure and defence investments are both in the category of decisions that involve billions of dollars and decades of planning and future value for our economy. Infrastructure is about investing in increasing the productive capacity of our economy and other important things, such as those the member for Barker was just touching on regarding road safety, community benefit, community use et cetera.

Infrastructure Australia was conceived and implemented by the now Prime Minister, who at the time was the infrastructure minister in the Rudd government. I have some memory of the justification for establishing Infrastructure Australia, and I've come to appreciate the value of having a body that, at least in principle, is about undertaking long-range planning and evaluation of infrastructure investments from the Commonwealth. We know that almost all infrastructure is delivered in partnership, where the delivery agency is the state or territory government and the Commonwealth government is a funding partner. But the Commonwealth is not only a funder; it can also look at opportunities and infrastructure investments from a nation-building point of view and with the perspective of a national government. This isn't always completely front of mind for state governments when they're thinking about how they want to invest in infrastructure opportunities for their states and secure commensurate federal funding.

The IA process when established was one that I watched closely from a South Australian point of view. The member for Bowman gave some good examples of where, regrettably, if the IA process and framework had been more robust my home state of South Australia would have received much greater value from Commonwealth infrastructure expenditure opportunities. Some projects that we were promised funding for were later discontinued, like the first iteration of the O-Bahn extension, when there was a particularly peculiar set of events around stimulus funding during the GFC. That was a good example, and there are many others, of the need for good-quality long-range infrastructure planning. We should have a forward program of infrastructure investments that are not entirely politicised and are not about short-term electoral gain but are indeed about good outcomes for communities and economic productivity. A good, functioning Infrastructure Australia body with all its constituent elements would be a great thing. That's why it is extremely concerning that in this bill we're seeing changes that take away a lot of the important governance and the sort of independence that you want from a body that is ultimately producing recommendations to government.

I have my own additional concerns for my home state of South Australia, particularly in the infrastructure space, as the member for Barker was touching on, such as the situation we're in with the 90-day review of a $120 billion pipeline of infrastructure investments. The mind absolutely boggles that $120 billion of what we thought was security and certainty is now up for grabs, up for scrapping, up for who knows what over this 90-day period of time in which some kind of process is being undertaken. I don't know how you look at $120 billion worth of projects seriously and properly in 90 days unless there's a political agenda involved, unless there's a hit list and unless, perhaps, the 90-day review is there to be a shield for certain decisions that may already have been taken and are seeking some kind of veil of justification. We will obviously find out in 90 days what the secret agenda has been around this. The government has been in power for more than 12 months. I would probably have understood some kind of review in the first few weeks of coming into government, particularly if there was an election commitment to do a complete review of that $120 billion. There could be some understanding of that. But to wait for 12 months and then put all these projects on hold—$120 billion worth—is extremely concerning.

In my home state of South Australia that is also potentially going to lead to a very significant infrastructure, jobs and investment valley of death because, if the Commonwealth is hitting the pause button on future infrastructure projects in South Australia, as they are nationally, that is only going to see a whole range of projects that could have been commencing sooner if they are not scrapped or put on the chopping block under this 90-day review be delayed.

There are budgetary benefits for particularly state governments in reprofiling—that is the famous terminology—infrastructure expenditure. So maybe there's a fiscal benefit to covering up certain deficits in state governments, and maybe that could be the case in my state of South Australia, by delaying these infrastructure projects. But the valley of death is very significant from an economic point of view because, in my state, at least hundreds and possibly thousands of jobs could also be reprofiled out in years and years time and hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars of investment being reprofiled from the economy next year or the year after for years and years into the future.

This is exactly not the time we need that kind of investment coming out of the South Australia economy. We have the highest unemployment rate in the nation. We have the highest inflation rate in the nation. Our infrastructure projects in the South Australian economy are very significant. They are very significant, and reprofiling them or hitting pause on them and having a whole range of things being delayed by what could be months or years is going to have a very significant impact on the South Australian economy, not this year because decisions that we took in government are still being invested in. It's the projects that won't start at the time they were meant to or could be scrapped altogether. That's an extremely concerning prospect and outlook in South Australia.

We had one government policy announcement of significance in the campaign in metropolitan Adelaide, which was the Marion Road tram overpass in the electorate of Boothby. That's the only thing we know for certain in metropolitan Adelaide. In my electorate of Sturt, there are two projects left from the Urban Congestion Fund that are still to be completed. They are the two major intersections that the previous government announced and delivered on. Then there's nothing of any great significance happening in my electorate into the future.

Things that are being invested in in Adelaide benefit more broadly than Adelaide, particularly from a congestion point of view. My constituents can benefit from projects that aren't necessarily in my electorate. But the one major Adelaide metropolitan project is the completion of the North-South Corridor. We've only seen delays and now a great deal of uncertainty around that megaproject. It would be an enormous project, the largest transport infrastructure project that's ever been undertaken in South Australia. It's one that I understood to have had longstanding bipartisan support, particularly because the previous Labor state government and the Rudd-Gillard government had been a part of elements of that North-South Corridor project, like the Howard government had, like the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments had and like the Marshall state government had. So we had bipartisanship around the North-South Corridor. Now we don't know what the future will be for that. Not only do we not know what the future will be for that; there is nothing else being proposed either.

So we hold these concerns. We have to wait for the 90-day process to be completed. We will find out, like all other Australians, what the agenda is around this 90-day review of $120 billion investment in productive infrastructure of this nation.

With those comments, we have an excellent amendment to this second reading, which we will support. We obviously have very serious concerns about what this bill effectively does, which is remove so much important transparency and important governance principles and take away what we should all want when it comes infrastructure that is vitally important, which is a proper long-term plan that is independent and about value for taxpayers' dollars.

6:04 pm

Photo of Ms Catherine KingMs Catherine King (Ballarat, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the many members who've contributed to this bill for their contributions. I also want to thank members for really putting quite a lot of thought into those contributions, and I know there are a number of amendments that people wish to move in addition to the second reading amendment. From the speeches we've heard, people are very passionate about their own electorates, very passionate about what's happening in terms of infrastructure in their own electorates and also very passionate about the programs that we all know are important for funding infrastructure.

Of course, the reason the Infrastructure Australia Amendment (Independent Review) Bill 2023 is before the parliament is that it is a response to the independent review that I asked to be undertaken into Infrastructure Australia, conducted by Nicole Lockwood and Mike Mrdak AO. The bill delivers on our commitment to restore Infrastructure Australia as the Commonwealth's premier adviser on major nationally significant infrastructure when it comes to communications, when it comes to water infrastructure, and when it comes to transport infrastructure and transmission infrastructure. The bill makes important changes to the act to provide the framework for implementing the government's response to the review's recommendations.

The changes proposed by this bill are very much part of the government's response to those recommendations of the review, and the bill's amendments will provide for a better alignment between Infrastructure Australia's work program and the advice that government needs in order to make informed decisions about where we put scarce taxpayer dollars. It will provide Infrastructure Australia with a clear mandate and enhancements to what it produces for government. Infrastructure Australia will regain its authority as an expert adviser to the Commonwealth government and will deliver a more refined and targeted infrastructure priority list, linked to government priorities, to its audit and to Australia's needs. These changes will remove unnecessary processes and build on our strong relationships with states and territories, harmonising these processes and leading to better advice and recommendations. As we know from the review, since the establishment of Infrastructure Australia all the states and territories now have similar IA bodies themselves, and the review also went to that point.

Importantly, Infrastructure Australia will retain its independence, ensuring that it continues to provide impartial advice to the Australian government, particularly on infrastructure project selection and on prioritisation for investment in projects that are needed the most. The new governance model will ensure that Infrastructure Australia has the eminence, the authority and the standing to be a national leader and to coordinate amongst Infrastructure Australia bodies. The three commissioners will collectively have strong and relevant expertise and be responsible for the delivery of IA's functions.

Whilst the bill implements the recommendations of the independent review of IA, requiring legislative changes, a new statement of expectations will be issued to Infrastructure Australia to implement the remaining recommendations of the review. Together these changes will re-establish Infrastructure Australia as the Commonwealth's expert adviser on infrastructure of national significance. I'd like to again thank members for their contributions.

Before I go to the second reading amendment, which the government will not be supporting, I also want to say that a number of members, during their contributions, have taken the opportunity to talk about broader government decisions that we're making at the moment, and I want to clarify a couple of things. The very reason that we are undertaking a review of the infrastructure investment pipeline is twofold. One is to make sure we maintain $120 billion of a rolling 10-year program. At the moment, because of decisions of the previous government, there are just under 800 projects sitting on that infrastructure investment pipeline, and they cannot all be delivered. It is as simple as that. To do so would require billions and billions of dollars of extra investment that we simply do not have because of decisions of the previous government. So, if I am to deliver major nationally significant infrastructure investments that actually add to productivity and enhance our freight routes, I've got to make some hard decisions.

When I hear members opposite complain that we haven't delivered this particular project or that such and such is a problem, I say to them: if you want me to deliver those, then I need to have the headroom to look at cost escalations. There is nothing for that at the moment in the pipeline that you left me, and there is no capacity to bring in new projects at all. That is the problem you've left me. The reason for the review is to make sure we have a sustainable pipeline and that it is deliverable. You spent a lot of time doing press releases. I've seen the Twitter accounts of members opposite. You were standing beside road signs and making a big palaver about the announcements you were making. You substantially underfunded these projects. You did not have partnerships with the states and territories about the delivery of them, and they are simply not able to be delivered. That is absolutely the problem. We tried to clean it up in October. We started that process, and they were hard decisions to make. I don't like having to make them, but we have to do this if we're actually going to have a sustainable pipeline into the future. That is what the review is about.

In terms of programs that are important and were funded in the budget—Roads to Recovery, the Bridges Renewal Program, the Black Spot Program and the Heavy Vehicle Safety Initiative—all of that money is in the budget, and those programs will continue. The review is looking to see how we can sustain them in the future and whether there is a better way of delivering them. We've also got a request from local government to increase the amount of money for them, so the review will look at that. Do we need to put more money into these programs? We're not looking to cut those programs or to abolish them; we're looking to make sure they're sustainable and they deliver what they should. That is what the review is doing. Again I say to members opposite: we have been left with a legacy of your having used the infrastructure investment pipeline for electorate purposes.

There are now 800 projects sitting in the infrastructure investment pipeline, many of which will simply be unable to ever be delivered, and that money is sitting inactive in that infrastructure pipeline. There are many communities that would be desperate to get hold of the money for projects that are important for their communities, but they are sitting there totally and utterly inactive in that pipeline at the moment unable to be delivered. That is the legacy that you left because you made the decision to politicise the infrastructure investment pipeline. That is what you did. Because of that, we're now in the position where we actually have to make sure we can deliver the projects that we committed to, because that's what we got elected to do. We were elected to deliver the projects that we promised that we would, and we've got to make sure that the infrastructure investment is actually deliverable, that we deal with cost escalations and that it's actually sustainable into the future.

We have a number of infrastructure projects which are currently underway and which will continue to be under construction. In responding to the coalition's second reading amendment, I particularly want to say: I'm not going to be lectured to by you guys about infrastructure investment. What you did to infrastructure is actually a disgrace: the pork-barrelling decade of government with Leppington Triangle, sports rorts and the Urban Congestion Fund. Inland Rail is now estimated to cost six times more than the Nationals originally estimated. Frankly, you left us with a mess, and I'm not going to be lectured to by any of you as to how to deliver infrastructure investments with integrity and how to make sure we don't have an infrastructure pipeline full of zombie projects that never started because you thought a press release was a good idea.

Despite being a federal government, the Liberals and Nationals did invest in a large number of projects that were not nationally significant, and they failed to deliver appropriate economic and social benefits. They also set up unallocated buckets of money to announce small projects such as traffic lights and culverts. Under the Liberal and National parties, the number of projects blew out from 150 to 800. Almost 500 of them are under $50 million, and only 19 per cent of those are in Labor seats. And that's not pork-barrelling? Really?

Honoura ble members interjecting

They may well be good projects, but apparently Labor seats don't have good projects as well!

There's no better example of the coalition's failure, frankly, than the Urban Congestion Fund—full of imaginary car parks in marginal seats, projects that would require 200 or 300 per cent more investment to actually deliver, and years and years of delay before you saw a single car drive on any of them. The coalition didn't invest in nationally significant projects. They did not. They used the infrastructure investment pipeline as a massive electoral pork-barrel. That is what they did. They had form of doing that.

I'll address the other amendments that will be moved to this bill in the second reading amendment. I commend the bill to the House, and we won't be supporting the second reading amendment as moved by those opposite.

Photo of Andrew WilkieAndrew Wilkie (Clark, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Gippsland has moved as an amendment that all words after 'that' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The immediate question before the House is that the amendment be disagreed to.

Question unresolved.

As it is necessary to resolve this question to enable further questions to be considered in relation to this bill, in accordance with standing order 195 the bill will be returned to the House for further consideration.