Thursday, 28 August 2014
Land Transport Infrastructure Amendment Bill 2014; Second Reading
Mr Deputy President Marshall, it is a pleasure to see you in the chair again.
I would like to indicate my support for this bill. And I do share the concerns of the Leader of the Australian Greens, Senator Milne, in relation to private members' time—it has been hard fought for. I think there are broader issues about question time as well. With a record number of crossbenchers, we need to have a fairer system in place so that crossbenchers can fairly participate in the debates in this chamber and the processes of this chamber, including question time and private members' time. I look forward to discussing that with my colleagues and with the whips of the major parties as well, so that we can head off some of the problems that are emerging.
In relation to the Land Transport Infrastructure Amendment Bill 2014, I indicate my support for this bill. I will also be supporting the amendments proposed by both the Australian Greens and the opposition, in the sense that they are relatively similar and I believe either option will be an improvement to this bill. In particular, I want to express my support for the amendments proposing greater scrutiny of projects over a certain monetary threshold. I believe this is an important amendment and will help to ensure accountability and transparency. I also want to acknowledge the good work that the infrastructure assistant minister, the Hon. Jamie Briggs, has done. I think that what he has said about ensuring value for money on road projects is refreshing; I think that that is actually a good initiative on his part and, if he is successful, as I hope he will be, in improving the processes and the value-for-money criteria, then he will be doing this country a great service. But I also think that having greater accountability and transparency in respect of road funding is a good thing.
I will keep my remarks brief because time is of the essence when it comes to this bill. It has already been delayed, which is of significant concern to local councils, and further delays could jeopardise funding for vital projects, particularly in respect of Roads to Recovery. I acknowledge the many, many phone calls and text messages I have exchanged with Felicity-ann Lewis, the President of the Australian Local Government Association, from South Australia, who is doing a great job. I pay tribute to her persistence, to her interest and to her advocacy in respect of this issue on behalf of local government. I think all of my colleagues in this place are supportive of the Roads to Recovery program and want to see it extended, given that the previous funding ended in June and that some councils have begun new projects based on promises that the funding would continue. We must ensure this legislation passes as a matter of urgency. However, I do want to address a fundamental inequality in the way that funds are allocated.
South Australian local government currently manages 11 per cent, or 75,000 kilometres, of the nation's local road network and receives just 5.5 per cent of identified local roads grant funding, despite the fact that South Australia has about 7.2 per cent of the nation's population. As such, South Australia receives the lowest funding per capita of all states and territories, at just $23.23 per capita. South Australia also has the lowest funding spent per kilometre, with Queensland and Western Australia receiving almost twice as much. Victoria receives 2.25 times as much funding. New South Wales gets nearly three times as much. By contrast, Tasmania, which has about two per cent of Australia's population, receives $72.40 per capita, over five times the funding to South Australia.
To address this inequality, the supplementary local road fund was established; but, despite the continuation of the Roads to Recovery program, this supplementary account, which would have brought South Australia up to 7.9 per cent of the fund—an improvement but still not quite good enough—has not been included in the current budget, and that is fundamentally wrong. I urge the Hon. Jamie Briggs, the assistant minister for infrastructure, and the Hon. Christopher Pyne, the most senior South Australian in the cabinet, to fight for South Australia in the same way that Nick Minchin, Alexander Downer and Amanda Vanstone fought for South Australia when they were in the cabinet. I just hope that they have the same level of resolve when it comes to their home state of South Australia.
What this means is that South Australian councils will miss out on about $18 million for 2014-15, with some individual councils missing out on as much as $1 million each. So, while I support this bill, I call on the government to renew their commitment to infrastructure by reinstating the supplementary fund or at least by reallocating the existing funds on a more equitable basis. Improving Australia's roads needs a national approach, and funding should be fairly distributed across the country.
As I said, I support this bill. I look forward to debating the amendments in the committee stage but I want to make it clear that, whilst I support the opposition's and the Greens' amendments in terms of improving transparency and accountability, I do not want to see this bill ultimately delayed; I want to make sure that the funding for the Roads to Recovery program is flowing by next week. We cannot afford to have gridlock on a program that is obviously urgent, a program that both sides, both major parties, support. If we do not get the funding flowing by next week, then we are showing signs of that malaise, that gridlock, which has been so toxic in American politics. Let us not bring that to our shores.
I thank all senators for their contributions on this important piece of legislation, the Land Transport Infrastructure Amendment Bill 2014, particularly Senator Xenophon. The government are committed to building the infrastructure of the 21st century, and the changes in the bill will help us achieve the recently announced budget infrastructure initiatives.
The amendments to the Nation Building Program (National Land Transport) Act 2009 are sensible and necessary to facilitate the government's ambitious land transport infrastructure agenda. The bill provides funding certainty—funding that is critical to local government by continuing the vitally important Roads to Recovery program. The Roads to Recovery program, as many of us here know, lapsed on 30 June 2014. No payments can be made to local governments until this bill has passed, although we have committed $2.1 billion over the next five years to the program, including a doubling of funding to each and every council in the 2015-16 financial year. That is what is at stake with this legislation.
The current nation building act, established by the former minister, Mr Anthony Albanese, made no provision for the Roads to Recovery program to continue beyond 30 June. The shadow spokesperson for infrastructure claims to be committed to local government and to this program, but he has failed local government by failing to provide for this vital program to continue on his watch. Without the passage of this bill, local councils stand to lose the $2.1 billion that I referred to in funding for this vital Roads to Recovery program.
The opposition spared no time in criticising the government's decision to pause the indexation of Financial Assistance Grants to local government for three years to help bring the budget back to surplus. This was a decision not taken lightly by the government. It is no secret that everyone is contributing to fix the economic mess left by the previous, Labor government. Australia's debt is already costing us billions of dollars in interest payments. This year alone, we are paying $12 billion in interest costs. Wouldn't it be nice if this could go to local councils as more funding through Financial Assistance Grants or to the Roads to Recovery program? But it cannot—a lost opportunity because of the reckless mismanagement by those opposite.
Labor failed to come clean with councils about their own agenda to block the flow of the $2.1 billion that I mentioned to local councils for the upkeep of their local roads—money that local councils completely rely upon. If the opposition were serious about local council funding, they would not have voted against this bill in the House of Representatives. I say that again for the benefit of those listening to us: if Labor were serious and honest with the Australian public, they would not have voted against the bill in the House of Representatives, which is what they did.
During the winter recess we saw Labor claim that this program has been held up by the government's actions. But both Labor and their allies the Greens are yet to support the bill. In fact, as I have said, they voted against it in the House of Representatives yet were unable to point to one single element of the bill that, in their view, was unacceptable. It was just plain old deliberate obstructionism. They were playing politics—and they continue to do so.
The primary intent of the Land Transport Infrastructure Amendment Bill 2014 is to continue the Roads to Recovery program—which Mr Albanese failed to provide for when he was the minister, creating an expiration date of 30 June 2014. That is why we are in the problem we are in. Mr Albanese proposes a private member's bill to fix the problem. Let us not forget that the shadow spokesperson is on record as saying legislation is not needed for the program. This private member's bill, which the government has not yet seen or been consulted on, is a media stunt to respond to the outrage expressed by local councils right across Australia. Again, this is clear evidence that the Labor Party are just plain playing politics. We know it is a media stunt because Mr Albanese attempted to suspend standing orders in the House on Tuesday to introduce a bill but actually had no paperwork to back it up. The Australian public, local councils and this Senate chamber have now seen exactly what he stands for—legislation by media release and nothing more. He made Labor vote against the bill in the House, and local councils around Australia were understandably outraged. The only way the Labor Party and the shadow minister can save any face is to talk of introducing his own legislation to save the program. If he now accepts that legislation is necessary, he should quit the theatrics and the politicking and support the government's legislation.
Labor has also been claiming that the bill contains amendments that are unacceptable to the opposition. Yet the main purpose of the bill is to continue the Roads to Recovery program—the bill that they themselves voted against in the House without being able to point to one single clause, paragraph or enactment of a bill that is now described as unacceptable. The bill also changes the name of the act to remove the politicisation of the Infrastructure Investment Program from within the act. Mr Albanese seems desperate to preserve his legacy and is playing a childish tactic of attempting to ensure that the name 'Nation Building Program', which he gave to this act, is retained. What he is doing right now, with roads running into disrepair, is the complete opposite of what he wants to call the bill.
The government has also included a few other minor amendments in the bill to reduce duplication, to streamline the operation of the act and to reduce red tape consistent with our red tape reduction agenda. The amendments proposed by the opposition in the Senate, which the government deems unacceptable, include wanting to enshrine the name of the Heavy Vehicle Safety and Productivity Program in the act. These projects are already funded under the act and budgeted for and, as such, including a new separate part is a completely unnecessary duplication. Mr Albanese has briefed the crossbench that, unless the heavy vehicle program is named specifically in legislation, it will not continue. Let's be clear, this government is committed to that program and is spending more on the heavy vehicle program than Labor ever did. The budget papers clearly demonstrate this. Mr Albanese himself did not find it necessary to make significant amendments when he corrected the Heavy Vehicle Safety and Productivity Program. He did one minor thing at that time. He only changed the definition of 'road' in legislation because that is all that was needed to establish the program. So why is he now proposing eight pages of amendments just on the Heavy Vehicle Safety and Productivity Program?
Labor and the Greens also want to complicate and inappropriately create an additional role for Infrastructure Australia in this bill when in fact this act has nothing to do with the administrative arrangements of Infrastructure Australia. This clearly makes no sense. If Labor was serious about looking after local councils and cutting red tape, it would simply pass the bill unamended. I ask Labor to point to just one aspect of the bill that is unacceptable. This is a simple piece of legislation. It is a very simple bill to extend the Roads to Recovery program and to fund our local government authorities for that purpose—to change the name of the bill and to tidy up other aspects of the act consistent with the government's red tape reduction agenda. That is all that it does.
It is true that we were forced to withdraw the legislation from the Senate in the final sitting of parliament before the winter recess because it was clear that it would not have passed without major unacceptable amendments proposed by Labor and their allies the Greens. Many of the proposed amendments are unacceptable to the coalition as they are either not directly relevant to the bill or will add needless bureaucracy and red tape to the operation of programs for local councils.
Today we are hopeful that Labor and Greens senators will do the right thing by local councils and the right thing by the communities within those councils. As a government we will continue to stand up for local communities rather than playing petty games which affect the everyday lives of commuters, particularly on roads in regional Australia. The bill reinserts a power for the minister to determine the Roads to Recovery list, which is essential for the program to be able to function. This power was removed from the act when it was amended in 2009 by the previous Labor government. Clearly, the opposition had little tolerance for the Roads to Recovery program.
The bill renames the act to the National Land Transport Act 2014, removing the link between the name of the act and the name of the Land Transport Infrastructure Funding Program. This means that when a funding program ends or its name changes in the future there will no longer be a need to amend the legislation and it will therefore be a reduction in the administrative burden. This removes the politics from the act. The opposition has claimed the bill was entirely about removing the nation-building branding of the former government and nothing more. This government is about substance and certainly not slogans. The bill is needed to extend the Roads to Recovery Act and that is what we are trying to do with this quite simple and straightforward piece of legislation.
I urge the crossbenchers to think very carefully about the way they will vote on the amendments particularly. You can vote to continue the Roads to Recovery program, which I trust that you will do, by rejecting the amendments proposed by Labor and the Greens. Local government will certainly thank you for that. The government will thank you for that. We will not have to see the unnecessary toing and froing of the bill and we will guarantee the much needed funding flowing expeditiously to local governments so they can manage their roads properly and safely. Alternatively, you could vote to support the various amendments by the Labor Party and the Greens, but you will be alone in doing so and will contribute to the uncertainty that now confronts local governments and local authorities as to where they are going to get their funding to do the road maintenance that their communities so desperately need.
Let me be very clear. As I have said, this is a very simple piece of legislation. It is a very simple bill to extend the Roads to Recovery program, to change the name of the legislation, and to tidy up some small and other aspects of the act consistent with our red-tape reduction agenda, and that is all it does. Why is that so offensive? Why has that become so controversial? This bill simply amends the act which was in place under Mr Albanese. Mr Albanese did not see it necessary to add a separate section on heavy vehicle projects. Mr Albanese did not have a so-called transparency clause that makes the minister direct Infrastructure Australia and his department, but then Mr Albanese did not have a transparent Infrastructure Australia either, and he funded many, many projects that came nowhere near Infrastructure Australia's priority list and ignored others on that priority list. Mr Albanese says that the government has no new projects. If the government has no new projects, why does he now insist on Infrastructure Australia assessing all the projects he previously committed to? Is he doubting whether he chose projects that do not demonstrate value for money?
The two major areas where Labor and the Greens will seek to add to the bill are in relation to Infrastructure Australia's functions and in relation to the Heavy Vehicle Safety and Productivity Program. I want to be very clear: the Australian government stand by their promise to ensure infrastructure projects over $100 million are assessed by Infrastructure Australia, and Infrastructure Australia will publish its justification for recommending projects for government funding. We will be introducing amendments in the house that specifically deal with this, and I am on the record to say precisely that. There is no need to delay funding to local councils for Roads to Recovery by attempting to create additional roles for Infrastructure Australia in this bill. They should be in the Infrastructure Australia Act where, of course, we all know they belong.
We are also committed to heavy vehicle safety. We agree that the program, the Heavy Vehicle Safety and Productivity Program created by the Labor Party, is an important and successful program for heavy vehicle safety. In fact, we were so impressed with their program that we are extending it and providing more money for it than they ever, in fact, did. The coalition government are also helping those in the heavy vehicle sector by providing an enormous program of works, the largest infrastructure program ever to ensure safer roads for use by heavy vehicles and those that share the roads with them. Let me list a small sample of other initiatives that the government are pursuing to improve heavy vehicle safety. Firstly, a review of the National Heavy Vehicle Accreditation Scheme and of heavy vehicle inspection regimes. Secondly, mandatory load proportioning or anti-lock braking systems for all model prime movers. Thirdly, state, territory and Commonwealth governments are working collaboratively with industry to determine research and trials for the next generation of braking control systems.
In relation to heavy vehicle safety, may I take this opportunity to acknowledge the efforts of Senator Ricky Muir who over recent weeks has been instrumental in seeking continued government support for the Heavy Vehicle Safety and Productivity Program. I pause to congratulate him on that very important contribution. My home state of Western Australia with B-doubles and very heavy vehicles certainly appreciates that input. It is a measure of the importance of this program for the Australian community that it attracts support from others in this chamber, and it is refreshing to talk to senators in this chamber who are willing to work constructively to secure clear and positive outcomes that benefit all Australians. Senator Muir, well done.
In summary, the bill streamlines and enhances the operation of the act to the benefit of states, territories and the Commonwealth by removing unnecessary duplication. It provides clarity with one set of funding conditions and approval processes for the majority of projects funded under the act. The bill also assists the government's deregulation agenda by repealing three spent land transport infrastructure acts. There are no regulatory or financial impacts on businesses, or on the not-for-profit sector, from the amendments to the Nation Building Program (National Land Transport) Act 2009, or from the repeal of the spent legislation. The bill is compatible with human rights as it does not raise any human rights issues.
The bill was referred to the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee for inquiry on 6 March 2014. The committee's report, which came down on 24 March, supported the legislation in its current form. So, let's talk no more of seeking to divert the parliament's course of providing strong funding for local governments and actually delivering on that funding. We have suspended private member's business today, not lightly, but with due consideration to the fact that local councils are desperately needing this money.
I commend the bill to the house. I commend this bill to all senators, and I urge you to think about those communities that need the support of their councils and their councils' funding to deal with this roads issue. I thank the Senate.