Senate debates

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Answers to Questions on Notice

Question Nos 2630, 2631 and 2632

3:01 pm

Photo of Scott LudlamScott Ludlam (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Pursuant to standing order 74(5), I ask the Minister representing the Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development for an explanation as to why answers have not yet been provided to questions on notice 2630, 2631 and 2632. It has been more than 60 days since I put these questions on notice. They were submitted on 20 November 2015. I understand that it has been the holiday break, and I hope that those responsible for answering these questions were given a break. But, nonetheless, it has been two months since the submission of these questions and there has been nothing in response. I understand some notice has been provided to the minister representing the minister, and I would like some answers on these matters.

3:02 pm

Photo of Richard ColbeckRichard Colbeck (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Minister for Tourism and International Education) Share this | | Hansard source

The notice that Senator Ludlam is talking about has not been given to me, unfortunately. I will undertake, though, to see what I can find out and come back to the senator as quickly as possible.

Photo of Scott LudlamScott Ludlam (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I do not propose to detain the chamber for long on these matters. Notice was certainly provided to—

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Ludlam, you need to move a motion.

Photo of Scott LudlamScott Ludlam (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the minister's response.

I acknowledge the minister's response, sketchy though it might have been. I recognise that Senator Colbeck is in a representative capacity. I think it is a shame that the department did not see fit to provide him with the brief.

The questions that I have put on notice relate to the documentation provided to the federal government—or not, as the case may be—by the Western Australian government on the Perth Freight Link. I think it is appropriate that this issue is raised in the first sitting week of parliament for 2016 because this is going to be a very big issue. It could be put to bed very rapidly, either at a state level or at a Commonwealth level, or it could explode into a federal and then state election issue in Western Australia.

The fact of the matter is that I have never seen greater incompetence in an infrastructure funding decision at a state level than that which has attended the proposed Perth Freight Link in Western Australia. In case senators from outside Western Australia are not aware of what I am talking about, there is a proposal for four or, by some accounts, six lanes of tarmac through the Beeliar Regional Park and the Beeliar Wetlands that would flatten an area of wetlands that is a very important cultural place for the Aboriginal people of the region and has been for tens of thousands of years. It then proposes to smash through just under 100 hectares of urban bushland—almost pristine and intact banksia woodland.

This is a freeway project that was put in the planning scheme in Western Australia in 1955. Those lines that were marked on a map in the mid-1950s in the Stephenson-Hepburn plan are still being used as an excuse in the early 21st century for why we should be hammering this urban bushland and wetland. It is a proposal that has put neighbourhood amenities at risk in Bibra Lake, North Lake and Palmyra. It is a road to nowhere. I have never seen greater incompetence in a proposal for a publicly funded infrastructure project than what has been pursued by Premier Barnett and transport minister Dean Nalder, who, quite frankly, should have been sacked months ago over this debacle and the stress that it has put people through.

The EPA approval was knocked over late last year in the Western Australian Supreme Court. That was a rare judgement, but it was a strident judgement in condemnation of the EPA's conduct over this issue. The Commonwealth, as I said, has a remedy very easily at hand. The Commonwealth can tell Premier Barnett—it could do it this afternoon with a phone call by Senator Mathias Cormann—that there will not be a dollar of Commonwealth taxpayers' money going to this project. It has been hammered in the state Supreme Court. It is under attack in the Federal Court. It is politically massively unpopular. There is an extraordinarily powerful mobilisation of community groups, environmental campaigners, Aboriginal elders and families. This project will not be going ahead. If the federal government wants to save itself and the hapless Premier Barnett a world of misery through this forthcoming election campaign, it simply needs to turn off the funding tap.

I will turn very briefly to the three pages of questions. I am not going to go through them in any kind of detail. I hope that Senator Colbeck is able to update the chamber either later today or tomorrow. Three different numbers emerged from the cost-benefit analysis that was submitted by the Western Australian government in a rather feeble attempt to justify the project. Nobody outside the bureaucrats who crafted it or the consultants that they had put it together has ever seen the workings or the assumptions that resulted in these imaginary numbers. So we are seeking some information to be put into the public domain as to how the Barnett government came up with some of these imaginary numbers.

Can you imagine a project that proposes a four-fold increase in truck traffic onto local roads out the back of Fremantle; increased carcinogenic air pollution and reduced neighbourhood amenity; the impact on liveability; the loss of 100 hectares of irreplaceable banksia woodland; the hammering of the Beeliar Wetlands; the loss of recreation and amenity? Somehow, these costs end up erased from the balance sheet, and the benefits end up being overinflated. One of the ways in which we believe they did it is that the department gives benefits a weighting of 80 per cent but costs a weighting of 20 per cent. So you have some imaginary numbers for benefits. Apparently the business case is meant to say that there are $70 million in carbon savings. This is a government populated by people who can barely bring themselves to acknowledge that global warming is even real, and yet they model $70 million in carbon savings by smashing a four-lane freeway through wetlands and bushland—and somehow these benefits end up on the benefits side of the equation for a project such as this.

I want to get an understanding, and the public—the people of metropolitan Perth and WA more broadly—want to get an idea of how the department modelled the costs for a project that barely even exists; for a project where the minister cannot decide from one minute to another whether he wants a freeway, once this atrocity hits the Stock Road interchange, or whether he wants a tunnel; how it is proposed to get into Fremantle; and when the Fremantle port might actually be at capacity and, then, leading to the need for overflow container capacity in Cockburn Sound. How do you model the costs for the cost side of the cost-benefit equation, when you do not even know what your project is? Yet the department comes forward with these very confident sounding gestures that the costs will be this, the benefits will be that, and therefore the project is worth building. It is based on imaginary numbers on a project that will not get built.

That is why we have put these very serious questions to the Commonwealth minister, because this is not just a problem for Western Australian taxpayers; this is $2 billion that cannot then be spent helping the people of the Hunter Valley adapt to climate change, or put into schools or put into further work on high-speed rail. The entire taxpaying public of Australia stand to lose billions of dollars through this debacle if Premier Barnett gets his way. Senator Cormann, Minister Truss, Prime Minister Turnbull—who professes, and I see it on the internet a fair bit, to be a fan of public transport—should be looking at genuine public transport options for Western Australia, at freight rail solutions and at a future-proof strategy to take the container pressure off Fremantle port.

The solutions are very well at hand. What we do not have are answers. What we do not have is transparency. This is going to be a very significant problem for the Liberal-National Party if they are seriously proposing to torch more than $2 billion on this road to nowhere in the middle of an election year. So I hope Senator Colbeck, on behalf of the responsible minister, is forthcoming with some answers, because, if he is not, this will not be the last time that this is raised in this place.

Question agreed to.