Senate debates

Wednesday, 23 November 2022

Bills

High Speed Rail Authority Bill 2022; In Committee

6:08 pm

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I move opposition amendments (1) to (5) on sheet 1679 together:

(1) Clause 8, page 6 (line 22), after "relevant parties", insert "(including extensive consultation with local communities)".

(2) Clause 8, page 7 (after line 17), after subclause (1), insert:

(1A) In performing the functions mentioned in paragraph (1)(a), the Authority must:

(a) arrange for the Productivity Commission and Infrastructure Australia to:

(i) undertake economic assessments and cost benefit analyses; and

(ii) give the Authority a written report of each assessment and analysis; and

(b) publish a copy of each of those reports on the Authority's website within 14 days after the report is given to the Authority.

(3) Clause 16, page 11 (after line 15), at the end of the clause, add:

(5) The Minister must ensure that at least one Board member is a person who is from rural or regional Australia.

(4) Clause 47, page 24 (line 5), after "plan,", insert "the requirement to give progress reports,".

(5) Page 24 (after line 15), after clause 48, insert:

48A Progress reports

(1) After the end of each progress report period, the Board must prepare a report on the performance of the Authority's functions, including the progress of:

(a) the policy development and planning mentioned in paragraph 8(1)(a); and

(b) the construction or extension of a railway mentioned in paragraph 8(1)(b) or (c).

(2) The Board must cause a copy of the report to be tabled in each House of the Parliament within 15 sitting days of that House after the end of the progress report period.

(3) For the purposes of this section, progress report period means:

(a) the period of 6 months starting on the day this section commences; and

(b) each subsequent 6-month period.

Note: This section applies in addition to section 39 of the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013 (which deals with annual performance statements for Commonwealth entities).

I've moved these amendments with great pride. Whilst I note the Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Transport's speech during the second reading debate and thank her for the gracious way she and the government have listened to the contributions of senators on this bill and recognised our particular concerns with the bill and obviously some of the things we like about the bill, I'm concerned about her dismissal and assumption that those from rural and regional Australia don't have the requisite merit, experience or, might I say, intelligence to actually serve on the board of an authority such as this.

Minister, I completely reject the fact that the National Party is seeking to insert quotas, per se, onto the membership of this board. It is absolutely not our public policy to support quotas. We seek merit based appointments always, but we probably cast the net a little wider than the Labor Party would traditionally in what meritorious appointments might look like. We have learnt by hard experience that without someone around the table who has the lived experience of working, living, growing up and seeing a positive future for rural and regional communities then that perspective is often not taken into account. Given that the Labor Party's specific focus for this authority is in regional New South Wales then I would suggest that it would actually help the authority to do very good work on behalf of the government to have somebody from rural and regional Australia around the table.

Similarly, I'm incredibly disappointed that the government won't be supporting our very sound and sensible amendment—particularly, again, when it comes to ensuring that the authority will consult with local communities. Despite your attempts at cheap political points, Assistant Minister, with respect to previous governments and consultation, no-one gets a gold star when it comes to consulting adequately with rural and regional communities. We can always do things better. I would hope that in my time in this place—and, Minister, you've been in this place for quite a while as well—processes have improved over time. That should be the case particularly in this portfolio area, because the minister who announces the project is very rarely the minister who cuts the ribbon on the project. These are long-term commitments and it's very often the case in this pipeline of infrastructure build for our country that the current government accepts and commits to continue projects of the previous government. That's because the level of planning and design, the tender process and the arrangements which have to be set up with local and state governments are long and arduous. They're negotiated outcomes which often take a lot of time, and a lot of effort and money are put into them. So respect for previous decisions needs to underpin this.

The other aspects of our amendments that I'd like to go to actually increase accountability and transparency, something this government made a big song and dance about in coming to power. And yet when we put sensible amendments in front of them, when the Greens put sensible amendments in front of them and when Senator Pocock puts sensible amendments in front of them to increase the transparency, accountability and reporting mechanisms—not just for the Senate but, indeed, for the Australian taxpayer—around these arrangements those guys think they have it all sorted out. Well, it turns out that they don't. The Suburban Rail Loop in Melbourne is a classic case in point, where those opposite have turned their backs absolutely on their own stated objectives—that they would only fund projects that use the Infrastructure Australia methodology. Within five months they have broken their own promise to themselves, let alone their promise to the Australian people. Far be it from me, in opposition, to be the only one in this chamber suggesting that they might need a little help with increasing transparency and accountability in these spaces; other political parties and other senators want to assist them to be their best selves within government. I think that's a good thing and not a bad thing.

I have described our amendments, but I also have some questions which I would like the minister to answer. In my speech in the second reading debate I actually went to the explanatory memorandum for this bill, where it explains that this bill will have no financial impact on the budget bottom line. Can you confirm the explanatory memorandum's statement to that effect?

6:14 pm

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Transport) Share this | | Hansard source

First of all, I do wish to deal with your comments around the government's view of community members. Of course, I reject your remarks absolutely. I take them as political pointscoring by the opposition. They couldn't be further from the truth.

I will go through the five amendments that you have put forward. I just want to step through the reasons that the government will not be supporting these amendments, and then I'll go to the question that you've placed before me.

As to your first amendment: we, in the government, believe that this is an unnecessary amendment. The legislation already states that the authority will be consulting, liaising and negotiating with states and territories and other relevant parties, and it is inherent that the community will be a core part of the work of the High Speed Rail Authority.

I'll go now to amendment (2). Infrastructure Australia already evaluates business cases for transport infrastructure projects with an Australian government funding contribution of $250 million or more. In addition, business case evaluation reports are publicly released by Infrastructure Australia.

I'll move on to amendment (3). Again, the government will be opposing this amendment. The board will consist of five members, who will be appointed based on the appropriate skills mix. And it may well be, Senator McKenzie, that the board members will have experience in regional Australia or be from regional Australia, but the prime view of the government is that they have to have the appropriate set of skills to be on the board.

Amendment (4) we will be opposing. Information on the progress of the High Speed Rail Authority will be publicly available via its annual report and corporation plan.

And your last amendment, amendment (5), we will also be opposing, as information on the progress, as I said, of the High Speed Rail Authority will be publicly available through its annual report and the corporate plan.

Now, on the other question that you put to me, I will just take some advice.

So, going to your question, the cost of establishing the High Speed Rail Authority will be offset by existing funding set aside for the National Faster Rail Agency.

6:18 pm

Ross Cadell (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

With high speed rail, the first $500 million investment was for going from Sydney to my neck of the woods in the Hunter. Is there a break-up of that $500 million between planning and acquisition of line range?

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Transport) Share this | | Hansard source

That information isn't available. That's what the authority will be in place to do. It will be their job to ensure that progress will be made, and the immediate priority of any updated analysis will be their first priority of work.

6:19 pm

Ross Cadell (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Minister, do we have a timetable for when that break-up might be available—as in, 12 months or 24 months? Do we know when that work will be done?

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Transport) Share this | | Hansard source

As I've said, once the authority is established, work will begin on the planning and the overseeing of the construction of a reliable, safe and efficient high speed rail network. As soon as we can get this bill in place and the authority is established, the sooner the better as this is going to be a huge opportunity for Australia. And I know that the opposition is supportive of the bill and the opportunities that high-speed rail will bring..

Ross Cadell (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It now takes longer to go from Broadmeadows station in the Hunter to Sydney than it did in the 1950s on the Newcastle Flyer. If we haven't got a timetable for when the planning will be finished, do we have a timetable for when the line may be finished? Even a decade would do.

6:20 pm

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Transport) Share this | | Hansard source

No, I can't give you that information here today.

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development) Share this | | Hansard source

Minister, following up on Senator Cadell's questions, in the budget you've put down half a billion dollars for this agency. You can't tell us when it's starting, you can't tell us if it will even be laying a track in the next decade, and yet your government put $2.2 billion on the table in the budget for an uncosted project for Daniel Andrews who is heading to the polls on Saturday. When will that project be laying a track in Victoria for the $2.2 billion that you've committed to rail in your budget?

Photo of Jess WalshJess Walsh (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator McKenzie, before I give the call to the minister, I'd ask you to use the Premier's appropriate title, if this is a line you wish to pursue.

6:21 pm

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development) Share this | | Hansard source

I'll use the title that we don't use in Victoria: Premier Andrews.

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Transport) Share this | | Hansard source

First of all the government has committed $500 million for corridor acquisition, has committed $500 million to securing the Sydney to Newcastle corridor for the high-speed rail network is the key first stage. I think everyone knows what the $500 million is seeking to do. That funding includes funding to start corridor acquisitions, planning and early works and includes working closely with the New South Wales government. The High Speed Rail Authority will work collaboratively with the Australian government and the New South Wales government to determine the best way to deliver this project. Before allocating the funding the government will consider advice from the authority. That is the situation, and it's not unusual. I think I've been very clear. The bill is a very simple bill. It is also very clear, and I commend the bill to the Senate.

6:22 pm

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development) Share this | | Hansard source

In the explanatory memorandum it said that the bill will have no financial impact as any impacts will be offset. The budget actually says that there will be a cost. There has been a cost to the budget to the tune of $18 million. Can you confirm where the $18 million was offset from? What projects were cut to find the $18 million?

6:23 pm

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Transport) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm getting some advice and will get back to you.

Photo of Perin DaveyPerin Davey (NSW, National Party, Shadow Minister for Water) Share this | | Hansard source

I have a follow-up question to your previous answer. In response to Senator McKenzie's question about the $500 million, you said that the $500 million is to get the corridor for Sydney to Newcastle—correct me if I'm wrong—and you mentioned acquisitions. However, when I was before Senate estimates and I put the question to Mr Hallinan from the department, he specifically said that the $500 million was for setting up the agency and commencing preparation for corridors. When pressed he implied that there would be no acquisitions undertaken under the first stage because it would be the commencement of conversations and negotiations. Can you clarify, if Mr Hallinan was wrong, what portion of the $500 million is being set aside for corridor acquisitions? Or is that $500 million to fund the new agency, the new bureaucracy, to start work on conversations that have already started?

6:25 pm

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Transport) Share this | | Hansard source

The $500 million is not about establishing the authority. I stand by the answer I gave to Senator Cadell's question earlier, which is—and I'm happy to repeat it—that the Australian government has committed $500 million to securing the Sydney-to-Newcastle corridor of the high-speed rail network as a key first stage. This includes funding to start corridor acquisition, planning and early work and includes working closely with the New South Wales government. The High Speed Rail Authority will work collaboratively with the Australian government and the New South Wales government to determine the best way to deliver the project. Before allocating funding, the government will consider advice from the authority.

Photo of Perin DaveyPerin Davey (NSW, National Party, Shadow Minister for Water) Share this | | Hansard source

So Mr Hallinan got it wrong—is that what I'm hearing? He did say it was for setting up the agency, and you have now twice said it is for securing corridor acquisition. I am happy to put a written question back to the department to seek clarification from them, but I seem to be experiencing quite regularly where the departments are saying one thing and the government is saying another thing. I'm just wondering when we are all going to be singing off the same hymn sheet.

6:26 pm

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Transport) Share this | | Hansard source

It'll be pretty shortly, I think. My understanding is that the department have clarified their response.

Photo of Perin DaveyPerin Davey (NSW, National Party, Shadow Minister for Water) Share this | | Hansard source

This is a final question from me and then I will sit down and listen. With regard to the establishment of the High Speed Rail Authority and the disbandment of the National Faster Rail Agency, are you able to advise whether those staff were transferred over? Is that why there hasn't been a budget impact, as per your explanatory memorandum? The explanatory memorandum says there's no budget impact and any costs will be met through savings. So I'm wondering if the disbanding of the National Faster Rail Agency is one of those cost savings. What's happened to those staff? Are they being transferred to the new authority or are they being settled elsewhere?

6:28 pm

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Transport) Share this | | Hansard source

To answer your question, the agency is still in existence and transitional arrangements are still being undertaken. The National Faster Rail Agency will cease as an executive agency, with its functions being absorbed by the authority.

Photo of Malcolm RobertsMalcolm Roberts (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator McKenzie's comments about shifting money from other regions, especially rural regions, down to Victoria to help current Premier Dan Andrews in a difficult election reminded me of the Rockhampton ring-road, which is urgently needed and to which $700 million to $800 million had been committed. Land had been purchased. Families had moved into Rockhampton to start work. Companies locally had bought construction equipment. It was cancelled—just like that—to send money to help shore up the corrupt regime of Premier Dan Andrews.

Does the government realise that shifting these things for electoral gain, that may occur in the Hunter due to a proposed way-off high-speed rail connection, costs money and lives in other regions—particularly, in my concern here, in Central Queensland with the Rockhampton ring-road being shelved? What is the government doing to protect the people who have already made a commitment with their lives to this ring-road?

6:30 pm

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Transport) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Senator Roberts, but we are here speaking about the High Speed Rail Authority Bill 2022. If you want to come along to estimates and ask questions around the Rockhampton ring-road, that question—

Yes, there you are. We have a spillover on Friday, and I think we have a spillover the following Friday, so there's plenty of time, Senator Roberts, to come and ask those questions. We did go through, prosecuted by Senator McKenzie and Senator Canavan, the Rockhampton ring-road during the last session of estimates. But you're more than happy to come along, I'm sure, to ask those questions.

6:31 pm

Photo of Malcolm RobertsMalcolm Roberts (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I will ask one final question of the minister. Once I set the context for the Rockhampton ring-road, my question really boiled down to: is the government aware that when it rips money out of the regions and sends it to another area for electoral gain that that is a cost to the regions and it hurts and sometimes kills people?

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Transport) Share this | | Hansard source

I have to reject the whole premise of your question. The Commonwealth is working with the Queensland government on how to commence early works on the Rockhampton ring-road project, as you probably are aware, but I completely reject the whole premise of the question you just put.

6:32 pm

Photo of David PocockDavid Pocock (ACT, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Minister, for your comments earlier on the bill. I note that you pointed out concerns about the way the coalition have appointed people to boards. I would like to note that there was nothing to rectify that in this legislation to set up the High Speed Rail Authority. There was no transparent framework to do that. I thank the government for their support of my amendments to do that, to ensure that Australians know that the people on the board and running the High Speed Rail Authority have the right skills, represent different areas of the country and will do the job there.

Given that there would be hundreds of people appointed to boards by the government, I'm interested to hear from the government if it is committed to reviewing those appointments to ensure that there is a transparent process in all of these authorities and for these boards.

6:33 pm

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Transport) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Senator Pocock. I'll just seek some advice. While I'm getting specific advice, I'm not sure if you were in the chamber when I made it clear that we were supporting the three amendments that you are opposing. They go to selection for appointment and disclosure of interests. As I've already said, the appointments to this board will be on the basis of relevant qualifications, knowledge, skills and/or experience—so it's merit-based. I can't speak about the situation regarding other boards, board members and appointments other than what we have here before us today.

6:35 pm

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development) Share this | | Hansard source

McKENZIE (—) (): I have one more question, Temporary Chair McGrath, and then I will seek your guidance, because I know that Senator Pocock has amendments he would like to move but we're in a period of no divisions, which makes it all a bit iffy.

Assistant Minister, I'd like to know about the $18 million which isn't mentioned in the explanatory memorandum but which appeared in the budget as being offset out of the Infrastructure portfolio. What projects have been cut to offset the $18 million?

6:36 pm

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Transport) Share this | | Hansard source

No projects were cut to fund the authority's establishment. As I understand it—and I'm happy to be corrected—part of that $18 million was money already allocated to the National Faster Rail Agency. That was $10 million, Senator McKenzie—just anticipating what you might ask me next—and the remainder was from the department.

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development) Share this | | Hansard source

I just want to clarify this: on the advice you've been given, the offset has come from the department and from the Faster Rail Agency?

6:37 pm

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Transport) Share this | | Hansard source

Yes.

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development) Share this | | Hansard source

Where will the staff be located for this authority? Will they be Canberra based?

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Transport) Share this | | Hansard source

At this early stage, those are the decisions still yet to be made.

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development) Share this | | Hansard source

On behalf of Senator Cadell, who has had to leave at this stage of the debate, I'll say that he will put in a request about this, given that the authority's work will be between Sydney and his hometown of Newcastle. It would show great faith in the government's apparent newfound belief in rural and regional Australia if those jobs could be located in the Hunter.

Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party, Shadow Assistant Minister to the Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

The question before the chair is that amendments (1) to (5) on sheet 1679 be agreed to. A division has been called but it won't be held now, it will be put off until tomorrow.

6:39 pm

Photo of David PocockDavid Pocock (ACT, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I move amendments (1) to (3) on sheet 1750:

(1) Clause 16, page 11 (lines 13 to 15), omit subclause (4), substitute:

(4) A person must not be appointed as a Board Member unless the Minister is satisfied that:

(a) the person has appropriate qualifications, knowledge, skills or experience; and

(b) the selection of the person for the appointment is the result of a process that:

(i) was merit--based; and

(ii) included public advertising of the position.

(5) Paragraph (4)(b) does not prevent the Minister:

(a) taking affirmative action in relation to the appointment of women to positions; or

(b) taking into consideration appropriate representation among the States, Territories and local government areas in relation to appointments to positions.

(6) Paragraph (4)(b) does not apply in relation to the reappointment of a person who, immediately before the start of the period of reappointment, holds office as a Board Member under a previous appointment under subsection (1).

(2) Page 13 (after line 19), after clause 22, insert:

22A Disclosure of interests

(1) A disclosure by a Board Member under section 29 of the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013 (which deals with the duty to disclose interests) must be made to the Minister.

(2) Subsection (1) applies in addition to any rules made for the purposes of that section.

(3) For the purposes of this Act and the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013, the Board member is taken not to have complied with section 29 of that Act if the Board member does not comply with subsection (1) of this section.

(3) Clause 36, page 20 (after line 4), at the end of the clause, add:

(5) A person must not be appointed as the CEO unless the Board is satisfied that:

(a) the person has appropriate qualifications, knowledge, skills or experience; and

(b) the selection of the person for the appointment is the result of a process that:

(i) was merit--based; and

(ii) included public advertising of the position.

(6) Paragraph (5)(b) does not prevent the Board:

(a) taking affirmative action in relation to the appointment of women to the position; or

(b) taking into consideration appropriate representation among the States, Territories and local government areas in relation to an appointment to the position.

(7) Paragraph (5)(b) does not apply in relation to the reappointment of a person who, immediately before the start of the period of reappointment, holds office as the CEO under a previous appointment under subsection (1).

6:40 pm

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Transport) Share this | | Hansard source

For the record, the government will be supporting these three amendments. Amendment (1) goes to the selection for appointment. These amendments relate to ensuring that the appointments to the board of the High Speed Rail Authority are a result of a merit based process, which, of course, they will be. The minister has already made clear in the other place that the board of the High Speed Rail Authority has to be a skills based board, and it is absolutely the determination of the government to appoint people based on merit.

Amendment (2) goes to disclosure of interest. The government supports these amendments concerning the disclosure of interests of board members to the minister in accordance with the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013. We also support amendment (3). These amendments relate to ensuring that the position of the CEO of the High Speed Rail Authority is the result of a merit based process.

6:41 pm

Photo of Janet RiceJanet Rice (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I note that the Greens will also be supporting these amendments.

Photo of David PocockDavid Pocock (ACT, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I'd thank Minister King and her office for the way in which they engaged with me on this piece of legislation. I appreciate their commitment to ensuring that all appointments are merit based. Clearly, this is something that is expected by the communities that we come from. Australians want to have peace of mind that the people who get into influential positions are getting there not because of who they know but because they have the right skills and leadership ability to make a difference in those positions.

This is clearly a problem that we are grappling with in politics. A recent report by the Grattan Institute found that, across all federal government appointees, seven per cent had a direct political connection. That figure rose to 21 per cent amongst positions that were considered well paid, prestigious and powerful. This is something that my community is telling me they want to end. I welcome the government's commitment to that, and I really look forward, over this next parliament, to ensuring that all boards have a very clear, transparent process for appointments so that the public can see that we are advertising, that people can have input and that we get the right people for the job.

We also need a range of experiences in something like high-speed rail. I think it's really important that people from a regional and rural background can have input. We also need more women in positions of leadership when it comes to the High Speed Rail Authority. A quick glance at the National Women in Transport website shows at least 36 women who are currently leading infrastructure organisations or the infrastructure and transport arms of multinationals operating in Australia. The talent is there, and I look forward to seeing who is appointed. I'm sure they will do well leading this authority, which is a really important authority for us. It's going to be a huge challenge, but, looking at the future of Australia, it is something that most Australians want to see happen at some point—sooner rather than later.

Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party, Shadow Assistant Minister to the Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that amendments (1), (2) and (3) on sheet 1750, moved by Senator David Pocock, be agreed to.

Question agreed to.

The TEMPORARY CHAIR: We won't be able to go further with this bill at this point because of the deferred division.

Progress reported.

Ordered that the committee have leave to sit again on the next day of sitting.