Senate debates

Wednesday, 23 November 2022


High Speed Rail Authority Bill 2022; Second Reading

11:39 am

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

I rise, on behalf of the opposition, to speak to the High Speed Rail Authority Bill 2022, which the opposition will be supporting. I will flag that during this contribution we will also be seeking to move amendments to this legislation.

The government's bill before the Senate today is to establish a high-speed rail authority as an independent body to advise on, plan and develop a high-speed rail system in Australia. It was passed by the House of Representatives with the same amendments that are before the Senate. The coalition support the bill but will move our amendments that will improve the accountability and transparency of the authority to ensure there is representation on the authority's board from rural and regional Australia.

As we roll out a raft of infrastructure projects across this great country, whether they be in road, rail, shipping or, indeed, airport infrastructure, it's very, very important that anybody who is charged with rolling out that infrastructure takes the time to consult with local communities. The types of towns and regional capitals that Senator Cadell and I represent as proud members of the National Party need to have a say in how these projects will impact on our communities, in how they will be beneficial to our communities and in what governments—local, state and federal—will do to mitigate some of the negative impacts as we roll that infrastructure out.

Obviously, the coalition, during our period in federal government, was a strong proponent of rail infrastructure throughout our country. We released a 20-year national faster rail plan in 2019 and at the 2022-23 budget in March committed a further $3.72 billion to deliver faster rail, bringing total commitments to faster rail projects to $6 billion.

The bill before us today doesn't provide the billions of dollars required to actually build faster or, indeed, fast rail track in our country—no. It's a bill to set up an authority to have some discussions and to plan out the trajectory of fast rail under the Labor Party. What we'd like to see is a continuation of our own commitment of in excess of $6 billion—real money on the table to actually build track to ensure we are moving not just people but goods right across our great country. We in this chamber know how important rail infrastructure will be to a low-emissions future, which we in the National Party and the Liberal Party are committed to.

In our March budget, prior to the election, we committed $1.6 billion for the Brisbane to Sunshine Coast extension, $1.12 billion for the Brisbane to Gold Coast rail upgrade and $1 billion for the Sydney to Newcastle upgrade. The New South Wales government also made a $500 million commitment to provide a quicker and more reliable connection between Sydney, the Central Coast and Newcastle. Coalition parties very much understand how critical it is to expand our rail network in partnership with state governments and to ensure that the best technology is being employed to ensure that not just those who live in capital cities get to access this fantastic mode of transport which is constantly changing.

I've had the benefit of travelling abroad and travelling on the Shinkansen, which really transformed what it means to put your population outside of capital cities. It's something we in the coalition very much believe in. One of the great tragedies of our country is our urbanised nature. Eighty per cent of our population live in three places, which is unheard of anywhere else around the globe. Those of us in the Liberal and National parties believe in spreading our population out. Thanks to COVID, so many more Australians chose to come out into the regions and experience not just a great way of life but high-paid, rewarding careers in 21st century industries. That was part of the coalition government's commitment, ensuring that the prosperity of this nation is shared right throughout our country and not just concentrated in the cities. So we're really keen to take a look at any moves to improve the rail network,

We remain committed to faster rail because of its benefits to improve services, stimulate regional growth and improve access to jobs, services, affordable housing and education. High-speed rail along the Australian east coast has been examined by both sides of politics since the 1980s. The most comprehensive analysis of the feasibility of high-speed rail in Australia was undertaken from 2010 to 2013. The cost in 2012 was estimated to be $114 billion. That equates to approximately $131 billion in 2020. There haven't been any more detailed costings since that time. The National Faster Rail Agency reviewed the high-speed rail policy and found that the 2012 cost is considered to be low, and current estimates are likely to be between $200 billion and $300 billion.

The major barriers to high-speed rail in Australia include the cost of construction. I note that the infrastructure minister and the Labor Party are using the high cost of construction in this country to delay and cut a lot of critical infrastructure projects, across the portfolio, and the 10-year pipeline that the coalition government put in place. This is of great concern to so many businesses and communities, right around the country. They thought the pipeline of projects that were going to be bid on and delivered, over the next decade, would be a lot more bipartisan than it seems to be, with the politicised efforts of the Labor Party thus far—and we don't need to go into the Suburban Rail Loop, in Melbourne, any more than we have recently in this chamber. There are long distances and we are sparsely populated. The distance between our major cities is also one of the barriers identified. Once operational, though, high-speed rail is expected to reduce carbon emissions relative to air travel, but it would increase carbon emissions in the construction phase, and construction would most likely take several decades.

Whilst they're the barriers, we want to touch on some of the issues in our amendments. We want Infrastructure Australia to undertake economic assessments and a cost-benefit analysis of this project. We want that, and we thought the Labor Party wanted it too. We took the Prime Minister at his word when he said that major projects under a government he led would go through an Infrastructure Australia methodology and process prior to approval and funding—unless they're the pet projects of Premier Daniel Andrews a couple of weeks out from a state election. You won't see any more politicisation of the infrastructure funding, under this government, than that decision in the October budget that didn't have to be made. We know that the funding isn't going to be flowing for that project until the 2024-25 financial year. They could have taken the time and put it through appropriate processes, like Infrastructure Australia, but they chose not to—because they would have lost the political opportunity that gave Daniel Andrews in a state election campaign. It's absolutely appalling.

The coalition wants to make sure that these projects do go through an Infrastructure Australia process. We do want to make sure they stack up. We do want to make sure that we increase the transparency on decision-making. You know what we also want to do? We want to make sure that this agency, when it looks at planning potential routes of fast rail, bothers to consult with local communities. That's something we have learnt. Unless you task these types of agencies to do that work, the bureaucrats in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra will get their maps out, they'll draw their lines, and it all looks tickety-boo—and nobody bothered to check with the locals. You know what ends up happening? You end up with a lot of angry people on the ground, and you end up having to have a lot of difficult conversations, too late in the process, about compulsory acquisitions. You might actually learn something that would facilitate better planning.

Our amendments will ensure that this agency consults with local communities. Our amendments will also ensure that one person in this agency—just one—is from rural and regional Australia, because that is where this agency will be looking at delivering these types of projects—the country. We talk a lot about identity in this place: who's got it and who hasn't, what types of identity they have and what types they don't have. One of the key parts of my identity is that I am from rural and regional Australia. There was a great song. I think it was from the 80s, but I could be wrong; it might have been earlier. I stand to be corrected, and I'd love some help on that if anyone's got Google handy. It said, 'You can take the girl out of the country, but you can never take the country out of the girl.' No matter if you're living in London, in Milan or in Beijing—if you grew up in country Australia, that stays with you your whole life. We would like that perspective—that view of the world—to be held by just one person in this agency that will be tasked with delivering these projects into these communities.

As a stark example of why there needs to be greater transparency on the bill, the original explanatory memorandum released before the vote in the other place said that the passing of this legislation would have no financial impact and that any financial impact would actually be offset. That was in the explanatory memorandum that all of us, as legislators and policy thinkers, use to inform ourselves about the government's offerings. Yet, in the budget in October, the cost of establishing the High Speed Rail Authority was revealed to be 18 million bucks. That's not zero. The Labor Party might think that 18 million bucks is a lazy accounting error and doesn't require mentioning in the explanatory memorandum—that it's actually 'no financial impact'. I could do a lot out in country Australia and across our communities with $18 million. I could build some childcare centres. I could actually fund some places for child care. The budget papers do not say how many years the $18 million will be spread over or if it's a one-year cost.

The government has not been transparent, even from day one of establishing the authority. It's not clear in the budget measure or in the explanatory memorandum how this cost is being offset. Have they cancelled another infrastructure project to pay for this? These are the sorts of questions I will be examining in the committee stage. This is, in and of itself, a breach of trust by the Labor Party, which likes to uphold itself as the custodian of accountability and transparency when nothing could be more wrong, as we've seen in the brief time they've held the Treasury benches thus far.

The new Labor government has pledged $500 million to the agency, which does not constitute a serious commitment to even the first stage of fast rail between Newcastle and Sydney. As I outlined, the former Liberal and National government put $6 billion of actual money into actual track—into projects that would actually deliver something out in the community—not half a billion dollars into talkfests. If the Labor Party were actually serious about delivering this project, rather than delivering Dan Andrews's $2.2 billion election commitment, they would have put billions of dollars towards that in this budget rather than putting $500 million towards setting up an agency.

The coalition amendments will also require interaction with the Productivity Commission for more transparency and accountability and for Infrastructure Australia. I look forward to the committee stage.

11:54 am

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

High-speed rail represents an incredible opportunity for Australia. We are the last continent that hasn't got high-speed rail—other than Antarctica. It's good to see that we may be moving away from the station, because there is a real threat that the penguins will get to high-speed rail before we do in Australia!

The Greens have been advocating for high-speed rail for a very long time, for a whole range of reasons. High-speed rail is critical to reducing emissions from air travel. High-speed rail will connect our regional centres with the capital cities. It will connect the capital cities—the big cities—with each other efficiently and allow us to have zero-carbon transport between those cities. It will also enable us to deal with the issue of unsustainable flight noise around airports in our big cities.

As I said, the Greens have been campaigning for high-speed rail for a very long time, so we are pleased to be supporting the High Speed Rail Authority Bill 2022, which will set up an authority to actually get those wheels turning and move us away from the station. At the 2010 federal election, we took policy commitments on east coast high-speed rail to the electorate as part of our vision for a 21st century transport system. Following that election, the Greens made support for high-speed rail a part of our minority government agreement with the Gillard government, and we secured $20 million for the feasibility study for high-speed rail. That wouldn't have happened except for the negotiations with the Gillard government in 2010. We know from that feasibility study that high-speed rail really does stack up for Australia. So it's been very frustrating to see that high-speed rail actually has been stopped at the station since then. We're very pleased to see action happening.

At the 2022 election, the last federal election, our platform had a policy of committing $17.7 billion over the next four years for the initial stages of high-speed rail development and construction. It's about actually spending the money and setting up the authority, yes, but it's then about committing to start spending the money. This is a critical investment in the future of Australia. It's the type of investment that we need to be making—that is going to have transformational impacts on the shape of east coast Australia.

The Labor government, in now setting up this authority and in their commitments to high-speed rail, have so far committed only half a billion dollars rather than our commitment of $17.7 billion. The 2010 feasibility study estimated that the cost of the overall project from Brisbane to Melbourne would be $114 billion, which is, in 2022 terms, $135 billion.

There's a real concern that this bill has no provision for ensuring that this project stays in public hands. This High Speed Rail Authority could end up overseeing developments that mean you've got a privatised system delivering it through public-private partnerships that put the interests of those private investors ahead of the public. With Labor at this stage committing only $500 million for a $130-plus billion project, our fear is that most of it in fact will be delivered through private financing operations that will undermine the project. Crucial infrastructure like this should remain fully publicly owned, from construction to service delivery. Partial or wholesale privatisation of high-speed rail will lead to chaotic and slowed project delivery, higher prices for passengers, downward pressure on rail workers' wages, and cost cutting and corner cutting on regulations on the environmental and social impact. And it will mean that the project is not necessarily being delivered in the best interests of good regional planning.

The last iteration of high-speed rail that we saw from the private sector, the CLARA development, which was all going to be paid for by property uplift, was a case in point of what can happen if you have a private sector approach to high-speed rail. That project—and I'm not sure where it's up to at the moment; I hope that it is now in the dustbin of high-speed rail history—was going to basically take rural land, turn that into the centres of those cities and pay for the development by the uplift in the value of that land. The big problem with that is that those centres were some 15 or 20 kilometres away from the major regional towns. So what would happen is that you would have this centre that, for example, was 20 kilometres away from Shepparton, which would end with complete devastation and downturn in the existing regional centres. You might have the private developers doing very well out of property development costs for the new regional centres, but how about the people who have successful businesses, and their whole town, that have been set up in the regional centres that are being bypassed?

We want to see high-speed rail that's publicly owned and developed in the public interest, that makes sure that the stations of those regional centres along the route are right in the heart of those regional cities. It becomes a very efficient way for people from Melbourne to get to Shepparton and Albury, and for people in the regional centres in New South Wales and Queensland to reach their capital cities. It will transform the decentralisation agenda, transform the development of those cities. It will mean the east coast of Australia will genuinely have those thriving, vibrant cities that are well connected with fast, efficient, zero carbon transport and which connect them with each other and the capital cities. It will be transformational. It's a wonderful vision. It relies upon making sure that this development occurs in the public interest, which is only going to be guaranteed by maintaining public ownership of high-speed rail.

Elizabeth Watson-Brown moved an amendment, in the House, calling on the government to ensure that the whole project remains entirely in public hands, that's delivered with green steel, as much as possible, to cut down on emissions in the construction phase and to ensure that local manufacturing is used. This amendment, and all three of those things, are incredibly important and would be really valuable additions to this bill. Unfortunately, they were voted down by both the government and the Liberal Party.

The cost of $130 billion sounds like a lot of money, but we can afford it. The yardstick of what we can afford—we have a government that is committed to implementing the Liberal government's policy of tax cuts to the very wealthy. Those stage 3 tax cuts will cost $250 billion over the next decade. Just imagine. You could have $250 billion of tax cuts, over the next decade, to the rich—to the billionaires, to people earning massive amounts of money, who wouldn't know what to do with an $11,000-a-year tax cut other than to have another flight to a holiday somewhere in Europe—or you could be delivering high-speed rail. It's $130 billion to deliver high-speed rail.

These are the choices that need to be made. I know where I would prefer to be spending my money. Rather than giving $250 billion in tax cuts to the very wealthy, I would prefer to see high-speed rail being built, thanks very much, and I think the majority of Australians would think the same. Our support for high-speed rail isn't just because we are gunzels—train and tram enthusiasts, for people who don't know the word—it's because of those benefits. It's because of the benefits for planning and development, and it's the benefits of having really fast, efficient, zero carbon travel across the country.

We have some of the busiest flight routes in the world. Melbourne to Sydney is the second-busiest domestic flight route in the world. Brisbane to Sydney is the world's eighth-busiest domestic route. Pre-COVID these routes had close to 100,000 flights a year, producing enormous carbon emissions. Carbon pollution per passenger, for flying, is estimated to be 90 kilograms per hour. Let's take, as an example, trips that we all here know well: coming to Canberra. I live in Melbourne. Getting to Canberra requires me to jump on a plane and fly here.

At that rate, of 90 kilograms per hour, my estimate is that it's a cool 75 kilograms of carbon emissions per passenger—so for me. My carbon footprint for flying to Canberra is 150 kilograms return, which means it totally wipes out all of my efforts to reduce my carbon pollution, from travel, at home. I ride my bike. I catch public transport. I hardly ever drive my car—I have a car. It's a very fuel-efficient little car that sits in the driveway most of the time. I estimate that by riding my bike and catching public transport I probably do about 100 kilometres a week that my next-door neighbour might otherwise do by driving. That 100 kilometres a week avoids around 11 kilograms of carbon emissions. I wipe out those carbon savings every time I fly to Canberra. A hundred and fifty kilograms of carbon is produced in a return trip, wiping out the 11 kilograms that I save by very faithfully using my bike and public transport to get around town every week in Melbourne. But there is no other reasonable option for me. At the moment, there is no high-speed rail to get me from Melbourne to Canberra and back again. I've tried public transport from Melbourne to Canberra; I did it in the early years of being a senator. I caught the train from Melbourne to Albury and then the bus from Albury to Canberra. I had to leave home early on Sunday morning to get here on Sunday evening. The alternative was that I could catch a train and change trains in Goulburn at 4 am, which I decided probably wasn't a good idea for the beginning of a busy Senate week.

Basically, there is no option. High-speed rail would give us that option—and not just for us politicians. It would give people the option of zero carbon, fast, efficient travel between our capital cities. You could get from Melbourne to Sydney in under four hours and from Sydney to Brisbane in a similar amount of time, which would slash the amount of air travel. It is a critical factor in reducing our carbon pollution from flying. It is there, it is possible, it is economically viable and it is achievable. We need to be fast-tracking it. We need to get that high-speed rail happening at the speed of high-speed rail.

The International Energy Agency has shown that the introduction of high-speed rail around the world has led to significant reductions in air travel on many specific routes—Paris to London and Seoul to Busan, for instance. In these cases, air travel was halved when high-speed rail was introduced. High-speed rail in Australia could do the same thing, massively decreasing our transport emissions and providing people with a high-quality, comfortable and enjoyable transport alternative to flying. If you also consider all the delays and chaos at airports at the moment, people are begging for that convenient and reliable alternative.

The other benefit of reducing air travel is that it reduces the issue of airport noise around cities. In the whole time that I've been in the Senate, I have worked with communities in the suburbs around Melbourne Airport, who are really affected by increasing airport noise, which is set to increase. We've got Melbourne Airport now proposing a third runway, and people in the whole City of Brimbank are going to suffer from a massive increase in airport noise. That not only is unpleasant but actually has demonstrated impacts on people's health and wellbeing, childhood development and the ability for kids to learn at school. These things have been documented, in terms of the noise of excessive air flights over residential areas. But when people complain about airport noise around Australian airports they're basically told just to suck it up: 'Oh well, you live close to an airport, so there's nothing we can do about it.' The people of Brimbank are basically being told the same thing: 'Airport noise is going to increase above your whole municipality—bad luck; that's how it is.'

Well, there is something that we can do about it. We can reduce the amount of air travel. As I said, Melbourne to Sydney is the second busiest domestic air travel route in the world. If we had the number of Melbourne to Sydney flights halved—and I think it would probably be more than that if we had high-speed rail—it would have a significant impact on the noise being experienced around Melbourne Airport. So high-speed rail is crucial to cutting flight noise and this pollution long term. The only way to truly reduce domestic flight noise in the long run is to reduce the overall number of domestic flights in Australia, and high-speed rail would be able to achieve that.

In summary, we welcome this bill. It's a beginning, but there's so much more that needs to be done. For our future, for reducing our carbon pollution and for tranquil, pleasant cities, high-speed rail is absolutely essential.

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I call Senator Davey. I'll just let you know, Senator Davey, that we have a hard marker at 12.15.

12:09 pm

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

That's okay, Mr Acting Deputy President. I will continue my remarks later, because this is an important issue.

High-speed rail is something that this country has been talking about since at least the 1980s. I remember when we got the first XPT between Canberra and Sydney. As a boarding school student, I used to jump on the XPT. It still took three hours to get from Canberra to Sydney, but in those days that was actually quite fast. The XPT was going to be the frontrunner for what we were going to develop, which was high-speed rail. And, just like the best episodes of Utopia, this is a continuing drama.

When you look up high-speed rail in Australia on Wikipedia, it highlights the various fast, faster, fastest, high, higher and highest speed pipe dreams that have captivated various members of this place almost since the first railway line was built. We have had concepts for the very fast train or the VFT, the tilting train speed rail proposal, the east coast very high-speed train scoping study—which as a consultant I actually did a desktop audit to help for—high-speed rail for Australia, an opportunity for 21st-century western fast rail, a magnetic levitation line in Melbourne, and another VFT between Sydney and Melbourne, the study of which was announced by the Rudd government in 2013 when it was estimated the cost would be $114 billion. What we now have is $500 million to set up another agency.

Our side isn't totally innocent in this. In 2019-20 we established the National Faster Rail Agency. We did a lot of work through that agency to look at business cases for higher-speed and faster rail between capital cities and regional centres. We allocated 40 million to assess five fast-rail corridors on top of three business cases already under way at the time of establishing that agency, including the Sydney to Newcastle case. In our budget of 2021-22, we set aside a $1 billion commitment for the Sydney to Newcastle, Tuggerah to Wyong faster-rail upgrade. This is where the Utopia part of it really comes into play. What is the difference between faster rail and high-speed rail? I would have thought that if it is faster then, ergo, it has a higher speed, but I asked at estimates about the new High Speed Rail Authority legislation, which is the $500 million commitment. I said, 'We've got the National Faster Rail Agency already and the High Speed Rail Authority, so which is which and what is what?' The response was:

The National Faster Rail Agency is intended to have part of its functions rolled into the High Speed Rail Authority and part of its functions rolled into the department as the High Speed Rail Authority is established.

They went on to say:

Some of the projects identified and developed through the National Faster Rail Agency are on the books between the Commonwealth and the state, and they will continue to be so until such time as either they're built or government has a different decision.

This is why we are where we are today—still talking about it and not doing it. We have a change of government so we change the name of an authority or an agency, we reduce the funding available to that agency to give half of it to the new agency, while half of it will get absolved back into the department, and we continue to go around in circles. No government has actually made the hard decision. We had the funding set aside for the Sydney to Newcastle, Tuggerah to Wyong faster rail upgrade. Why is that business case not being adopted? Why do we have to go through all of the palaver to rename an agency? I was told by Mr Hallinan from the department:

I don't think there's enough in the budget to do substantial construction activity but there's certainly enough in there for detailed planning …

We are setting up an agency with $500 million so they can do more planning, more desktop surveys and more reviews. They are not even going to be able to afford to purchase the rail corridor or easements. They will, perhaps, be able to do some corridor protection and negotiation—that's also a quote from the department—but they're in no position to actually start work or to purchase easements.

I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted.

Debate interrupted.