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Monday, 29 November 2004
Page: 137

Mr RIPOLL (9:09 PM) —This evening I would like to talk briefly about the nation's infrastructure needs. It seems that wherever you turn these days people are talking about infrastructure. Whether at school gatherings, at barbecues, over the back fence or even in the many columns in newspapers, we are all talking about it. In my part of the world it has certainly become the real barbecue stopper.

Roads, rail, ports, energy, hospitals, telecommunications and schools all make up the vast network of infrastructure that we all take for granted. But we are becoming increasingly aware of their existence. This can easily be explained by people's understanding that the things they use on a daily basis are no longer meeting their needs and increasingly are becoming unreliable—individual expectations that when you drive to work you will arrive on time, that when you turn on the tap you will actually get some fresh drinking water or that when you turn on a switch you will get some light. This acute awareness of the things we have taken for granted is the result of a decline in investment in and maintenance of the most essential parts of our society. It is a visible and actual cost to our lives and the liveability of our cities.

There are dozens of reports, many of them recent ones, that inform us of the growing population, particularly in south-east Queensland—or, I should say, the exploding population in that part of the world. It is expected that there will be over one million people moving to Queensland's south-east corner over the next 20 years and there will be a need for some 500,000 new homes to accommodate them. The thought of how to provide for this number of families on our already congested road and rail networks is frightening—let alone thinking about how we will provide enough water and energy to maintain the lifestyles that drive these people to that part of the world in the first place.

Yet, with all the expert reports, the educated opinion, the street talk and the obvious need for investment in infrastructure, it seems to me that there is a less than urgent response from the federal government. It seems that the Commonwealth government is more content to play politics than to provide any real public policy solutions. A great example of the government's drive in this direction is the national land transport plan, or AusLink, as it is commonly referred to as. This policy has been much talked about. We have even heard the Deputy Prime Minister compare it to the great Snowy Mountains Scheme—the great nation-building enterprise of the 1950s.

Prior to and during the recent federal election campaign, the government used every opportunity to sell the benefits of AusLink to the community. It boasted incessantly about how the government was making huge investments in the nation's land transport networks. It would go from electorate to electorate and it would promise money to much needed local community projects. And, in some instances, the same bucket of money was promised to more than one project—but that topic is for another time.

One of the fundamental principles of AusLink was the establishment of bilateral agreements between the states and the federal government. While agreements between state and federal governments are essential—including on funding agreements—this should not be interpreted as a green light for the federal government to dump its responsibilities onto the states. AusLink was essentially understood to mean that funding would be a shared responsibility between both levels of government, with the federal government playing an active role. That was pre-election 2004. But, after the election, many of us are now learning that bilateral agreements mean something completely different in the context of AusLink.

In the case of AusLink, it means that the federal government wants to bully the states into reform in other policy areas. So we have the government's level of commitment to AusLink and national infrastructure—its greatest plan since the 1950s Snowy Mountains Scheme—being conditional on other policy areas. AusLink funding in Queensland is now becoming conditional upon industrial relations reform. This is an unacceptable principle in the delivery of the nation's key infrastructure needs. Many people who thought they were going to get the money for infrastructure projects in their local communities are suddenly finding that these promises were conditional, that there were strings attached to the funding of AusLink—something they did not know pre election. It seems we all forgot to read the fine print, if it ever existed in the first place.

A cooperative approach is what is needed to build and maintain the infrastructure that we have become reliant upon and which we all demand as a key economic driver of jobs, of innovation and of growth. What we do not want is the divisive policy, based on ideological nonsense, that we are currently getting from the federal government. Infrastructure development should not descend into an us and them debate or a debate about parochialism between states and the federal government. If it is to be taken seriously, the Howard government needs to rethink its approach to the nation's most important infrastructure needs, in particular the AusLink funding conditions.