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Wednesday, 15 August 2007
Page: 77

Mrs HULL (2:29 PM) —My question is addressed to the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Transport and Regional Services. Would the Deputy Prime Minister inform the House how the government’s investment in rail infrastructure is creating jobs in regional Australia and keeping our economy strong? Are there any risks to this investment?

Mr VAILE (Minister for Transport and Regional Services) —I thank the member for Riverina for her question. I shared an experience with the member for Riverina in opening a new rail bridge over the Murrumbidgee River at Wagga recently, and she knows full well the significant commitment the coalition government have made to proper infrastructure planning and investment. Under AusLink 1 we are in the process of investing $2.4 billion into the rail infrastructure to improve the freight task across Australia. Of course, the bridge over the Murrumbidgee River at Wagga was one of those investments that we had undertaken that the previous operators of that track, the New South Wales Labor government, had failed to invest in. More than that, and beyond AusLink 1, the member knows that we have committed $22.3 billion in AusLink 2 to continue that investment through to 2014. That will include road transport as well as further developments in rail infrastructure.

Part of that infrastructure investment is obviously driving down unemployment. We are seeing unemployment at its lowest level for 33 years—4.3 per cent—and that is being assisted by the major construction investment that we are making. We have created 2.1 million new jobs in the Australian economy since 1996, and that is all a part of the sound economic management that we have been delivering. But we are also delivering infrastructure that generates, creates and sustains a lot of jobs in the Australia economy.

Most importantly, investment in improved efficiency in infrastructure flows right through to consumers. We have been having a debate in this country about the pressures on working families and the costs to households on a daily basis. One of the areas where improved infrastructure can help is in keeping down the pressure on the prices of consumer goods and groceries across Australia. We have announced recently that we are going to invest $15 million to go to the next stage of planning a new inland rail corridor through the centre of New South Wales between Melbourne and Brisbane to improve rail efficiency in Australia. One of the pieces of correspondence I received after that announcement is from none other than the new CEO of Woolworths, Mr Michael Luscombe. He said of this proposal of ours:

That inland rail project is a fundamental infrastructure project to cater for the future growth of our nation. An efficient single-gauge, large capacity line that eliminates bypass delays and can link with well planned intermodal locations is a goal which our company would support any government commitment to. Without the investment in rail infrastructure, inefficiencies in the current alternatives will continue to grow and the ability to reinvest cost savings in retail prices will be diminished.

In other words, he is saying that if we continue with our investment strategy he will keep downward pressure on retail prices of groceries because the freight task is going to become much more efficient. That comes from one of the major retailers in Australia, supporting what the government is doing with its forward-looking vision as far as rail infrastructure is concerned.

There is an alternative view, and it comes from the Labor Party in New South Wales. We know how successful they have been at running rail in New South Wales! The Commonwealth has had to take over a 60-year lease on the main freight rail lines through New South Wales. We have had to take over a 60-year lease on the Hunter Valley coal lines to make them work properly and to ensure that there is investment in those lines. The Deputy Premier and the minister responsible in New South Wales, John Watkins, is vehemently opposing our proposal for inland rail. He said, ‘What the Commonwealth is proposing now is a major spend for limited benefit.’ He goes on to say that he wants that money spent in Sydney. Of course he does; it saves them from spending money on rail in Sydney. They have been a stunning success in running the commuter rail system in Sydney! They cannot deal with union control over the rail system in Sydney, and the interaction between the commuter system and the freight rail task in Sydney is exactly why that system is so clogged up.

That was acknowledged in the Ernst and Young review that was done on the freight rail task, which recommended that we go ahead with an inland corridor. As is always the case, the state Labor government is blaming everybody else for what it failed to do, and saying that we should invest where it has failed to invest. Well, we are not going to do that. We will improve the corridors through Sydney; we will improve the southern Sydney freight line; and we will improve the North Coast freight line. But it will not be enough to absorb the growth in the freight task. As the Ernst and Young study said, we need this new corridor to absorb the growth into the future. This is our government planning and investing for the future, but all we get is criticism from the state Labor government.

Mr Martin Ferguson interjecting

Mr VAILE —If we have a look at federal Labor’s platform on this there is no mention of it. The federal Labor platform commits Labor to working with the states on an extension of the interstate rail line. Clearly, Mr Watkins will tell the federal Labor Party to come and invest money in Sydney, to fix up where they have failed and to not plan and invest for the future, so that that is what the Leader of the Opposition will do. Whereas we have a futuristic vision for rail in Australia and for the rail task that will put downward pressure on grocery prices, as has been indicated by Michael Luscombe, we know that a Rudd led Labor government would be a puppet to the unions that are controlling the rail system in Sydney, a puppet to the unions across the rest of the country and, most importantly, and to the detriment of Australia, a puppet to the state Labor premiers.