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Thursday, 13 March 2008
Page: 1813

Mr WINDSOR (11:25 AM) —I listened to the previous speaker with some degree of interest. Some of the phrases we have heard before in terms of infrastructure, and I just hope that the leadership that Mr Shorten spoke of is actually demonstrated in this particular and very important area.

Mr Danby —You mean the member for Maribyrnong.

Mr WINDSOR —Sorry, yes, I could not think of it. I think the government will be judged on this particular issue more so than on many of the other issues that are out there in the public arena. And they will be judged for a number of reasons. Obviously infrastructure is very important and has been overlooked on a number of occasions. There has been a lot of debate and words articulated in this place on this. I will be supporting the Infrastructure Australia Bill 2008. I think the concept is a good idea and I do not think there is any doubt about it, but there will be judgement about the way in which it is carried through.

I will give one indication of where I feel governments have let infrastructure down in the past, and I would not like to see the current government repeat those mistakes. It revolves around the issue of fuel taxation. In this country we pay, depending on where we live, something like 50c, 51c or 52c a litre tax—38c of that is fuel excise and the balance is GST. The fuel excise is an impost on our community. We should remember why that was put in place—I think it was Malcolm Fraser who put it in place. It was put in place to address potential fuel shocks; we really needed to price our fuel so that when the fuel shock came along it was not such a great jump in terms of the economy. Then it developed into a system of paying for our roads. There was the road maintenance tax. Now it has evolved into an area of revenue which is anti-infrastructure, in a sense.

There is $14 billion raised through fuel excise—not through the GST, just the excise itself. About $2 billion of that can be tracked back to any form of road or rail maintenance—and you might get the odd bus shelter in eastern Sydney or something like that. About $2 billion, or one-seventh, of those funds being collected is actually going into some form of infrastructure. There is a whole range of mixed messages out there and I think one thing the government does need to do is to clarify some of these signals. Is fuel taxation there to raise revenue? Is it there to pay for infrastructure? Is it there to convert everybody’s V8 into a four-cylinder? Is it there to send a pricing signal to stop people using their vehicles or to reduce fuel? Some clarification is needed in that area. If it is there for infrastructure, there is a massive amount of money in an annual sense that could be used for infrastructure, rather than the nonsense we have seen in recent years and all the words we have heard, similar words to those we have heard today, and where very little is delivered in terms of actual bridge building and major infrastructure projects. In fact, the debate of recent years has been to sell some of those projects. The Snowy hydro is back in the news again. We hear the ferrets are in the building undermining the decision that was made by the previous Prime Minister—not the previous government. The Liberal Party, the National Party and the Labor Party, and Victoria and New South Wales all agreed that it should be sold.

That is where the community is having a difficulty with the so-called leadership in the infrastructure debate. Who is leading whom where? People would like to know that the public—the public purse, the taxpayer—has a role in relation to the provision of infrastructure that provides for the public good in the long run. Whether it be a railway line from Narrabri to Newcastle or an extra terminal to extract coal or grain, people need to know where the government sits in terms of the allocation of public moneys to public infrastructure—the bridge-building that the member for Maribyrnong quite rightly spoke about. They need to know it from this government, because they got mixed messages from the previous government. There are still those mixed messages out there and I think some of those mixed messages show up. If you look at the second reading speech of the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government, there is the normal banter to start with and then he says:

Well-planned infrastructure is the arteries of a successful, modern economy and essential to:

making our cities liveable and improving public health ...

What does ‘making our cities livable’ mean in terms of infrastructure? What it seems to mean at the moment—if you live anywhere near Sydney, for instance—is more roads, more freeways, more public-private partnerships and more money being expended on the development of a road system that continually chokes itself. What does that mean in terms of improving public health? It means poorer public health—more greenhouse gas, more pollution and more lung disorders in the Sydney basin—and a whole range of related health problems. Does the bill make sure Infrastructure Australia delivers in terms of these things? Or are we going to find a reason for expending more money on more freeways, which are pathways to nowhere, instead of making our cities more livable and improving our public health? That is a question that the new minister has to address and answer. One of the answers—and I did not see any mention of it in the second reading speech, although there are a couple of words that refer to regional areas—may well be to change policy, rather than having a policy mix which draws people into these conglomerates that suffer from issues of livability and public health problems. One of the solutions may well be to develop real policy that encourages people to leave these areas, and I hope to see some of those sorts of initiatives.

The second point that the minister makes is: ‘bringing economic opportunities to regional and rural communities’. I do not want to criticise this government at the moment, but I have not seen any changes yet. The former government had a policy mix that, even though the rhetoric was out there encouraging rural and regional communities, perpetuated the population losses in regional and rural communities. The seat of Gwydir disappeared off the map because it had the greatest loss of population of any region in Australia. Tasmania used to be in front of it but has picked up in recent years. So the slippage occurs. With all the words for the last 10 or 12 years about how it was all going to happen with the new regional policies and the new regional this and regional that, the policy mix did not change it at all. The incentives were to go to Sydney or Melbourne, to go to the urbanised areas. I look forward to seeing some real policy on the ground that encourages opportunities in regional and rural communities.

Most renewable energy generation—solar, wind, geothermal, biofuels—would be located in the country. But we do not see, and have not seen in the past decade, a policy mix that really encourages that. We have this farcical circumstance where renewable energy targets—and Deputy Speaker Scott would remember this—were put in place in, I think, the year 2000 but there is actually less renewable energy now, eight years later in a 10-year arrangement, than there was when the targets were put in place. That is the breakdown between the verbal arguments we have in here and the practice out there. In fact, we have got this absurd situation where, if you are a biofuel producer in Australia at the moment, in 2011 you will be taxed. How does that send an incentive, when the minister is talking here about improving public health and creating opportunities in regional and rural areas? Where does the biofuel mix fit in? Why would you have a taxation regime that applies to something that is renewable? I thought we were trying to encourage that in this country. I just find those issues to be quite extraordinary. Hopefully, the new minister and the new government will remove those things.

It is quite obvious that there has been a breakdown in the system in the last decade in delivering products to markets. We have an absurd situation in New South Wales at the moment, which the previous Commonwealth government was involved in. A great vision for the future was proposed in here about how the Australian Rail Track Corporation was going to create a national rail system that would make things so much better in delivering products to our markets in New South Wales. The New South Wales ownership—I think it was called FreightCorp at the time—was sold off, and the New South Wales Labor government was delighted to get rid of it because that meant it was in receipt of money. The Commonwealth saw this great network of connections as a great way of uniting the nation. Very little funding went into it; very little happened. There is a little bit of infrastructure here and there—a little bit up the coast, for instance.

What is happening in New South Wales? Pacific National—and the member for Parkes would be fully aware of this—has recently said that it will not cart wheat anymore. What is the reaction of government? It is: ‘The Australian Rail Track Corporation is essentially a public company owned by a government, so we can’t interfere too much.’ New South Wales says: ‘That’s got nothing to do with us anymore. We got out of that a few years back.’ In my view, if infrastructure is a serious thing with the Commonwealth government it should be involved in the objective of delivering products to markets, because we are going to have a situation where potentially there will be one of the biggest wheat crops in New South Wales, occurring at a time of the highest international prices, and that product base may not be able to get to market. I think the Commonwealth has a role there. It played a role in Tasmania some years ago when the same company pulled out of transporting freight in Tasmania. The Commonwealth government came in with a package, and freight is back on rail in Tasmania—again, a mixed message. How serious are the government and this minister about delivering on some of these things? If they are serious, they have got to be involved.

There is the Murrurundi tunnel, for instance, in my electorate. There was a lot of hoo-ha in here about the inland freight railway line, which I might mention in a minute if I get time. In the Ernst & Young document that was put together, the $5 million survey—not the $15 million one, the other one that was done or the three or four others that have been gathering dust on this particular concept—identified freight movement across Australia as an issue. On the eastern side of Australia—Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland—220 million tonnes of freight go somewhere. Half of that total freight consignment, 110 million tonnes, goes through the Hunter Valley or the north-west, New England part of the state. Half of the total freight on the eastern seaboard is probably within 300 kilometres of Newcastle. The Murrurundi tunnel, an antiquated tunnel that was built for steam trains—a tunnel at the top of a hill, in a sense—will be a bottleneck once the port facilities are improved in Newcastle. I would have thought that infrastructure for half the freight on the eastern side of this country would be a key piece of infrastructure that would be worthy of the investment of a lot of money—maybe some of the fuel taxation money that is raised or maybe the new fund that is going to be set up. I would have thought that that would be a key piece of infrastructure. Instead, the debate has been on the inland rail.

I am not against the inland rail concept, and I would encourage people to have a look at what Everald Compton is going to be doing, because he is going to be investing his own money. He is sick of waiting for government and sick of the games that have been played. But if we examine the Ernst & Young report on the inland rail link we see that the freight between Melbourne and Brisbane that is going to bypass Sydney, because of the congestion and all those good reasons, is 3.75 million tonnes. All that talk and billions of dollars to be expended for 3.75 million tonnes. At the most, that equates to two trains a day going each way, to compete with a 24-hour truck service—and there is 110 million tonnes of freight in the Hunter Valley and the north-west, New England system.

The most expensive tunnel option is $280 million. There is no mention of that. There has been all this politicking about Melbourne and Brisbane and the trains not stopping anywhere except maybe to pick up a bit of wheat that could go north out of Moree. Remember all the politics in relation to that—a stake being driven into the river at Goondiwindi five or six years ago—and nothing happened. Now we have another inquiry, initiated by the previous government but being carried on. I congratulate Everald Compton and urge members to get behind him—and, Deputy Speaker Scott, I know you are aware of the project as well—because he is the only one who is doing anything. I would not hold my breath for any government in terms of the inland rail concept because everybody has said that it has to be private-sector friendly.

The minister went on to talk about reducing business costs. I have gone through that. One of our major costs in a country of this size is fuel, and we tax it. We have a whole range of other policies that actually send the wrong message. I should also have mentioned at the start that telecommunications is very important. I congratulate Senator Stephen Conroy for actually pulling the lever on a few of the things that have been allowed to go on. Telecommunications is the most important infrastructure this century because it removes distances—the great disadvantage of living in the country. It changes the economic equation. If you want to have a more livable life, improve public health, have some economic opportunities and deliver your product to market, if it is an IT product, you are far better off living in the country, and your kids will be better off as well.

People are starting to recognise that, but they will only recognise that if government has a role in a regulatory sense in making sure that there is equity of access to both quality and price of the product. There is no way that Telstra will do that unfettered. The sell-out by the National Party, the National Farmers Federation and those other corporate friendlies that masqueraded as representatives of country Australians will live on as one of the great disgraces of this place and one of the great cons in infrastructure. I urge Senator Conroy to maintain the rage about the conversion from CDMA to Next G and to look at the regulatory arrangements.

We have an absurd situation developing now. I use the example of Yetman. I know there are people in this room that know Yetman. Telstra Country Wide made it plain to them that they were not viable in terms of mobile services. I attended a meeting—a number of others were there—where it was articulated that if the community built the tower, provided electricity to the tower, provided a road to the tower and provided maintenance to the tower then Telstra Country Wide would place an antenna on top of it, and that community could have access to mobile services. Now Telstra are saying that that was two years ago and we now have to put in for funding and we have to put a plan in, moving away from the commitment that was given at that meeting. It is farcical. It is a demonstration of what happens when you remove government from the leadership role in terms of infrastructure. We are hearing all about this particular bill being part of the new leadership for infrastructure. I would urge all members to look at some of the issues I have spoken about. (Time expired)