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Monday, 15 September 2008
Page: 7394

Mr RAMSEY (5:53 PM) —There are three objectives in the amendments proposed in the AusLink (National Land Transport) Amendment Bill 2008. The first deals with the extension of the Roads to Recovery program to 2014, and I give my support. The second, confirming the arrangements under which these funds are supplied to the unincorporated council areas through the existing state authorities, I also support. My electorate of Grey covers almost all of the unincorporated areas of South Australia. The Roads to Recovery program was one of the great dividends provided by the previous government as a result of paying off the $98 billion of debt left by the Keating Labor government. When we no longer had to pay $8 billion a year in interest, the government had the funds to begin the nation-building programs. The Roads to Recovery project will by July have delivered $10.79 million to the outback areas of South Australia. The improvements to the Strzelecki Track, which will eventually link up, as the member for Maranoa said earlier, with the bitumen road coming down to Innamincka from Queensland, the Maree-Lyndhurst road and the Wilpena-Blinman road will help unlock tourism and mining potential in this vast area. Much more is needed.

Australia is becoming increasingly reliant on the mining surge. In South Australia, the boom has been a little slower to occur than in the west and in Queensland, but we are getting there. The royalties and the tax receipts from Roxby Downs are rolling in and there are more to come. Adding to the established industries in uranium, iron ore and gas are a large group of new prospects in mineral sands, base metals and more iron and uranium. Almost all of this expansion will happen in rural and outback areas. If the riches are to come from these areas, it is only right that a significant part of that resource should be returned to the regions from where it came. The Roads to Recovery program is just one method of achieving this. This investment will be needed to stimulate the expansion of primary industries that will carry Australia into the next generation. For much of the last 200 years, Australia’s vast inland has been largely neglected, seen as inhospitable desert, somewhere for a few hardy pastoralists to try to eke out a living. We are only just beginning to explore the vast wealth which lies beyond the green fringe of the continent. Australians and the rest of the world are beginning to flock to the middle of the nation to explore its natural beauty and history. The tourism surge will only get bigger. Unfortunately, the tourists and those who seek to exploit their wealth are bouncing around on an inland road network which often looks more like a dry creek bed than a road. Gutters, rocks, loose stones which act as ball bearings, potholes which threaten to swallow vehicles, and unbelievable corrugations and rocky reefs which threaten to launch cars into a low orbit are a fact of life. They are roads which need the kiss of life from a Roads to Recovery program.

During the winter recess I spent some time driving around my electorate. I covered around 18,000 kilometres in that time and travelled several of these tracks. Conditions were generally poor and, in many cases, dangerous. Much of the responsibility for these roads lies with the state government, which has actually reduced its commitment to maintenance. In the first budget of the Rann Labor government, it axed two road construction gangs in the north of the state. We are now paying the costs.

Some of these roads stand out as worthy of far greater attention from both federal and state governments. The bitumen strip on the Lyndhurst to Maree road is currently being extended under the last rounds of Roads to Recovery. This route should be extended to William Creek, then across to Coober Pedy, which would open up a new tourist route for the grey nomads and make conditions safer for local road users. The Oodnadatta Track north of William Creek is in a dangerous condition and desperately needs resheeting. The Wirrulla to Kingoonya road is a goat track with increasing traffic loads. I have been informed there is a pothole so bad that an iron dropper has been put in the middle of it to force motorists to drive around the hole. This is an absolute disgrace. Much of this track is as much as a metre below the surrounding land surface. You can imagine what that is like after a rain. Locals tell me they expect a rollover a week, and many a tourist has left their suspension in a crater somewhere between Wirrulla and Skull Tanks—which is something of a landmark in that part of the world.

This road, if upgraded, would impart major economic benefits to a number of stakeholders. It would cut 300 kilometres off the heavy transport route moving mining equipment from Western Australia to South Australia’s far north, including operations such as Oz Minerals’s Prominent Hill copper mine, due to start exporting in February, and the Western Plains Resources iron ore prospects in the regions. It would connect the Eyre Peninsula with an economical route to Roxby Downs for miners living in the beautiful coastal towns, helping these communities to grow and flourish by reducing the pressure on expansion in Adelaide, which includes urban encroachment on productive rural land and extra infrastructure requirements. Decentralisation holds many benefits for all of Australia.

An all-weather surface would, like the improvements to the Maree-Coober Pedy road, open up a new tourist route, cutting 300 kilometres off the journey of those linking Western Australia to the north-south corridor of the Stuart Highway. These are nation-building projects. If Australia is to fully utilise the riches that have been bestowed upon us, we need vision and the commitment of both state and federal governments to achieve this. I call on the state government to make a commitment to building regional infrastructure. With just one country based member of parliament, its ignorance of the needs and opportunities of most of our state is appalling.

I call on the federal government to support regional infrastructure through the Roads to Recovery program; to commit to returning to the regions more of the massive surge in tax receipts generated by the resources boom; to make sure the new Infrastructure Australia fund is used not just to prop up Labor votes in the cities but to actually build Australia’s capacity; and to address the opening up of the nation away from the coastal fringe. I call on the federal government to show the kind of vision the previous government showed in completing the north-south rail connection to Darwin.

Returning to the specifics of the amendments, the third part of these changes concerns the long-haul transport industry in Australia—and that industry is in serious trouble. The freight task in this nation is set to double in the next 10 to 15 years but, rather than increasing capacity to meet that demand, the industry is in decline. Rising costs—some influenced by government—an ageing workforce, ever-increasing compliance costs, stringent and ever-increasing OH&S requirements and tightening environmental targets all contribute to a burden which has become too much for many small to medium sized operators in the field.

The industry has no choice but to pass on these costs, but at the moment it seems we have a form of market failure as desperate operators accept less than the real operating costs just so they can stay in business. Truck owners, with payments to be made on very expensive prime movers and trailers, are trying to pass on their cost increases. But they are being told: ‘Thanks, but no thanks. We’ll find someone else’—and there is always someone who is desperate enough to make a payment that they will take the job. It is only a matter of time before they either give in—to achieve cash flow—or go out of business. Ultimately the market will respond, but it will not come before we have a freight crisis where we see large parts of the Australian economy stranded. The government talk about the bottlenecks in our economy, but I do not believe they understand just how close to collapse the transport industry is—nor do they even begin to understand just how dependent on the transport industry Australia is.

During the first six months of this year there have been 3,600 truck repossessions in Australia. That has slowed a little in the last couple of months because finance companies are finding they have no market for the repossessed trucks, thus encouraging these operators to keep going and being vulnerable to accepting any price contract to keep the wheels turning. The old slogan ‘Truckies carry the country’ is truer today than it has ever been.

Australia is often said to suffer from the ‘tyranny of distance’, so it stands to reason that we should encourage, not penalise, the sectors which allow us to operate against that disadvantage. For instance, it is often said that Australia has low fuel taxation in comparison with the rest of the world. That may be true in the broader sense but, if we have a look at a selection of countries around the globe who also share our ‘tyranny of distance’, the conclusions can be quite different. The average rate of tax on diesel in the United States of America is around 13c a litre. In Brazil it is about lc. In Canada it is 18.5c, which is near the Australian rate of 20c a litre. There are no systematic moves in these individual nations to tax to their own disadvantage relative to the rest of the world. The countries that tax at higher rates, and many do, are by and large those who do not have huge distances to contend with. It is all very well for them to tax at a higher rate for all kinds of social engineering reasons, but it simply does not make sense in Australia to punish this sector. We are penalising our productive capacity.

We have just heard the member for Brand say that the previous government did not take the chance to put up road user charges. That is darn right, and I think we should be proud of that decision. We decided not to put extra costs on road transport users because we knew the implications of those extra costs. It would have meant transport operators closing up and having to pass on costs to the rest of industry. In the end, it means jobs.

How does all this reflect on these amendments? The amendment which will change the definition of a ‘road’ so that Auslink funds can be spent on the development of rest areas is in itself quite acceptable. It is the big stick approach that the government takes to its implementation which is lamentable. The government has threatened that, if the Senate continues to block the fuel tax and registration fee rises, it will not fund the establishment of the new rest stops. The necessity for the new rest stops has been brought about by the advent of the new heavy driver fatigue laws—more government-led compliance costs. The new regulations will lead to a whole raft of extra costs to the industry—not just new taxes but higher staffing rates, longer down times and a lack of qualified drivers. We all want safe roads but it appears that the government, having taxed this industry to within an inch of its life, is not prepared to wear any of the costs of implementation.

A couple of weeks ago at a function in my electorate, I was speaking to a fair sized regional freight operator. He uses about 100 trailers. He said that he was really only operating as a community service at this stage and that he had never worked harder in his life for less return. He said that, at every turn, government was making it more difficult to operate—never helping. He was considering winding back his operation. He said, ‘When we get a good agricultural season again, the industry won’t be able to meet the freight challenge because we’re losing too much capacity.’ That is the problem—all stick and no carrot. How about, instead of continually making it harder to move freight around the country, the government invests in good operators and partners them and Australian industry in raising our productive capacity? It would be logical to sponsor schemes that would deliver advantages to accredited operators and their drivers—so that we encourage those who do not overload, or use badly trained staff, or run substandard equipment—and give the industry encouragement to raise standards and efficiency and not penalise them. Instead, what do we get? We get new compliance costs and no help in meeting the challenge—just the government getting deeper into our pockets with higher registration and fuel taxes.

If the productive sectors of our economy are to survive, all these costs must eventually be passed on to the consumer; otherwise, in the end, there will be no way of moving the freight. The consumer, in the case of exporters, is ‘the exporter’; you cannot pass on these costs to an international market. These new taxes—which up to now, thankfully, the Senate has been able to defer—if implemented will increase the cost of doing business in rural and regional Australia. Every small community will become just that bit more unviable. At a time when our traditional industries in rural and regional Australia are struggling to survive, this out-of-touch government is insisting on new taxes to meet the costs of implementing new government regulation. New driver fatigue rest stops are a good idea, and funding them out of the AusLink package is fine, but making them conditional on new taxes at a time when the freight industry is in decline will impede our productive capacity. It is blackmail and it should be exposed as such.