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Wednesday, 22 October 2008
Page: 9882


Mr JOHN COBB (11:53 AM) —As I rise to speak on the Interstate Road Transport Charge Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2008 and the Road Charges Legislation Repeal and Amendment Bill 2008 I do so knowing that the transport industry is always under pressure. The owner-operators of trucks—and there are thousands of them; they are probably the biggest class of self-employed small business people in Australia—by and large are under the most competitive pressure of almost any small business people in Australia. They do a good job. Unfortunately I think they are taken advantage of at times by big companies and big operators, because a lot of their work is subcontract work. Obviously this country is very dependent upon road usage, road haulage, and always will be. But it is acknowledged by everybody that we need to get as much as possible onto rail—not so much the current amount of goods moved around Australia, but the increase that is going to happen over the next 10 to 15 years. We need to get it onto rail rather than have it all come on-road, because common sense says we are not going to lower the amount of goods that are hauled around Australia. The object certainly is to get as much of the increase, especially the long-haulage increase, onto rail as is possible.

The first part of the bill, as has been mentioned by others, we basically agree with. The fact that the Commonwealth registration situation is coming into line with the changes made by the state governments to user charges we pretty much agree with. It is good to see that FIRS will continue to exist. It does provide an alternative—competition, if you like—to what is done by the states. I think in one sense it keeps them on their toes—and they know it, because registration is a very big income stream for state governments, particularly New South Wales—and while ever FIRS exists, which is an alternative registration situation, if they get too out of line, then instead of registering with New South Wales or Victoria or whichever state it might be, operators do have an alternative. I believe that is a good thing.

It is very important that the approximately $88 million that will be raised out of these increased user charges—and I certainly hope that the current government takes note of the fact—is spent by the government state counterparts on roads and not stuck into general revenue. In New South Wales, certainly, that is something that will need to be watched pretty carefully, given the desperate situation of the government and their desire to simply try to keep Sydney, Wollongong and Newcastle thinking at least that they are being looked after. There is no guarantee that that money will be spent on roads and certainly no guarantee at all that it will be spent outside of the Sydney basin.

There are some issues in the Road Charges Legislation Repeal and Amendment Bill that we are far less comfortable with. In March this year the government attempted to bring in what was in effect indexation—something brought in by Labor originally that we put a stop to in 2001—when they increased the charges for trucks. I think to line it up in an indexation sense was a very dangerous thing to do. The fact that they have removed that section from this bill is obviously a good thing. They will no longer be able to automatically increase those charges to the trucking industry or to any other sector of the road industry. I acknowledge that that is no longer there. Once again, though, the extra almost 2c that will be gathered from heavy road users really does need to go into roads.

As I look at New South Wales in particular it would seem that the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government is very keen to help New South Wales out in urban transport rather than the roads and the passage of goods around the country. One of the things that he seems to have totally ignored, forgotten or deliberately put aside is the need to put through a Melbourne to Brisbane rail link, which is called the western route, which would go through—


Dr Emerson —Baradine?


Mr JOHN COBB —Parkes. It would go through, quite obviously, between Dubbo and Narromine, which is the obvious route for it to take, as indeed it should.


Dr Emerson —Pilliga?


Mr JOHN COBB —Well, yes and no. It must happen; it is a question of when. Personally I have no problem with private industry being involved in making it happen, but the point is that it will not happen—and neither will something probably just as important, and that is to have a freeway through the mountains opening up Sydney to western New South Wales. This is very, very important and I believe it should be rail as well as a freeway.

Linking western New South Wales via a western route for a Melbourne to Brisbane link is an incredibly important thing. We had allocated $20 million to do the engineering study for that route through the mountains. We put in $15 million to push ahead with the engineering placement for the western route for rail access from Melbourne to Brisbane. If you link those two things up in western New South Wales, you have immediately unclogged Sydney. I think one of Sydney’s biggest problems is access. To persevere with getting goods from Melbourne through to Brisbane and vice versa, even from Sydney to either of those two places, via the coastal route is a little akin to madness because you are going to keep throwing good money after bad. Without spending the kind of money that the American administration is currently spending on underwriting credit in the US—and around the world, in effect—you are never going to make it an open link from Sydney.

It would be far cheaper, far faster and far better to spend money where our previous government saw it needed to be spent—that is, in opening Sydney up to western New South Wales and making western New South Wales the much faster route for goods going from south-eastern Australia to the north; and also linking it up with the Indian-Pacific railway line going to Perth, and by virtue of that also linking it up with Adelaide and with Darwin. As trade increases—and it is generally the lighter and faster goods that are travelling out of Darwin to Indonesia, Malaysia et cetera—that will become more and more important. But this does need a strategy, and that is certainly lacking in New South Wales transport ministers. I recall the previous Deputy Premier of New South Wales, Mr Watkins, once saying, ‘Why would you want to spend money west of the Blue Mountains putting in a rail link from Melbourne to Brisbane?’ I guess it is that kind of short-sighted ignorance of strategic planning that has left Sydney in the mess it is in today.

It is well known, and many people involved in transport have proved this, that businesses with their warehouses located in Sydney could deliver goods much cheaper and much faster, for example, from the town of Parkes to south-eastern Australia—in fact they could deliver all the way from Brisbane to Adelaide within 24 hours. If they warehoused there, they could deliver anywhere from Brisbane all the way around to Adelaide within 24 hours and it would save them money compared to their situation in Sydney now. Sydney is such a bottleneck in terms of going north, south or west. If you put a freeway and a decent railway line through the Blue Mountains out to the central west, you would open up Sydney. I think the estimate is that 14 hours less is needed to go through the central west—through Parkes and Dubbo—from Melbourne to Brisbane or the other way to transport goods as against the 2½ to three days it takes currently to go along the coastal route through Sydney. That does not make very much sense. We do have to think long term.

I get very worried when I hear the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government talk about in effect subsidising the deficits owed by state governments, particularly New South Wales, and wanting to put all the money held in reserve for infrastructure—out of AusLink, be it 1, 2 or 3—into urban transport. Clearly that is nobody’s responsibility except the state government’s, who have obviously got themselves in a terrible pickle in New South Wales, but that is their fault and nobody else’s. They should let New South Wales concentrate on fixing that. The federal government and the new minister should take responsibility for fixing the strategic nature of transport infrastructure around Australia at the federal level. Previous transport ministers—be it Warren Truss, John Anderson or Mark Vaile—set up a system whereby we took over the major train routes. To simply forget them now that we have actually taken responsibility for them and start spending more and more money on what are very much state responsibilities is going to condemn the strategic movement of goods around Australia to continued confusion.

It is all very well to pick up urban transport, be it in Melbourne, Brisbane or Sydney, but to do that at the cost of the future of transport, be it transport to port or transport inland, is to do a very short-sighted thing. It is certainly looking after your old mates, as the minister would be if he starts pouring all that money into Sydney. I think that money was designated for the strategic movement of goods around Australia, as I just said—things like the inland rail from Melbourne to Brisbane through the central west of New South Wales and things like opening up a freeway, which will in effect in the medium and long term be of enormous benefit to Sydney. His only concern seems to be relieving the pressure on the New South Wales government.

In conclusion, I would like to say that we basically support the first part of this bill. It is certainly good to see that those parts which relate to indexation seem to have been removed from the second part of the bill. The issue really is that the money gathered by the Commonwealth government and by the state governments is spent on roads rather than trying to get them out of a hole that they may be in.