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Wednesday, 2 March 2016
Page: 1595

Senator MUIR (Victoria) (13:34): I rise to make some comments regarding an issue that impacts on the daily lives of five million Australians, and yet it is one you will rarely hear about in this parliament. Much of the discussion around funding of major projects is a familiar battle—cities versus rural areas. I come from a regional area myself—Gippsland in eastern Victoria. I am all too familiar with the differences in infrastructure between our regional areas—the parts of our country that supply our cities—and some of the inner urban areas. However, there is a significant group of Australians who are frequently overlooked in the 'city versus rural or regional' debate—those who live in the rapidly growing outer-urban areas of the major capital cities.

Five million people live in these areas. These are the fastest growing areas of the country, as people seek a more relaxed weekend lifestyle and, in particular, housing affordability. It is expected that 7.5 million people will call these areas home by 2031. This anticipated growth is double the overall national rate. A lot of reports talk about 'growing cities', but it is in these outer-urban areas where much of the growth is actually taking place.

But things are far from idyllic in these outer-urban areas. Local government bodies struggle to secure funding for major projects. Australians who live in these areas have highlighted roads, public transport and health facilities as their most pressing concerns. The millions of people living in these areas—growing by over 3,000 per week—are the ones paying the cost for years of neglect and failure of governments to provide the infrastructure to match the population increase as more and more affordable housing has been created.

Each new broadacre subdivision is home to thousands of people but, in many cases, the access to these new outer suburbs is via the same two-lane road that sufficed when they were farming land. There is a similarity to my previous call to direct more funding to rural and regional roads, with a disproportionate number of road casualties occurring on rural roads—roads not designed to carry the amount of traffic that they do today. There is a welcome increase in the number of people recognising the benefit of commuting by train. But trains in some of these areas are already overcrowded, and single railway lines prevent increasing the number of services that are provided each day. The need to access specialist medical facilities sees people having to make long journeys to inner urban areas for many services. Many children of families in our outer urban suburbs spend more time in the back seat of the family car than in the backyard of the family home.

The 24 councils representing these growth areas across the country share a lot in common. Rather than fighting each other for a share of limited funds, they have displayed a refreshing maturity that is lacking in some levels of government. Together, they have combined into the National Growth Areas Alliance. This week, it was my pleasure to meet with mayor Glenn Docherty from South Australia, who leads the alliance.

For the most part, significant infrastructure projects are beyond the financial capabilities of local government. Successive state and federal governments have neglected these fast-growing areas. I refer to areas including Playford, north of Adelaide—mayor Docherty's council area; Penrith in Sydney's west; Wanneroo and Rockingham in Perth; and Cardinia and Casey on the eastern and south-eastern edges of Melbourne. These areas have been neglected for so long that there is now a collective infrastructure backlog of $50 billion in necessary projects across our outer urban areas. It has been independently estimated—and I cannot overemphasise the importance of independence in helping to make sound decisions—that a further $20 billion is required over the next 15 years. These two figures combined amount to $5 billion per year from now until 2031.

Where is this funding going to come from? These councils have launched a national Fund our Future campaign, calling for a national fund that will be free of the changing whims of different governments. We are all too familiar with election cycles and what they can do to infrastructure projects. These major projects cover many years from concept, design and approvals through to construction and commissioning. Three-year federal election cycles, in addition to changes of state governments, can create real difficulties in gaining certainty and confidence to proceed with a project. I hope we will never again see a state or a federal election fought on the basis of abandoning a project that has already commenced. Of course, I am referring to Melbourne's East West Link project, which I imagine students of politics and economics will be writing about for decades to come.

While the cost to government of building infrastructure is significant, the alliance has said:

Continued underinvestment will be catastrophic personally and for communities and businesses more broadly: increased stress, time wasted in traffic, fewer jobs and social isolation leading to divided communities.

From my perspective, there is the potential to grow this idea even further. Why is it that so many people need to work in high-rise towers in our major cities? As cities grow, the pressure on major highways and rail corridors is only going to increase. I would like to see these outer urban areas become more like some of our major regional centres—places where people can live and work. For people doing an hour and a half commute each way on roads like the Monash Freeway, perhaps there is a better way.

I congratulate the National Growth Areas Alliance on the work that they have put into the Fund our Future campaign. This is the sort of issue that the voters of Australia expect their elected representatives to be focussed on, not the self-serving politics that has dominated both houses over the past two weeks.

I commend the concept of a dedicated national infrastructure fund and look forward to being involved in positive discussions with both the government and the opposition around how this might be achieved. As the alliance says, 'We need a national dedicated infrastructure fund with bipartisan support to meet the immediate and ongoing needs of communities in fast-growing outer suburbs.' I look forward to visiting some of the affected areas in outer Melbourne in my electorate of Victoria and discussing with elected representatives their priority projects and how we can work together to bring about the establishment of a dedicated program to fund our future.