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Thursday, 14 August 2003
Page: 18645

Mr ZAHRA (11:15 AM) —I want to chiefly address the issue of the Pakenham bypass, which has been talked about by my colleague and friend the member for Batman in the contribution he has made to this debate. Mr Deputy Speaker Adams, I know that you have been around politics for a little while and in the national parliament for a little while. You will remember the hot debates we have had in these places in the past about the importance of the Pakenham bypass. It was a hot issue in 2001 election campaign and it was a hot issue in the 1998 election campaign.

I remember the Treasurer, Peter Costello, getting out his Melways and managing to get himself all the way to Pakenham from his electorate office in Armadale. He stood on the Princes Highway at Pakenham with one arm around the Liberal candidate for McMillan and the other arm around Bob Charles, the Liberal member for La Trobe. He said, `We'—that is, the Howard government—`will fund half of the cost of the Pakenham bypass.' It was a pretty big deal because it came about two weeks after Labor had made that commitment. They made a pretty desperate attempt to get the votes of people to try and take me out in the electorate of McMillan.

They tried hard, and fair enough—political life is a hard game. This is what goes on. A political party does something to try and get a seat, and I can understand what the Liberal Party was trying to do in making that commitment. As it turns out, I am still here. But the problem for the Howard government is that they have to honour the promise they made. It seems pretty clear now that they have no intention of honouring that promise. John Howard and the Liberal Party say that all they are prepared to commit to the Pakenham bypass is $100 million. That is $21 million short of half of the cost of project, and they promised us that they would fund half.

The Howard government says it is not prepared to commit the extra $21 million which we need to get the project built and then, in the next breath, it wastes $26 million of taxpayers' money on government advertising to justify its changes to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. This is an outrageous waste of taxpayers' money and I am sure that the great majority of people who live in our district would agree that this money would be better spent on the construction of the Pakenham bypass. We know that, in the five years to the end of 2002, four people lost their lives and 66 people have been seriously injured on the Princes Highway through Pakenham.

The government's own budget papers recognise the Princes Highway through Pakenham as Victoria's worst crash zone, yet the government continues to refuse to honour its promise and fund half of the cost of the project. The government should axe its wasteful promotional advertising about the changes to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and put the money towards the building of the bypass. We are all sick of the government's excuses in relation to the project. We want to see the bypass built, not more ads promoting the Howard government on telly.

It is very interesting to consider the people who have been involved in the Howard government's so-called commitment to the Pakenham bypass. Let's list them. We know that one of the chief characters in the play was the member for La Trobe, Bob Charles. We know that one of the other chief characters in the play was the Minister for Transport and Regional Services, John Anderson. We know that one of the other chief characters in the play was the Treasurer, Peter Costello. Let's have a look at these three fellows.

Bob Charles announced in the parliament yesterday that he will be standing down as the member for La Trobe and will not be recontesting at the next election. I wish Bob and his family well and wish him all the best in post-political life. But politics is all about accountability. When you are in government and make a promise to people and you do not honour that promise, they can vote you out at the next election. That is what government is all about. So Bob Charles, the Liberal member for La Trobe, will not be around to put himself forward at the next federal election for people to judge his performance and his effectiveness in terms of delivering on the promise that the Howard government made at the federal election.

Let us turn to the other two characters in this play. One is the Minister for Transport and Regional Services, John Anderson. Every time I see him get up at question time to answer a question, I think about that old Clash song from the 1980s, `Should I stay or should I go? If I stay there will be trouble.' That is what I think about every time he gets up to answer a question. That is what goes through his mind every day of the week, and he has refused to give a commitment to the parliament and to the people in his electorate as to whether he will stay or go. So it is possible that he, as one of the other chief characters in this drama, will be around at the next election to be held to account for the promise that he made in relation to the Pakenham bypass.

That brings me to the third chief character in this drama: the Treasurer, Peter Costello. Will he be around at the next federal election, or will he do a dirty big Liberal dummy spit and just get out of here and not recontest at the next election? It seems to me from his sullenness, from his attitude and carry-on about things, that he is probably only half-interested in staying on, unless he is made leader. They are the three main people involved in the Liberal Party promise to fund half the cost of the Pakenham bypass, and apparently there is a pretty strong likelihood that none of them is going to be around at the time of the next federal election to be held to account in relation to this promise.

If politics is not about accountability, what is it about? This is an important issue for the people who live in my electoral district; it is important because it affects families. We are talking about a road that carries the full force of the Princess Highway right through the guts of the township of Pakenham—about 30,000 cars every day. I know Pakenham pretty well; I am sure there are colleagues here from Victoria who know Pakenham pretty well too.

Mr Randall —Good racecourse.

Mr ZAHRA —Exactly. The member for Canning, on the other side, makes a good point: Pakenham does have an excellent racecourse. That is one of the contributing reasons—not often quoted—for our need to have the Pakenham bypass: to have safer access for all of the people involved in the racing industry as they come in and out of Pakenham. So I am glad that the member has mentioned that point. As well as the racecourse, which is right next to the Princess Highway as it runs through Pakenham, we also have Pakenham aged care right on the Princess Highway, Pakenham secondary college, the Catholic primary school, the Pakenham consolidated school, a number of kindergartens and childcare centres and so it goes on. So diverting the Princess Highway as opposed to it going right through the guts of Pakenham will make a really big difference to road safety in the district.

Let me give just a few statistics, because that is how we tend to measure the importance of these priorities in terms of road funding. On that road in the five years to the end of 2002, four people were killed, 66 were seriously injured and, perhaps most breathtaking of all, 214 people sustained other injuries. This is why in the federal government's own budget papers the Pakenham bypass is listed as addressing Victoria's worst crash zone.

We would like to see the Howard government honour its promise in relation to this road. We really want to see it prioritise this road above some of the other things which it seems to be focusing on at the moment. I was absolutely astonished the other day to see that the Howard government had forked out $26 million of taxpayers' money on an advertising campaign spruiking for the changes it is putting in place with the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. I do not think anyone in the community would begrudge a government spending a few dollars in trying to explain to people what is going on; I do not think anyone has a problem with that. But, fair dinkum, $26 million is a lot of kanga. That is a lot of the folding stuff, a lot of money. That $26 million could have been used as the additional amount of money which the Commonwealth needs to put in to match the promise that it made—to match its commitment to this project.

The Commonwealth government promised to fund half of the cost of the Pakenham Bypass—$121 million. They have allocated $100 million in their budget. So I say to the government: `Why don't you leave $5 million in your Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme advertising budget'—leave $5 million there; I'm not telling you not to do anything about it—`take $21 million out of the $26 million, add it to the $100 million which you have said you are going to put in for Pakenham and let's just get the thing built.' People in our district are fed up with the obfuscation on this project. How many more people need to die on this road before the Howard government commits to this project? How many more people need to be injured and how many more people's lives need to be disrupted before we see some action from the government?

Mr Deputy Speaker Adams, you are country member of parliament. Country members of parliament in this place understand, I think better than most people, just how important roads are to the communities that we represent. They are incredibly important for road safety and to ensure that people are able to access opportunities in the cities—opportunities not available to people living in country districts. The great majority of people who live in the Pakenham district commute to Melbourne every day for work. It takes them 50 minutes every day to get to work. If we are going to say that that is an okay thing to do and we in fact encourage them to do that and to take advantage of those opportunities, we have to make it as safe as we possibly can.

Increasingly, people from the Baw Baw Shire municipal area are commuting to work in Melbourne as well. I am sure you will recall, Mr Deputy Speaker Adams, the day that you came to visit me in my constituency and we went up to the Tarago River Cheese Company in Neerim just north of Warragul. In that district, 14 per cent of the people in the Baw Baw Shire municipality who commute to Melbourne every day for work—and the number is growing daily—drive through Pakenham. We know that this figure will continue to grow, which will mean more pressure and more congestion for Pakenham. This will add substantially to the already clearly obvious traffic problems in Pakenham. If we are going to say that we want people to take advantage of these opportunities, we have to make sure that the road infrastructure is in place to support them. It is vitally important that when people drive to work they are not in an unsafe situation and are not putting others at risk.

The Pakenham project is incredibly important for a lot of reasons. As this is a country area, we also face the important issue of being able to get a lot of the goods that we produce in the Latrobe Valley, and West Gippsland in particular, to market. We want to encourage people to focus more on world markets rather than on domestic markets. So we need to make it as easy as possible for them to get their products out to the wharf in order to ship them to the rest of the world. We have some very important industries in our district with very significant export potential: a number of export abattoirs, a timber industry which is increasingly focusing on value adding, and a number of innovative companies in the timber industry that are exporting to Japan and other places throughout the world.

We have the greatest brown coal deposits in the world in the Latrobe Valley and we have Morewell based Energy Brix Australia at their briquette factory producing a product which is in demand right across the world. The easier we can make it for these companies—these great innovators and these people with a bit of dash and courage—to get their product onto world markets, the more jobs we are going to create in local districts. It is as simple as that. We need good road infrastructure to be able to support that innovation.

I notice that my colleague and friend the member for Burke has a book here by Robert Reich. He is a very important author for people to read. It is not in that book but in another of his books where he says that the chief task of government, more than anything else, is to focus on the education and training of its people and on the transport and communications infrastructure of its population. They are the two big things that he says should be the chief task of government.

What we are saying is very consistent with what Reich has been espousing now for some 10 years, which is that in a globalised marketplace you need to have good education and training for your people so they can think for themselves, take advantage of opportunities and be creative. But you also need to have good transport infrastructure and good communications infrastructure. In putting forward the Pakenham bypass as a project we are saying that it is important for the road safety of the people of the Pakenham district and for the people in that region more generally, but it is also important for making sure that people in our region have opportunities to enter world markets through being able to use a quality road network to get their product to those markets.

We are saying that the government should honour their promise in relation to the Pakenham bypass. It is of concern to us that the three people who are most closely associated with this decision may not be contesting the next election. The Treasurer may not be contesting the next election, the Minister for Transport and Regional Services may not be contesting the next election and we heard yesterday that the member for La Trobe, Bob Charles, will not be contesting the next election, to be held accountable for the promise that the Howard government made in the 2001 election, which they have not honoured.

This is a fundamental issue in any democracy—the principle of accountability—where you put yourself forward before the people and say, `Vote for me and I am going to do this.' If you do not do it, people have the ability to hold you accountable for that broken promise. I am worried that in these circumstances the three people most linked to this broken promise may not be recontesting the next federal election—and I want them to. I want them all to so the people in our district will have the opportunity to hold them accountable and let them know just how angry they are about this broken promise.

The issues of road transport and transport generally are important in a country the size of Australia, and we need to understand that they are particularly important for those people who live outside the capital cities. We see a lot of opportunity through the expansion and improvement of the road network in our district. We have just seen the great Bracks government achievement in Victoria with the opening of the Hallam bypass—a great project, delivered ahead of time by about 12 months or so and under budget—which has taken something like 10 or 15 minutes off the travel time to Melbourne from the Latrobe Valley.

When we build the Pakenham bypass—and we will build it; the Labor Party in government will build it—it will take a further 10 or 15 minutes off the transport time from the Latrobe Valley to Melbourne. So that brings Melbourne closer to us and us closer to Melbourne and provides opportunities for people to come and visit our district in larger numbers, which will support our tourism industry as well as provide opportunity for our district to be further developed as a commuter centre for people who are going back and forth to Melbourne, Dandenong or the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne for work.

What we are saying to the government very clearly in our district is that we want the government to honour their promise on the Pakenham bypass. We think that they should not spend $26 million on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme advertising; we think they might be better advised to take $21 million out of that advertising budget, put it towards the Pakenham bypass and get the project built. That would still leave them $5 million to spruik, if they really have to, for their changes to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.