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Tuesday, 25 November 2008
Page: 11426


Ms NEAL (9:52 PM) —I rise today to speak in support of the Nation-building Funds Bill 2008. This bill is presented in conjunction with the Nation-building Funds (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2008 and the COAG Reform Fund Bill 2008. Together these measures will bring into being three new infrastructure funds: the Building Australia Fund, the Education Investment Fund and the Health and Hospitals Fund. This package of reforms fulfils the Rudd Labor government’s 2008-09 budget commitment to establish three nation-building funds. These funds are designed to facilitate significant levels of new investment in critical areas such as transport, communications, water, energy, education, research and health infrastructure. The Nation-building Funds Bill 2008 is the centrepiece measure that facilitates this investment. The legislation establishes the scope of the three funds and their funding arrangements.

The establishment of these funds illustrates the government’s commitment to strengthening the nation’s infrastructure capabilities for the future. The funds will meet head-on the great and immediate challenge posed to Australia by the global financial crisis. The provision of critical infrastructure will strengthen the Australian economy in the short to medium term by stimulating activity across a number of important sectors. This stimulus to economic activity is one of the goals of the Rudd Labor government’s Economic Security Strategy, which was framed in October 2008 as a rapid and decisive response to the great challenges facing the world’s economies. The provision of much-needed infrastructure is central to this response. The flow-on effects of fast-tracking this infrastructure will boost economic activity, which will in turn protect Australian families from the impacts of the global downturn.

In the longer term, the provision of critical infrastructure will enhance Australia’s potential for sustained growth into the future by addressing serious gaps in the nation’s infrastructure. As such, the measures contained in this package of bills form an important part of the Rudd Labor government’s plans to create a stronger and more balanced economy, an economy no longer constrained in its potential for growth by inadequate infrastructure. If we are to properly support Australian households through the global financial crisis and plug the gaps in the nation’s economy then a speedy realisation of the infrastructure plans contained in this bill is crucial.

The provision of infrastructure is particularly important to regional areas of Australia. In my electorate of Robertson, a regional seat centred on the Central Coast of New South Wales between Sydney and Newcastle, infrastructure provision is vital in the delivery of adequate services to local residents. The Central Coast is a region with a rapidly-growing population, and historically high growth rates have, over the past decades, outstripped the provision of physical and social infrastructure. The region also has a higher than average proportion of aged residents and a significant number of young families. In addition, my electorate contains tens of thousands of workers who commute daily to work in Sydney. Road and rail infrastructure and commuter parking facilities are vital to maintain the quality of everyday life for these people. The growing population also means that hospitals, water supplies, schools and communications infrastructure are under pressure to keep pace with demand.

I have fought hard to ensure that the residents of Robertson receive ongoing federal support for vital roads, water supplies, utility upgrades and community infrastructure items. I am pleased to relate that, as a member of the Rudd Labor government, I have delivered on many significant local projects. These are truly nation-building projects that strengthen the fabric of the region’s infrastructure and improve the lives of locals. These projects include $81 million for the Mardi Dam to Mangrove Dam water pipeline, which secures water for our area; $7 million to upgrade the Gosford commuter car-parking station; $900,000 for a community sports precinct at Erina High School; $840 million to provide a dedicated freight rail track from Sydney through the Central Coast; and $680,000 to install CCTV security cameras in three CBDs on the peninsula. In addition to these projects, Gosford City Council has received ongoing federal government funding worth $17.8 million in the past year alone. This figure includes more than $10 million in financial assistance grants and $4.5 million for much-needed improvements in the water quality on the peninsula.

The importance of the present government’s commitment to deliver infrastructure projects such as these to regional areas of Australia cannot be overstated. I am delighted that the Nation-building Funds Bill 2008 and its associated bills address the process of national infrastructure delivery in such a bold and comprehensive manner. The funding framework it sets out will streamline and strengthen the delivery of these projects. In Robertson, much more has been achieved in infrastructure provision, but much more needs to be done. I am particularly focused on three infrastructure projects from which the Central Coast community would receive enormous benefit. The road and rail links to Sydney are the lifeblood of the Central Coast community for commuters, road users and businesses alike. The so-called ‘missing link’ in the road network between the F3 freeway to the M2 and M7 motorways is an issue that I am especially keen to see completed. The government has already committed $150 million to begin the planning and approval stage of this vital infrastructure upgrade. I look forward to further funding in the future to complete this project. In the longer term, a second rail link between Sydney and the Central Coast and on to Newcastle is a project that the region looks forward to immensely as a solution to the area’s transport problems.

One of the most pressing infrastructure issues on the coast, however, is in the area of health infrastructure. There is an urgent need for a public radiotherapy unit at Gosford Hospital. By 2016, the New South Wales Department of Health estimates that there will be a 30 per cent increase in the number of cancer patients in the area service region. There is currently no public radiotherapy unit on the Central Coast, and desperately sick patients are forced to travel to Sydney or Newcastle for treatment. Other patients must pay for their treatment at a private clinic, while some others are forced to give up treatment altogether. This is a heartbreaking situation to which a solution must be found. I will be working hard to attract federal funding for a radiotherapy unit to be built on the Central Coast. The swift passage of the Nation-building Funds Bill 2008 will give hope to the many needy cancer patients in my area.

The three funds set up by the Nation-building Funds Bill are as follows. The first of the nation-building funds is the Building Australia Fund, or BAF, which is designed to finance capital investments in the critical economic sectors of transport infrastructure such as roads, rail, urban transport and ports, communications infrastructure such as the national broadband network, energy infrastructure and water infrastructure. The second fund is the Education Investment Fund, or EIF, which will finance capital investments in higher education, vocational education and training, and research institutions. Finally, the third nation-building fund is the Health and Hospitals Fund, or HHF. This fund will finance capital investments in health infrastructure, especially the renewal and refurbishment of hospitals, medical technology equipment and major medical research facilities and projects.

This package of bills also sets up a COAG Reform Fund. This fund will act as a vehicle through which capital transfers from the funds and funding from future budgets will be disbursed to the states and territories. Funding for the three funds will come from a variety of sources. In this financial year, the government will commit a total of $12.6 billion to the Building Australia Fund, including proceeds from the Telstra 3 sale, and the balance of the Communications Fund, which will be closed. A total of $8.7 billion will be contributed to the Education Investment Fund for education infrastructure, including the balance of the Higher Education Endowment Fund, which will also be closed. A total of $5 billion will be provided for the Health and Hospitals Fund. In all, an amount of $15 billion will be transferred from the 2007-08 budget surplus to the three funds. However, this will not impact on the budget bottom line because all funds transferred will remain within the general government sector. Future allocations to the funds will be made as budget circumstances permit.

The scale of these funding allocations is testament to the government’s commitment to addressing the existing gaps in Australia’s infrastructure capabilities. This is a commitment to an infrastructure development program of historic proportions. This program of nation building will set the nation up to meet both the short-term challenge presented to Australia by the global economic crisis and the longer term economic growth. It will also help achieve the government’s long-term goal of ensuring the nation has a stronger, more flexible and more capable economy. For too long infrastructure shortfalls have caused restraints on growth that have held back the Australian economy and productivity. The measures contained in this package of three bills will see billions invested in overcoming these restraints.

The identification and financial assessments of appropriate infrastructure projects will be overseen by a number of sources, including advice from Infrastructure Australia. Funding for projects to be implemented by the states and territories will be allocated through the COAG Reform Fund. By accelerating implementation of the funds, spending proposals for infrastructure development can be brought online more quickly, but these proposals will still be subject to the most rigorous financial evaluation by independent advisory bodies set up to oversee each of the three funds. Spending from the funds will of course depend on macroeconomic conditions as the nation moves forward. In this regard the advice of the Loans Council will be taken into consideration. The nation-building funds will use the investment framework of the already existing Future Fund, whose Board of Guardians will be given statutory responsibility for managing the investments. The scope and powers of the Future Fund board to take on this management role will be same as those set out in the Future Fund Act 2006.

Infrastructure Australia will have a major oversight role in relation to the workings of the Building Australia Fund. It will provide advice to the relevant ministers responsible for water, energy, infrastructure and communications regarding payments from the BAF for the development of infrastructure projects. Spending from the BAF on the $4.7 billion national broadband network will be subject to government consideration. A new Education Investment Fund Advisory Board will be set up to provide similar oversight for that fund. A Health and Hospitals Fund Advisory Board will do the same for the HHF. Annual appropriation acts will declare a general drawing rights limit for the funds in each financial year, which will be determined in accordance with the Financial Management and Accountability Act 1997. This will provide a rigorous framework of financial assessment for the ongoing operations of the three nation-building funds. It will also promote an infrastructure development regime that is based on transparency and accountability.

The process will be subject to careful oversight, full disclosure and parliamentary scrutiny. In order to bring forward the government’s boost to infrastructure, however, interim measures are to be put in place to allow the Minister for Finance and Deregulation to determine drawing right limits for the funds in the period up to 30 June 2009. This will enable work in key areas of infrastructure to commence before 1 July 2009. From 2009 to 2010, projects proposed to be funded by the nation-building funds will be assessed as part of the normal budget process. The timing of this package of bills is crucial. It is vital that these measures be passed by the end of the parliamentary sitting year so that the funds can be established as planned by 1 January 2009. This will allow the fast-tracking of infrastructure plans, which form a central part of the government’s Economic Security Strategy announced earlier this year.

It is critical in this respect that the opposition adopt a consistent position on the bold measures contained in this legislation. Members opposite have adopted various positions on the government’s nation-building agenda. It is time that the opposition stopped playing political games with the nation-building plans before them. The time for political games is over. The situation is too urgent. The opposition should put the interests of the nation above such petty game playing and allow the passage of the Nation-building Funds Bill 2008 and the two bills that support it. This is an historic opportunity to provide for the infrastructure needs of the Australian economy. I commend the legislation to the House.