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Wednesday, 26 November 2008
Page: 11636

Mr SLIPPER (12:37 PM) —It is interesting that the previous speaker congratulated the Treasurer and the government on what they have done to help bring about the funds made available under these bills—the Nation-building Funds Bill 2008, the Nation-building Funds (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2008 and the COAG Reform Fund Bill 2008. The reality is that this government, elected on 24 November last year, has not actually provided any of the funds with respect to the spending included in these bills. Every single dollar allocated to the funds has been provided from the surpluses of the previous Liberal-National government—

Ms Hall —It is only taxpayers’ money.

Mr SLIPPER —and the Rudd government will not have sufficient fiscal surpluses to contribute any significant extra dollars to these funds in 2009-10. The honourable member for Shortland sought to interject but she did not articulate her interjection particularly well, and as much as I would like to respond to it, as I did not know what she said, I am therefore unable to do so. No discourtesy intended, Madam Deputy Speaker. Despite the financial crisis that grips the nation and the world at present, there is an ongoing need for the provision of services such as infrastructure, education and health. Interestingly enough, when the founding fathers drew up the Constitution more than a century ago, they allocated certain responsibilities to the newly formed national government, with all remaining responsibilities staying with the colonies, which became states following Federation.

Unfortunately, over the years, the states had plenty of responsibilities but not the financial wherewithal to carry out those responsibilities, and it was the former Liberal-National government, through the introduction of the GST—every last cent of which is paid to the states—that returned to the states the ability to meet their constitutional obligations. Despite that, the states seem to be hooked on the concept of constantly running to the federal government of the day, cap in hand, seeking additional funds. Even though the GST was intended to provide the states with the necessary money to improve their education systems, their road systems and health, unfortunately the states have failed their communities, and it is therefore necessary for the Australian government to top up spending to make sure that vital infrastructure needed by the Australian community in 2008 is provided and available.

One of the problems we have as a nation is that we have a huge landmass and a relatively small population. That means that the infrastructure which is taken for granted in places like Europe, where there is a very small area and a high population, simply is not always able to be delivered. However, having said that, I also say that infrastructure is absolutely essential and it is important that the government look closely at what it is able to do, because the Australian people do deserve an ongoing dividend for the sound economic management of the country between 1996 and 2007 by the former Liberal-National government.

The bills before the chamber allocate funds towards the establishment of three asset funds. In fact, there is an allocation of $26.3 billion towards the establishment of the three new asset funds and the allocation of funds to ensure the efficient provision of services which are much needed. While on the surface it does seem to be a sensible development, the funding amount fails to meet the government’s own announcement that the asset funds would include some $41 billion by July 2009. Without the provision of infrastructure that helps deliver the physical environment to ensure that business and the community are able to operate effectively and efficiently, progress and prosperity are stunted. Equally, the provision of quality education and health services effectively supports the human assets that deliver the physical and intellectual labour that is the impetus behind progress, achievement and therefore prosperity. The bills carry with them some confusion as to whether money is available to at least launch the three new funds with the amounts promised in the budget in May. There is also the issue that some suggest the true demand for new infrastructure in Australia will be somewhere around $130 billion, which suggests that these three funds will fall well short of the mark when it actually comes to funding the nation-building infrastructure required. This again raises the question of whether Labor has launched this program in a genuine effort to build Australia’s prosperity or only to generate what it hopes will be media coverage that puts the government in a positive light. This bill effectively creates additional government compartments and therefore more bureaucracy.

The funds are to be known by the somewhat dry terms of the BAF, the EIF and the HHF—or the Building Australia Fund, the Education Investment Fund and the Health and Hospitals Fund. Key areas of responsibility for the BAF will be those items that come under the descriptive umbrella of transport infrastructure, such as ports, improved and new roads and rail, and urban transport; communications infrastructure, specifically broadband; and infrastructure in the areas of energy generation and water provision, at an overall cost of $12.6 billion. The Education Investment fund, established with $8.7 billion, will provide for the administration of funds for new infrastructure at universities and other training institutions, including TAFE colleges. The Health and Hospitals Fund will be launched with $5 billion to drive spending and new investment in hospital infrastructure, refurbishments and medical technology and facilities for major research. The three financial assets funds will be launched from 1 January with a proportion of the launch funds, some $15 million, allocated from the 2007-08 surplus: $7.5 billion from the surplus will go to the Building Australia Fund, $2.5 billion to the Education Investment Fund and $5 billion to the Health and Hospitals Fund.

I just want to briefly correct some assertions made from time to time by members of the government party. I pointed out previously that every single dollar allocated to the funds has been provided from the surpluses of the former Liberal-National government. Also, notwithstanding what the government has claimed, the Liberal-National opposition have never said that we will block any infrastructure legislation. We are on the record as being strong believers in infrastructure and we do have a very, very good record of investing $38 billion in infrastructure through AusLink 1 and AusLink 2 alone. The Liberal-National opposition do call for transparency in the workings and analysis undertaken in relation to all competing projects. The opposition want full disclosure of the results of the cost-benefit analysis for projects recommended and those rejected, including all data, assumptions and models used. It does mean full transparency of private-public partnership contracts.

The Rudd government can start to reassure the public by confirming that all of the activities of Infrastructure Australia and the advisory boards are fully transparent. Also, it ought to be noted that the first major infrastructure proposal of the new government, the computers in schools program, is already failing, with states running away from the project. The lack of a whole-of-life assessment of the cost of this project has meant that additional capital and recurrent costs two to three times the initial cost were not factored into the rollout of the program. Also, very great scrutiny will have to be placed upon the Rudd government infrastructure programs, given the dismal history, over many years, of failure on the part of state Labor governments. Birds of a feather flock together, and the community will be looking very closely at the infrastructure programs of this government.

The funds and the accompanying infrastructure projects they will fund will not represent a timely response to the global financial crisis or address concerns about a slowing Australian economy. Many projects will take years to bring to fruition, and obviously there must be consultation with the Australian people. The government has been referring to these funds as long term, but there needs to be a focus on laying the foundations for the future, the long-term future. This is particularly important in our high-growth areas such as the Sunshine Coast, which I am privileged to represent in the Australian parliament. Most people in the community understand that infrastructure does take time to design, to build and to plan, and all of that hinges on first-class planning.

If the Commonwealth’s plan is delivered in haste and for the wrong reasons, it is likely to result in a number of white elephants, and the community will certainly hold the government to account for this. It is important to recognise that increasingly the Australian government does have a role to play in nation building. It really ought to be a matter for the states, but the states have failed the Australian community and so it is necessary for federal governments, regardless of their political colour, to step in and do the sorts of things that states are neglecting. Undoubtedly Australia needs new infrastructure to help it climb out of the current financial crisis and plan for the future. I am pleased to be able to support these bills, with the caveats that I outlined in my contribution.