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Thursday, 27 November 2008
Page: 11687

Mr IAN MACFARLANE (11:46 AM) —I must say—

Mr Ripoll —You must say something. Apologise—that is what you must do.

Mr IAN MACFARLANE —Mr Deputy Speaker, the member for Oxley, after having delivered 20 minutes of absolutely nothing, is out of his chair and interjecting.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr KJ Thomson)—Order! The member for Oxley will cease interjecting.

Mr IAN MACFARLANE —I am more than happy to take him up on his interjection and what was probably the most vacuous speech I have never heard on infrastructure and these very significant proposals, he claims, that are being put forward by his government. After 10 years in this House he is reduced to hyperbole and insults from the backbench in attempting to attack the legacy of the previous government.

Let me just say for the record that the money that will be used in this Nation-building Funds Bill 2008 did not fall out of the sky. That money was accumulated by the Howard government, by the member for Higgins, in a well-thought-through economic and fiscal strategy that has put this country in arguably the best position of any modern economy in the world to withstand what will be one of the most difficult periods of the globe’s economic history. It is because of the legacy of the member for Higgins that this government has this money to spend on infrastructure. No-one argues that infrastructure is needed. The member for Oxley had the audacity—in fact, the ignorance—to say that we had ‘more money than you knew what to do with’. I assure the member for Oxley that we knew exactly what to do with that money. The first thing we had to do with that money was to address the fact that whenever Labor gets into office they run deficits—and they are softening us up for another deficit now. Yesterday we heard the Prime Minister, instead of trying to hold the economy together, instead of saying we have an economic strategy, say that we will be going into deficit. What the member for Higgins did in his time as Treasurer was to pay off the $96 billion legacy left by the previous government. That is the economic management of Labor. We are seeing it again in this House and we are seeing it again in this bill. The member for Oxley should at least have the decency and the wit to talk about some of the infrastructure needs in his electorate.

Perhaps I know those needs better. Perhaps I drive on the Ipswich Road more often than he does. Perhaps I am in his constituency more than he is. The reality is that there was ample opportunity for him to talk about the problems with computers in schools. His government’s program is failing out there. There was ample opportunity for him to talk about the health needs and the growing waiting lists for operations at the Ipswich Hospital. And of course there was ample opportunity for him to talk about the issues in relation to Ipswich Road, a road which the Rudd government has politicised beyond belief. The member for Oxley will leave a legacy of a road that will be at capacity before the Rudd plan of six lanes will be completed. They will take us nowhere. Not once did his vacuous statement and his sort of political point-scoring draw on the positives of this bill. I know there are limited positives, but the reality is that, instead of at least addressing the issues, he showed why, perhaps, the people of Ipswich have the problems they have.

Labor governments in Queensland and now federally are failing to address the key issues, and this bill will need to be amended to ensure that it does. The Nation-building Funds Bill 2008 establishes three separate financial asset funds: the Building Australia Fund, the Education Investment Fund, and the Health and Hospitals Fund. Where did that money come from? Of course, it came from the surpluses laid down by the Howard government. The government announced in the budget of 2008 that there would be $41 billion of funds by 1 July next year. It is estimated that there will be a shortfall of some $14.7 billion due to the government’s decision to spend most of the anticipated surplus. The Rudd government have no credibility when it comes to infrastructure funding. They can talk the talk but they cannot do the work. They cannot set down a clear economic management policy for what is happening in Australia, let alone define how these bills are going to be put into operation. They have no strategy for economic management in Australia. They sit there and abandon fiscal management by saying the country will go into deficit. The Treasurer says that within the economic cycle they will be in surplus. We know what that economic cycle is. The economic cycle means deficits under Labor were corrected by surpluses under the coalition government. We continue to see that the Rudd government is unable to show anything at all after being in government for 12 months except a great deal of talk. At a time when we should be seeing legislation that is going to build confidence and show the investors and the mums and dads of Australia that we have a government that understands economic management, what we are seeing is rhetoric, economic recklessness and continued mistakes.

By contrast, the coalition had a track record of getting out there and actually getting projects rolling. It allocated $38 billion under AusLink 1 and 2. Not only has the Rudd government not advanced infrastructure but it has actively sabotaged the work of AusLink 2 by turning it into a political football. Given the sorry record of state Labor governments on infrastructure projects—and I must say that Queensland’s record is bad enough but it pales into insignificance when compared with the New South Wales government—and the dismal start by this government, the need for greater scrutiny will be paramount under the Rudd government’s infrastructure program.

The coalition is calling for transparency in the workings and analysis undertaken with regard to all competing projects. There will be very strong concerns about how transparent the process will be. Even before any of the money has been allocated Labor has shown repeatedly that it is prepared to play political football with the issue in an attempt to score political points.

In early October it was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald that the New South Wales government was told by the Rudd government not to bother applying for funds for a major Sydney infrastructure project. There were no votes in it because it did not give the political reward—forget the economic reward—that the Rudd government was searching for. Concerns that these funds were a political slush fund for Labor were exacerbated by a report in the Age newspaper that the original legislation was pulled by the infrastructure minister ‘because it gave him insufficient ministerial discretion over how the money would be allocated’. We know that he is going to allocate this in a nontransparent way unless we put in place the required transparency and the required amendments to this legislation.

Another case in point is one in my own electorate—and unlike the member for Oxley, I am happy to stand at this dispatch box, as I stood at that dispatch box and as I stood in that seat over there and argued the case for the Toowoomba Range Crossing. Under the Howard government we saw that crossing being given the green light. In the May 2007 budget $700 million was allocated to start building that road, a project that is probably going to cost $2 billion to complete. Yet as soon as Labor came into government, as soon as the new minister took his place, that money was withdrawn. He continues to refuse to say that that project will go ahead and he cannot give any reason. He knows that the money is there, he knows that it was in the budget, he knows that the need for the range is there, and so we are left to surmise that the only reason that that money has been withdrawn is because of politics.

Why do we know that? As is their wont, the member for Longman, who sits in this chamber, let the cat out of the bag in a speech that he gave when he actively advocated withholding infrastructure funding to coalition electorates as a ‘form of punishment’ for those of us on this side of the House who had the audacity to use the democratic process availed in this place to oppose new Labor taxes. So the penalty for us for using the democratic process, which we should all hold so dear, according to the member for Longman is that we be ‘punished’, that those on this side of the chamber should be punished for daring to oppose new Labor taxes. So he quite actively and quite blatantly stated in this House that there should be infrastructure funding withheld as a result.

The Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government himself is not without blame in that area. He has certainly used every opportunity in this chamber to exploit infrastructure projects like the Toowoomba bypass. We saw him in this House produce a letter, which I dared him to table, where I asked him for the Toowoomba Range Crossing. He seemed to think that I had committed some sort of political sin and that, being the member for Groom and asking for a road that is probably 30 years overdue, I should be used as the target of a political point. I am proud of the letter. I wish he had tabled it. I wish that he had enough nous, enough politics, enough sense to understand that a local member advocating a road in his electorate, which stands up to all the guidelines that he is putting forward—and I will come to them in a moment—should not be held up to ridicule by the minister for a cheap political point. So between the minister and the member for Longman—and I am sure that there are others on the other side—the Labor Party is preparing to punish those on this side of the House. Those are the member for Longman’s words; I am not making them up. The word ‘punishment’ was said.

The Rudd Labor government has not even been up-front with our local community in terms of admitting that politics is now the obstacle to the construction of the Toowoomba Range Crossing. It has reduced the issue to cheap theatrics. It makes a mockery of the Prime Minister’s claim that he would ‘govern for all Australians’. Based on the Prime Minister’s own criteria for the Building Australia Fund, the case is clear for the Toowoomba bypass. It is a bypass which fits all the requirements outlined by the Prime Minister and it is one project which needs to be built as soon as possible.

It is little wonder then that there are grave concerns about the $20 billion infrastructure fund becoming a slush fund for Labor. The potential also exists for state governments to duck their responsibilities and simply take infrastructure projects off their own books. Every single dollar allocated to the funds has been provided for by the surpluses of the previous, Howard government—every single dollar. The Rudd government has already shown that it has no economic strategy to manage the current situation and it will now have insufficient surpluses to contribute any significant extra dollars to these funds in 2009 and 2010. In fact, we will be damn lucky if there are any surpluses at all. According to the Treasurer, we are going into a temporary deficit situation. Who knows how long that temporary deficit will last?

I noticed last night on The 7.30 Report that there is a new interviewer called Terry—I thought it was Kerry, but the Treasurer called him Terry, and I assumed the Treasurer knew what he was talking about—and, when ‘Terry’ asked the Treasurer how long the temporary deficit would last, the Treasurer was unable to answer the question. For those of us who know the record of Labor governments, state and federal, that chilled us to the bone.

The coalition want full disclosure of the cost-benefit analysis for recommended projects and for those rejected as well, including all data, assumptions and models used. It means that there will be full transparency of PPP contracts. That is the only way we will have confidence in this whole process. We have already seen that, in their attempts to carry out major infrastructure, the Rudd government do not have the capacity to execute the plan. The first major infrastructure project was the computers in schools program, and that is already falling apart. Even where they are able to put computers on desks, they are unable to supply the data links to run them. I have a school in my electorate, in Quinalow, that has these computers waiting for the links to come but with no way in the world the line will run.

We see the absolute shemozzle that the minister for communications, Senator Conroy, has produced in his ham-fisted attempt to deliver broadband into regional areas. A project going nowhere would be the best way to describe the broadband proposal being put forward by the government. Telstra have put forward an almost farcical proposal, saying they will not proceed unless they are given a number of guarantees first. When you have economic managers like those on the other side and you are a corporate operator in Australia, I guess you would try to find some form of certainty in moving forward.

But the computers in schools program is falling apart. The government have precluded using any funds to pay for ongoing running or maintenance costs, including staff costs, and state governments are saying that they simply cannot afford to install these computers in their schools. The lack of economic understanding on that side of the House means that they are unable to foresee that there are whole-of-life costs in putting computers in schools. It is not just the capital costs of the machine itself; it is the time to install it, to operate it, to maintain it and to train the people who are going to be teaching the children how to best use it. This is a classic example of a government obsessed with photo opportunities but failing in terms of rigorous planning to see the project through.

 These nation-building funds and the accompanying infrastructure projects they will fund do not represent a timely response to the global financial crisis or address concerns about the slowing Australian economy. These are major infrastructure projects, and again they highlight just how little the government has thought about them. It can throw the money at the state governments—and I am sure the state Labor governments will find a way to spend it—but, if we are looking for a long-term, quality infrastructure plan to come out of this, this money will not be spent in time to have a major impact on the current global economy and the effect that it is having here in Australia.

The Commonwealth’s plan, if delivered in haste and for the wrong reasons—which it is—is likely to result in a number of problems. Even if some major public infrastructure projects can be brought forward, there is a likelihood that they will be rushed and bungled and of dubious economic or social benefit. And if you want to see a good example of dubious economic benefit then go and have a look at the member for Oxley’s proposal for Ipswich Road. Go and have a look at what the vehicle numbers are going to be on the road by the time that road is completed in 2012. The legacy of the Labor government and the member for Oxley will be a road that is at capacity before it is even completed.

It is important to stress that a good public infrastructure program is based on an accurate assessment of each proposed project to see if it produces a net benefit to the public. The Productivity Commission ought to analyse all proposed projects and report publicly on their merit or otherwise. That would give us some confidence that all the talk we hear from the Rudd government, although it never delivers, can actually be turned into something useful and lasting. On roads, on education and on health, the coalition government got down to the hard work and it delivered. The Rudd Labor government continues to dither and politick.

The coalition will be moving a number of amendments to the government’s nation-building funds bills to provide transparency, to guarantee productivity, to reveal total costs—that is, whole-of-life costs—and to stop revenue-gouging by the state governments. On transparency, productivity, funding of ongoing costs and upfront fees, we require that sort of accountability to have any confidence in these bills.