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Monday, 1 December 2008
Page: 12016

Mr MARLES (12:55 PM) —I rise to speak in support of the Nation-building Funds Bill 2008, the Nation-building Funds (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2008 and the COAG Reform Fund Bill 2008. The Nation-building Funds Bill and the consequential amendments bill amend the Future Fund Act 2006, the Income Tax Assessment Act 1997, the Telecommunications (Consumer Protection and Service Standards) Act 1999 and the Telstra Corporation Act 1991 and repeal the Higher Education Endowment Fund Act 2007. They do all of this to establish three of the government’s nation-building funds, as announced in the budget earlier this year. They are the Building Australia Fund, the Education Investment Fund and the Health and Hospitals Fund.

The COAG Reform Fund Bill, which is being debated concurrently with the others, establishes the COAG Reform Fund, which is designed for the purposes of disbursing funds to the states and territories from these three nation-building funds and, as the need arises, funds from appropriation bills and special appropriations in the form of national partnership payments. The net effect of all of these bills is to implement critical elements of the government’s nation-building agenda, to upgrade and develop infrastructure in areas such as transport, communication, higher education, vocational education and training and health as well as to strengthen the national economy in the context of the global financial crisis.

Can I start by saying that these bills and these funds were conceived in the budget earlier this year, in May, in response to the parlous state of infrastructure in this country which had been left by the Howard government—a government which for 12 years allowed infrastructure in this country to wither on the vine. There is nothing more important for our economy than productivity. Indeed, the Reserve Bank Governor in April this year said this in relation to the significance of productivity within our economy. He said:

Ultimately, productivity is the source of growth in living standards. In the long run, if it is not everything, it is pretty close to it.

Of course, there is an intrinsic link between the productive capacity of our economy and the state of our nation’s infrastructure. Infrastructure is what allows the economy to flourish and to function. Despite 20 separate warnings from the Reserve Bank of Australia, the Howard government did precious little to deal with the parlous state of infrastructure in this country. It allowed Australia to fall behind. That is not just the opinion of Labor; it is not just the opinion of the current government. It is also the opinion of Engineers Australia, the nation’s peak engineering body. It releases report cards which assess the state of our national infrastructure. A review of the report cards in the last part of the Howard government, from 2001 through to 2005, makes very troubled reading indeed. The reports indicate that during that period the state of our roads, the state of our national electricity grid and the state of our sea ports all went backwards. Airport infrastructure stagnated. Overall, Engineers Australia gave the state of our nation’s infrastructure a C plus. In their closing notes they cited concerns over ‘significant problems’ in our nation’s infrastructure.

Even more disturbing was their 2007 assessment of national communications infrastructure. In the December report of that year they indicated that only Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane had a fixed communications infrastructure that could be deemed good—meaning that it can ‘generally satisfy the needs of most users’. Perth and Canberra were deemed to be adequate—meaning ‘it does not meet the needs of most users’. Adelaide, Hobart and Darwin got a D or ‘poor’ rating, meaning ‘major expenditure on telecommunications infrastructure would be of benefit to users’. And that was just the capital cities. I am mindful of the time. I will seek leave at this point to resume my comments when we return.

Leave granted.

Sitting suspended from 1.00 pm to 4.11 pm

Mr MARLES —When it comes to education, the legacy of the Howard government is one of neglect. Only 0.1 per cent of GDP was spent on pre-primary institutions during the final years of the Howard government, compared to an OECD average of 0.4 per cent of GDP, while countries such as Denmark and Hungary were spending around 0.8 per cent of GDP on education. When it comes to the other end of the education spectrum—tertiary education—we all know that, during the 12 years of the Howard government, we were the only country that reduced its spending on tertiary education as a proportion of GDP.

When we look at infrastructure, we see that there are many statistics around health. There were 4.8 acute hospital beds per 1,000 people in Australia in 1990; by 2005 that had dropped to 3.6. That compares with an OECD average of 3.9, but in Germany it is 6.4 and in Japan it is 8.2. There are many similar statistics which bear out the point that our health infrastructure has withered on the vine. Indeed, on 20 March this year the shadow health minister, Joe Hockey, said:

I don’t need to tell you that the overburdened public health system is struggling to meet the strain of its workload.

Never have truer words been said. The real question is: whose fault was that?

Infrastructure is crucial to regional Australia. There is no better example of that than in my electorate of Corio, which is based on the city of Geelong. We talk about Geelong having three themes going forward. The first theme is that Geelong is a lifestyle city. It is in a very beautiful part of Port Phillip Bay, with a raised peninsula and the north-facing Corio Bay. It also has access to the surf coast. Increasingly, people working in Melbourne are choosing to live in Geelong. But critical to making that part of the economic future of Geelong is the access that people from Geelong have to Melbourne, and that is an infrastructure issue. Anyone who travels on the road knows that, once you pass the Western Ring Road interchange, there is a bottleneck going into the city of Melbourne from its western approaches. That is an infrastructure issue which ultimately needs to be dealt with. The rail system is good in that it is very well patronised, but that means the trains are often overcrowded. Within Geelong, car parks around the train stations are very hard to find. Again, these are infrastructure issues.

We talk about high-tech manufacturing being part of the future of Geelong. We have multinationals; we have a great university, Deakin University, which has an increasing research base; and we have CSIRO research institutions in Geelong. In terms of multinationals which have a research capacity, there is no better example than the Ford product development unit, which is based in Geelong. All of those are the ingredients of a high-tech manufacturing sector in Geelong but, again, critical to that is infrastructure in the area of education. We need to make sure that we are teaching our kids the skills to perform in those high-tech manufacturing jobs, and we need to make sure that we are investing in research infrastructure so that we can create those high-tech manufacturing jobs.

Geelong also has a wonderful future in relation to transport and logistics, particularly to the north of Geelong, where you have an airport, a seaport, national highway No.1 and the national standard gauge railway all within a few kilometres of each other and all on the northern fringes of Geelong—and with land out there to burn, in a sense. So there is a real opportunity for companies to be based there, in what is a very geographically strategic position in the country. But to make all of that happen we need infrastructure.

I do not say all that as a wish list of infrastructure projects in Geelong, because this legislation provides a much more rigorous process than simply addressing the politics of the day. This is not about a three-year, short-term political time frame; this is about a rigorous process, through Infrastructure Australia and other important sources of advice, of assessment about what is actually in the national interest over a very long period of time. But I do raise those issues around Geelong to indicate the extent to which infrastructure has withered on the vine over the past 12 years and how important building our infrastructure is to getting the economies of places like Geelong going again. Getting the economies of regional Australia going again is very important indeed.

Finally, I conclude my comments on this legislation by making this point about where infrastructure was at under the Howard government as opposed to what the plans are now under the Rudd government. The former Liberal Party President Mr Shane Stone said in the year 2001 that at that point the party’s leadership was ‘mean, tricky, out of touch and not listening’. Well, little changed in the final years of the Howard government. Their approach to national education was indeed mean spirited; their management of the nation’s health system was tricky, as they sought to blame the shortcomings of the health system on the states; and they were out of touch when it came to the need for infrastructure within this country. By November 2007 one thing was certain, and that was that the Howard government were not listening to the people—but, then again, the electorate was certainly no longer interested in listening to them. The Howard government’s legacy is one of neglect.

The Rudd government intends to overturn that legacy of neglect, and these bills are critical to that reform. They will provide much needed investment in the critical areas of health, education and infrastructure. In the process, they will provide a buffer in the context of the global economic crisis but, more importantly, in the long term they will lift our nation’s productivity by reducing those capacity constraints on our economy. Australia should not be a C-grade student when it comes to infrastructure, health and education, and these bills are absolutely about helping our nation lift its grade. I commend these bills to the House.