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Wednesday, 18 March 2015
Page: 2892


Mr THISTLETHWAITE (Kingsford Smith) (11:30): I pay tribute to all the members of the Standing Committee on Infrastructure and Communications and the witnesses who gave evidence in this inquiry into the very important issue of infrastructure planning, procurement and funding in Australia.

The previous, Labor government had established Infrastructure Australia to overcome some of the challenges associated with planning for infrastructure and, indeed, the politics that had been associated with infrastructure decisions in the past. IA is a body charged with developing a truly national long-term approach to dealing with and responding to the nation's growth, and restoring infrastructure planning to the heart of national economic management. Most of the recommendations of the government members' report complement and build on the previous, Labor government's initiatives to develop a more independent and effective system of infrastructure planning and delivery in Australia. We support the recommendation for a longer pipeline of projects than a 15-year horizon, and Labor moved amendments to support the government to allow the IA board to do this if it chooses to.

We also support the recommendation that a more planned approach be taken to providing the domestic skills base necessary to support efficient infrastructure planning and procurement. There was a very good suggestion made regarding 3-D imaging of infrastructure throughout the country. This may radically change the cost and time lines associated with infrastructure construction in the medium term and was the subject of a recommendation of this report. Labor strongly supports a robust method of capturing all costs and benefits of infrastructure proposals, including a proper analysis of the wider economic benefits of infrastructure. This method is important in public transport projects and active travel.

Infrastructure is a huge contributor to productivity. It creates current jobs and increases the numbers of future ones. Given the tight position the budget currently is in, it is vital that we select the best projects that ensure maximum productivity to the taxpayer and the best future returns to government for their investment. That is the basis of the Infrastructure Australia model that was established by Labor. It is led by experts and it takes the politics out of decisions regarding which projects are worthiest of government investment in infrastructure.

I want to thank my Labor colleagues on this committee, who prepared a very thoughtful and insightful dissenting report that notes and makes stronger recommendations in respect of planning for corridor reservation and acquisition, particularly in respect of rail projects and deficiencies of the government's approach to privatisation of productive state and Commonwealth infrastructure assets. The Labor members of the committee felt that the evidence showed a need for a Commonwealth authority that transcends the electoral cycle to work with the states, territories, local government and experts to pursue the designation of land corridors for the development of infrastructure, including high-speed rail.

It is fortuitous that the shadow minister for infrastructure has walked into the Federation Chamber at this point in time, because we all know that the shadow minister did excellent work as minister for infrastructure, working on preparing what has been the nation's most comprehensive study of the feasibility of high-speed rail in this country. Coming out of that report was the recommendation to establish a high-speed rail planning authority. The shadow minister for infrastructure currently has a private member's bill before the parliament which should be properly debated by the parliament and deserves thorough consideration and, in our view, support. There was a recommendation of the committee in respect of this, and significant evidence was taken by the inquiry supporting that view.

Mr Albanese gave evidence, and he said:

… support for an authority is an essential precondition. If it does not happen then you will lose momentum. That is the way that the bureaucracy and political class work. If there is not pressure on to keep the momentum and to keep it going, then it will just become another good idea with a report that is on a shelf. That is why I think structurally this is important.

Additionally, we received evidence from the former Deputy Prime Minister of Australia, Tim Fischer, who provided a very insightful and thoughtful written submission—again, supporting the approach of the shadow minister for infrastructure for the High Speed Rail Planning Authority—in which he had this to say:

… Capital City HSR "corridor close out" continues to occur, notably with some near disgraceful planning approvals around outer Melbourne, especially the dogs muddle unfolding at Donnybrook. Significantly international interest remains high re HSR possibilities including investment in Australian HSR by overseas interests but the clock is ticking. Now is the time for some bold decisions, now or virtually never.

That is the view of Tim Fischer, and I could not agree with him more.

So the Labor members have supported a recommendation in our dissenting report for the government to get on with consideration of the High Speed Rail Planning Authority Bill. The Labor members also accepted that the federal government should, through COAG, pursue a national system for registration of infrastructure related, and recognition of qualifications across Australia to better promote the efficient and cost-effective development of infrastructure. It was, however, noted that the federal government education and training policy needs to anticipate increased demand for local infrastructure planning procurement and delivery skills, and should have a skill supply policy that anticipates demand. Again, this was the subject of a very thoughtful recommendation by the Labor members.

The Labor members of the committee agreed that the government must develop innovative financing and funding models for the development of public infrastructure, and we supported the options that are listed in the report. However, we have expressed severe reservations regarding the government's Asset Recycling Initiative and its potential to incentivise privatisations of monopoly assets without adequate consumer and community protections. This is supported by the Productivity Commission's criticism of the structure of the government's Asset Recycling Initiative.

We also note that the federal government should fund projects on a mode-neutral basis to avoid distortion and inefficient investment decisions, and this includes funding urban passenger rail projects when they are identified as the best solution to a congestion problem. Just funding road projects sends a signal to cash-strapped states that roads are preferred and cheaper, and this has been noted by Infrastructure Australia as distortionary and wrong. It has been wrong, yet this is the approach of the Abbott government when it comes to planning for what is probably some of the most important infrastructure in moving Australians around, particularly in bigger cities.

It was also strongly argued by the Labor members of the committee that the Australian government should ensure that all projects with a capital value of over $100 million have a cost-benefit analysis assessed by Infrastructure Australia using a standard method capable of comparison across projects and that the evaluation should inform funding decisions and therefore should occur prior to any proposed allocation of funds. This is something that Labor believes wholeheartedly in. There must be adequate cost-benefit analysis of big projects before decisions such as this are made. A classic example of this is the WestConnex project in Sydney, and the fact that the WestConnex project will go past the biggest port in the country, at Port Botany, and yet not connect up to Port Botany at all, putting additional pressure on local roads in my community and in the member for Grayndler's community and other surrounding suburbs—but also, importantly, hampering the economic development of the country by not having the biggest road project in the country's history connect up with the biggest port, when it is a matter of 100 metres away. It is a crazy proposal to be considering. If Infrastructure Australia were tasked with doing proper cost-benefit analysis, we could avoid problems like this.

On the whole, it was a good process. I thank the members of the committee. In particular, I thank those Labor members of the committee for their very thoughtful dissenting report.