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Tuesday, 19 June 2012
Page: 6996

Mr OAKESHOTT (Lyne) (1511): I thank several members of the House for their support in allowing this matter of public importance to get on the agenda. It is telling that this is the first time a crossbench member has put up an MPI when only one half of this chamber has got to its feet to support it.

It is often said that infrastructure is hard to deliver in Australia today. It is also often said that Commonwealth-state relations have never been worse. Both those statements have a new pin-up and a new poster boy, and that is the Pacific Highway. The Pacific Highway is the new face of the inability of governments, state and federal, to deliver on infrastructure commitments and promises. The Pacific Highway is the new poster boy of the failure of the relationships between the Commonwealth and the states in Australia today. Those that try to argue the case 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' are wrong. This relationship is broken, and the Pacific Highway over the past 20 years is a telling example of the dysfunction that exists in the delivery of major infrastructure projects for Australia.

What makes this worse is that absolutely everyone I talk to or listen to on this project says they get it. Everyone who travels the Pacific Highway and stops at memorials for photo opportunities talks about how they want particular projects done and talks about how they recognise the safety and the efficiency gains by delivering on this project. All politicians seem to agree that this is the priority job—certainly for the North Coast of New South Wales and for New South Wales roads generally. It also used to be for New South Wales transport generally, and essentially for this corridor between Sydney and Brisbane. For the Pacific Highway, until now all the language and all the rhetoric has been that this is the recognised agreed priority corridor for completion by the agreed date of 2016. So when it comes to the crunch and the agreements in writing and in funding are not delivered upon, it is all the more galling and all the more frustrating that we all have seen and heard the words of so many in saying they get it when quite clearly, through the lack of agreements reached and the lack of financial commitment given, they do not. There is some sort of disconnect between the rhetoric of the last decade and the reality of the finances, particularly as demonstrated in the New South Wales budget of last week, which monumentally failed to back up the rhetoric that we have heard from so many members of parliament, saying that they understood what it meant to get to the 2016 deadline. Even though advancing this project has been like pulling teeth for the last 10 to 15 years, this matter of public importance has a sense of urgency about it right now. It is an eleventh-hour bid—a bit of a desperate attempt—to get federal and state action now for the completion of the Pacific Highway by 2016 according to the bipartisan, decade-long agreement. If agreement cannot be reached, it will have significance for many people outside this chamber: this parliament and the New South Wales parliament will have contributed to more deaths on the Pacific Highway—and I do not say that lightly. There have been more than 800 lives lost on that section of road over the past 10 to 15 years. None of us wants to see that number increase and, if we are serious about avoiding or minimising any more loss of life or injury through what is now a very busy corridor between Sydney and Brisbane, we must get this formal agreement in place and complete the project in the next four years.

I also warn the House that, if an agreement cannot be reached, North Coast communities will take matters into their own hands. Two months ago, for example, in a community at Urunga there was a very serious attempt to blockade the highway. That would have significant impacts on a whole range of businesses and affect the function of the North Coast, but that is how frustrated communities have been in the past. That blockade was narrowly avoided for a couple of reasons. I do not fear but I expect and warn this House that, unless an agreement can be put in place, there will be blockades on the highway by communities so frustrated and so cynical about the promises that have been made but not delivered upon. The history of this project is: overpromise and underdeliver, overpromise and underdeliver, overpromise and underdeliver. The communities of the North Coast are sick of it and, quite rightly, are pretty keen to respond to the problem if government will not.

How have we got to this point? In the last 12 months people such as I have been trying to get two things done through this chamber. One was to get a work schedule released. There was a period of time when plenty of people were saying that, in the four-year window coming up, the work could not be done—not for financial reasons but for resourcing and work-scheduling reasons. There either was not the manpower or there were not the resources to do the job. We blew that argument out of the water around January or February by getting a work schedule released that clearly demonstrated that the manpower and resources are there and, over the next four years, section by section, the job could be done.

So it all comes down to the money. In the May federal budget, as all in this place should have seen, the standout item in infrastructure was the commitment of $3.56 billion over the next four years to the Pacific Highway. It was the standout item. If anyone is in any doubt, go to the budget papers and try to argue differently. That was a significant contribution from the Commonwealth, saying, 'On the basis of the agreements in the past we will commit to getting this job done by the agreed date of 2016.'

It all then came down to the owner of the asset. It is fundamentally a state road and it all came down to last week's New South Wales budget. New South Wales had the opportunity to choose this project, double their money and get the job done over and above all other infrastructure demands. Here was a project with a $3.5 billion carrot dangling from the Commonwealth and the opportunity in four years to get the project off the books. What did New South Wales choose to do? They redirected that money to a planning project in Sydney in a rail corridor that is still in dispute and will receive no contribution whatsoever from the Commonwealth. In the clear choice between one or the other—between doubling the money and getting the job done or effectively a halving of the money and not even starting to get the job done with issues still in planning dispute—for some unknown reason the New South Wales government selected this Sydney based project in planning dispute with no contribution from the Commonwealth as the preferred choice, leaving a significant amount of confusion in the planning process around the Pacific Highway and amongst communities, who are white-hot about this decision, particularly the politics of it, where every single electorate along this corridor is either a Liberal Party or a National Party seat. How on earth have they allowed a planning dispute in Sydney to redirect, and effectively pinch, the money from completing the job as promised for the Pacific Highway? In my view, it is an absolute disgrace, and that is why there is a sense of urgency about trying to get some direction from this chamber and from colleagues in the New South Wales parliament on exactly where this road stands on the list of priorities. All this rhetoric that they get it and they want this job done by 2016 seems to now have just gone 'poof' into nowhere. This project is now some sort of lower order priority behind two rail corridors in Sydney that will swallow pretty well the entire transport and infrastructure budget of New South Wales if they remain the priority exercises in that state. If we were in any doubt, there are quotes after quotes after quotes to demonstrate a pretty serious backflip from the New South Wales government who, as I say, overpromised and, in the last week, have clearly underdelivered. Here are three from the New South Wales Leader of the National Party, whose home electorate is right on the Pacific Highway corridor and who now, through his actions, is saying that a Sydney rail corridor is more important than finishing the Pacific Highway. Andrew Stoner, in a media release of 21 February 2011 said: 'Only the New South Wales Liberals and Nationals are committed to completing the upgrade of the Pacific Highway by 2016'—obviously wrong. The Coffs Coast Advocate of 31 March 2011 had this quote from the same gentleman:

The NSW Liberals and Nationals are committed to road safety and plan for the upgrade of the Pacific Highway to be completed by 2016.

Wrong. In the Australian Financial Review of 6 April 2011 we read:

In October last year Prime Minister Julia Gillard told parliament she was committed to completing a dual carriageway on the Pacific Highway by 2016.

Here is the quote from Mr Stoner's spokesman:

We support that, and we want to work with them towards getting there …

What happened? What happened last week? Why the lack of commitment to getting this job done in the next four years and getting this project off the books and working in a bipartisan way with the Commonwealth to actually celebrate an infrastructure project in Australia and the completion of an infrastructure project?

Instead, what we have had since is some sort of attempt to develop a new company line, that this has been some sort 80-20 funding arrangement rather than a fifty-fifty funding arrangement, which is why members in this place would have heard me stand up yesterday and ask the minister about releasing all documents and all correspondence. There is not a single document that has the New South Wales roads minister's signature on it, or the federal roads minister's signature on it, for the life of this Pacific Highway project. So across political boundaries we have seen changes of political colours at both levels over the last 10 to 15 years. There is not one single document that has those two ministers' signatures on it that says 80-20. Unless there is some secret document that New South Wales is withholding from communities, it does not exist. Yet we, in the last week, have had members of parliament in New South Wales stand up and say, 'I have a memorandum of understanding in my hands that is an 80-20 agreement.' That is a complete lie, in a parliament, under privilege. Yet they are getting away with it.

It is time we started to call some people's bluff on this and started to look at documents that are signed agreements between Commonwealth and state ministers, of all political persuasions. And the variations on the language are all 'dollar for dollar', 'matching funding' or 'fifty-fifty agreements'. That is what the three agreed documents I have seen are. One is an AusLink document; one goes back to a Pacific Highway reconstruction document, right back at the start, with Michael Knight and Laurie Brereton; one is John Howard and Mark Vaile in 2007. They are all variations on this same theme: fifty-fifty, matching funding, or dollar for dollar. There is no such thing as a memorandum of understanding that is 80-20. And it is a complete disguise to try and cover the tracks of people who promised big, who overpromised, who got elected on this platform of finishing this job and who have underdelivered. They have failed. And they are going to cost lives unless this issue can be saved somehow, quickly, in the interests of the communities of the North Coast and in the interests of safety and efficiency on probably the major transport corridor in the Australian road network, and particularly between Sydney and Brisbane. I hope we can catch this one and save the 2016 deadline. (Time expired)