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Wednesday, 19 March 2008
Page: 1244


Senator SCULLION (Leader of the Nationals in the Senate) (11:50 AM) —by leave—I move all opposition amendments on sheet 5463:

(1)   Clause 5, page 4 (lines 18 and 19), omit subclause (2)(j), substitute:

(j)  

   any functions that the Minister, by writing, directs Infrastructure Australia to perform, provided that the Minister must first table in each House of the Parliament a description of the additional functions the Minister proposes that Infrastructure Australia perform;

(2)   Clause 5, page 4 (lines 23 to 26), omit subclause (3), substitute:

(3)  

   Infrastructure Australia may perform a function under subsection (1) or paragraph (2)(a), (b), (c), (d), (e), (f), (g) or (i) if it thinks fit.

(3)   Clause 5, page 4 (lines 27 and 28), omit subclause (4).

(4)   Clause 5, page 4 (lines 29 to 31), omit subclause (5).

(5)   Clause 29, page 16 (after line 5), after subclause (1), insert:

      (1A)    Before appointing the Infrastructure Coordinator, the Minister must consult with the Chair and members of Infrastructure Australia.

When we were speaking this morning there were some undertakings. I would like to think that, in the early days of the government, we are perhaps not as cynical as those from the Greens and the Democrats. Let us hope that is not a poorly placed judgement or a little bit naive. In the matters relating to this very broad catch-all function that has been bequeathed to the minister to provide direction to Infrastructure Australia—page 4, section 5(2)(j)—the bill gives to Infrastructure Australia:

... any functions that the Minister, by writing, directs Infrastructure Australia to perform ...

In most of the discussions this morning, while many of the responses were not a sort of ‘trust me’ response, we would expect the minister to make directions that involve many of the questions from this morning. The real challenge, of course, is that we will not know just what those directions are until the annual report of Infrastructure Australia comes out. This amendment seeks to ensure that, in the interests of transparency, such a direction should be tabled in each house so that we actually know that the directions being given are about climate change or many of the issues that came up. If it is actually tabled in both houses, a vague function, which is quite a broad function, is going to be buried in an annual report of Infrastructure Australia. We do not think what is currently proposed in the bill is good enough. Effectively, the amendment will allow a degree of transparency about the most important function of Infrastructure Australia.

Amendments (2) and (3) are, really, technical amendments. But a real weakness in the bill is where it stipulates that Infrastructure Australia may only evaluate infrastructure proposals on advice to the minister. As Senator Ian Macdonald alluded to earlier, what this effectively does is ensures that they are unable to independently consider, for example, the Australian Labor Party’s infrastructure election promises. We know they have had a bit of difficulty with those promises. The Labor Party puts its hand on its heart and says, ‘If it is an election promise, we’re really going to stick with this.’ Labor has decided to scrap the F3 to Branxton link road. I can certainly recall the comments by the federal transport minister in parliament that this is a critically important road to remove bottlenecks around Newcastle and the Hunter Valley. The comments simply do not add up. The commitment by the Rudd Labor government that it would absolutely match the coalition’s commitment of $870 million to the link road flies in the face of the statement made in parliament.

I am not suggesting there is any particular conspiracy to say that the reason we have put this here is not to look at ALP infrastructure election promises, but it constricts this organisation when looking at a whole range of issues that may come to their attention as part of the process or reviewing things. It takes away the independence completely. If you look at section 5(4) on page 4 of the bill, it specifically forbids Infrastructure Australia from conducting any review of its own volition. Instead, Infrastructure Australia requires the request of the minister. So the statutory authority will have absolutely no capacity to act independently. We think that is a great shame. I, for one, would certainly welcome an objective analysis of the rigour and appropriateness of Labor’s election promises and how this fits in with general infrastructure. I think it is a weakness that Infrastructure Australia cannot have its own independence, and that is why we propose this amendment to rectify this weakness.

In relation to amendment (5), the bill does not require the minister to take advice from Infrastructure Australia when appointing the infrastructure coordinator. I think that the minister, when making such a significant appointment, should be compelled at the very least to consult with the members and chairs of the agency. This amendment deals with this weakness. It has already been mentioned in this place. I think the Labor Party should very much support this amendment. It will spare them from this terrible temptation in using Infrastructure Australia as a vehicle to hand out jobs to their mates. We have got a bit of form in this area; recently, Steve Bracks was appointed to head a review of the Australian car industry. If you support this amendment then of course you will not have that temptation.

The opposition will not be opposing the establishment of Infrastructure Australia, but I think that our amendments redress some of the flaws in the bill. The amendments are going give Infrastructure Australia more independence by permitting it to analyse Labor’s infrastructure promises without the approval of the minister. They are going to increase transparency by subjecting ministerial directions to the scrutiny of parliament. In fact, these directions are not specifically disallowable as a legislative instrument, which is not providing the sufficient transparency that this organisation would require. As I have said, these amendments are going to help Labor ensure that they are not tempted to use Infrastructure Australia as a place to give their mates jobs.