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Wednesday, 19 March 2008
Page: 1251


Senator MILNE (12:30 PM) —I move Australian Greens amendment (5) on sheet 5464:

Page 5 (after line 13), after Division 1, insert:

Division 1A—Reference of advice of Infrastructure Australia to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works

6A  Reference of advice of Infrastructure Australia to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works

         (1)    If Infrastructure Australia provides advice in accordance with its functions under section 5 in support of infrastructure the estimated cost of which exceeds the threshold amount, the advice stands referred to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works for consideration and report.

         (2)    On receiving the advice of Infrastructure Australia in support of infrastructure the estimated cost of which exceeds the threshold amount, the Minister must cause a copy of the advice to be laid before each House of the Parliament within 5 sitting days of that House after the day on which the Minister receives the advice, together with:

              (a)    a statement in relation to the infrastructure; and

              (b)    such plans, specifications and other particulars as the Minister thinks necessary.

         (3)    Development of infrastructure which is the subject of advice that has been referred to the committee in accordance with this section must not be commenced before a report of the committee concerning the work has been presented to both Houses of the Parliament.

         (4)    If, after a report of the committee in accordance with this section, on advice of Infrastructure Australia on the development of the infrastructure, has been presented to both Houses of the Parliament and before the development of the infrastructure has been commenced, each House resolves that, for reasons or purposes stated in the resolution, the advice in support of the infrastructure be again referred to the committee for consideration and report, the committee must further consider the advice and the development of the infrastructure must not be commenced before a further report of the committee concerning the advice has been presented to both Houses.

         (5)    The development of the infrastructure the subject of advice that has been referred to the committee must not be commenced unless, after the report of the committee (or, if there has been a further reference of the advice under subsection (4), the report of the committee on the further reference) has been presented to both Houses of the Parliament, both Houses have resolved that it is expedient to carry out the development of the infrastructure.

         (6)    The development of the infrastructure the estimated cost of which exceeds the threshold amount must not be commenced unless:

              (a)    the committee has reported on the advice of Infrastructure Australia in relation to the infrastructure in accordance with this section; or

              (b)    both Houses have resolved that, by reason of the urgent nature of the development of the infrastructure, it is expedient that it be carried out without the advice of Infrastructure Australia in relation to that infrastructure having been referred to the committee; or

              (c)    the Governor-General has, by order, declared that the development of the infrastructure is for defence purposes and that the reference of the advice in relation to the development of the infrastructure to the committee would be contrary to the public interest; or

              (d)    the development of the infrastructure  has been declared, by a notice under subsection (7), to be a repetitive development for the purposes of this subsection.

         (7)    The Minister may, by notice published in the Gazette, declare the development of the infrastructure to be a repetitive development for the purposes of subsection (8) if:

              (a)    he or she is satisfied that the development of the infrastructure is substantially similar to other development of infrastructure that has been carried out, is being carried out or is likely to be carried out from time to time by or for the Commonwealth, or by or for an authority of the Commonwealth to which the Public Works Committee Act 1969 applies; and

              (b)    the committee has agreed to the development of the infrastructure being so declared.

         (8)    In this section:

committee means the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works for the time being constituted in accordance with the Public Works Committee Act 1969.

estimated cost, in relation to the development of infrastructure, means an estimate of cost made when all particulars of the development of the infrastructure substantially affecting its cost have been determined.

threshold amount means:

              (a)    $50,000,000; or

              (b)    if another lower amount is specified in the regulations for the purposes of this definition—that other amount.

The amendment is with regard to a reference of advice of Infrastructure Australia to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works. The issue here is that, as the bill currently stands, there is no parliamentary scrutiny of the projects that Infrastructure Australia will recommend to the minister. Of course, I recognise that not everything could come before the parliament, but I think where projects are worth more than $50 million they should come before the parliament. The reason we have had these ‘white elephants’ in Sydney and disastrous projects around the rest of the country is that governments have abandoned the notion of parliamentary scrutiny of public works. This is public infrastructure. The money is coming from the public purse largely, although there has been a breathless embracing of public-private partnerships in recent years. I am sure some of those private partners, particularly in relation to the Sydney tunnels, wonder at the stupidity they engaged in at the time, as they are losing money hand over fist. But the point remains that there needs to be parliamentary scrutiny.

In moving this amendment I want to refer particularly to a paper written by Professor Bill Russell, titled ‘Who decides infrastructure priorities? Federal funding for urban transport in the time of climate change’. This is a particularly insightful paper, and part of that is to acknowledge—as, indeed, the Greens are acknowledging—that we do need a strategic approach to infrastructure development in Australia. But we also need to be able to look at whether plans for these burgeoning freeway expansions are consistent with the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And we also need to be sure that studies are undertaken at a systemic level as to the overall consequences of such projects on regions and the pattern and efficiency of urban development. Particular attention should be paid to the value of the many hectares of potential housing land that has been taken up by freeway development and interchanges. In that regard, you only have to look at a recent report of a colleague of mine, Maribyrnong Greens Councillor Janet Rice, talking about the 30-kilometre public transport black hole between the existing Werribee and Melton rail lines. She says that what is now farmland is being filled up with houses, but none of them is going to have anything but cars to get into town. So what we need are studies at a systemic level on the overall consequences of such projects on the pattern and efficiency of urban development. We also need greater transparency as to the appraisals undertaken before transport projects are approved and the extent to which the widespread use of public-private partnerships is reducing transparency and public accountability for such decisions.

The infrastructure audit is set to review standard principles for public-private partnerships, but it is essential that these principles for the transparency and adequacy of the appraisal process are there prior to projects being approved. Parliamentary scrutiny and independent environmental and social impact assessments need to be done. They should provide the opportunity for alternative approaches, different routes and different financial or ownership structures to be considered. There must be a transparent discussion before binding decisions are made. The community must be given the chance to have their say and must have confidence in the integrity of the appraisal processes in place. To date, that is not happening. The community is not being given a say; there is not adequate consultation; there is not systemic analysis. The community and the parliaments are not actually being given the opportunity to scrutinise infrastructure proposals—to look at, or even to ask about, alternative routes and whether they were discussed, or whether alternative appraisal was sought or different financial structures might be more appropriate in a particular case.

So I am arguing that where a project is worth more than $50 million it will be brought back for parliamentary scrutiny by the parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Public Works. The reason we have standing committees on public works is to do specifically that. If Infrastructure Australia provides advice according to its functions, it will be looking at the estimated cost, and we have to know whether that cost is realistic or whether it has been underestimated. Particularly with some Queensland road projects, independent assessment has shown that there has been almost a deliberate undervaluing of the real cost of projects on the assumption that, when the cost blow-outs occur, the public purse will just pick up the cost blow-outs. So you have transport agencies and state governments who are inclined to put in undervaluations in order to get the projects up and then leave the community to pay in the longer term. And that is not even in the context of climate change and oil depletion; that is just in terms of the estimated costs as they stand at the moment.

What I am saying is that the minister must have a copy of the advice from Infrastructure Australia tabled in each house of parliament within five sitting days of that house receiving it, and with it a statement in relation to the infrastructure, the plans, the specifications and anything else that is necessary. The committee then has the opportunity to really scrutinise any of these infrastructure projects. I think that would put paid to a lot of these white elephants that have been the particular favourites of the government of New South Wales. It would also overcome my concern that Macquarie Bank and other infrastructure providers around the country are becoming the recycling grounds for ex-premiers and state ministers who, through that route, take the opportunity to have projects paid for by the public or by other means—projects that they could not get up through their state parliament and have been their pet projects ever since and that will not have had proper assessments for environmental or social impacts or for likely impacts on the urban sprawl, climate change and the like.

I strongly urge the government to support the idea that parliamentary scrutiny is critical. I find it extraordinary to be standing up in a parliament urging a government to support parliamentary scrutiny for the disbursement of funding on projects of more than $50 million. The public would assume that there would be appropriate oversight and yet that is not what we are going to have at all unless we get things brought to the floor of the house and have an opportunity for an appropriately constructed parliamentary committee with responsibility for public works to look at it. In my view, each of the major projects should also be subject to a comprehensive and independent environmental and social impacts review. Whilst people talk about those things and say, ‘Of course that’s going to happen,’ it is not happening on a regular basis. If it had been happening on a regular basis we would have very different outcomes from what we have now.

As Professor Russell has said in his paper, the expected boom in infrastructure projects, where we are going to start investing in them, will be important for Australia’s future, so key decisions must not be made behind closed doors. Transparency and accountability can be built in if state and federal processes for parliamentary scrutiny and environmental assessment are dovetailed and meet consistent, widely accepted principles as to independence, scope and the provision and testing of evidence. The testing of evidence is particularly important, because what we have seen with these private-public partnerships is that the people promoting them are breathless in their enthusiasm for them but there is not very much scrutiny as to the evidence that is being provided to support them, so I have real concerns about the testing of the evidence.

In my view, the best place to do that is in the parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Public Works. So what I am seeking in this chamber is support for the notion that the parliament ought to scrutinise the disbursement of funding on infrastructure, especially given that we have had undertakings from the government now in. They have said, ‘Of course we are going to take into account greenhouse gas emissions.’ I have not heard the same ‘Of course we are going to take into account peak oil,’ but that is implied. Of course they are going to take into account social equity; of course these matters will be considered, but there is nothing in the bill that requires it. By bringing it back to the parliament, to a committee on public works, we would be able to at least have parliament scrutinise whether public infrastructure is in fact in the public interest, whether it is the best use of the money and whether an alternative project or alternative way of addressing the problem might be considered. That, at the very least, is the way we ought to be proceeding. The new Prime Minister has given an undertaking that there will be transparency in this government, that there will be improved practices—and I really welcome that—but one way to guarantee that is to allow the parliamentary scrutiny of the infrastructure priorities and recommendations coming from Infrastructure Australia.

I commend this amendment to the house. Given that the opposition wanted to have laid on the table the ministerial directions, I hope that they are going to support me here in having this brought to the parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Public Works.