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Wednesday, 19 March 2008
Page: 1220

Senator IAN MACDONALD (9:56 AM) —Minister, you raise another issue that I was going to go on to. In proposed section 6(2) it says, ‘The minister may have regard to any decisions of COAG’ in arriving at a direction under proposed subsection (1). I understood that in June 2005, COAG had decided that each state and territory would prepare an infrastructure assessment every five years. The first of those infrastructure assessments is complete. It seems to me that setting up this body is a duplication of processes already in train.

I concede that, if my state of Queensland is any guide, a federal government would be very unwise to rely upon the assessments of the Queensland state Labor government when it comes to infrastructure. If you fly up and down the coast of Queensland—as I do very regularly coming to Canberra—and look out the window, you just see the coastline littered with ocean-going cargo ships sitting out there for days and indeed weeks on end, waiting to get into state run ports. This is a scandal that the Queensland state Labor government has allowed to continue for many, many years.

I know that in the years before we were able to blame another person—I know you are not allowed to do that these days, Minister—some in the then opposition, now government, would say that it is all the Commonwealth’s fault that the ports are clogged up. Anyone who has any understanding and who is being honest knows that it had nothing to do with the Commonwealth. These were state instrumentalities which the states very jealously guarded. They would not privatise them; they would not allow them to come into a Commonwealth directed arrangement that our government sought. They jealously guarded their own independence.

What actually happened in Queensland—I cannot speak for other states—is that these port authorities made huge profits. What happened to those profits? They had lots of things that they wanted to do with the profits they made, in the way of capital investment. They all acknowledged that their capital infrastructure was falling down. Were they allowed to reinvest their profits into capital expenditure? Of course not. They were ripped off by the state government to try and balance the state budget. So these port authorities—and I might say energy authorities are in the same boat—got a huge rip-off of dividends to the state coffers, but those instrumentalities were left with no independent means of investment.

My understanding is that investment had to come from capital grants from a state government, and in Queensland that state government is already borrowing in its forward estimates. Don’t hold me to this figure, but I think it is $25 billion they have put forward to borrow—contrary, of course, to the federal government, which has paid off all debt and does not have any debt, or did not under our government. The state governments are out there borrowing, adding to inflationary pressure, and doing that because they simply cannot manage money. The Queensland government have not invested in the port authorities as they should have. In fact, they have ripped them off in demands for increased dividends.

So I can well understand why the government would be cautious in taking notice of any infrastructure plans prepared every five years by governments of the like of the Queensland state Labor government. But it seems to me, Minister—and I think you have a problem here—that you are adding another bureaucratic level to infrastructure in Australia. Here you have the states doing these plans under the COAG agreement. You are setting up this body to also look at those things, but apparently, according to the paragraph I referred to at the beginning of this question, the federal minister may have regard to COAG arrangements. But then I guess, equally, that means he may not have regard to them. So we are going to find that the states are doing these assessments continuously and reporting every five years and, at the same time, you have a federal body also doing assessments and giving advice. So I would ask if the minister could clarify what role this federal organisation will have in looking at the massively important infrastructure requirements in the various areas that are controlled by state instrumentalities such as the port authorities in the state of Queensland.