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Wednesday, 19 March 2008
Page: 1247

Senator McLUCAS (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Health and Ageing) (12:04 PM) —In response to the opposition amendments, I want to indicate that the government will not be supporting any of them. I think it is reasonable that I go through why. In relation to amendment (1), Senator Scullion indicated that the proposed amendment seeks to place under parliamentary scrutiny the minister’s power to give Infrastructure Australia new functions. The bill itself requires Infrastructure Australia to prepare an annual report on its operations. That provides the transparency, scrutiny and accountability that Senator Scullion’s proposed amendment was alleged to.

Also, we are talking about building infrastructure that is required by a country. We require an element of flexibility to respond to evolving issues as they come on the plate of the entity. The opposition’s amendment, which seeks to require the minister first to table in the parliament a description of any additional function, would do nothing other than introduce delays into the work program of Infrastructure Australia. This bill reeks of transparency. That is why we are introducing this bill—to get over what we lived with for the last 11½ years, when decisions were made about infrastructure on the basis of who had to win which seat at the next election. We do not think that is a good way to run infrastructure development in this country. The opposition stand up here in 2008 and talk about the need for accountability and transparency, but I agree with Senator Allison, who observed that the opposition probably would not have done this when they were in government. She is absolutely right. They had 11½ years to be a bit more transparent and accountable in the expenditure of public moneys on infrastructure—in their decisions to spend some money here and not to spend it somewhere else. If you come along here and talk about transparency in 2008 and say that that is important, I have to ask the question, ‘Were you going to do it in your 12th year?’ We will not be supporting amendment (1) for that reason.

In terms of amendments (2) and (3), given the comments from the opposition about whether or not Labor’s election commitments would come before Infrastructure Australia, we have made it perfectly clear. We made those commitments during an election campaign in the context that we were living in at the time, where the government did not have any system to ensure that decisions were made on the basis of need for infrastructure. We made judgements during the election campaign about certain pieces of infrastructure, and we have committed to doing that. In my state, we committed in 2004 to upgrade the Bruce Highway to the point where we might be able to send bananas south during the wet season, which is a pretty important thing to do. I think the opposition said they would join in and do it too; I wish they had done it five years ago. We might be able to ensure continuity of supply from the banana crop down to Melbourne on a reasonable basis during the wet season. We said that we were going to upgrade the Ipswich Motorway. The new member for Blair, Mr Shayne Neumann, was overjoyed the day that we committed to upgrade the Ipswich Motorway. But it was not just Mr Neumann; it was the people of Blair who agreed that we had the right approach when it came to upgrading that particular piece of infrastructure. I do not know much about the Pacific Highway, because it is not in my state. I have driven it once; I did not enjoy it; it does need work. But it is not on that basis that we make decisions about infrastructure. We make decisions on infrastructure, particularly to do with the Pacific Highway, around the need for movement of people and also of product. We stand by the commitments that we made during the election, and we will ensure—and the Prime Minister has said ‘unequivocally’—that we deliver on those commitments.

Amendment (4) goes to the question of whether or not these are legislative instruments. I indicate to the chamber that how we have drafted this legislation is simply good practice. It avoids any potential ambiguity and I will be very clear about this, given that we are talking about clarity: they are not legislative instruments. We need to make that absolutely clear, and that is why that clause exists in the legislation.

I found the fifth amendment rather confusing. Senator Scullion said that we need to ensure that we have transparency in the appointment of the Infrastructure Coordinator. The position of the Infrastructure Coordinator is created by the infrastructure legislation and is, by definition, a statutory position. On 5 February this year, the Australian government introduced a policy implementing transparent and merit based assessment in the selection of statutory officers working in, or in conjunction with, APS agencies. The appointment of the Infrastructure Coordinator will therefore follow the rules that were set out in that policy—a policy that the previous government never thought of. The merit based selection for statutory office holders includes requirements for oversight of the advertising process and assessment of applicants’ claims to be undertaken by the secretary of the department and the Public Service Commissioner. Selections will be made against a core set of selection criteria. A report endorsed by the Public Service Commissioner will be provided by the secretary to the minister recommending short-listed candidates. This ensures that not only the Infrastructure Coordinator but all appointments of this nature will be done in an arm’s-length way to ensure that the person who is selected is in fact selected on the basis of merit. Where the minister wishes to appoint someone not recommended by the panel, the minister will need to write to the Prime Minister setting out reasons why.

The opposition seems to think that the clause referring to the appointment of the Infrastructure Coordinator was designed to provide for appointments of Labor mates to this position, and Senator Scullion said as much. The amendment proposed by the opposition is substantially weaker in transparency than that which would be followed under the government’s policy and would only create uncertainty about the process. Therefore, in the interests of transparency, the government will oppose this amendment. I refer and commend opposition members to the Australian Public Service Commission’s February 2008 publication Merit and transparency: Merit-based selection of APS agency heads and statutory office holders for some essential reading before taking pen to paper to draft amendments.