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Wednesday, 19 March 2008
Page: 1318

Senator MILNE (4:41 PM) —Before we adjourned at lunchtime, I was putting the case in support of my amendment, which is to refer infrastructure projects worth more than $50 million to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works. I was arguing that, where Infrastructure Australia recommends to the minister that a project over $50 million be approved, the minister should be required to refer it to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works. The reason for that is, as I outlined previously, to allow for appropriate public scrutiny of the recommendation and to look at whether alternatives have been considered, whether the parliament thinks that the financing mechanism is appropriate and so on.

The committee will recall that the minister said the government would not be supporting the amendment on the basis that Infrastructure Australia will be giving advice on a whole range of things, not just on projects, and to a range of people. The point that I would make to the government, though, is that my amendment refers particularly to advice in support of infrastructure of which the estimated cost exceeds $50 million. It is obviously not saying that every piece of advice on anything that Infrastructure Australia gives the government be referred; it is only those pieces of advice that it comes back with recommending infrastructure projects in excess of $50 million which would go to the committee.

The second issue is that the minister said there may not be public money involved, but clearly all of these major public infrastructure projects involve public money. Whether you are talking about public-private partnerships, increasing government debt or local government raising extra borrowings, you are talking about public money being involved in public infrastructure projects. That is the whole point here. We are talking about public infrastructure and spending public money in the public interest. That is why I am arguing that, where that money exceeds $50 million on a public infrastructure project, it be referred for appropriate scrutiny to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works.

I believe that this would have avoided a number of the disasters that have been built around the country, particularly the tunnel projects in Sydney which form the basis of today’s media reports showing that they are ‘white elephants’ and that the projections that were made to support them were wrong. And that is on top of any number of other projections you look at for AusLink funding where state transport departments have underestimated the costs, and you can only assume that that is either negligence or deliberate action in an attempt to get the projects up and get public money.

The other reason why these projects deserve to have appropriate scrutiny is in today’s media reports from Tasmania. There is now some dispute about what was or was not promised for various bypasses in the course of the federal election, when the former government promised $30 million for a bypass in southern Tasmania. The present government said at the time that it would match that infrastructure funding. Now we have the Labor government saying no, it is not going to put up the $15 million and so on. That is the kind of ad hoc lack of scrutiny that went on with those infrastructure projects in the last period of government, and that is why I am supporting moving to a more strategic blueprint for infrastructure planning.

But we will not get real scrutiny of that infrastructure planning unless it comes back for the parliament to have a look not only at what people are recommending but at how they are going to finance it, whether it is actually in the public interest and whether there might have been better alternatives to satisfy broad government policy objectives—and, of course, as I pointed out earlier, parliament also needs to look at infrastructure planning in relation to climate change. I would just like to seek the government’s response as to why they would object to advice relating to the recommendation of projects in excess of $50 million and why they would object to that coming back to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works for scrutiny.