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Monday, 26 March 2018
Page: 2058

Senator SESELJA (Australian Capital TerritoryAssistant Minister for Science, Jobs and Innovation) (11:15): It's great to pick up where Senator O'Neill left off, because Labor were just so committed to it that, having talked about it for years and years and having talked about a $114 billion project, they committed nothing in the budget—zero in the budget—

Senator O'Neill: Fifty-two million dollars.

Senator SESELJA: No, you're wrong, Senator O'Neill. They committed zero in the budget and then, as a late election promise when Kevin Rudd was flailing around for a policy, the $52 million. What they promised to do after six years was, if they were re-elected—when they knew in their heart of hearts at that moment they weren't going to be re-elected—to maybe spend $52 million on some planning, potentially for a $114 billion project. Let's get the facts on the table rather than the spin that we've just heard from Senator O'Neill.

I'm very pleased to contribute to this debate, because it's an important discussion. We all know well, especially those who come here—not me, of course—from the far reaches of the country to sit here in Canberra in sitting weeks, what a big nation we have and what a huge place it is. We know that, because of our size, we face significant transport challenges—no-one disputes that. Therefore, in principle, I think, we're all drawn to the idea of high-speed rail. Being able to cover the large distances between the big cities of the eastern seaboard via fast rail would, in principle, be a great thing. If such a line could stop in various regional centres along the way, you'd also have, potentially, great benefit for those regional areas. But it's also important that we look at the costs and the benefits of these proposals. We do need to be realistic and to consider all of these things. The fact is that high-speed rail is hugely expensive, would take a long time, and, given the low cost of air travel at the moment, may only provide marginal benefits, if it does at all.

We're exploring how we can bring some form of high-speed rail to Australia. Through Consolidated Land and Rail Australia, we're exploring improvements to the rail connections between Melbourne and Greater Shepparton through the development of a business case. This could be the first stage of high-speed rail, but what's important is taking it step by step and making it affordable and sustainable, because that's what responsible governments do, in contrast to our predecessors in the Labor-Greens government.

We are doing very well at addressing Labor's legacy of budget debt and deficits. We've come a long way: we've made over $37 billion in budget savings; we've halved the growth in spending from four per cent under Labor to 1.9 per cent; we've reduced the growth in debt by two-thirds; and we're on track for a balanced budget in 2020-21. We have made these significant achievements while growing the economy and growing jobs. There are now 997,800 more Australians in jobs than when we came to office. That is an amazing record of achievement. In 2017, employment increased by 403,000, with around 300,000 of those jobs being full time. We've had 17 consecutive months of jobs growth—the longest run of jobs growth on record since the ABS started measuring the labour force in 1978, when some senators in this place were not yet born. The Australian economy is, on average, creating more than 1,100 new jobs per day—five times the growth in the last year of Labor. We understand the challenges that we have, and we're getting the budget under control, whilst growing the economy. Many would reflect on the absolutely wasteful spending that took place under the Labor-Greens government when they were last in office and would lament that projects like high-speed rail might well have been a better spend than the money that was thrown out the door—the billions upon billions upon billions that were shovelled out the door—by the Labor Party, which of course makes it more challenging for any future government to be able to invest as much in infrastructure and other areas as they would like to. We need to look at all of this in context when we are discussing this bill.

There have been extensive studies into high-speed rail done over the last 20 years. It was considered under the Howard government in the early 2000s. That study found that construction would take somewhere between 10 and 20 years, due to the logistics and complexity of a project that would cover several states and the ACT, and would likely require the government to fund at least 80 per cent of the whole project and 85 per cent of the cost of the Melbourne-to-Sydney and Sydney-to-Brisbane stages. The modelling showed a financial internal return rate of less than 2½ per cent. The cost was estimated at up to $59 billion. It was clear that the cost was too high and the benefits too low to proceed with the project at the time, so the Howard government shelved the idea.

Then the Labor Party decided to look into the idea while they were in government. Indeed, this has been an idea Labor have continued to talk about and continued to make promises about—including introducing legislation like this—when they are in opposition. They introduce legislation like this when they are in opposition. They were so committed to it when they were in government that they talked about the project and did nothing about it! It's important to note what they did. They had six years and, with the support of their Greens friends, they were able to get virtually anything they wanted through the Senate. They could have had this bill passed when they were in government, but they didn't. It leads one to ask why. Why could this project—which the shadow minister for transport and infrastructure, the member for Grayndler, has continued to argue for—not get off the ground if they were so committed to it in the past? Was it because they were shovelling money out the door for other things? Was it because they'd lost control of the budget? Was it because they didn't actually believe it was affordable? Or was it because they weren't actually committed to it? Who knows? Labor had years to pass a bill like this, but they didn't. They didn't because they knew it wouldn't work.

Under Labor there was another study into the cost and feasibility of high-speed rail. That report found that the Howard government's report was essentially correct: it would take up to 20 years to build. It also found that there was little prospect of private investment, and the government would have to directly fund almost the entire project. And it found that the projected cost had nearly doubled from the time of the Howard government study, to around $114 billion. So the project didn't go ahead. We hear Senator O'Neill and other Labor senators make their contributions and say how committed they were to it and how they committed all this money. Well, of the $114 billion required for the project, they committed zero in the budget. They had six budgets and they committed zero other than a study. After that study, there was nothing. Then, in the depths of the reincarnated Rudd Labor-Greens government in 2013, in the election campaign, they said, 'If we come back, we'll put more money, $52 million, into taking the project forward.' They couldn't even get that into the budget, but that is $52 million out of the $114 billion cost. Senator O'Neill interjected and said that they had delivered the money in the budget. Well, no. In the post-election review of 2013, the Parliamentary Budget Office classified this funding as an election commitment as opposed to a commitment that was funded in the budget or in PEFO. So they delivered nothing. The PBO said:

The ALP election commitment Establish a High Speed Rail Authority could result in significant budget impacts beyond the forward estimates. This would depend on the final specification of any policy to construct high speed rail on the east coast of Australia.

So let's not believe what they say. Let's look, as always, at what Labor did.

That said, there are significant challenges we have to address when it comes to travel between capital cities and regional centres in Australia. Senator O'Neill was talking about airports, but the coalition government has got on with the job and made the decision that Labor refused to make, but which they knew needed to be made, and that was a second airport for Sydney at Badgerys Creek. That is a major piece of transport infrastructure in this country, and we are the ones who committed the funds and who are getting it done—not talking about it, not putting off that which had been talked about for 30 years. We're getting on and doing it. We're going above and beyond in dealing with infrastructure and transport issues we face in this nation.

So let's run through some elements of our record investment in infrastructure. The coalition government's $75 billion roads, rail and airport plan will relieve congestion, grow our regions and make life easier for Australians. We're investing on average $2 billion more per year than Labor and investing in a way that delivers better value and results for taxpayers. Our plan is comprehensive. We're investing in major highway upgrades and congestion-busting roads in capital cities to reduce travel times, improve safety and help businesses move goods and services more efficiently. We are investing in important public transport rail projects, including the Gold Coast Light Rail, Sydney Metro, Melbourne Metro and Flinders Link in Adelaide to improve access, amenity and liveability in our cities. Our historic investment in Inland Rail will link the Port of Brisbane to the Port of Melbourne, transforming freight movements through Victoria, New South Wales and South-East Queensland, while promoting economic opportunities and jobs in these regions.

Local communities are benefiting from the Roads to Recovery Program, with $4.4 billion invested for seven years to 2020-21 in construction, repair and upgrade of local roads. For the Black Spot Program, we have invested $648 million over seven years to deliver safety improvements, such as safety barriers and street lighting on dangerous roads. Local bridges are being fixed with $420 million for the Bridges Renewal Program.

As I said, after five decades of indecision, the coalition government is getting on with building Western Sydney Airport, a major piece of transport infrastructure for this nation, long talked about, long speculated about. No other government had the gumption to get on and do it and do what was necessary for this nation. We are getting on with that job.

In terms of rail, we'll provide $20 million in matching funding to support the development of up to three business cases that will explore opportunities for faster passenger rail and investigate improvements to rail connections between Australia's cities and surrounding regional areas. Following a competitive assessment process in line with criteria published in the Faster rail prospectus, the government announced the three successful proponents selected to develop business cases on 9 March 2018 as follows: Consolidated Land and Rail Australia, Melbourne to Greater Shepparton; New South Wales government, Sydney to Newcastle; and North Coast Connect, Brisbane and the regions of Moreton Bay and Sunshine Coast. These proposals clearly demonstrate the government's willingness to investigate long-term solutions to support urban, regional and rural development.

We are also making broader investments in rail, including the Melbourne Airport Rail business case. The coalition government has allocated $30 million in the federal budget to develop the Tullamarine Airport Rail Link business case. The business case will be undertaken in two stages. Stage 1 will be a preliminary business case to develop a common evidence base, undertaking an options analysis and recommend a preferred alignment. The preliminary business case commenced in November 2017 and is expected to be completed in late 2018. Stage 2 will develop a detailed business case on the preferred alignment. A decision to proceed to stage 2 will be made once stage 1 has been considered by the Australian and Victorian governments.

The Australian government will invest $10 billion over the next decade for the National Rail Program which will fund transformational rail projects so people can move around our cities and regions more efficiently, and it will better connect our cities, suburbs and surrounding regional areas. This $10 billion rail investment will reduce the burden on Australian roads, provide more reliable transport networks and support our efforts to decentralise our economy and grow regional Australia. An additional $30 million will also be provided to fund the development of a business case for the Melbourne Airport rail link. We will work with the Victorian government to access potential further funding for this project from the $10 billion National Rail Program. The government will connect regional centres to our capital cities with faster, more reliable rail services, with regional Australia getting its fair share of the new $10 billion National Rail Program.

As part of our record $75 billion national Infrastructure Investment Program, we have a $20 billion commitment to rail, including $426 million this year. That investment has provided funds for rail improvements around the country, including $1.4 billion for the Victorian Regional Rail Revival package, $240 million for the Murray Basin freight rail, $792 million for METRONET in Perth, $252 million for an Adelaide to Tarcoola upgrade, $189 million for the Goodwood and Torrens rail junctions in South Australia, $95 million for Gold Coast Light Rail, $75 million for Port Botany rail stage 2, $59.8 million for the Tasmanian Freight Rail Revitalisation Program and $30 million for the Melbourne Airport rail link.

We are working with the states and territories on improving rail and improving infrastructure more generally. These are sensible programs that will make much-needed improvements while being fiscally responsible. This investment demonstrates our commitment to improving Australia's rail infrastructure, and we're actually delivering results. We're not making big, unfunded promises. We're not talking up big ideas and having reviews and then not doing anything about them. We're investing and we're delivering.

In conclusion, let me make it clear that the government takes this area very seriously, and I've just outlined the numerous measures that we've been pursuing in this space and in the broader transport and infrastructure space. We believe that making important infrastructure investments is critical to our nation. That's why we are investing a record amount. But we will not be lectured to by the Labor Party, who, despite what they claim, despite some of what we've heard in the Senate today, spent a lot of time talking and very little time doing when it came to this. They couldn't even get money in the budget for this project that they now believe is so important, in terms of the bill that is before us in the Senate today. They spoke about it, but, when it came down to it, a flailing Kevin Rudd, at the end of his time in government, having completely destroyed the budget—and let's be clear on this: Kevin Rudd and the Labor Party completely destroyed the budget; they took it from the best possible budget position to one of the largest deficits in our history; and then they'd ran out of money, they knew they didn't have the money, they couldn't even get the basics in the budget because they'd blown the budget so badly—promised, knowing that Labor were very unlikely to return, that if they came back into government they would fund this $114 billion project to the tune of $52 million.

When we debate those things we should look at Labor's record rather than what they say. They are very good at talking about issues—much more so than delivering. The coalition government, on the other hand, has a strong record of delivery. We're investing in the infrastructure we need and we will continue to investigate where there needs to be further infrastructure investment, particularly in our critical transport infrastructure.