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Thursday, 14 August 2003
Page: 18636

Mr MARTIN FERGUSON (10:34 AM) —As previous speakers have outlined, the main purpose of the National Transport Commission Bill 2003 and associated bills is to establish a new transport commission. Before going to the importance of this bill, I will make some remarks about the previous contribution by the member for Cowper. If this government is so committed to existing undertakings with respect to regional communities, I think it is about time that this government met promises made at the last election with respect to some outstanding major projects in regional Australia. I refer specifically to promises made by the Treasurer in relation to the Pakenham bypass and the upgrade of the Calder Highway.

During the course of the last campaign, the Howard government, in an endeavour to gain political support, sent the Treasurer out on a mission. He had the responsibility to go to Pakenham to give an undertaking to the people of the La Trobe Valley that the Pakenham bypass would be classified as a RONI and hence receive a 50 per cent contribution from the Commonwealth government. He also travelled to Bendigo—one of his rare trips to regional Australia—at the height of the campaign and gave a similar undertaking with regard to the upgrade of the Calder Highway, which is a deathtrap, in the same way in which the Pakenham bypass is a deathtrap, because of the large number of schools which exist along that section of the road into the La Trobe Valley. There are outstanding questions relating to the Commonwealth government meeting its 50 per cent contribution to those exceptionally important road projects. Those questions are not only about sections of some important roads but also about overcoming major road safety challenges for the people of Victoria.

I listened with some interest to the comments by the member for Cowper, a person who regards himself as an aggressive representative of regional Australia. All I can say to regional Australia is that when it comes to the implementation of election promises to regional Australia post-election by the Howard government—and there are many other examples I can give with respect to the performance of the Minister for Transport and Regional Services—despite commitments given by the Treasurer, there is a lot left to be desired. Insofar as I am concerned, it is about time the Howard government met those commitments. We are still seeing fatal accidents, lives lost and major injuries because of a shortfall of Commonwealth money with respect to those road projects.

That goes to the nature of this bill. I very much support the continuation of the National Transport Commission. It is important that Australia as a nation has an independent statutory body with responsibility for developing, monitoring and maintaining uniform or nationally consistent regulatory and operational transport reforms. In the past, all too often the states and the Commonwealth have been unable to put their heads together and come up with a consistent approach to these challenges. We as a nation cannot tolerate that approach to national land transport.

I am pleased to note the historical position. The original commission was established by the Labor government in 1991 as the National Road Transport Commission. Not only do I want to acknowledge the commitment by the then Labor government but also, perhaps more importantly, I want to acknowledge that the original desire to go down this path came from the former member for Newcastle and minister for transport, Mr Charlie Jones, who has only just passed away. The truth of the matter is that until Charlie Jones became Minister for Transport and Aviation, Australia lacked a national commitment to road transport in Australia. I think we also lacked a national commitment to an integrated Commonwealth railway system until then. One of the achievements of Charlie Jones was the commencement of the Darwin to Adelaide railway. He put in place the Commonwealth commitment which saw the railway extended from Tarcoola to Alice Springs. In January of next year we will see the final link of that railway opened, with the Darwin to Alice Springs section completed.

In historical circumstances I had the responsibility—from a union point of view—of handling the decision in late 1975 or early 1976 by Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser to close the Darwin to Katherine section of the railway. So it is a strange twist to now find myself, as the shadow minister for transport, watching the section of the railway have the potential to open soon, having handled the closure of that part of the railway back in 1976. In terms of a national commitment to land transport, it is also interesting to note that Charlie Jones, as minister for transport, finally put in place a Commonwealth commitment to the national highway structure.

I am very worried about the potential development of AusLink. Having only commenced the task of building and maintaining the national highway commenced by Charlie Jones back in 1972, AusLink, the coalition government's so-called commitment to a national land transport plan, does not provide for an ongoing commitment to the construction and maintenance of the national highway system in Australia. Having said that, I do welcome the fact that this bill builds on the achievements of not only this government but also past Labor governments in transport reform. It takes the reform structures beyond road transport for the first time to also include rail and intermodal transport. That is a statement about the importance of the logistics debate and an intermodal approach to transport in the 21st century.

The new structure arises from a review of the National Road Transport Commission that was prescribed when it was originally established. In fact, this broader intermodal structure should have been put in place in 1998, when the inaugural sunset of the original commission was reached. Unfortunately, the current government—through its National Road Transport Commission Amendment Act 1998—merely extended the same structure for a further five years. To give credit where it is due, the 1998 act did take the positive step of expanding the then Ministerial Council for Road Transport to create the Australian Transport Council, with a broader agenda and a broader commitment to actually doing something. It built on the achievements of the original act.

In my view the transport industry would have benefited if the broader reform agenda provided in the bill today had also been introduced in 1998 as part of the expansion of the activities of the national council for roads and the creation of the Australian Transport Council. The opposition very much supports the broader focus of the commission to encompass these other modes of transport. However, in doing so I acknowledge the concerns of the road transport industry. During the legitimate discussion and debate about these issues, the road transport industry have made it clear that their industry cannot afford to have a reduced focus on reform. We have come a long way on road reform, but there is still a lot to be achieved—there are many challenges ahead of us. I therefore support the call by industry and request that the minister ensure that road reform continues apace.

The bill also provides a mechanism for setting out model legislation and other instruments in the regulations. One cannot underestimate the importance of this national approach. The states and the territories—and the Commonwealth where appropriate—may then either reference or enact the substance of the model legislation in their own law. So it is about getting a commitment not only to a national approach but also to a set piece of legislation that can be enacted and mirrored across all the states and territories. This is an important mechanism to establish and maintain a nationally agreed regulatory framework. You do not just have a meeting and a commitment to do it; you set about putting in place model legislation that all the states and territories can pick up with ease, therefore enacting the commitment reached at the ministerial council and other associated meetings which are part and parcel of this commission.

As a result of the 1998 amendment—the review of the act—the NRTC Act therefore provides for its own sunset, on 14 January 2004, which brings us to the very debate before the chair today. It also requires the ATC to report to heads of government at least 12 months before that date to advise whether the NRTC Act should cease to be enforced or be re-enacted. In fulfilment of this requirement—and correctly—the government conducted a review of the NRTC Act. The ATC recommended to heads of government the continuation of the road transport regulatory reform process with increased emphasis on maintenance of reforms and the extension of the NRTC reform model to rail and internodal operations requiring replacement of the NRTC by the commission. Interestingly, all heads of government subsequently agreed to the ATC developing legislation for the purpose, and the ATC ministers have subsequently agreed to the current reform embodied in the legislation before the chair today.

The provisions of the proposed act will be supported by an intergovernmental agreement which goes hand in hand with the legislation. This agreement will serve to formalise the cooperative arrangements between the Commonwealth, states and territories and define the roles and responsibilities of the commission and of the ATC and its jurisdictions. You cannot have one without the other. The agreement will set out the voting agreements and arrangements of the ATC. I think these are important, because they go to the governance commitment to deliver reforms—a commitment to do something—when the commission determines how it acts, the nature of the agreements, the approval processes or the resolution of matters provided for by the proposed act.

The agreement is currently being finalised for signature by the Commonwealth, state and territory transport ministers prior to the commencement of the act. For that reason, it is my view that the opposition should also be consulted and kept informed about progress of that intergovernmental agreement. Unless it is finalised in a proper constructive way, the very legislation we are all supporting today could come apart. Certainly, we should be consulted on the final draft form of the agreement before it is signed off.

As I and previous speakers on my side of the House have indicated, the opposition support the legislation. It largely replicates the NRTC Act originally put in place by Labor. It essentially retains standard practices regarding the appointment of commissioners, remuneration, and procedural and reporting requirements of an organisation of this kind. The legislation renews and builds upon the governance structure for national transport policy reform that was pioneered by Labor in the 1990s and built on by the current government in the review of 1998. I believe that, historically, only the Labor Party has been interested in genuine reform in the transport industry.

That takes me to the issue of railway infrastructure—an area in which I think the Howard government has let down the nation. Since 1998, the Howard government has spent less than $100 million on our mainland interstate traffic. As we speak, despite the fact that we have major problems with the further intensification of freight being moved on roads around Australia, we still have $111 million locked up which should be spent on our mainland interstate track now. Worse still, that money has been there since 1998.

The Australian Rail Track Corporation audit released two years ago with the support of both sides of the House showed a basic requirement for $507 million to be spent on the mainland rail track, because it was falling apart. While the track falls apart and the rail freight industry screams for infrastructure spending, the government sits on its hands, that $111 million which ought to be spent now is not spent and the movement of rail freight continues to deteriorate from a competitive point of view. The negotiations of the Commonwealth with the New South Wales government have continued at a snail's pace.

Frankly, I believe that they have been going on for too long. I think it is imperative that we see an agreement within a matter of weeks to not only advance the need for regulatory reform but also get that $111 million spent on the upgrade of the mainland rail track, ostensibly from Brisbane through to Melbourne. The real problem is that for far too long the current minister, rather than getting involved in those negotiations himself, left it to departmental officers. Whilst not reflecting on the performance and commitment of those departmental officers, I always have the view that it is a minister's responsibility to do his own dirty work, to engage in negotiations and to broker necessary agreements to make progress on difficult challenges.

It was only on 1 May this year that, following suggestions from the opposition, the minister finally met with the New South Wales minister and, for the first time ever, pledged to actually deliver an outcome rather than sit on the sidelines and throw stones at the New South Wales government—as is the normal method of operation of the Minister for Transport and Regional Services. Unfortunately, we are still awaiting the outcome of those negotiations—whilst very important infrastructure funds remain idle. On that note, it is interesting that Labor was the only party that went to the last election with a commitment to increase rail funding for our national track. Alternatively, the Howard government sold the National Rail Corporation and did not put one cent from the proceeds of the sale into upgrading rail infrastructure in Australia.

This brings me to the issue of road infrastructure, an area in which there has been another dismal performance by the current minister and Leader of the National Party, Mr Anderson. The opposition recently released statistics showing that spending on our national highway network has actually reduced since the Howard government was elected. Increasingly funds are going to the Roads of National Importance program. The spending on these state roads—and they are state roads—as a percentage of the total National Highway/RONI program has grown dramatically since the RONI program was first introduced in 1996. It currently stands at 23 per cent of the budget allocation. That effectively means that our commitment to the ongoing construction and maintenance of the national highway continues to go backwards. What is worse is that the RONI program has become better known around the country as the `roads of National Party importance program'. I know that view is strongly held by a number of members of the major coalition partner, the Liberal Party, with respect to decisions on road construction in Australia. Although it is fair to say that when you have a by-election such as Aston, all of a sudden you find a RONI called the Scoresby Freeway being embraced—which is important for the purposes of winning a by-election.

Mr Hunt —Mr Deputy Speaker, I wish to propose a question on the issue of Scoresby to the Member for Batman.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. I.R. Causley)—Will the honourable member take the question?

Mr MARTIN FERGUSON —Most certainly.

Mr Hunt —I would be delighted to know whether the opposition spokesperson for transport supports or rejects tolls on the Scoresby Freeway.

Mr MARTIN FERGUSON —The opposition have been endeavouring to get a copy of the original agreement with respect to the Scoresby Freeway. We know that, in negotiations around that agreement, the coalition government very seriously considered the question of tolls and detailed work was done by the department and the minister's office on this. We also know that the people of the eastern suburbs were lied to at the election because there was not sufficient money in the budget for the coalition government to build the Scoresby without a toll. We note that there is a political game currently being played with respect to whether or not there should be tolls on the Scoresby, but from our examination of the budget processes we have come to the conclusion that the Howard government have over-allocated the current transport portfolio and are not in a position to build the Scoresby without tolls. The debate will continue. A lie was told by the coalition government at the last election with respect to the Scoresby Freeway because the money was not there, at the time of the promise, to build it without a toll. More importantly, the government were involved in discussion with the then Victorian government about building the Scoresby with either tolls or shadow tolls. I think it is about time the minister released all the documentation going to the discussions about the construction of the Scoresby.

As I was saying, all too often Liberal Party members of the coalition are missing out because the Roads of National Importance program has become a program better suited to the protection and advancement of members of the National Party rather than the coalition government. The criteria for selecting RONIs are disregarded more often than not and the projects are hand-picked for political purposes. AusLink, a plan sponsored by the Howard government, is premised on introducing into the national highway system around Australia RONIs par excellence, based on tolls, and national highways par excellence, based on tolls. That is what the AusLink plan says: in the future, if we want to upgrade our road structure in Australia under the coalition government, tolls will be the order of the day. The members on the other side ought to go and have a look at the fine print of the AusLink proposals, because it is basically premised on not going forward without the capacity of the Howard government to introduce tolls all around Australia, including on the Scoresby.

I remind the House that state and local governments are already struggling to meet their road funding commitments. I also note that there is no commitment by the current government for continuation of the Roads to Recovery program beyond the next financial year. The AusLink plan will simply make the job harder. The Howard government does not want to continue to build and maintain our national highway system. I have already referred to outstanding commitments on important roads such as Pakenham and Calder. I am also worried about the upgrade of the national highway system north of Albury and outstanding national highway jobs on the Ipswich motorway and the Bruce Highway. These are death traps that require urgent Commonwealth government attention, because they are 100 per cent Commonwealth government responsibilities in terms of the national highway system. This is critical safety work that must be attended to.

Labor's alternative proposal is for an integrated transport plan which goes to thinking about all modes—actually, for example, considering whether it is best to put money into a road or into a railway option. We do not want a botched approach to transport reform, as has occurred in the shipping industry with a government committed to destroying Australian seafarers' jobs by basically sponsoring overseas flagged vessels and overseas crews. I am pleased to say that the High Court of Australia—an institution not known for reform in terms of looking after workers—last week brought down a decision that effectively said that it had got to a point where even the High Court could not tolerate where the Howard government was going with its shipping policy. I am delighted that the High Court ruled last week that foreign shipping operators plying the coastal trade should comply with Australian industrial laws and associated instruments. For far too long, the current government has been manipulating coastal shipping, bringing in foreign ships and crews and seeing Australian workers lose their jobs and Australian families suffer. That is the so-called commitment of the current government to jobs in Australia.

I think it is about time that we actually put in place a consistent, level playing field with respect to the issue of shipping policy in Australia. The current playing field is tilted in favour of foreign operators—potential ships of shame—which endanger our environment and leave us in a situation, as we currently have in the Solomon Islands, of not even having Australian coastal ships to take the necessary equipment to service our troops. We actually had to get a foreign vessel to transport the necessary equipment to back up our troops in the Solomon Islands. What a disgrace, when you think about problems of international terrorism and threats to the Australian community, and we cannot even get an Australian ship that we can rely on to help Australian troops—young men and women—in the Solomon Islands. We know it is part and parcel of the Australian way of life, and we engage a foreign ship and a foreign crew to send backup material and goods to assist our people in the Solomon Islands. It is un-Australian, it reflects on the Prime Minister, and it reflects on the blinkered ideological approach of the Minister for Transport and Regional Services to the shipping policy in Australia. It is cheapjack policies pursued by a cheapjack minister.

That takes me to the issue of aviation reform and the Airspace Reform Group, under the stewardship of Mr Dick Smith, who is a well-known friend of the current Prime Minister, Mr Howard, although historically not a very good friend of the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Transport and Regional Services, Mr Anderson. We all know that, contrary to the wishes of the minister, the Airspace Reform Group, under the stewardship of Mr Dick Smith, was put in place by the Prime Minister as part of a dirty little election deal at the last election to get Mr Dick Smith out of campaigning in Gwydir against the Minister for Transport and Regional Services. Everyone knows it and, unfortunately, we may potentially now have to live with an outrageous approach to airspace reform which could potentially put people at risk because of an enthusiastic amateur—Mr Dick Smith, a friend of the Prime Minister's.

That takes me to the issue of the rewriting of CASA's regulations. The truth is that people in CASA are very worried about where airspace reform is going. We cannot allow the industry to be drowned in paperwork, and we have got to make sure that if there is any reform it is done in an open, constructive and transparent way, not by mates' mates as is currently occurring with respect to the Airspace Reform Group. I raise these issues because I am exceptionally worried, as are many in the aviation industry, that this airspace reform could go wrong and that we will put at risk the Australian travelling public—that we will risk their lives and major accidents because of the work of an enthusiastic amateur. Just because something occurs in America that does not necessarily mean it is right for Australia. The last thing we should do is buy political favours in the lead-up to an election which could end up in us seriously endangering airspace reform just because we needed to protect the political hide of the current Minister for Transport and Regional Services in the seat of Gwydir.

These are exceptionally important issues. They go to the whole approach to transport in Australia. It is about time that we got a commitment from the Howard government to actually do something about transport in Australia. We have a minister at the moment who is very soon to leave parliament. It is very clear he will not go to the next election. The real issue is whether or not he will see out Christmas, let alone this month, as the Minister for Transport and Regional Services. Everyone knows he is on the way out—why doesn't he just pull the pin so that we can get a minister who actually wants to do the job with some commitment? I know that the Liberal Party members on the other side of the House have their eyes on the transport portfolio because they have also had a gutful of the nonperformance of the current minister. If he wants to go back to the farm then he should go back to the farm. Let us put someone in the job who is prepared to do the job, who actually cares about airspace reform and who is not prepared to be part of a dirty deal which endangers airspace operations in Australia to protect his political hide. That is what has occurred with respect to the performance of this portfolio for far too long. Lives are potentially at risk because of dirty little deals done in the lead-up to the last election. When an aircraft accident occurs I will, frankly, be hounding the minister if it occurs as a result of this airspace reform, which was part of a dirty little political deal.

In conclusion, we do fully support the legislation. It builds on the initiation of reform that we put in place in 1991, which was further improved in 1998. Some of the changes embodied in this legislation perhaps should have come forward in 1998 as part of a national commitment to the logistics debate. We are a party of transport reform. The legislation is overdue and largely replicates the reform structure established by Labor in the early 1990s. It is not creative and innovative, because that is beyond the minister. We welcome the extension of the framework to rail and intermodal activities. However, we question the lack of commitment and focus on the shipping industry, because it is excluded from the reform process. It is a policy area that needs urgent attention. As he departs, we also call on the minister to see this legislation as at least a bit of a legacy for a new focus on transport in Australia. He was incapable of doing it—let us hope that the legislation actually establishes the framework for the new minister to do something of substance, because this minister has left very little else other than this legislation as his legacy. (Time expired)