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Wednesday, 26 November 2008
Page: 11596

Mr CHAMPION (10:01 AM) —In the lead-up to the last election, there was a mood in the community that the vast revenue generated by the mining boom had largely been wasted by the Howard government and that that government had been given an incredible opportunity to use those revenues to provide for our future and, in particular, to provide for infrastructure that would generate future economic and social wellbeing but that that opportunity was passing us by as a nation and that government in particular. I think that mood was spot on, and it is particularly obvious now. Chris Richardson from Access Economics referred to the Howard government as engaging in:

… the usual ill-disciplined blowout of tax cuts and big spending during the boom—

and that—

having partied during the good years, we now face the hangover.

I guess that is particularly apparent now as we face both the hangover of the previous government’s policies and the impacts of the global financial crisis. It is in this context that I am proud to support the Nation-building Funds Bill 2008 and cognate bills as a pivotal part of the government’s Economic Security Strategy and an investment in Australia’s economic future.

This bill gives effect to one of the central parts of the government’s 2008-09 budget by expediting the establishment of key nation-building funds—the Building Australia Fund, the Education Investment Fund and the Health and Hospitals Fund—which will finance improvements in critical economic and social infrastructure in areas like transport, communications, higher education and health. These funds will allow the Commonwealth government, often in partnership with the states through the new COAG Reform Fund, which is another component of this package of bills, to meet the infrastructure needs of the Australian economy in areas essential to the capacity of the economy—things like transport, communications, education and training. These bills have been fast-tracked to ensure that Australians are shielded from the impacts of the global financial crisis through a historic investment in nation-building that will ensure our economic security today and into the future.

The investments being made by this government are significant. This year the government will contribute a total of $12.6 billion to the Building Australia Fund for use in areas like transport, communications, energy and water, and infrastructure, which includes proceeds from the T3 sale and the balance of the Communications Fund; it will contribute a total of $8.7 billion to the Education Investment Fund for education infrastructure, including the balance of the Higher Education Endowment Fund; and $5 billion to the Health and Hospitals Fund for health infrastructure. The government has committed to making future allocations to these funds as budget circumstances permit.

These three funds are particularly important examples of the government’s approach to nation building. They are designed to invest in infrastructure areas that stakeholders agree currently have substantial gaps. In my own electorate, you can see that places like Gawler are really busting at the seams in terms of growth. I am sure that people in that town will recognise the importance of investment in the area of transport, road and rail and in other areas that are important engines of economic development, such as education. The government has already contributed $451 million to the Northern Expressway project—a project which will make travel to and from Gawler much quicker, particularly to the city and to Port Adelaide. It will take about 13 minutes off the trip to Port Adelaide. It will take a lot of the freight traffic that is currently going down Main North Road and Heaslip Road. Projects like this will undoubtedly have a huge impact on growing Australian regions and are undoubtedly worthwhile projects.

Investment in infrastructure is not only the right economic policy for now; it is the right economic policy for the future because it stimulates investment in critical areas and immediately encourages economic activity. It means jobs for people in local areas—places like Gawler and Elizabeth. I want to mention, in particular, the NEXY project. This project is thanks to some of the contracts that have been put in place by the state government, which is managing the project. About 70 young and Indigenous people from the local area are being employed on that project. So that is 70 young people who are getting a start in civil construction. I think it is tremendously important to use these projects to start bringing people into the labour market who previously had some trouble getting into it. Most importantly, projects like these provide extended growth potential over the medium and long term. This means new industries, new innovations and new jobs into the future. That is particularly so in relation to the NEXY project. I think Gawler will expand exponentially in the future. This will be great for the local community, but it will place growing infrastructure demands on the area.

You would expect that, after being so blind to the importance of nation building while in government, those opposite would now try and make amends for their negligence. Unfortunately that is not the case. The opposition seem to want to have it both ways—on the one hand they demand transparency and, on the other, they give us a long list of projects in their electorates which they want funded. Often, there is a duality in their approach. I hope for the sake of our economy in the short and long term that they stop playing political games with these bills and pass the legislation unamended by the end of the year. The bills need to be passed so that funds can be established by 1 January 2009 and work on projects can begin as soon as possible.

For the Building Australia Fund, the government has previously indicated that Infrastructure Australia, the independent statutory council headed by Sir Rod Eddington, will produce an interim report in December on a national infrastructure priority list. That will be a first indication of which projects will be supported in the new year. This bill and the consequential amendments bill allow for interim advisory bodies for both the Education Investment Fund and the Health and Hospitals Fund to be established immediately. These interim bodies will provide a report to government in December on priorities so that immediate investment decisions can be made.

These funds represent immediate and decisive action from the Rudd government to ensure our economic security. But they do not come at the expense of transparency and accountability. These funds are not slush funds to be used to build election majorities in marginal seats; they are serious pillars of a policy committed to building Australia, and they are to be evaluated rigorously by independent advisory bodies. The government is using a number of sources to identify the long-term infrastructure needs of Australia, but the work being undertaken by Infrastructure Australia is perhaps the most important. The funds will utilise the investment framework that has been established for the Future Fund. The Future Fund Board of Guardians will manage the investments of the funds.

Consistent with the government’s Economic Security Strategy to strengthen the economy in the face of the global financial crisis, the bill permits the Minister for Finance and Deregulation, who along with the Prime Minister and the Treasurer is to be commended for foresight in preparing the government’s response to the global financial crisis, to determine a drawing rights limit for spending from the funds covering the first half of next year. This will enable work in key infrastructure areas to commence before 1 July 2009. To ensure transparency in the determination of spending, all determinations will be made in writing and tabled in the parliament.

When Donald Horne famously called Australia the ‘lucky country’, he really meant to say we were the lazy country—that we did not think hard about the future and that we did not invest much in the infrastructure we would need in the future. In that vein, the Howard government was a lucky government. It let Australia’s opportunities pass us by. It did not spend the dividends of 15 years of economic growth—largely a legacy of the Hawke and Keating years—on Australia’s long-term economic security. It simply taxed and spent. It taxed and it spent. It churned, but it did not invest. Today before the House are bills that put Australia’s Economic Security Strategy at the centre of the government’s nation-building agenda. Nation building means investing in transport, in education, in communications and in health care to ensure not just short-term economic activity but long-term economic growth. Nation building means responding quickly to the current economic crisis by increasing our economic capabilities and opportunities over the long term. Nation building means a new era of the Australian people investing in the nation’s infrastructure needs and building for the future. These funds provide for that goal. I commend the bills to the House.