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Wednesday, 26 November 2008
Page: 11601

Ms KING (10:23 AM) —I rise to speak in support of the Nation-building Funds Bill 2008 and cognate bills. This legislation establishes Labor’s three nation-building funds: the Building Australia Fund, the Education Investment Fund and the Health and Hospitals Fund. This signals an entirely new approach to the way in which we invest in infrastructure in this country—an approach that completely moves us away from the ad hoc approach that was taken by the previous government, the lack of investment by the previous government and the politicisation of many of the decisions that were made in terms of infrastructure investment under the previous government.

There is absolutely no doubt that our infrastructure needs are substantial—whether it is our roads and ports or capital work needed to redevelop our universities or hospitals—and well beyond the means of one level of government. It seems extraordinary when you look at some of the investment decisions over the past 11 years that national infrastructure, the infrastructure that helps develop our productivity, that removes capacity constraints in our economy, was not made an absolute priority by the previous government particularly given the economic circumstances we find ourselves in now. Always the question should be of governments: when we are in good economic times what are we doing to use that money generated in the economy to build for when we are not in good economic times, and that is where we are currently.

Unfortunately this government has been left with the task of investing significantly in infrastructure at a time when the economy is starting to slow. But it is something that we are absolutely committed to getting right and we are absolutely committed to making sure that those decisions we made are in the best interest of the nation, not in the best interest of particular political seats.

Labor has always been a nation-building party and this bill builds well and truly on that tradition. We have chosen to do all we can to invest in areas of critical need, not only to make up for the underinvestment of the previous government but also to tackle the risks associated with the current global uncertainty that we are experiencing. If we are to prosper, we must act now. The Australian government is bringing about real change to the way we look at investing in our nation’s future. This government is committed to responsible economic management and we are committed to smart investment in those areas of the economy that will assist us to grow, investment that builds on this nation’s prosperity.

Over recent months we have seen some uncertainty in the global economy and much of this uncertainty has been stemming from the US subprime market. We are in a strong position to tackle the challenges that come with global economic uncertainty, yet we do require strong economic management to assist us in our challenge. Only last month the Rudd government announced the $10.4 billion Economic Security Strategy, and in my electorate alone as of 8 December we will be delivering relief to some 39,000 people. That is real and immediate support to people who need it most, including pensioners, carers and families.

But we also announced that we intended, as another part of our Economic Security Strategy, to bring forward our nation-building agenda, an agenda we promised and committed to in the lead-up to the last election and a promise that we are delivering on now in this bill. The first of those strategies in bringing forward our nation-building agenda is the Building Australia Fund. This year the government will contribute some $12.6 billion to the Building Australia Fund. The proceeds from the sale of Telstra and the balance of the Communications Fund will be invested in the Building Australia Fund. This funding will be spent on critical economic infrastructure. Currently there is a shortfall in critical economic infrastructure. The Building Australia Fund will finance infrastructure such as roads, rail, ports and broadband. The establishment of this fund is essential if we are to be serious about raising our nation’s productivity capacity, if we are serious about growing industry, and if we are serious about growing our economy.

Earlier this year I spoke in support of the Infrastructure Australia Bill, and I want to commend the work that Infrastructure Australia is doing. The audit that it is undertaking currently into infrastructure across the country is due with the government very shortly—I think some time next week—and it will really signal a very new approach to the way in which government decisions are taken about investing in infrastructure across the country. The Infrastructure Australia Bill established Infrastructure Australia and, as I said, it is advising government on nationally significant infrastructure priorities. It is taking a very sophisticated cost-benefit approach, a nation-building approach, to investments in infrastructure, something that was sorely lacking under the previous government.

The Building Australia Fund that is established in this legislation is subject to rigorous evaluation by Infrastructure Australia. The Building Australia Fund will receive project recommendations from Infrastructure Australia and, as I said, next week Infrastructure Australia will produce its audit of the national infrastructure priority list, something that I am sure has been an extremely difficult task. It is the first time in this country’s history that that has actually been done. We will then be in a situation to assess the infrastructure needs right across the country and it will allow government to make decisions about investing in infrastructure that will benefit the nation as a whole and will help grow the economy as a whole. We now have a situation where the Commonwealth government of Australia is investing in building the nation and building the nation’s prosperity.

The Australian Labor Party has always been a nation-building party. During the election we made a commitment to deliver a national broadband network, which involves an investment by the federal government of some $4.7 billion. It is an absolutely massive undertaking, be in no doubt about that. To build a national broadband network, a fibre-to-the-node network, is a huge project. I would certainly see it as equivalent to, if not even larger than, the building of the Snowy hydro. It is a massive undertaking and it is an extremely complicated thing to do. It is something that is very important that we get right. I understand that there is some impatience in communities about lack of access to broadband, and that has been because of the complete failure of the previous government to invest in significant broadband developments. What they were proposing was a patchy, ad hoc wireless network—totally inadequate technology for regional Australia—that would not have been able to handle what is proposed under this government’s proposal, neither the speeds of broadband nor the coverage of broadband to 98 per cent of Australian households, with the remaining two per cent to get up to equivalent services. It is a massive undertaking and one I feel will be one of the most significant nation-building and infrastructure investments that this country makes. I understand the opposition are playing lots of politics with this at the moment around the timing, but I caution them by saying this is probably one of the largest infrastructure projects that we have ever seen in this country and it is extremely important that the government gets this absolutely right. It will set us up well and truly for not only better broadband speeds but also increasing the capacity of our capital cities and regional areas into the future. It is a very important project.

The second fund that is established under this legislation is the Education Investment Fund. The Education Investment Fund is a major part of our commitment to an education revolution. Since being elected to government, one of our primary focuses has been on the importance of delivering a first-class education system. The buildings in which our education is undertaken are extremely important in terms of growing the sector and growing people’s access to education and quality education. This fund will go a long way to providing finance for capital investment in both higher education and vocational education and training. The federal government’s initial contribution to this fund is $8.7 billion and the funding will go towards investing in local education infrastructure. The fund will incorporate the balance of the Higher Education Endowment Fund along with proceeds from the 2007-08 surplus. In line with all major funds established by the government, we are committed to transparency and we are committed to rigorous evaluation with regard to funding for special projects. That is why the investment in our nation’s future education and training is being assessed by an independent advisory board.

As stated earlier, since being elected to government, the nation has seen the development of a global financial crisis. This crisis cannot be ignored. That is why the Prime Minister, along with the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government, Anthony Albanese, announced that the Rudd government would fast-track its nation-building agenda. The government has invited 14 universities to submit proposals to the second stage of the 2009 funding round for strategic investment in capital and research facilities. Those capital investments and particularly the investments into research facilities really will generate lots of benefits to the economy overall. The second stage has been brought forward in line with the federal government’s announcement to fast-track our nation-building agenda.

In my electorate of Ballarat, I am pleased to support the University of Ballarat’s funding bid under the Higher Education Endowment Fund 2009 funding round. The University of Ballarat has met with the Higher Education Endowment Fund board to discuss its application. It has made it through to the second round of funding. The University of Ballarat’s proposed innovation and enterprise centre is a great project and is a strong investment not only for my electorate but also for Australia. The university proposes to build a centre that comprises an IT professional practice facility, an innovation and research hub and a major IBM IT services centre. It builds on the university’s strong partnership with IBM and I think it really will generate not just jobs and income into the local economy, but the research that is undertaken within that facility will generate much growth in the Australian economy overall.

The University of Ballarat Technology Park has gone from strength to strength over the past decade, and I certainly hope that the University of Ballarat can secure endowment funding so that it can continue to grow and prosper and be at the centre of IT services in this country. As I said, I strongly support this project as I believe it is a perfect example of the investment required to build our nation. I commend the University of Ballarat on their efforts to once again secure support from both industry and government in their bid.

From 2009 the Higher Education Endowment Fund will become part of the Education Investment Fund. Under our government’s arrangements, the level of funds available for capital investment in higher education and vocational education and training is greater than under the previous arrangements for the Higher Education Endowment Fund. On top of the Education Investment Fund, the federal government has also delivered $500 million for universities through the Better Universities Renewal Fund. The University of Ballarat has also received a grant of approximately $2.9 million for capital funding under this program.

I am pleased to be part of a government that understands the need for investment in education and understands what happened particularly to regional universities under the previous government, and I look forward—I hope I can look forward—to a positive announcement in relation to the University of Ballarat’s bid. Australia needs a government that is supportive of significant investment in education infrastructure to help drive productive growth and reduce capacity constraints.

The third fund that this legislation establishes is the Health and Hospitals Fund. The federal government will contribute $5 billion to the Health and Hospitals Fund. The government is serious about building a stronger health system for all Australians. Since being elected in 2001, one of the most pressing issues that people contact my office about is access to top-quality health care. Residents do not care who funds health care, whether it be federal, state or territory governments; what they are interested in is being able to access that care when they need it. Residents want all levels of government to work together towards the common goal of improving services for all Australians, and that is what the government is doing.

I support the establishment of the Health and Hospitals Fund because it supports strategic investment in our health system. The establishment of this fund will see capital investment in health services, including renewal and refurbishment of hospitals. Again, given what has happened across the country, it is very difficult for one level of government alone to fund all of the capital needs of hospitals across the country and it is very good to see the Commonwealth government, through the Health and Hospitals Fund, stepping up to the plate in this regard as well. The fund will see investment in medical technology equipment and significant medical research facilities. Never before has there been such a significant investment in health infrastructure.

Like the Building Australia Fund and the Education Investment Fund, spending from the Health and Hospitals Fund will also be subject to rigorous evaluation criteria. The criteria will be assessed by the Health and Hospitals Fund Advisory Board—again, a board that is independent of the political process, independent of government. It was great to see only last week the Minister for Health and Ageing, Nicola Roxon, announce the appointment of Mr Bill Ferris AC as the chair of the new Health and Hospitals Fund Advisory Board. He is someone who is very well respected in this country.

If we as a government are to be serious about the health of the Australian people then as a government we need to provide substantial funding for projects that provide significant benefits. And that is what we are attempting to do.

The infrastructure investment program overall will help protect Australians from the impact of the global financial crisis. These three funds are part of the government’s agenda to build this nation. This is an agenda that was put to one side under the previous government. We have an infrastructure investment program to tackle the needs of roads, rail, ports, utilities, high-speed broadband, education, and our health and hospitals system. We are serious about tackling this task head-on. The government has brought forward infrastructure spending because, as a result of the uncertainty that exists in the international economy, a need arises for Australia to be ready to handle these challenges.

The Prime Minister is working with the ministers for infrastructure, communications, health, education and innovation to bring forward interim reports on infrastructure projects by early December 2008. This will allow for work to begin next year, bringing a much-needed boost into the Australian economy. By bringing forward its nation-building agenda, the government can implement projects but still have rigorous evaluation in place. Our investment is targeted at boosting productivity to sustain growth both now and into the future, and is subject to rigorous evaluation and transparency. Our investment is in line with what the Australian people expected from the nation’s government—that is, the leadership being shown by the Prime Minister.

This debate also encompasses the COAG Reform Fund Bill 2008 and I just want to speak very briefly on that because, again, whilst it sounds quite a dry debate, it actually signals one of the most significant reforms to Commonwealth-state funding arrangements that we have seen, certainly in the last decade, and will have significant impact on the way in which Commonwealth-state relations work.

This bill will establish the COAG Reform Fund. When funds are used to finance capital projects with the states and territories, they will be distributed from the nation-building funds. These funds will be distributed through a new Council of Australian Governments Reform Fund. The government is committed to harmonising relationships between all levels of government—this is clearly reflected in last week’s Australian Council of Local Government’s meeting and subsequent announcement of the government’s $300 million Regional and Local Community Infrastructure Fund.

I look forward to working with my local communities, the City of Ballarat, Moorabool Shire, Hepburn Shire and Golden Plains Shire over the coming weeks to identify their priority projects to be funded through the community infrastructure fund. During the last election, the government made a commitment to the Australian people to end the blame game between the Commonwealth and the states and territories. We promised that we would work to revolutionise the way our Federation is structured. We said we would work with the states and territories to build positive financial relationships. During our first year in office, we have already taken steps to improve relationships between the Commonwealth and the states and territories. The COAG Reform Fund established under this bill is another step in this process.

The fund will develop a modern system of financial relations between the federal and state governments. It will complement the nation-building funds that I have already mentioned. The COAG Reform Fund will disburse funding provided in future federal budgets to the states and territories for areas of specific reform. It will channel funds from the Building Australia Fund, Health and Hospitals Fund and the Education Investment Fund, where funds are used to finance projects by the states, and may receive funding through special appropriation in the form of National Partnership payments. As I said, whilst not many people may be aware of it, it will significantly revolutionise the way in which Commonwealth-state finances work in this country.

Through initiatives including the Regional and Local Community Infrastructure Fund, the government’s commitment to bring forward its nation-building agenda and funding distribution streams such as the COAG Reform Fund, we really are working to improve relationships with all levels of government and helping to grow our economy. We are restructuring the relationship between levels of government to ensure that the Australian people get better value for their money and the support they need from federal government. The Australian people deserve better quality services and, certainly, the COAG Reform Fund will deliver some efficiencies between the financial arrangements of the Commonwealth and states. The COAG Reform Fund will also play an important part in building on the capacity of this economy—something that is desperately needed.

Under the leadership of the previous government, this country lacked the investment needed in a number of critical infrastructure projects. Not only did it lack the investment needed in those projects, it lacked the capacity to actually determine which projects were in the best interests of the nation, in the best interests of growing the economy. Those decisions were not taken on a good sound cost-benefit analysis and they were not taken, I think, in the best interests of the nation as a whole.

The Rudd government have made a commitment to the Australian people to deliver on our election promises and also made a commitment to deal with the long-term challenges ahead. I am very proud to be part of a government that delivers on the promises that it made in the election. No longer do we have a government of core and non-core promises. We are trying to rebuild the trust that the Australian people should have in their Australian parliament.

I support these bills because they reflect the government’s commitment to invest in the short-, medium- and long-term challenges that are faced by this nation, whether they be in health, in education or in building our national infrastructure. I commend these bills to the chamber.