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Wednesday, 2 May 1984
Page: 1474

Senator KILGARIFF(12.17) —I join in the debate on the Australian Bicentennial Road Development Trust Fund Amendment Bill 1984 and the Roads Grants Amendment Bill 1984. This legislation deals principally with three matters: Firstly, changes to the tendering arrangements in the Australian Bicentennial Road Development Trust Fund Act and the Roads Grants Act; secondly, the effort required by State governments on their road programs; and, thirdly, the efforts required of State governments to maintain their public transport programs. A fourth matter is very much involved in the overall situation and that is the Government's intention to index the fuel levy. Honourable senators and people in Australia will realise that this levy was established in 1982 after a good deal of discussion between the Government, industry and motorists' organisations. A one cent levy and then a two cent levy on motor spirit and automotive distillate was agreed upon, on the condition that all funds raised through the levy would be used on the roads program.

This bicentennial road development program goes back several years. It was first proposed by the Hon. Ralph Hunt. I believe that this is one of the most important projects that has been introduced into parliament for years. Mr Hunt is to be commended for introducing this scheme a few years ago. Senator Jack Evans spoke about this program to some extent when he commended the Fraser Government for having brought it forward. The Bicentennial Road Development Trust Fund was to give some impetus to the construction of roads throughout Australia, not only along the eastern coast which, over the years, has been relatively well looked after, but also through the outback. Over the years only some funds have been given to these most important projects. People of the outback believe that this program is very important to them.

I commend the previous Government for having brought about the beef road program some years ago. The beef road program developed arterial roads throughout the outback that could be looked upon not only as beef roads but also developmental roads. These roads in the Northern Territory, in other parts of the outback and in various States have proved most important not just in the development of the pastoral industry. Certainly we see that they have played a major part in the development of the mining industry at Jabiru and places. They have also given a tremendous boost to the tourist industry in the Northern Territory and the whole of Australia. This has allowed Australians really to go outback in some reasonable comfort to see the attractions of this country. I think the beef road program was a most successful project. It has meant much to Australia and very much to the people who live in the outback.

Road development is now to be continued with this bicentennial road program. The purpose of this program is to improve roads throughout the nation, to bring them up to a national level. Some people have said that it will bring about a black ribbon of bitumen not only around the perimeter of Australia but also through the outback. Many projects have been planned-others are on the drafting board-for roads to be brought up to a national standard by 1988. It was felt that, because of the financial demands that would be made on the Government, extra funds would have to be raised to finance this bicentennial program. Motorists in Australia were called on to participate. As I have indicated, they were called on to participate by paying a one cent levy and then a two cent levy for every litre of petrol that they purchased. The two cents levy was to go into this fund to upgrade national roads. This has come about.

The point that concerns not only honourable senators on this side of the House but also motorists in Australia-every person who has been interested in this project and the raising of the levy to fund this project has been concerned-is that the indexation of this fuel levy, which has been introduced by this Government, brings about an increase in funds raised from Australian motorists of something like $491m this financial year. In anyone's lot that is a considerable amount of money. Yet the most incredible thing about this situation is that while the two cents levy is being raised for the singular purpose of upgrading national roads the Australian motorist has to pay one decimal point more through indexation. This will raise some $491 a year. As I understand it- this has not been contradicted by the Government-that money is not going into the national road scheme even though that was its purpose and that is what it was all about. It means that this extra tax of $491m that is being raised by the Federal Government is not going into the national road scheme as it should be under the arrangements for the project. Instead it will go into Consolidated Revenue for the Government to use for some other purpose. I ask: Is this action correct?

Senator Peter Rae —What is the difference between that and misappropriation?

Senator KILGARIFF —That was a very fine point made by Senator Rae. Perhaps it is legal, and that is okay. Regardless of whether it is legal, morally it is a misappropriation of funds from the Australian motorist. Those funds are going into some other quarter. I wonder where the funds are going. I note that the Federal Government is now endeavouring to bring about taxation allowances in the next Budget. Is this the way the Federal Government will raise the money? Is the Federal Government going to raise it by taxing the Australian motorist and then giving it back in a minor degree through taxation allowances? As Senator Rae said, in anyone's view this is a misappropriation of funds. In our view it certainly is.

I will return now briefly to the Northern Territory situation and the levy. There are long distances, not only in the Territory but in the outback generally , to be travelled by people. Therefore, the people of the outback have to travel more than the city dwellers. When one looks at the situation in that manner it can be seen that the people in the outback really contribute more to the levy than do city dwellers. Again, I say outback people are being touched by this indexation. Another matter concerns me too. I refer to the money allocated last year by the Federal Government for Northern Territory contracts but which has been withheld by the Federal Government until now. I refer to a letter of 27 April which I received from the Minister for Transport, Mr Peter Morris, in which he said:

I have pleasure in advising you that I have approved further road projects for the Northern Territory for funding under the Roads Grants Act 1981 and the Australian Bicentennial Road Development (ABRD) Program.

The Minister continued:

The projects, two of which will be funded under the Road Grants Act 1981 and three under the ABRD Program, provide for reconstruction and general upgrading of the Stuart Highway.

The Minister then gave various details of the program worth some $17,097,000 covering five contracts. In the Minister's letter he referred to the $16.8m project approval for the Stuart Highway. In the Press release attached to the letter it is stated that the project approval follows his undertaking in Parliament earlier this month to have an officer from the Department of Transport evaluate the works proposed by the Northern Territory Government. The Minister is quoted as saying:

In view of earlier assertions by the NT Government, I needed to satisfy myself that the projects were necessary.

That is an unusual statement for a Federal Minister to make regarding another government, even though it is one of different political views. I think that when one considers the situation it can be seen as an unnecessary slur on a Territory government well recognised for its efforts to upgrade the quality of life of the people of the outback. That can be proved quite conclusively. When I talk about the quality of life, one of those qualities of course concerns reasonable roads so that people in the outback can travel in reasonable comfort. To assert that it is necessary to send an officer to check on that Government I think is more than a slur, it is an insult, particularly when one considers the work that has been carried out by the Northern Territory Government.

If it were the case that the Northern Territory Government was not doing its job for the people of the outback in developing road programs what would we expect? We would expect that in an election such a government would be removed from the scene. Has that Government been removed? It has not. In the last election the people of the Northern Territory voted the Government in with 19 seats compared with six seats for the Opposition. This is the judgment of the people who have to use such facilities. The Northern Territory Government is doing the right thing by the people of the outback. However the Federal Minister for Transport has the audacity to send a person to the Northern Territory to see whether he is satisfied with what the Northern Territory Government is doing. I notice too that a Minister in this chamber yesterday made some very derogatory remarks about the upgrading of the Stuart Highway in the Northern Territory. The remarks were to the effect that there seemed to be some move within the Northern Territory by the Chief Minister to go back on his word and change his ideas. I find that very difficult to understand, especially when one peruses the correspondence and messages and sees the actions that have taken place over the last few months.

I refer to a letter of 21 March to the Federal Minister for Transport, Peter Morris, from the Minister for Transport and Works in the Northern Territory who has had a most difficult job because funds have been withheld for months. Why were they withheld? The funds were withhold as a result of the Hill Independent Economic Inquiry into Transport Services to the Northern Territory report. That report was presented to the Federal Government. Honourable senators might remember that this Mr Hill was the Executive Director of the State Rail Authority of New South Wales. It was his job to review the transport requirements relating to the building of the rail link from Alice Springs to Darwin. Funds for this project have been refused by the Federal Government even though it was an election promise. The report also looked at the necessity for road upgrading. I have referred to the rail link previously and I am not going along that track now because we are talking about the motorist.

It was said in the Hill report that the upgrading of the Stuart Highway was not particularly necessary. Prior to that report it was said that if the Northern Territory Government and people wanted the rail link perhaps they would agree to moneys allocated to upgrading the Stuart Highway being applied to the construction of the railway. Of course, that never came about. It was said then that there was a real case for both the road and rail link and that the funding of the road should not be interrupted. Several contracts were going to tender at that time and, to this week, money for tenders that had been called for and let in good faith has been withheld. The contractor now finds that he cannot start work because there are no funds. The Hon. Jim Robertson, the Northern Territory Minister for Transport and Works, said in one letter:

You will recall that I telexed you on 25 February expressing my concern over deferral of approval for new works on the Stuart Highway. Deferral of the five projects worth approximately $10m has caused considerable disruption to the construction industry in the Northern Territory and has created significant loss of job opportunities.

Of these five projects, tenders have closed on two and the others are scheduled to close this month.

The letter goes on to indicate what those contracts were. They have been mentioned before so I will not take up the time of the Senate going through that information now. He said also in a telex:

The lowest tenderers . . . are both ready to proceed with the respective works immediately approval is granted.

The deferral of these new projects has resulted in an untenable situation where we can no longer achieve the 83/84 expenditure requirements of the national highway programs with the major effect being reflected on the Australian bicentennial road development program.

It is imperative that the construction of the Stuart Highway proceeds if the objectives of the ABRD program are to be met. As you know the primary objective is to upgrade the nation's road system to a high standard by, or soon after, 1988. Important factors in this aim are the meeting of the growing transportation needs of Australia; the enhancement of safety on our roads; the construction of developmental roads, including those of importance for national tourism.

Tourism is of the utmost importance. He continues:

I would very much appreciate your urgent consideration in expediting approval to these outstanding projects in order that these aims be achieved. Continuity of work and much needed job opportunities in the Territory will also result once these works get under way.

At the very least and as an interim measure I request that the two projects for which acceptable tenders are held be allowed to commence immediately.

After all that-this has been going on for quite some time now-the Minister, as if there is something new about it, as if it is completely off his own bat, having held up funds for most necessary road projects for several months, comes out with a slur on the Northern Territory Government, suggesting that it is not doing its job. It was a most remarkable statement. This is in keeping with the point I made previously on another matter; that is, that the Federal Government is misappropriating funds from the bicentennial road development program.

There are other matters but I will touch on them only very quickly because they have been covered by others. Very briefly, on the matter of tendering, it is my understanding that an amendment is to be moved in an endeavour to have the present situation rectified so that private enterprise, which employs so many people in the field and which means so much to employment, will be responsible for road construction. Surely when one is on a good thing one should stick to it . Why take away something when it is working well and put in its place a scheme that has not been proved? I am not saying that it will not work. I am asking: Why tamper with the existing situation which has proved very conclusively that private enterprise, be it in the cities, along the seaboard or along the highways in the outback, has the ability to carry out what is required? Surely it is in keeping with the character of the bicentennial road development program , which is to be completed by 1988-at least until the Federal Government tampers with it-a program in which all Australian motorists are participating, that private enterprise plays its part.

In conclusion, I find it very disappointing to see an Australian Federal government behaving in such a shoddy manner. The approach adopted in this legislation and in what the Minister for Transport has said is typical of the behaviour of a group of politicians who are in opposition, not in government. I expect much more of a Federal government.

Debate interrupted.

Sitting suspended from 12.42 to 2 p.m.