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Transcript of interview with Hamish MacDonald: ABC Radio National: 21 November 2019: increased infrastructure spending; faster environmental approvals



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THE HON ALAN TUDGE MP MINISTER FOR POPULATION, CITIES AND URBAN INFRASTRUCTURE

TRANSCRIPT ABC RADIO NATIONAL INTERVIEW WITH HAMISH MACDONALD

21 November 2019

Subjects: Increased infrastructure spending; faster environmental approvals

HAMISH MACDONALD:

The time it takes to approve big developments, including mines or new roads, will be slashed under a new drive to get major projects off the ground as quickly as possible. Speeding up environmental approvals is the latest element of the Government’s plan to stimulate Australia’s flat economy and today the Government will announce another $570 million worth of infrastructure projects will be fast-tracked to boost investment and create jobs.

Alan Tudge is the Minister for Urban Infrastructure. He’s in Adelaide this morning where the weather conditions are pretty difficult today. Would you like to give us an update on conditions there this morning?

ALAN TUDGE:

Yeah, good morning Hamish. It is very windy. You can smell smoke in the air and it actually is quite concerning here in Adelaide, as it is in other parts of Australia.

HAMISH MACDONALD:

Okay, so some pretty significant announcements today. Clearly the key to boosting growth in the economy is lifting both wages and productivity. Where’s the economic plan to do that?

ALAN TUDGE:

Well boosting infrastructure is all part of our overall economic plan. Now, we’ve already announced a $100 billion program of work over the next 10 years and this week we’ve announced we’re bringing forward almost $4 billion of work into the next few years so that we can get more projects underway more quickly.

HAMISH MACDONALD:

But how is this going to boost wages and productivity?

ALAN TUDGE:

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Well of course I mean if you develop infrastructure, it does two things. One is provide an immediate boost because it creates jobs. And today our projects alone are supporting 85,000 jobs around the country. But second, once you’ve actually built the infrastructure, of course it means that the transport is more efficient, the trucks can get across from one side of the city to the next or across Australia, and that means productivity’s enhanced as well.

HAMISH MACDONALD:

Obviously there’s already been $7 billion worth of tax cuts. The impact of that is being questioned, all because households seem to have used that extra cash to pay down debt instead of pushing it into the wider economy. Is this announcement today an acknowledgement that that has not done the job of kicking the economy along?

ALAN TUDGE:

No, I mean this is part of our broader plan. Now, we’ve had this plan all year. We took it to the election where tax cuts were part of it but infrastructure was also part of it, as was signing more free trade agreements, as was the deregulation agenda. We’ve been very consistent with our economic plans.

HAMISH MACDONALD:

But this is a new announcement today. I mean, we didn’t know necessarily that this was coming.

ALAN TUDGE:

Well we’ve been talking about this for several months. I mean, we wrote to the Premiers back in August to say do you have projects which you are able to bring forward to support more jobs creation and to get more projects done quickly. Then over the last few months, we’ve been carefully working with the State Ministers and the Premiers to put these packages together. And then this week we’ve been announcing these packages and they will support thousands more jobs.

Just yesterday I was in Western Australia with the Premier of Western Australia and the six projects alone which we were announcing there that can get cracking from the beginning of next year will support a further thousand jobs on top of the already 85,000 jobs which are being supported by the existing projects which are underway. So it’s more jobs, getting projects done more quickly. In many cases these are in regional areas as well because they’re often more easier to get done more quickly and using local contractors, and that’s overall great for jobs, great for the economy, and it’s great for commuters as well.

HAMISH MACDONALD:

Listening to the Prime Minister this morning when he spoke on AM, he seemed to think that key to all of this is slashing the approval time for big projects. That can’t just be achieved by digitising the process. How are you actually going to slash the time?

ALAN TUDGE:

Yes, what the Prime Minister was talking about last night was particularly in relation to environmental approvals, and a number of State Governments have raised this with us, that it takes too long to get the environmental approvals through. Now, no one wants to diminish the

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environmental standards, but if we can get rid of some of the duplication, if we can make the process more efficient then that means we can get on with these major projects more quickly. So that’s the overall objective here.

HAMISH MACDONALD:

So okay, that’s the objective. How are you actually going to deliver that though? Because there are clearly stakeholders that have to sign off on big developments. Are you going to remove some of them from the process by, as you say, reducing duplication?

ALAN TUDGE:

Well part of it is reducing the duplication so that if you’re doing a project you don’t have to put exactly the same information to the State Government as you would to the Federal Government for example and have a one-stop-shop for environmental approvals. We’re working through all of these things but it absolutely is an issue. In fact, the Western Australian Premier was just raising this with me the other day.

HAMISH MACDONALD:

No, no question it’s an issue. We’ve heard that on the program.

ALAN TUDGE:

We want to make this more efficient without reducing the standards.

HAMISH MACDONALD:

But this is with respect Minister, this is a specific question about your proposed solution. Clearly digitising the process itself is not going to necessarily cut 18 months off an approval process. What are you doing to the process itself to make it easier for these projects to get up?

ALAN TUDGE:

Well that’s what we’re going to be working through to get this job done correctly.

HAMISH MACDONALD:

So you don’t know yet?

ALAN TUDGE:

Now, we have in part. Reducing some of the duplication. Well the Prime Minister signalled last night the direction which we are heading and the very firm intent to reduce the time taken for environmental approvals and we’ll work through methodically that process to reach that end in consultation with the State Governments as well who also have a great interest in doing this as, as I said, I was literally discussing yesterday with the Western Australian Premier this precise issue. No one wants to reduce the standards but everybody wants to make the process more efficient.

HAMISH MACDONALD:

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With respect Minister, that response sounds pretty vague. I mean, there will be people this morning wanting to understand what reducing duplication actually looks like in practice. Are you saying you’ve announced this without actually thinking through the specific changes?

ALAN TUDGE:

The work is ongoing here but the overall direction has been announced by the Prime Minister last night. Some work has already been done but there’s more work to go in this direction.

HAMISH MACDONALD:

So could you offer any certainty or guarantee to people concerned about this announcement that there will be no reduction in the threshold around environmental approvals as a result of these changes?

ALAN TUDGE:

Well the overall objective here is to make the process more efficient, to make it more timely, to reduce the duplication so that projects can get underway more quickly. That’s the objective as I’ve said now a couple of times.

HAMISH MACDONALD:

Yes. Is that one of the talking points this morning Minister?

ALAN TUDGE:

You can make the process more efficient.

HAMISH MACDONALD:

You just keep repeating the same thing and I’m trying to get a little bit of specificity around this because it is a big change.

ALAN TUDGE:

Well it is and the Prime Minister signalled this last night. So I don’t mean to go over the same material, but the Prime Minister signalled very clearly the direction which we’re going. There’s more work to do but it’s very well understood across state governments and inside the Federal Government that we have to make the process more efficient and that we can do so, and that’s the direction which we’re heading.

HAMISH MACDONALD:

Okay. You’re announcing today $570 million for road projects in New South Wales will be fast-tracked. What project?

ALAN TUDGE:

So there's three big ones really. So $200 million the Newell Highway upgrade, there’s some Princes Highway corridor packages as well which are being brought forward, and there's some work done on the Pacific Highway as well. So there's the three of the larger ones and then there’s some smaller things as well.

HAMISH MACDONALD:

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And how quickly will that money flow out the door? How many jobs are we going to see created as a result of that?

ALAN TUDGE:

Yeah, so this money is going to be basically almost immediately. Many of these projects will begin in say the middle of next year, that's when our funding will start to flow. Now I haven’t got a jobs figure on each of those, but we're talking here, across the board, about supporting thousands of additional jobs. As I said, even just yesterday, with the announcements which were made in Western Australia, it was a thousand additional jobs just for six projects. I’m about to do a further announcement today, a sod turn of another $350 million project, which is a further 200 jobs each year. So every single one of these projects delivers jobs and that's a big part of what we're trying to do here. Already we've got thousands of jobs underway with the 130 major projects which are underway as we speak, they are supporting 85,000 jobs. This is more jobs on top of that.

HAMISH MACDONALD:

I need to ask you about the broader plan that you've referred to a few times in this interview. This package is obviously part of the $3.8 billion worth of projects the Government is pulling forward. Are you making the argument that this is going to have a significant impact on the economy more broadly?

ALAN TUDGE:

Well it is part of our economic plan and it always has been, and that's what we took to the election and that was my point.

HAMISH MACDONALD:

I know. I just want to understand though whether you think that this particular amount is actually going to provide stimulus for the broader economy. Because the point is being made this morning that the amount is just point one of a per cent of GDP spread over two years. So ultimately a drop in the ocean.

ALAN TUDGE:

No but it still provides vital important jobs both in the cities and importantly, in the regions. And I gave you some of those stats just then, six projects in Western Australia, 1,000 jobs. One of them, the Mitchell Freeway widening, will be underway from early next year. That's 500 jobs alone in Perth that previously weren't there. Now, again, we're announcing more projects today in New South Wales and indeed in South Australia where we've got a major sod turn, more jobs again. So of course it supports the economy and it has always been part of the planks of our economic plan, along with the tax cuts, along with free trade agreements, along with the deregulation agenda. But the infrastructure plan is always a very major element of that because it does support jobs growth in the short term and it does boost productivity in the medium and longer term.

HAMISH MACDONALD:

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Population growth, immigration growth as well is obviously needed to help offset what the Treasurer is calling an ageing economic time bomb. According to Infrastructure Australia, the infrastructure budget will have to top $40 billion a year to support that higher population, the 31 million people that are forecast by it by 2034. Will we get even close to that in the coming years do you think?

ALAN TUDGE:

I don't have the forecast in front of me but I think we do actually get close to that figure in the next few years. I mean our figure at the moment from the Federal Government's perspective is close to $10 billion dollars per annum, and then you've got the state budgets on top of that. Now we certainly know in our big cities they're really feeling the congestion pressures and that's why we’ve been ramping up our infrastructure expenditure. But it's also why we've been talking more broadly about our population settings as well to take a little bit of the pressure off those big capital cities where nearly all the population growth is going to and supporting the growth of some of the regions and the smaller cities like Adelaide which want to grow faster. And if we get that better distribution of our population growth, then that supports both the cities and the regions and smaller cities.

HAMISH MACDONALD:

Obviously part of your job is prescribed by the Prime Minister as being congestion busting. There's some reports today, I'm sure you will have seen them in both Victoria and New South Wales, some consideration to road user charges in the first instance for electric vehicles which don't pay the fuel excise. Infrastructure Australia's long advocated, I think, for user charges as a way of getting motorists off the roads, onto public transport. Do you think road user charges might help unclog the cities?

ALAN TUDGE:

Well they’re decisions for State Governments.

HAMISH MACDONALD:

Oh no, just interested in your view on this.

ALAN TUDGE:

Yeah. There's two parts to that. One, they’re decisions for State Governments in terms of road user chargers and we’ve said we're not interested in that, that's for them. The second issue though is in relation to electric vehicle charges and that's where I think there does need to be consideration on because there's an equity issue here that if you're driving an electric vehicle you're not paying effectively for the roads which you’re using, compared to if you’re driving a petrol car, when you're paying the fuel excise and all that money of course does go into the roads upgrades. So I think there is an equity argument there and there's also a fiscal argument because as more electric vehicles come onto the market, obviously the fuel excise revenue does decline.

HAMISH MACDONALD:

Might that not incentivise people though to stop polluting the environment though?

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ALAN TUDGE:

Well there's a couple of things there, we've already got very clear settings in terms of our emissions reductions targets and we're well underway with those. But in addition to that, of course, we do need to raise revenue in order to pay for this infrastructure that we're talking about, and the fuel excise has been a big part of that.

HAMISH MACDONALD:

All right. Alan Tudge, thank you for your time this morning. Thanks for giving us some answers that weren't the talking points. We’re always grateful to you for coming.

ALAN TUDGE:

Thanks very much Hamish.

HAMISH MACDONALD:

Alan Tudge, Minister for Population, Cities and Urban Infrastructure.