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Monday, 26 March 2018
Page: 2053

Senator O'NEILL (New South Wales) (10:55): I rise as a resident of regional Australia who sees 30,000 to 40,000 commuters leave the beautiful Central Coast each day, where unemployment has doubled in the time this government has been in office and the commuter journey certainly hasn't gotten any shorter. But this piece of legislation that Senator Farrell has brought to the chamber today is about much more than easing the commuter strain. It's about building for the nation; and, once again, it falls to Labor to lead on nation building. For those who are listening to this debate today, and for anyone visiting the chamber, I remind people that visionaries are required to make sure we have a sense of hope and optimism for our future. We need visionaries to build the infrastructure that this country needs. Sadly, with the current government, there is no vision and very little investment in infrastructure, particularly of the kind that is implied in this legislation before the chamber today.

John F Kennedy said: 'Things don't just happen, they're made to happen.' High-speed rail, which is at the heart of the debate this morning, requires vision—an ability to imagine a better future and then actually take the steps to make that future real. And that's what Labor governments do: Australians are rightly proud of the Snowy Mountains scheme and Labor also kicked off the National Broadband Network rollout. These are visionary, nation-building projects. But always we see the miserliness and lack of vision of those opposite, who constantly degrade that kind of vision. In 1946 they voted against the construction of the Snowy Mountains scheme. And this government is tearing apart the proper building of the National Broadband Network. Instead of delivering a real National Broadband Network with fibre to every home, every premise and every business, the party leading the country at the moment has spent $49 billion on infrastructure that is degraded, taking us from 15th down to 66th in the world while they've been spending that money on a lemon. This is not a nation-building, nation-leading government; it is a small-minded, miserly government.

That's why it's been left to Labor to bring into this place today Senator Farrell's private member's bill which seeks to establish the vehicle that would create the proper planning necessary to establish high-speed rail as a part of Australia's reality—not put it off to the distant future and leave it to others to hopefully pull something together. Big visionary, nation-building projects need nation-building ideas and they need the authority to undertake the necessary work that is required. That is what Senator Farrell's bill seeks to do today by establishing the high-speed rail planning authority. Senator Farrell, in his remarks earlier today, indicated that he introduced this bill on 4 September last year.

The major function achieved by the successful passage of this bill would be the establishment of an 11-person advisory group which would include the key states that would be involved in this east coast fast-rail network—Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and the ACT—along with experts who actually know something about this field. It would, in fact, allow us to embrace high-speed rail. The members of the board, as outlined in the bill, would include one member from each of the states or territories affected—Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and the ACT—and one member representing the Australian Local Government Association. It's very important that we acknowledge how important our local councils are as part of a national structure to build this fast-rail network. Every one of the states and many local governments would be impacted by the decisions that would necessarily be part of proper planning for space to allow the railway to be built, including the infrastructure around it, to maximise its potential in local communities. Another member would be nominated by the Australasian Railway Association, whose expertise is critical to the development of a sustainable and deliverable high-speed rail plan, and five members would be appointed by the minister for infrastructure on the basis of their qualifications or expertise.

The bill proposes that the authority's roles would be significant. They would include consideration of land use planning related to the corridor, safety, public consultations and measures to minimise environmental impact. I will go to each of those elements. The corridor itself is no small thing to achieve. Safety provisions and safety considerations for Australians and guests of Australia who want to travel at up to 350 kilometres an hour need to be carefully considered, not down the track but right at the front of the planning stage. With regard to public consultation, I've indicated that the local governments will be vital in making sure that we maximise the benefit of this for Australians in our local government areas, but we want community members themselves to be part of building this vision for the nation and bringing their knowledge and expertise to the consultation around the development of proper high-speed rail. Of course, living in this great country, we need to respect the nature of it. Our environmental concerns should be very carefully considered. This is not the 1920s or 1930s; it's 2018 and our understanding and appreciation of our environment means that, rightfully, concerns have to be at the front of our decision-making around where such a high-speed rail might best go to provide the maximum benefit to the nation, the maximum benefit to the community and the minimum possible impact on our environment.

Through this bill, the government have an opportunity to embrace high-speed rail and we call on them to put this visionary project beyond party politics. It's such a big project. It's going to span the lives of many parliaments and, presumably, several prime ministers, but what we see is a government that has failed to bring on this bill. In terms of the history of this bill, when Mr Albanese, the member for Grayndler, was shadow minister for infrastructure, he did an enormous amount of work in preparing the case. For Australians who are just picking up the threads of this now, let me be clear that in 2013, five years ago, legislation was before the parliament that could have been picked up by the incoming Abbott government, but what did they do? They rejected it. The group that was advising in the development of the plan in 2013 was chaired by key and leading people and it was a bipartisan development to get to that stage in 2013. Lyn O'Connell, from the department, chaired the group. It also included the former Deputy Prime Minister, the Hon. Tim Fischer; Ms Jennifer Westacott, CEO of the Business Council of Australia; Mr Bryan Nye, CEO of the Australasian Railway Association; Professor Sue Holliday from the UNSW's Planning Practice, Urban Policy and Strategy; Peter Newman, Professor of Sustainability at Curtin University and member of the IA board; Mr Bob Nanva from the RTBU; and Mrs Jenny Dowell, the mayor of Lismore. So a very good, erudite and broad panel had developed and delivered the leadership to consider the preservation of the corridor, the staging of the route, costs, financing observations and options about the commercial case, system specifications and time frames to deliver the whole project. All of that work was done in 2013. So you have to wonder: what on earth have this government been doing other than turning their backs on a nation-building opportunity?

What we know about high-speed rail in Australia is primarily known to us by travelling to other countries. Just this week, I heard on the radio a discussion about tourism and its significance in the international economy. I'm sure that, like many who are listening to this debate and those here in the chamber, we've had the benefit of travelling on very, very comfortable trains travelling at 350 kilometres per hour. This is becoming a common experience for people who live in China and other parts of Asia, such as Taiwan and Japan. I actually had the benefit of being with my entire family during the course of the last Christmas holidays on a train from Rome to Florence at speed. This is a standard practice in so many countries around the world, yet in 2013, when they came to government with Mr Abbott, even with a blueprint prepared and ready to go, this government said, 'That's not our job.' They turned their backs on the legislation that was there ready for them to pick up.

Labor is committed to making sure that the vision that's required to lead this country is on offer. That's part of what is so important about this piece of legislation that is before the Senate today. It indicates Labor's commitment to building the proper high-speed rail which, as I said, is commonplace around the rest of the world in many, many countries so that it becomes a part of Australia's reality, too. Why is it so important? We know that high-speed rail has the capacity to be an economic game changer for Australia. We know it's essential to our economic, social and emotional wellbeing to be able to connect. For that to occur, we have to have safe, regular, efficient and cost-effective rail transport. The Austronesian Railway Association has stated that:

High Speed Rail is a nation building project that will transform Australia …

I think Australians generally believe in the capacity of rail to change our experiences of living on this wonderful eastern seaboard to be able to get to the places we need to to see our families, to access health services, to see the opportunities of our businesses grow and to simply be able to transfer ideas through people moving freely around our community.

For regional Australia, Senator Farrell indicated the length of the line was something akin to 1,700 kilometres, with hundreds of kilometres of tunnelling as part of that. I don't know about everyone here, but, as the daughter of an Irish immigrant who laid a lot of pipe and built a lot of road, I still feel great pride in going and seeing the bridge that goes from Macarthur Square in Western Sydney and knowing that my father was part of building that. Looking at the suburbs that have been developed across Western Sydney, my brother is still involved in this industry. Their part in building the infrastructure that improves people's lives builds pride in their work and pride in their community. So when I think about the engineering feat, the engineering capacity, the innovation-building capacity and the nation-building capacity of a project such as this it excites me beyond belief to think what we can endeavour to do and what innovative skills we can acquire that will then improve the quality of our nation and our capacity to take our part in international developments along this line.

We know that commuting is a very, very big problem for Australians who live just outside all of our major cities. We know that, if we can get this right, time commuting will be reduced. Time travelling will be less, and that means a practical outcome of more time with the people that we love and more time being involved in our communities and all the healthy choices that are a part of that. We know that stage 2 of the high-speed rail feasibility study noted that high-speed rail could allow regional centres to serve as secondary locations for lower cost back offices and new start-up businesses. With the level of unemployment in places such as the Central Coast, with particularly youth unemployment on the rise, as I said, to 17 per cent, we need every advantage we can possibly muster to create the opportunities for businesses to be successful in the regions.

We know that the same feasibility stage 2 study indicated that regional locations within an hour's travel by high-speed rail that have capacity for increasing business growth could assist in making metropolitan centres more globally competitive. So the advantage is not just to the region itself but to the metropolitan city that it would serve, with a much more accessible workforce, who would be able to still live the kind of life that you would hope would be available to most Australians—where you're not spending the equivalent of five hours travelling every day to work.

Sadly, that is the reality for many on the Central Coast of New South Wales, where I live. And we have had what I consider a very uncertain commitment by the local federal member to something that must not be confused with the legislation that is before us today. It must not be confused with the legislation to deliver genuinely high-speed rail at 350 kilometres an hour. Rather, it is an announcement about a faster rail initiative, where the rail speed would be approximately 120 kilometres per hour. Let's be clear: this is not the same thing. The commitment of $20 million to do a competitive business case study with the New South Wales government is a completely different matter from this nation-building, genuine, fast-rail initiative that we're talking about. I also point to the federal local member's press release, dated 26 March, which concludes with the sentence:

The decision to fund these faster rail business cases does not indicate a commitment to fund the infrastructure projects but is instead focused on investigating the viability of such proposals.

So that is where we are at, on the Central Coast.

This government, instead of biting the bullet when it came to government five years ago and building the proper fast rail network—getting on with the job, and being five years down the track in planning and land acquisition, environmental concerns and community consultation—sat on its hands. In a desperate moment, as we're leading up to a federal government election, the local member said, 'Oh, how about we look at 120 kays, not 350, and we'll do something with the state government? Just be careful. We don't want you to think that we're going to do this. We just want you to understand we'll get a business case.' That kind of miserly thinking characterises the whole of the Liberal government with regard to these proper nation-building sorts of issues.

At the moment the Sydney-to-Melbourne and Sydney-to-Brisbane aviation routes are amongst the top 10 busiest in the world. Many of you here, I'm sure, have seen the pressure on our airports, which at times already really struggle with the capacity to deal with the burden of need for Australians to move on this route between Brisbane and Melbourne. I know that there's a lot of pressure on our population, and that is increasing, and busy airports can be a very stressful time and very time consuming. If you need to fly to Brisbane for work, the last thing you need is more pressure at our airports. We can only imagine what relief it would bring to our great metropolises if we could have high-speed rail to take the pressure off those very, very highly used air routes.

The department of infrastructure and regional development undertook a research paper forecasting aviation movements to 2030, and they noted that continued passenger growth at major airports was already a significant test on the capacity of airport infrastructure. With growth in our population, we know that this pressure on airports will increase. The Australian Bureau of Statistics projections tell us that, by 2060, about 50 million people will be living in Australia, and of course that will lead to more demand. The solution could be, I suppose, building airports everywhere, but I doubt that that's really what we want, and there's a limit to the capacity of existing aviation infrastructure to cope with growing demand. Simple economics demand that we give serious consideration to and, through this bill, take action on the proper planning to enable the growth of infrastructure for fast-speed rail to meet growing demand. It's simple economics. Supply is limited or capped. Demand is rising. The current situation we find ourselves in could be a disaster for Australians. But Labor sees it instead as an opportunity to innovate, to provide services that are crucial for social and economic engagement and cohesion, and that's exactly where rail fits in.

I would like to put on the record that this private bill fits, once again, Labor's rich history of pioneering innovation in high-speed rail. When we were in government, we completed the feasibility study on high-speed rail. I've identified key people who were part of delivering that blueprint for a way forward. The study found that, for every single dollar invested, the public would receive a $2.30 benefit. That's a fantastic return on our investment. The project was absolutely declared economically viable. The expert panel that Labor appointed made it clear that there was a need to establish an authority to undertake the preparation of the task at hand, and that happened in 2013. Rather than just leaving it hanging, Labor committed $52 million to that project to take it forward—no small investment. In complete contrast, the coalition government cancelled that investment, despite the evidence and the experts backing the project. We always talk about the need for evidence based policy in this chamber, but the evidence we see before us is that it's only the Labor Party that is leading in visionary infrastructure investment and planning. This government continues to stand against it— (Time expired)