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Response to PM's infrastructure statement

Speeches in Parliament
Janet Rice 28 Nov 2016

This ministerial statement on infrastructure is full of fine sounding, silver tongued words from the Prime Minister. It is yet another example of Prime Minister Turnbull talking big while only delivering on the same old small thinking Abbott-Turnbull agenda. We have a situation where the government is stretching the truth. We will believe the government's talk on infrastructure when we see action. This infrastructure statement is trying to pretend that the government has seen the light and is recognising what Infrastructure Australia has been saying is important—that we need to be dealing with congestion in our cities, dealing with the livability of our cities, by investing more in public transport. The Prime Minister in this statement, in this response to the infrastructure plan, is stretching the truth to make it sound like the government is committed to investing in public transport, pretending that there is something different, while it is the same old roads, roads, roads agenda.

The truth is that this government has an abysmal record on investing in public transport, and there is no sign that anything is going to change. In my home state of Victoria we have a situation where federal funding in transport infrastructure is at a very low level—only an abysmal one per cent of federal transport funding is going into public transport—and yet the Prime Minister has the gall to acknowledge that Infrastructure Australia found that our largest cities need urgent investment in public transport to improve transport options in outer suburbs and increase rail capacity. Nothing in the statement gives us confidence that anything is going to change. In fact, if you look at the investments that are outlined here, if you look at the projects outlined here, overwhelmingly they are still more of the same—they are roads, they are roads and they are roads. We know that you cannot cure congestion in our cities by investing in more roads. Trying to solve congestion by building more roads is like trying to cure obesity by loosening your belt—it just does not work. We have to give people the choice of fast, frequent, reliable, affordable and safe public transport; we have to give them the opportunity to get out of their cars and travel on public transport. If you live in the outer suburbs you do not have that choice at the moment, and the type of investment that is being outlined here is not going to be the level of investment that is required to change that.

This statement says that it is not just about roads, and in fact the Prime Minister said in his statement there is over $4 billion of funding in public transport projects. However, if you dig into the detail of that $4 billion you find that that was a Liberal Party commitment that was taken to the election—it is not in the government's overall response. That $4 billion includes $800 million that was going to go to Melbourne Metro, but we now know that the Victorian government could not do a deal with the federal government and get adequate funding for transport in Victoria, so they said no to the federal government's $800 million for Melbourne Metro. The figures in this statement on investment in public transport are absolutely dodgy. Even if you accept that $4 billion figure, that is $4 billion out of $50 billion, which is the total transport package—eight per cent. That is not the type of transformational investment that is going to make a difference. This is more of the same. This is the same old Tony Abbott 'roads, roads, roads' agenda being delivered by Malcolm Turnbull, but with the guise that something has changed.

Similarly, there are supposed commitments here about getting freight on rail. There is this wonderful statement that we are going to see construction begin on inland rail in the new year, which I find fascinating, because we know from questions at Senate estimates that the whole inland rail project is going to take something like $10 billion. At the moment only half a billion dollars has been invested. When I have asked what that half a billion dollars will deliver, it obviously is not going to deliver the whole inland rail service from Melbourne to Brisbane. Basically, no construction is factored into that half a billion dollars. So we wait to see what investment the government is going to put into inland rail to deliver on that statement that construction is going to begin in the new year.

There are a lot of fine-sounding words in both the response to the Infrastructure Plan and the ministerial statement about the need to have better-quality decision-making, to have rigorous, evidence based decision-making. Yet, all over the place, there is a lack of transparency and a lack of accountability, so we just do not know whether the evidence stacks up for the investments that are being made. In fact, in the examples where we have been able to dig the information out of the black holes, where there have been business cases where bits of information have been allowed to be on the public record rather than be commercial-in-confidence, we end up with interesting situations. In fact, they are more than interesting; they are really inappropriate situations of complete misrepresentation of the value of these road projects. At overflow Senate estimates this week we discovered that there are serious questions that need to be asked about the benefit-cost ratio that has been touted for the WestConnex project in Sydney. Under questioning, is very clear that these supposed benefit-cost ratio of 1.7 that has been touted for WestConnex is based on a lower price than what the road is actually going to cost. That benefit-cost ratio is based on WestConnex costing only $13.5 billion, which is the discounted cost of the road rather than the real undiscounted cost of the road of $16.8 billion. When I was questioning the department on this during estimates this week, they acknowledged that, yes, it should be the $16.8 billion cost that that benefit-cost ratio should be based on. So it means that that 1.7 benefit-cost ratio does not stack up. It is not accurate and it is not true, and the government's investment in WestConnex is based upon those false figures.

Why should it take digging and pulling out these tiny bits of information bit by bit, like pulling teeth, to get this information to come out. The reason it is so, the reason we have lack of transparency and all of this secrecy, is that continuing to invest in these big road projects does not add up. If you had truly evidence-based, transparent, accountable decision-making, it would be clear, as Infrastructure Australia made clear, that the urgent investment needs to be in public transport. That is where the priority needs to be. That is where we have lacked investment over the last 40 years. Yet, this government shows absolutely no signs of doing anything more than just talk. The action on delivering it is nowhere to be seen.

I also want to note the government shirking of its responsibility for investing in walking and cycling infrastructure. In the response to Infrastructure Australia they said that walking and cycling are the responsibilities of the states and local governments. That is not good enough. We know that investing in walking and cycling has got such potential to deliver real benefits to the liveability of our cities, to congestion in our cities and to people's health and wellbeing. The Greens took at packaged to the last election saying that the federal government needs to come up to the plate and deliver $1 billion of funding for walking and cycling infrastructure. That would really kick-start what is needed—high-quality infrastructure, safe infrastructure, infrastructure that makes it easy for people to walk and cycle—and yet the government have washed their hands of that completely.

In conclusion, all we have in this ministerial statement is more of the same. We have the Abbott government's 'roads, roads, roads' agenda just continuing to be delivered under this veneer that things are different. But things are not different. Things need to be different. Things have to change if we are going to have livable cities, if we are going to tackle congestion in our cities and if we are going to really deliver on transport infrastructure for our country that is going to boost jobs, boost productivity and boost our overall health and wellbeing.

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