BREAKFAST WITH STEVE MARTIN
THURSDAY, 27 FEBRUARY 2020
SUBJECTS: Urban Congestion Fund; Female Facilities and Water Safety Stream; Infrastructure Australia; regional Australia; affordable housing.
STEVE MARTIN: Catherine King is Federal Member for Ballarat, also former Minister for Regional Australia and the current Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development, and she’s our guest this morning. Catherine King. Good morning. What do you make of the North Sydney pool example?
CATHERINE KING, SHADOW MINISTER FOR INFRASTRUCTURE, TRANSPORT AND REGIONAL DEVELOPMENT: Well, if you look at that program overall, this sports rorts one to sport rorts two, this is $150 million dollars where there was no application process. The allocations were just done internally and we’ve seen a real distortion in the entire process. It’s not just about that the projects were meant to be regional, and in fact, very few of them do come in the regions. I think Corangamite was probably one of the only few that was actually regional. This has just been how the Government has been allocating funds. And the problem with this is there’s been no process and then it’s been doled out just before the election in order to win seats during an election contest rather than actually thinking about what the needs are.
MARTIN: This is the latest iteration of regional funding going into predominantly metropolitan and city based projects, but it’s not a new problem in terms of regional funding is it Catherine King?
KING: In various iterations of regional funding, there’s been various definitions of regional. Under us, when we were last in Government, when Simon Crean was the Minister, and then when I took over for him, we had divvied up Regional Development Australia regions, and that included areas around outer metropolitan regions, and they were deemed as such, and different academic thoughts around how regional economics works allows you to do that, and we had programs to do that.
What you’ve seen in these latest rounds, this isn’t about regional versus city. This has been about Liberal National Party seats versus Labor seats and it’s been as blatant as that. It’s not been about regional versus city. It’s been about the Government making decisions on the basis of electorate boundaries, not on the basis of whether there’s need there.
MARTIN: What needs to happen to stop this, Catherine King? You’re a long-serving and senior politician, so what needs to happen?
KING: I think it has to have greater transparency. I think that is the beauty of the Australian National Audit Office doing these reports, and we’ve written to the Australian National Audit Office around a range of these funds, asking them to look at them in more detail. Senate Estimates is coming up on Monday, there’s opportunities to quiz Ministers and their departments more about that. But transparency is really important. At the end of the day, Ministers make decisions, but they need to be accountable for those decisions and there needs to be transparency about that, and they need to be able to explain themselves.
I think what we’ve seen with the latest round of sports rorts, the swimming pool fund, and then we’ve also got the Urban Congestion Fund is just how prepared the Prime Minister was to use those funds to his own electoral advantage. I haven’t seen this as blatantly in any of the previous examples of programs. There’s always been an element of concern around some of these, but this has just been the most blatant example I’ve seen.
MARTIN: And the guidelines for these latest projects have been particularly murky or just ignored in some circumstances.
KING: In some cases there’s been no guidelines at all. So for example, the Urban Congestion Fund, no guidelines at all. Basically the Government just chose projects, and we don’t even know how they did that, because they didn’t write to councils and ask them for projects, they didn’t write to State Governments and ask for projects, that didn’t write to the motoring organisations and ask where’s the congestion in the cities or regions, they certainly didn’t write and ask MPs.
So we don’t know how they chose them at all let alone whether there are any guidelines they followed, and that’s the problem and why we are very keen for the Audit Office to look at that particular fund but across some of the regional funds as well.
MARTIN: With those regional funds over the longer term history, has there been and are there clear guidelines as to what is and is not a regional area? I ask that in the context of the North Sydney Mayor who was quoted as saying that North Sydney Pool is definitely a regional facility as people from all over the state use the pool. Now, you know, you can twist things around and argue them all sorts of ways that that’s quite an extraordinary way to do it. So I just wonder.
KING: I think so, yes there has been. Under our previous rounds there was a very clear view about which could apply and which couldn’t apply. The problem with the Female Facilities and Water Safety Stream is that there’s no clarity at all. It was just an announcement by Government about this is what the program is and the word regional was put in the announcement, but there’s been no guidelines and no application process at all for that particular fund. So that’s the problem.
If they breached the guidelines and breached the transparency, or clearly this project was ineligible because the guidelines stated x, we’d be able to say, look, this is outrageous. I think it is outrageous, there’s swimming pools in my constituency that I’m quite sure would like to have been able to apply to this fund, but there just wasn’t any application process. The Government chose these projects.
MARTIN: Yesterday, we spoke with the chair of Rural Councils Victoria, Councillor Mary-Ann Brown from Southern Grampians, and Mayor Anita Rank from Glenelg also called in later on. They were both expressing frustration about the priority projects with Infrastructure Australia. I just like to broaden this out a bit. Their examples again, of regional areas not necessarily getting looked at, not getting priority, not getting funding through some streams they’re meant to I would expect. Just in general terms, is regional Australia being dudded?
KING: There needs to be a much stronger look at regional policy overall and I think that’s been a real failure of this Government. They’ve dropped the ball on regional policy. What basically happens is the National Party gets in charge of those things and they see regional policy as an opportunity basically to put lots of funding into their own seats and that does no one any service at all, including their own seats because it just makes people angry that one region’s advantaged over another. So we haven’t got a really good strong regional policy.
One of the problems with Infrastructure Australia is of course is that it looks at projects on a cost benefit basis, and it’s got a very strict formula by which it does that, and often in our regions the projects, just because of the population size or distance, the projects don’t quite stack up for cost benefit formula. What Infrastructure Australia is doing, which I’m very pleased to hear, is they’re having a think about whether they do need to categorise regional projects differently and stream them differently. A lot of the big road infrastructure projects obviously do go through regions, but when you’re looking at social and community infrastructure, for example, it may not necessarily stack up or some of the some of the road projects or rail projects might not stack up just because of that and it’s how they’re structured, but they are having a look at that which I think is important.
MARTIN: Just finally Catherine King, just because I know you raised this a few days ago and it’s become a big conversation locally, and that is affordable housing for low income earners and the availability of rentals. Local mayors are raising, real estate agents are saying they have they have no houses available on their books, state MPs are raising it. You’ve also raised a subsidy program which is going to run out in the next year or two?
KING: The National Rental Affordability Scheme was a scheme Labor put in place, which basically offered a tax incentive to developers to build new private rentals, and then they had to let that out at 20% below the market rate. Unfortunately, when the Abbott Government came to power in 2013 axed the scheme and now there are a whole lot of rental properties over the course of the next three years that are going to come off that scheme. So we’ve got renters and low income who are currently renting 20% below the market right, who will suddenly, if the scheme isn’t allowed to continue, will see their rents go up. in the first instance it’s a small number of households in Ballarat, but over time, it’s about 300 to 400.
With this Government again, and I’m sorry to be so political, but it just has been so frustrating to see scheme after scheme, whether it was NRAS, money for public housing stock, money to provide social housing in areas, all of that just got cut and we’re now paying the price for that. We’re already behind, private rental is really tight in Ballarat and across other regional communities as well, and the people who get squeezed out are often the most vulnerable and it’s really becoming quite a significant problem at home.
MARTIN: Catherine King I will let you go, thank you.
KING: Good to talk to you Steve.
TRANSCRIPT – RADIO INTERVIEW – ABC BALLARAT – THURSDAY, 27 FEBRUARY 2020