SCA RADIO AUSTRALIA TODAY WITH STEVE PRICE
TUESDAY, 11 MAY 2021
SUBJECTS: Morrison Government’s latest infrastructure announcements; 2021 Budget, Tourism, Affordable housing.
STEVE PRICE, HOST: Figures compiled by the Australian Automobile Association, according to the Australian Financial Review today, show that $4.4 billion has been committed in the last five budgets, a shortfall of $4.4 billion in projects that were announced over the last five budgets. It’s always very difficult to keep track of what’s new and what’s old. Catherine King is the shadow spokesperson for infrastructure. She has been good enough to join us on Budget Day, thanks for your time.
CATHERINE KING, SHADOW MINISTER FOR INFRASTRUCTURE, TRANSPORT AND REGIONAL DEVELOPMENT: Really good to be with you Steve.
PRICE: What’s old, what’s new? It’s very hard to run this to ground but the headline figure is 10 billion over 10 years, when did we start planning things over 10 years?
KING: Well again, this is sort of a bit of the hype we say when it comes to infrastructure. We see it each budget and we certainly saw it yesterday. We’ll look at the detail tonight and we’ve got Senate Estimates that gives us a bit more of a chance to scrutinise it, but our pretty quick rough look at it, it looks like about over half of it, so over $5 billion of it, is actually beyond the four years of the budget cycle. So projects like, for example the intermodal hub in Victoria, they committed $2 billion, you know, nothing will happen until 2027 on that project. So, we think quite a lot of it’s off the budget cycle some way. I guess if it’s supposed to be a bit of a stimulus to the economy post COVID it’s certainly not going to do that.
PRICE: We all want to see infrastructure built but clearly there is a whole bunch of infrastructure projects that should have been built years ago and you as a Victorian MP would love to be able to catch a train to the airport, as I would, it doesn’t ever seem to get built, there is money committed to that. Do you think there’ll be any more involvement in the Budget tonight in that project going ahead?
KING: Well, it’s hard to say, and governments both state and federal have committed to that and we want to see that to go forward. I think all Victorians are pretty keen for that to occur. But the thing that I see when you look at these infrastructure announcements is there are some real problems with delivery. We’ve had projects like the Commuter Car Parks for example which were announced right back in the last election campaign. They have committed in this bucket of money another $90 million to those yet, at the moment, we’ve only had out of the 67 announced two build and two started. So you’ve got to ask, you know, what are these announcements for? They’re there to get a headline, they’re not necessarily there to stimulate the economy immediately. They’re also not leaving a big legacy. I think that’s one of the other things that is disappointing. With these billions and billions of dollars, what are we getting in terms of local procurement? What are we getting in terms of increasing the number of apprentices? We know there are capacity constraints when it comes to trades people at the moment. Why are we not making sure that there’s links to these companies who win some of those contracts to train Australians into those jobs that we know are going to be needed into the future? And what’s the sort of long-term big legacy, you know, are we using this money to improve our public transport systems? Are we looking to what our future needs are going to be? And I think that’s again one of the challenges of this budget, they’ve spent a trillion dollars, what’s the legacy? What’s the big legacy issue that you’d say has come out of COVID and out of the billions and billions of dollars that have been spent? What’s the legacy for our future? Infrastructure should be one of those.
PRICE: Yeah, and one of the challenges for you as a prospective government for Labor is to do exactly that, come up with a national project that’s going to be a legacy project. I think Catherine, one of the things that the COVID year of last year showed us is more and more people are able to work from home and that’s a good thing, but the cost of real estate in major cities like Sydney and Melbourne has gone through the roof so people want to live in regional parts of Australia within striking distance of a capital city. We’ve still as a nation yet to build one decent fast rail project that gets people from say Bendigo or Ballarat or Newcastle or Wollongong into Sydney and Melbourne quickly to go to work?
KING: Yeah absolutely and I think many people who have travelled and have travelled on high speed rails think why can’t we have that here in Australia. I think one of the things that will be important over the longer term is to actually look along that eastern seaboard and start the planning for what it is going to look like in 20 years’ time. How do we develop all of those terrific towns and communities along there, connect…
PRICE: I’ve been around a long time; we’ve been talking about this forever.
KING: I know. You’ve got to start somewhere so why are we not preserving the corridors now? Why are we not actually starting some of the planning for high speed rail? So those things are really important, as are the connectivities between our great cities and, you know, from, whether it’s from Newcastle into Sydney, whether it’s from Bendigo and Ballarat into Melbourne, but also the connections between those cities. A lot of people now and moving between Ballarat and Geelong, and Ballarat and Bendigo and vice versa, not necessarily even using Melbourne as a centre hub. The other issue I think we’re really being constrained by at the moment is the lack of affordable housing. It’s absolutely fantastic, we love having people moving into the regions and lots are doing so, but what we’re also hearing is that that’s meaning in the regions as well as the metro cities that people have really been squeezed out of the housing market and we can’t get the workforce into those towns where there’s lots of tourist activity and we’ve got businesses that are saying we want to open more days, we want to open more nights, but we can’t because we haven’t got staff, because the staff can’t afford to live here. So I think one of the parts of infrastructure that’s really been missing is a big investment in affordable housing and how are we are going to kind of do that and I’d like to say, hopefully, we see some of that in the Budget.
PRICE: When you see these headlines about projects and it doesn’t matter whether it’s the intermodal in Melbourne or whether it’s this upgrade of the Great Western Highway between Katoomba and Lithgow, and how they’re going to do that I’ve got no idea, but there’s always jobs numbers thrown around and I think that one of the numbers I saw yesterday was 1,900 jobs created during construction and operation. That’s all well and good, but we have a labour shortage, we don’t have the people trained to do this, and with the borders shut and no foreign visa workers here because they can’t get into the country, we’ve got a real problem. We don’t have the people to build this stuff.
KING: And we’ve also lost 150,000 apprentices and trainees over the last eight years under this government. So we’ve lost those 150,000 of these people who would have been trained during this period, we haven’t actually got those here in this country either, so you’re right. I think the jobs figures used by the government are pretty rubbery and I think if the government’s going to stand by those, then every time one of these projects is delayed, it’s jobs that are delayed as well so it’s kind of need to be accountable for that. But we’re a bit sceptical about the jobs figures and we saw that in the last Budget the centrepiece was JobMaker and that was meant to create 400,000 jobs, and I think only 1,100 people have actually taken up the JobMaker scheme and it’s now being scrapped so we’re a bit sceptical about the jobs figures that we’ve seen these infrastructure announcements.
PRICE: The travel industry’s into the ear of the government again saying they need a special wages package to keep that industry afloat if we’re not going to give any long term planning for the opening of the borders. Do you think that’s necessary?
KING: Well, I think we’re certainly seeing that while domestic tourist is going gangbusters and you can’t get a hotel room in Tasmania or in Broome or in Darwin, and people are wanting to travel…
PRICE: Or Melbourne, I tried to book a room last Friday night I couldn’t get one.
KING: That’s really unusual. So that’s great for domestic tourism, but a lot of these big places certainly up in Cairns. I’ve got Sovereign Hill in my own constituency, really heavily reliant on international tourists and they’re just not going to come back and domestic tourism isn’t going to boost the sort of numbers that we’ve seen previously. So I think the government is going to have to think about how it supports the tourism industry, but again it’s about leaving a legacy. We know that our tourism operators are saying that sometimes the quality of that tourism product, whether it’s some of our hotels, whether it is information centres or some of the other areas, probably could do with a bit of a refresh. So again some infrastructure spending that actually improves the quality of our infrastructure, we have got a pause at the moment, but that also helps continue those sectors that are heavily reliant on international tourism to keep people employed and to keep those operators. Because eventually, when we do it back up, we want to showcase for the world what a fabulous country we are and we should be able to ensure we have those tourism operators to do that.
PRICE: Just finally, we saw the Prime Minister swing through North Queensland last week. A lot of marginal seats up there that he needs to retain to retain government. Do you suspect we’re going to have an election this year even though the government keeps saying it’ll be next year?
KING: Oh look, it’s hard to say. I think this certainly feels like an election budget. I saw Minister Fletcher yesterday, basically, admit that most of these infrastructure projects are targeted towards marginal seats. It sort of feels like it to me, but to be honest, I have known Anthony Albanese a long time and he’s generally pretty bright with these things, his punt is on the first Saturday in March next year, so I’ve popped that in my diary, we’ll see if he is once again right, generally he is. But it does feel to me a bit like elections in wind.
PRICE: Good on you, have a good day. Thanks a lot.
KING: Really good to talk to you today. Thanks mate.
CATHERINE KING – TRANSCRIPT – RADIO INTERVIEW – AUSTRALIA TODAY WITH STEVE PRICE – TUESDAY, 11 MAY 2021