ADDRESS TO THE QUEENSLAND MAJOR PROJECTS SYMPOSIUM
INFRASTRUCTURE PARTNERSHIPS AUSTRALIA
TUESDAY, 18 MAY 2021
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Introduction & Acknowledgments
Thank you very much Adrian and can I thank Infrastructure Partnerships Australia and all of you for the opportunity to address you today. It’s a real pleasure to be back in the Sunshine State!
I’d like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we gather – the Turrbal people – and pay my respects to their Elders past, present and emerging.
I’d also like to acknowledge:
- Sir Rod Eddington and Adrian Dwyer, the Chairman and CEO of Infrastructure Partnerships Australia – an organisation that continues to be a thought leader in this important sector,
- Representatives of the Queensland Government,
- And everyone here who works so hard to build Queensland’s and Australia’s infrastructure.
Today marks two years to the day since the last federal election was held. This means we are now two thirds of the way through this term of government. We’ve just had perhaps the last Budget of this term and it’s becoming clearer by the day that we are entering an election year.
The Missed Opportunity of Last Week’s Budget
Last week’s Budget was a big opportunity for the Government, but it was disappointing for Queensland.
Queenslanders, per head, received less new funding through this Budget than any other Australians.
Not only is Queensland receiving less new infrastructure funding than any other state or territory per capita, but Queenslanders will be left waiting years for any substantial new money to flow to the projects that were newly announced.
This was a circumstance that was repeated around the country, with over half of the new spending announced found well beyond the forward estimates.
For example, in my home state of Victoria, the Budget’s infrastructure centrepiece was a $2 billion ‘commitment’ to a new intermodal freight hub in Melbourne’s north or west. But in reality, it is not in the budget, it has no settled location, it isn’t expected to begin until at least 2027, it is dependent on a matching Victorian Government commitment and it is unclear whether it may end up comprising equity funding.
And of course, a big complaint that I have with the Budget is that despite the announcement of more than $10 billion in new spending, there will actually be $3.3 billion less being spent in the next four years.
More significantly, though, what was really missing from the Budget was a plan. A vision for the future of our national infrastructure assets. An acknowledgment that infrastructure – if well planned and well delivered – can also be an enabler of other policy priorities.
What we in the Labor Party want to see is not just a grab bag of different promises held together by a headline dollar figure, but a strategy that invests in our national capabilities.
For example, the development of our sovereign skilled workforce, support for local manufacturing and Australian-owned businesses, and the productivity boosting investment that harnesses the power of government to grow Australian industries and create new ones.
The National Reconstruction Fund that was announced six weeks ago at Labor’s national conference is an important part of our plan to create secure jobs for Australian workers, drive regional economic development, boost our sovereign capability and diversify the nation’s economy.
It has been interesting to contrast the current Commonwealth Government’s approach to infrastructure with what we have been seeing overseas. The Biden administration has outlined an integrated plan for infrastructure improvement across the United States that is unashamedly designed to boost the productive capacity of the economy across a whole range of sectors – including those not traditionally considered to be classical ‘infrastructure’ investments.
On the conservative side of politics, we have seen Boris Johnson’s British Government bring forward significant capital spending on everything from roads to hospitals to school buildings to prisons and even to planting trees, all in the name of building back better, greener and faster, to paraphrase Mr Johnson’s own words.
And while the passage of President Biden’s infrastructure bill through the Congress is not yet settled, it has set an example of what a true nation building program could look like. It has been especially heartening to see the Biden plan take seriously the opportunity for infrastructure investment to play a constructive role in tackling climate change in ways that stimulate economic growth and productivity – something that the Morrison Government continues to overlook.
Infrastructure Needs in Queensland
When Labor was last in office, we devoted considerable time and Commonwealth resources to infrastructure needs right here in Queensland. We committed to Cross River Rail, delivered record investment of close to $6 billion in the Bruce Highway and got the ball rolling on Inland Rail.
A project first commenced by Federal Labor, before being neglected by Liberal-National governments at both the state and federal levels, the Palaszczuk Government understood the city-changing possibilities of projects like Cross River Rail.
They have invested significant resources in this project and, while I know it is still a couple of years away from opening, it will transform the way people move around Brisbane and the greater South East of Queensland. So I would like to congratulate the Premier and Minister Bailey for the commitment they have shown to this important project.
When it comes to infrastructure investment, federal and state governments must work together – they must be on the same page. I’ll say more about this in a moment.
Over the last eight years we’ve seen what results when they are not – project delays, states going it alone and billions of dollars sitting in the contingency reserve for projects that are unlikely to ever see the light of day.
There is one key project under construction that Government must get right – Inland Rail.
Labor wants this project to succeed. When in Government, Labor got Inland Rail underway with investments of $1 billion to progress this project to the construction stage.
But over recent months, though, total costs for this project have blown out from $9.3 billion to $14.5 billion, and we still don’t know what shape the actual line will take.
There is no plan for where Inland Rail will start, where it will end, the route it will take or how it will interact with existing stations up and down the country.
Communities need certainty, as does industry. So Labor will continue to hold the Government to account on the project through appropriate parliamentary scrutiny as we saw recently through hearings held by the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee chaired by my colleague Glenn Sterle.
What we must do, though, is to constantly keep our eyes over the horizon. Think about what comes next. I know that Annastacia Palaszczuk and Mark Bailey are doing that here in Queensland.
The Queensland Transport Strategy cogently sets out a vision for the transformation of the State’s transport system that puts people at its core and addresses the major issues like population growth, new technologies and the right mix of transport modes for the task.
It’s exactly the sort of document we should have at a Commonwealth level.
And it is reassuring to see Queenslanders looking forward to the mix of transport modes you will need here to handle your future needs.
I know there are a range of priority projects being progressed for the future of this great state – close to $27 billion worth of investment in road and rail alone, as I understand it.
The Coomera Connector, continuing the Bruce Highway upgrades, the Kuraby to Beenleigh rail upgrade and light rail in the Gold Coast, boosting rail capacity to the growing Gold Coast region, as well as light rail in the Gold Coast itself and a range of road and rail duplication projects up and down this great state.
And with the strong prospect of the Olympics coming to South East Queensland in just over a decade, I know that the Palaszscuk Government will continue to advocate strongly for your infrastructure needs. I look forward to working with Mark and with all of you here to ensure we have the balance right when it comes to infrastructure for the Olympics and beyond.
A Labor Government’s Approach to Infrastructure
I want to take the opportunity you have afforded me to provide a glimpse of how an Albanese-Labor Government would approach infrastructure differently to the current Government’s grab-bag approach.
First, can I take you back to the last Federal Labor Government when Anthony Albanese was the Minister.
We established Infrastructure Australia and delivered – actually delivered – record infrastructure investment
We more than doubled the infrastructure spend per person across the country, doubled the roads Budget and rebuilt a third of the interstate rail network. And like the QLD Government, we knew the value of public transport, investing more money in public transport than all previous federal governments combined.
There is clearly a problem with infrastructure delivery at the moment. Just yesterday, the Grattan Institute issued a report entitled Megabang for Megabucks. And while I don’t always agree with Marion Terrill, one of the report’s conclusions that I do agree with is the need to ensure that governments, in their rush to have a political announcement, don’t create the sense that projects are delayed because proper site scoping, planning and procurement arrangements have yet to be carefully considered.
This, Terrill claims, would help avoid cost overruns and improve delivery timeframes, and I would argue keep the community’s faith in our infrastructure spending as many are tired of hearing projects announced, reannounced and sometimes announced again even before a sod has been turned.
Labor will keep this lesson in mind if we are fortunate enough to form government after the next election. As Infrastructure Minister under a new Labor Government, I would immediately sit down with my state and territory counterparts, working collaboratively to identify priority projects requiring support, and look to bring forward and reprioritise investment accordingly.
We would also ensure that Infrastructure Australia once again occupies a critical role in infrastructure policy making, making the best of the improvements the organisation has made in recent years to the ways it evaluates and assesses projects.
And we will take a balanced approach to delivery and contract management that promotes competition, develops our national skills base and supports local industry.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, we will outline a set of principles that will guide our investment in infrastructure. This is one of the things we are most obviously lacking in this country at the moment:
When it comes to infrastructure – and indeed more broadly – what vision does the Government have for the sort of country it wants to see?
The Budget did not provide such a vision, but a Labor government will. I will have more to say about this before the election, but in the meantime let us begin by asking the right questions.
How do we ensure our infrastructure investment looks as far into the future as possible, by literally preparing the groundwork for smart technologies, electric vehicles and broadband communications for example? As Anthony Albanese said in last week’s Budget in Reply speech, how do we make sure we don’t simply get things back to where they were pre-pandemic but Build Back Better?
How do we get the most out of our regions, not through a gimmicky relocation of a couple of Government departments, but through smart regionalisation that takes a bespoke approach to regional development, working analytically and in partnership with regional authorities to assess and invest in each key region’s job creating potential and the infrastructure investment needed?
How do we preserve land and corridors for future mass transit investments in high speed rail or other nation building projects?
How do we ensure the transport and infrastructure sector plays its part in tackling climate change, not just through embracing new technologies and emissions reductions but by investing more – and more strategically – in future public transport needs, especially light and faster commuter rail?
And finally, how do we ensure our infrastructure investment decisions are underpinned by a hard-headed analysis of the productivity and – crucially – liveability dividends such investment can deliver.
We are in a remarkable moment right now. The economy needs stimulus, borrowing rates are at record lows, and there is an opportunity not just to get back to where things were before the pandemic, but to build back stronger.
As Anthony Albanese said in his Budget in Reply last week, the Government’s Budget “offers a low growth, low productivity and low wage future – and a trillion dollars of debt – is that really the best we can aspire to?”
As the election draws closer, we will continue to form and announce the infrastructure policies that matter most here in the Sunshine State and across the country. To build the connections that get our goods to market, get workers home more quickly and safely and build the productive infrastructure that will help set Australia up for a stronger, more prosperous future.
Just like Anthony, I want Australia to emerge from this crisis stronger, smarter and more self-reliant, with an economic recovery that works for all Australians.
Thank you very much for the opportunity to address you all today.