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Thank you for the invitation to join you today.
I begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which we gather – the Gadigal of the Eora Nation – and pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging.
It is so lovely to be back in NSW. Zoom might have its advantages in terms of convenience and cost, but as a forum to come together and exchange ideas, being in rooms like this together cannot be matched.
Can I thank the Australian Financial Review for its leadership in ensuring that, despite the many issues we face as a nation, the critical role of infrastructure continues to be front and centre.
I don’t need to tell you that infrastructure and transport are key enabling forces driving economic growth.
They create jobs, boost productivity, and improve lives.
As we look to build back better from COVID, effective transport policy and targeted infrastructure investments can help build equity into the heart of communities across Australia.
We want to build infrastructure so that transport is not a constraint on people’s lives, but instead it is an enabling force allowing them to thrive.
Transport means those in marginalised suburbs and regions can take advantage of opportunity.
It allows wealth to spread. It allows people to live where they want.
And it builds a better, more connected nation.
On our side of politics, we don’t see infrastructure as simply bricks and mortar, or even more cynically to attain votes.
We see infrastructure as a means of genuinely improving people’s lives, creating secure Australian jobs and delivering a better life for working families.
This summit provides a good opportunity for me to provide Labor’s view of the state of play nationally when it comes to infrastructure investment.
And, more importantly as we move steadily towards an election, it’s a chance for me to sketch out the broad contours of infrastructure policy under a Federal Labor Government.
National State of Play
In the past few years, we have seen State and Federal governments look to increase infrastructure investment, although it has been a bit patchy.
The Morrison-Joyce Government’s most recent budget lopped $3.3 billion off the infrastructure forward estimates, and the Parliamentary Budget Office points out road and rail infrastructure payments as a share of GDP have peaked and are projected to decline on the previous year and settle back at around the 0.4 percent of GDP mark.
We have been righty critical about the claims the government has made about its investment pipeline. As you know, these claims are based on substantial amounts of investment beyond the forward estimates, and around $5 billion for projects that are unlikely to ever be built. And there is significant reliance on equity funding for projects like Inland Rail and Western Sydney Airport which the Parliamentary Budget Office argues carries some risk for the long-term budget position.
At the same time, there are ongoing problems with delivery, due to capacity constraints, including skills shortages.
Last month, Infrastructure Australia delivered a detailed report on the capacity and skills shortfalls in the infrastructure sector, with over 100,000 roles likely to go unfilled over the next three years.
This puts at risk our ability to deliver the tens of billions of dollars of public infrastructure investment planned for the years ahead. And unlike Labor’s plan to create a National Reconstruction Fund and Jobs and Skills Australia, the Morrison-Joyce Government has no credible plan to address this challenge.
It is not just capacity constraints that are causing problems with delivery. Whilst the Morrison-Joyce government has been very quick to focus on the quantum of the infrastructure spend it is the quality of that spend that is now causing it some problems.
It will be no surprise to you that there is a growing use of infrastructure funds for pork barrelling and subsequent problems with delivery resulting in underspends in the infrastructure portfolio each and every year – now amounting to around $7.4 billion over this government’s term in office.
The starkest example of how this has become a significant problem is the Morrison – Joyce Governments Urban Congestion Fund Commuter Carparks.
I won’t re-run the arguments about which electorates these carparks are in and why – that has been well canvassed in the media. But as an example of how politicised decision making has resulted in delivery failure and lack of value for money for taxpayers, it is hard to beat.
Of the 48 car parks committed just before the 2019 election – now close to three years ago – only four have been built. Six have been cancelled as there is simply nowhere for them to be built, at least one was planned for a train station that is soon to close, and the costs per carpark provided range anywhere between $25,000 at Hurstbridge and $211,000 in Woy Woy.
None of the carparks chosen were assessed or recommended by the Department of Infrastructure.
So, what would we do differently?
The best way to understand what infrastructure investment would look like under an Albanese Government is to look to our record.
We established Infrastructure Australia and delivered – actually delivered – record infrastructure investment. In Government we invested in every one of the priority projects identified by IA. We introduced evidence-based decision making into 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, unlike the current Government, we knew the value of public transport, investing more money in public transport than all previous federal governments combined.
We worked collaboratively with the states: we didn’t pick fights with them.
We invested in nation building projects in partnership with the States like the Pacific Highway duplication, Cross-River Rail and Metro projects in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth.
So the short answer to what Labor would do in government is simple – we’d pick up where we left off. Starting with Infrastructure Australia.
Infrastructure Australia unfortunately has been largely sidelined by this government. It is a sign of the lack of interest the Coalition has in IA that it has not responded to the latest IA priority list and has only appointed a new chair on an acting basis for three months.
It was the politicisation of decision making, particularly on the bigger projects that Infrastructure Australia was designed to put an end to. But unfortunately, as Marion Terrill from the Grattan Institute reported just this year, just eight of the 32 mega projects larger than $500m she examined had a business case that had been published or assessed at the time the money was committed.
We have just recently seen the Deputy Prime Minister announce $10 million for a business case for an infrastructure project and then a few weeks later seemingly commit $3billion to build it – a circumstance one of his own closest confidantes described as reckless.
While IA’s most recent priority list is more streamlined and targeted than it has been in the past, after close to a decade of Coalition Government, I believe the time is right to reconsider IA’s role and purpose.
How do we identify the genuinely transformational projects the nation needs?
How can we ensure these projects deliver the productivity dividends we so need?
How does IA work with the Infrastructure bodies that have popped up in the states and territories in the more than ten years since IA was established?
How do we get the best advice across governments on dealing with the toughest problems in the sector – from decarbonising the transport and infrastructure sector to dealing with the impact of electric vehicles on our long-term needs?
To that end, an Albanese Labor government will commission an independent review of Infrastructure Australia to report within the first year of our government and advise on what changes may be needed to IA’s focus, priorities and – if necessary – legislation.
Building Back Stronger
This review is essential because the role of Infrastructure Australia has never been more important.
We find ourselves at an historic moment. A period in which it should be possible to make changes for the better, to pursue big ideas.
At the moment though, these exciting times are not being grasped.
Australia right now has two major, nation-building infrastructure projects underway – Inland Rail and Nancy Bird Walton Airport.
Both have received bipartisan support from Labor, although there are some points of contention over a land purchase and Inland Rail could do with a good look at how decisions are being made.
Beyond these two projects though, the Morrison-Joyce Governments future infrastructure agenda is pretty thin.
After almost nine years in government and close to a trillion dollars in debt, can anyone point to a coherent infrastructure plan from the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison Governments that will transform Australia’s future?
Despite the well-publicised difficulties in securing its passage, the Biden administration’s infrastructure package will certainly leave a lasting legacy. It takes a broad view of infrastructure, investing not just in roads, rail and bridges but also in electric vehicles, community infrastructure and water storage and resilience.
This is because, like us, President Biden understands the truly transformational potential of infrastructure investment. The ability to look into the future and lay the groundwork for the economic developments of tomorrow. To use the power of the public purse to help Australian companies grow not just in size but in skills. The chance to offer real productivity benefits for people not just in those growing and congested suburbs, but in our regions. The opportunity to create new jobs that can be combined with liveability benefits for working families right across our nation.
A Labor government will bring such a coherent plan to its infrastructure investment program. One way we did this when we were last in government was by leveraging state and territory investment in public transport in general, and rail in particular. Both in terms of light rail in our major cities, but also a significant investment in regional rail that delivered huge benefits, including in my home state of Victoria.
Nation Building projects – High-Speed Rail
When it comes to nation-building infrastructure, no one project offers benefits nor captures the imagination quite like high-speed rail.
For 40 years, Australians have dreamed of a high-speed rail line linking our east coast capitals at speeds in excess of 300 kilometres an hour.
Just as important as this project will be to the capitals though, it will be even more so to the regional centres along the route.
Gold Coast, Grafton, Port Macquarie, Newcastle, the Central Coast, Wagga Wagga and Shepparton, to name just a few.
These centres would no longer be half a day’s congested drive from the major CBDs, but instead just an hour or two on the train.
If you want to build equity, and offer a chance to make more people better off, this is how you do it.
It would allow Australians to lead the lives they want to live, where they want to live them, providing huge economic growth for the regions.
Of course, this project won’t be finished in an Albanese Government’s first term – or even it’s third – but it will transform the way in which we live.
But we have to start somewhere as a first step. I am pleased to announce today that an Albanese Labor Government would establish a High-Speed Rail Authority to update the business case for this project and begin work delivering it.
Back in 2013, the last business case identified a 1,748km route and found the project was not only viable but would return more than $2 in public benefit for every dollar invested.
Based on that study, an independent panel including the late Tim Fischer and Jennifer Westacott recommended creation of a High-Speed Rail Authority to advance the project.
We will update that business case and create that authority.
I won’t be the minister that cuts the red ribbon, but I will be the minister who gets the ball rolling.
Beyond the nation building projects, we also need to build the infrastructure that makes our existing systems work better.
These are the new connections, the smart infrastructure and the procurement changes that make our lives easier and create jobs for our children.
We need to make accessing our cities easier and we need to future proof projects – including by looking to embed electric vehicle facilities and infrastructure into road projects.
Just last week I announced our first infrastructure commitment in Melbourne – a business case for a trackless tram from Caulfield to Rowville, including stops at Chadstone Shopping Centre and Monash University, two important centres of economic activity in the Southeast of Victoria.
From day one, this would link with the existing train network and it would be built ready to join with the Suburban Rail Loop when that project is complete.
It will create connections between workplaces, education facilities, health facilities and homes.
It would create new jobs and make accessing existing jobs easier.
And, as we look to do with all our infrastructure commitments, it could be built in Australia. Just like with our National Rail Manufacturing Plan – which would reinvigorate manufacturing in towns like Newcastle, Maryborough, Dandenong and Ballarat – we would look to build these trackless trams here.
I don’t think I need to tell an audience in Sydney how well importing trams from overseas has worked. How much will it cost to close the inner west light rail for 18 months?
We have watched over the last several weeks as the Morrison-Joyce government has wrestled with itself to come up with a half-baked plan to reach net zero by 2050. And we know from Senate Estimates just two weeks ago that under Scott Morrison the bureaucracy is not thinking seriously about the challenges and opportunities a net zero future offers.
To do that, we must acknowledge the role that transport plays in our changing climate.
Transport is our third biggest and fastest growing source of emissions.
We are ranked second last for transport energy efficiency.
Yes, Australia is a large country and many of us – and much of our freight – travel large distances by road.
But we must do better.
We are already seeing the private sector, states and territories, embrace the future by investing in new technologies. Electric buses manufactured here in Western Sydney. Freight rail operators like Aurizon investing in battery-powered locomotives. Car manufacturers introducing hydrogen fuel cell vehicles into the marketplace. Airlines like Qantas investing in the development of sustainable fuels.
Imagine if we had a government that didn’t sneer at these new technologies for years, only to change their mind on the cusp of an election? Imagine if the Minister for Transport was willing to work with government and industry alike to encourage these new technologies so that Australia was genuinely prepared to seize the opportunities of the future?
For an Albanese Labor Government – and for me as minister – this will be a major priority.
I would expect my Department would work across government – and, importantly, with industry partners – to identify reductions and offsets in our carbon emissions in this sector and make this a priority of the Department’s effort.
This isn’t a uniquely Labor proposition; we are seeing the British Conservative Government outline an ambitious approach for the transport sector.
This isn’t about a hard break from the past, it is simply taking the next step into the future.
In this, the pandemic once more provides us with opportunity.
Changing patterns of work, travel and living provide an opportunity to rethink pre-pandemic priorities, and as we remake them, we should include reducing emissions as a key goal.
That is how transport can and must make its contribution to net zero emissions.
We have already announced policies aimed at increasing the uptake of electric vehicles and promoting community batteries. Anthony Albanese and Chris Bowen will have more to say in the weeks ahead about our climate change and emissions policies, but the key point I want to make today is this:
as infrastructure and transport minister I will take seriously my role in ensuring this critical sector cannot just meet the challenges of addressing climate change, but best position itself to take advantage of the opportunities this brings.
This is an exciting time for transport and infrastructure.
The opportunities brought about by our changing world have not been seen in a generation.
We have a unique opportunity to break with the old ideas of the past and set our way forward for the next century.
Clean energy, reducing emissions, and nation building projects – the time is now.
While the current government may want us to be scared of the future, an Albanese Labor Government will embrace it.
We are determined to seize the opportunities and confront the challenges of our present moment.
Thank you for the opportunity to address you all today, and I look forward with engaging with you all again into the future.