Infrastructure Australia Amendment Bill 2014 - Second Reading

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (13:35): This is a debate on a bill that has been through the House of Representatives. The Infrastructure Australia Amendment Bill 2013 has now come to the Senate and it will be amended by the government here. As part of the debate, it behoves me to refer to some of the previous speakers. I will start with the most recent, the representative of the Greens. As is usual with the Greens, Senator Ludlam put forward two fallacies or dishonesties. Senator Ludlam said with great gusto that there are three times as many infrastructure proposals in seats held by Abbott government members as there are in other seats. I invite Senator Ludlam to have a look at the number of seats held by members of the Abbott government in this parliament and compare it to the number held by others. Whilst the numbers may not precisely correspond, it is certainly very much the case that, clearly, more of the infrastructure will be in seats held by Abbott government members—because so many more of the seats are held by Abbott government members.

Secondly, there is something the Greens never understand in their fascination with urban public transport—and I must say that I support urban public transport. Where I live—and in many of the places where the people I represent live—there is no tram down the end of the street, there is no regular public bus service and there is no urban rail system. The only means of transport in many parts of Australia is the private motor vehicle, hence the need for road transport infrastructure in those areas—and, I might add, the need for very careful consideration before increasing the cost of fuel in whatever way.

If you needed a demonstration of how lightly Labor treats this whole subject, and what a dearth of ideas they have on the subject of infrastructure, I refer you to the speech by the first Labor speaker on this matter, my good friend Senator Conroy. I always love following Senator Conroy, because it is always entertaining when he speaks, regardless of the fact that what he says is so insignificant as not to warrant anyone listening to it—anyone apart from me, I suspect. Senator Conroy said that all of these projects being implemented by the coalition were funded by Labor. Sorry, Labor hardly funded anything, I have to tell you. Those that it did fund it did so on borrowed money, which has now led us to the debt crisis Australia is currently experiencing. Senator Conroy's principal speech seemed to be relating to us how many YouTube hits there were on something Mr Albanese put out versus something that the Abbott minister put out. How could having a long discourse on how many hits you get on a YouTube video possibly be relevant to the question of infrastructure in Australia?

It just shows bereft of any serious consideration of infrastructure the Labor Party is. Then, as my colleagues indicated by interjection, fancy Senator Conroy, of all people, talking about starting somewhere and finishing somewhere and not doing any of the work on the in-between bit, when there is the guy who, on the back of an envelope, initiated the most expensive piece of infrastructure ever in Australia's history. And all Senator Conroy had, apart from some rhetoric, was a start and a finish, with nothing in-between about how he would get either the start or the finish right.

Senator Conroy continues to try to make divisions between the National and Liberal parties, but I have to tell him that, sadly for you, Senator Conroy, that does not happen. When it comes to infrastructure and nearly everything the Liberal and National parties in this place are at one, and of course in my own state of Queensland we are one. But just to refute Senator Conroy's observation of pork-barrelling, as he calls it, I have to say to him that some of the infrastructure that is most important in my state of Queensland—the Bruce Highway—traverses many electorates. They are mainly coalition seats because quite frankly very few seats in Queensland are held by the Australian Labor Party. So it would be difficult to find where there are major expenditures in Labor seats, not because there is pork-barrelling, but because there are no Labor seats. One of the few Labor seats contains the Ipswich Motorway, which is an infrastructure project being continued by this government and was of course started by the Howard coalition government.

For Senator Conroy's benefit can I say that some of the major infrastructure matters I continually urge governments to look at seriously are the Hann Highway and the Mt Isa road and rail line, both of which are not in the electorates of any coalition member, but in the electorate of an Independent. It is a seat that will become a coalition seat after the next election. It is one where the coalition candidate received some 10,500 more primary votes than the current incumbent, but saved it on Labor and Palmer United preferences. That is a seat that will have a coalition member at the next election, and it will be a coalition member who can argue for the absolutely essential infrastructure that is needed in that important part of our country, which provides links between the north and the south of our nation—that is, along the Hann Highway. The Mt Isa road and other roads in that area are desperately in need of further investment. They are important investments, because that is the part of the world that contributes so significantly to Australia's economic wellbeing. It is where most of the minerals on the eastern side of the content come from and it also is the place that supports significant rural industries, like the live cattle industry, which was such an economic fillip, prior to the senseless ban by the Labor government.

From hearing Senator Conroy it would seem that he has not read the bill and certainly has not read the government amendments, because what he was saying was entirely contradictory on what the proposal actually says. Senator Conroy asked me to list the number of times that Queensland—I am not sure who he meant, but let us say Queensland—was dudded by National Party pork-barrelling. It will not take me more than half a second to give you that list, because there is nothing in the list. There are no instances I can think of. But if he asked me to list the number of times the Labor Party has dudded Queensland in relation to infrastructure, it would take more than the 20 minutes allowed to me in this speech.

I want to refer now to some of the matters in the speech. First, I think that over the years since its establishment Infrastructure Australia has done a very good job. I am particularly praiseworthy of Mr Michael Deegan, the original CEO of Infrastructure Australia. I spent a lot of time questioning Mr Deegan at estimates. He always turned up and gave very good and full answers. He did not need a team of assistants to help him answer reasonable questions. I had a lot of confidence in the work that Infrastructure Australia had done right around the country, particularly in my home state of Queensland. I wish Mr Deegan well in his future. I thought the work Mr Deegan and his team did was excellent.

Clearly any infrastructure organisation can be improved, and I believe that these amendments by the coalition do improve particular Infrastructure Australia processes. I congratulate Mr Truss on having the courage to take these amendments and reforms through. Indeed, Warren Truss is showing himself to be a very courageous and innovative member. He is well across his portfolio and the work he has already done in civil aviation and infrastructure to date is a wonderful example of what a good government can do, that is, a government that is functional and understands the value that needs to be obtained from money.

The coalition's amendments will enhance Infrastructure Australia's existing functions to include conducting evidence-based audits of Australia's current infrastructure asset base, in conjunction and collaboration with state and territory governments. These will be revised every five years. Infrastructure Australia will develop a 15-year infrastructure plan for Australia, with this plan being revised regularly as well. All projects seeking Commonwealth funding of more than $100 million—including transport, water, telecommunications, energy, health and education, but excluding Defence projects—will be looked at and reasons will be published for the decision.

If only Infrastructure Australia had been asked to assess telecommunications in the term of the previous government, then we may not have had what I have always predicted would be a $100 billion white elephant, which will be a monument to Labor's inefficiency and their wastefulness in building any form of infrastructure. Had Infrastructure Australia been able to look at that, then we might have got a different outcome. As senators—particularly those involved in estimates committees at the time—would know, Mr Deegan always used to very embarrassingly tell us that the NBN was not part of his remit. The government is committed to ensuring that Australia has the productive infrastructure that we need to meet the challenges ahead. We recognise that Australia needs improved planning, coordinated across all jurisdictions, to underpin investment decisions and regulatory reform.

Infrastructure Australia was established by the former government as an independent adviser to governments, in an effort to eliminate the short-term cycle in project prioritisation and to develop a new view on infrastructure priorities and policies. But there were concerns that Infrastructure Australia had not been successful in fundamentally changing the way projects are identified at a national level. Whilst it has delivered priority project lists, there are some concerns that the projects are derived from state and territory government project proposals and prioritisation is based on the extent to which the project business case is advanced, rather than the extent to which the project will contribute to improved national productivity.

The current structure does not provide the degree of independence and transparency needed to provide the best advice to government. This bill will do a number of things that will remove the ministerial power to determine a class of the proposals that IA must not eventuate. The opposition has tried to make something about this about public transport, but I want to point out that the original intent of referring to a class of proposals was to exclude Defence projects and projects seeking Commonwealth funding of under $100 million. It is important that Defence projects are excluded, because they are done for Defence strategic reasons and really need other assessments.

The amendments also remove the specific functions to be performed only when directed by the minister. The original intent of allowing for publication requests was to increase transparency to the public, while striking the right balance with commercial and confidentiality issues. There is a removal of the ministerial power to specify requirements related to time frames and the scope and manner in which Infrastructure Australia must act.

It is important that Infrastructure Australia be given all the resources and the powers to do its job and to do it in an independent and open way. However, I do raise one word of caution to the government. That is that the government should always remember that the government is elected to govern Australia. In all cases with independent authorities—no matter how good they are and no matter how skills-based they may be—the end result is that it is governments that have to make the decisions and it is governments that are accountable to the Australian public at election time for the decisions they make. I would hate to see an occasion where all-important decisions in relation to infrastructure were made by independent—skilled, but non-representative—bodies. In a democracy, always the end result is that the democratically elected parliament must make decisions on infrastructure and, indeed, on most things.

I believe the amendment bill and the amendments to the bill proposed by the government are a good step forward. They do highlight the Abbott government's concentration on infrastructure. I am sure that the amendments in this bill and the ongoing focus by the coalition government on the absolute and imperative need for infrastructure improvements in Australia will help to define the Prime Minister as he would like to be defined, and that is as the infrastructure prime minister of Australia. I wish him well in that, because I know that if he can achieve that recognition it will mean that infrastructure in Australia will have been so vastly improved, as it should be, that it will have enhanced the economic productivity and the benefit of our nation.

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