Roads To Recovery - 27/08/2014


Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (10:03): I am pleased to support the Land Transport Infrastructure Amendment Bill. The bill does a number of things, the first of which is that it renames the Nation Building Program (National Land Transport) Act 2009. It gives it the more appropriate name of the National Land Transport Act 2014, thereby removing the link between the name of the act and the name of the land transport infrastructure funding program. This means that the act will not need to be amended if the name of the land transport infrastructure funding program changes. It is the most sensible name for the act and it keeps it above politics. It will also streamline and enhance the operation of the act to benefit states and territories.

By and large, this act is important because it enables a continuation of the wonderful Roads to Recovery program after 30 June 2014. I want to spend little time on this, because, if I may proudly say, I was the minister who introduced into this chamber the original act that provided for Roads to Recovery. It is a wonderful program that gives federal money to local governments to allow them to do road work that otherwise would not be possible. There has been some hesitation in recent years about the constitutionality of funding going directly from the Commonwealth to local governments, but clearly that is addressed by this new bill. Local authorities right around Australia, particularly in rural and regional Australia, have a major influence on which roads are constructed; they know what local people need and they are the best equipped to plan and then build roads in their local communities. This Roads to Recovery program introduced by the Howard government gave local authorities that additional funding that they had sadly lacked prior to that time and enabled them to build thousands and thousands of kilometres of roads that were absolutely necessary, particularly in rural and regional Australia. I remember a few years after the program was introduced that for much of regional Queensland there was no funding at all for state roads from the then Labor state government. With the approval of the federal government, councils were putting their Roads to Recovery money towards states roads to enable those linkages between small country towns and bigger ones; and it was well received.

As a Queensland senator, Mr Deputy President, you will excuse me if I talk only about Queensland. I must say that both the current federal government and the current Queensland government—Campbell Newman's Liberal-National Party government—are doing such wonderful work on road improvements that I get a bit annoyed with them, because, not matter where you drive in Queensland these days, you will find road works in progress. That, of course, means lanes cut off or detours or speed restrictions, and, for someone who travels the roads as widely as I do, that does become a source of annoyance. But I console myself by understanding these roadworks will benefit all Queenslanders and all Australians in the years ahead. A great deal of work is being done on the Bruce Highway, and I give full credit to a number of federal and state politicians who have been campaigning for its upgrade for many years: George Christensen, Ewen Jones and Warren Entsch have done a wonderful job in advocating for money for that work. I live in a place called Ayr and my office is in Townsville about 100 kilometres to the north and I drive to work on the occasions I am in the North. I am delighted to see work on the southern approaches to Townsville that were promised by Labor for years—each budget we would have an announcement from Labor that they were going to fix the Van Tassel Street intersection to include a bypass. They kept talking about it a year after year but, as was typical with the Labor government, it never happened—indeed, I think in the last budget they actually withdrew it. That work is now happening and it will provide a four-lane entrance from the south into the burgeoning city of Townsville; it will certainly help anyone using that road, including in a selfish way myself. All the way throughout Queensland, or all along the Bruce Highway, roadworks are occurring. All credit goes to Campbell Newman and his government for that road work and to the federal government for the funding they have provided to the Queensland government for that road work to be done. It is not just the Bruce Highway or the main highways. During the last few months, I have driven in many of the back roads, the secondary roads of Queensland, and have seen that work is happening in all of them. Congratulations to Warren Truss, Campbell Newman and all those responsible for the enormous amount of road work that is happening.

As well as dealing with the Roads to Recovery program—I want to come back to that briefly—this bill will also unify the schemes for funding National Land Transport Network projects in part 3 of the Nation Building Program (National Land Transport) Act and the off-network projects in part 6 of that act. Furthermore, the bill will also enlarge the scope of power to fund research, investigations, studies and analysis, first by expanding the types of organisations that can be funded to include partnerships and non-corporate Commonwealth entities in certain circumstances, and second by allowing funding for the additional purpose of researching and investigating projects funded or submitted for consideration for funding under the act. The bill also repeals three spent pieces of legislation in this general field. It is again part of the coalition government's program to tidy up the books, so to speak, to reduce the red tape and get rid of legislation that is no longer relevant.

The Labor Party in this bill have proposed eight pages of amendments to provide for a separate section on this program. It is a program that is already provided for in legislation. So the Labor Party are—or at least they were last time we were talking about this; I am hopeful that perhaps they have had a rethink about this—proposing these amendments to provide a separate section in this bill for something that has already been dealt with in the other legislation. We agree that it is a very important program to which the Labor Party were averting. In fact we have committed more funding to that program than the current opposition did when it was in government. But the amendments proposed by Labor simply duplicate provisions in the existing legislation.

When Mr Albanese was the minister, he established the program, but to ensure the program could receive funding under the legislation, all Mr Albanese needed to do was to amend the definition of a road in this act, which is exactly what he did. In 2008 he introduced the AusLink (National Land Transport) Amendment Bill to add to the definition of road in section 4 of the act. He knew then that it was not necessary to include it in a full separate section. He and his party should understand that it was not necessary then, back in 2008, and neither is it necessary now.

The coalition government is committed to a number of other programs that are not provided separate status in the legislation—that is, the Labor Party want to particularly go to one area, but there are other programs that are not provided with separate pieces of legislation and they do not need to be. If the heavy vehicle program were to be included then, for consistency, those programs should also be included, potentially adding up to 40 pages of unnecessary duplication to this very simple bill.

We are, as I mentioned, committed to reducing red tape, not creating it, and the new programs that we are talking about include the Bridges Renewal Program—a wonderful program that will help many communities get the bridges they need and repair some pretty rickety, narrow bridges that are a safety concern at present. Again, all credit to the minister, Mr Truss, for the introduction of that new Bridges Renewal Program. There are also the managed motorways program, another regional roads program and the national highway program. None of these are specifically referred to in legislation, but the Labor Party, for some reason, wanted one element of those programs to be the subject of some eight additional pages of legislation. So I would hope that the Labor Party have had a rethink about that. I hope that the Greens and the other crossbench senators understand that that is not necessary. It is just useless padding, and it does complicate what is a very simple bill, the main purpose of which is to ensure that the Roads to Recovery program continues beyond 30 June 2014.

Councils will be anxiously watching this debate and this bill. As I understand it, payments were to cease because the Labor Party's program concluded on 30 June 2014. There has not been any tangible impact of the failure to pass this bill to date, but if it is not passed immediately it will throw into jeopardy the payments that continue to go to local councils or local government authorities for the Roads to Recovery program.

Again, I repeat that this is a program initiated by the Howard government, and I say to any senator: if you are ever visiting a local authority anywhere in Australia and you are at a loss to know what to talk about, just mention Roads to Recovery and you will get an instant response from all councillors, CEOs and council staff on just what a wonderful program it has been. It has really saved the day for many communities who were doing it tough and could not, through their rate base or financial assistance grants funding, gather together the money to do these essential road projects, and this Roads to Recovery program gave them that opportunity and that ability to properly service their communities. That has been great for those communities, great for Australians and, indeed, great for the competitiveness and competency of Australia as a nation. The work on those local roads has really built our productivity and helped people, and it deserves support.

I urge all senators to support this bill in its original form. It is a simple bill. It is there to extend the Roads to Recovery program. I would guess that every senator in this chamber is keen to see that program continue to be funded. Let us get on and do that. If you want to have lots of talk about other programs, then let us do it in the appropriate red legislation at some other time, but it is certainly not necessary now. Let us keep the bill simple. Let us get the money flowing and let councils know that they have the certainty of that continued funding under the Roads to Recovery program.

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