BILLS – Infrastructure (Priority Funding) Amendment Bill 2013 – Second Reading

Mr HUSIC (Chifley) (21:12): I grew up in Western Sydney. Before I got my drivers licence I always knew it would take at least an hour to get from the west to the east of Sydney, and that I would need to leave more time than that to get to the train station to get the train into town. Then I got my licence and the only thing that changed was that I saved half an hour. It would still take an hour of travelling and the only time you could get around the city was late at night in the off-peak time. These days, in the morning and the evening, despite all the investment that has occurred in the city, there will still be days where it would be quicker to get to Goulburn than it would to get into the city from Western Sydney. It is a fact of life that the most pressing priority for governments—federal, state and local—is to free up the movement of people in the biggest city in the country.

I have worries from time to time that Sydney is becoming the Southern Hemisphere’s version of LA, where we are a lot more reliant on cars to get around and that we will be stuck in gridlock. But then I actually visited LA and found that their traffic moves quite well—and there are a number of reasons for that that I want to reflect on later. But certainly that issue of congestion is, according to the Planning Institute of Australia, costing our economy this year $13 billion. So, when it comes to infrastructure, Western Sydney is all ears, all eyes, all mind on this issue because we know what it means for us.

You can guess on infrastructure and you can either rely on some of the impressions that I talked about earlier to guide you or rely on public sentiment, and certainly that is an important factor. But what you want to do is make sure that when it comes to infrastructure, you have this degree of independence, that someone is reviewing the plans, that the people in the know are able to bring their expertise to these issues, particularly on something as vexed as infrastructure. That is what this government has sought to do.

When we established the Infrastructure Australia Act and set up Infrastructure Australia, we put in place an independent body to advise the government on infrastructure matters—a good move. It developed the national priority project list and updates it annually. Funding decisions do remain with the government, but under federal Labor all 15 of the 15 projects identified on Infrastructure Australia’s priority list as ready to proceed are ticked off and ready to go. They have all been funded. It is worth noting that they include major rail projects such as the regional rail link, Gold Coast light rail, the Seaford rail extension, Brisbane’s Cross River Rail and Melbourne Metro.

Under the Nation Building Program, I am proud that the government have already increased investment in rail tenfold—not a small investment; it is significant. In Sydney, we are investing $840 million in the northern Sydney freight corridor upgrade, which is currently underway. That will help reduce travel times and make Sydney’s rail network more efficient. We are also investing nearly $1 billion in the southern Sydney freight line. That actually opened in January this year, clearing the largest single bottleneck on the interstate rail network and building a dedicated freight line. We committed $2 billion for the Parramatta to Epping light rail link, which will benefit Western Sydney, but the New South Wales government has failed to support the project.

I do have concerns about the bill. Firstly, it proposes an amendment to the Infrastructure Australia Act to direct a federal minister in decision making. Infrastructure Australia determines priority projects by identifying the most appropriate solution to the nation’s transport issues—that is, assessments are deliberately mode neutral. This amendment could result in a situation where some of the highest priority projects in the nation are not funded simply because they are road projects.

Many places in Australia are not served by rail transport, including many rural communities, suburbs in our cities and some of our most important commercial and industrial places. So it is important to take this balanced approach to nation building with investment in both road and rail. No-one is denying the importance of rail investment and this is why we have made it. The biggest threat, frankly, to rail investment comes from the opposition:

We have no history of funding urban rail and I think it’s important we stick to our knitting and the Commonwealth’s knitting when it comes to funding infrastructure is roads.

That was the Leader of the Opposition on 4 April this year. (Time expired)