BILLS;Infrastructure Australia Amendment Bill 2013;Second Reading – 23 Jun 2014 Part 2

Before I was interrupted for question time and other business I mentioned that the Infrastructure Australia Amendment Bill 2013 went through 20 drafts but that there was no consultation by government with Infrastructure Australia. I still find it quite unbelievable that there were 20 drafts but that Infrastructure Australia were not consulted at all. It is quite unbelievable. I have spoken about this government’s inability to consult before making policy, but this certainly takes the cake. Not only did it fail to consult Infrastructure Australia; it did not consult any of the relevant parties outside government. To propose such major changes to Infrastructure Australia without consulting anyone outside government shows an absolute arrogance and lack of forethought, which the Australian people are very rapidly becoming annoyed about. At the very least, the government should have undergone an exposure draft process. But the Abbott government has a history of failing to consult, which unfortunately I do not think is likely to change.

Infrastructure Australia’s evidence is more damning than just a failure to consult. Mr Deegan’s submission states:

The Deputy Prime Minister’s objectives and principles concerning the organisation’s independence and transparency in decision-making deserve wide support.

Some of the provisions in the Bill are consistent with these objectives and principles. Others unfortunately are not – indeed, some proposed new provisions appear diametrically opposed to those objectives and principles.

I repeat: ‘… some proposed new positions appear diametrically opposed to those objectives and principles’. Is that why the government did not ask Infrastructure Australia for advice on reform of its own governance structure, or is it because they might have pointed out exactly what Mr Deegan pointed out in this submission—that the new provisions in this bill appear to be diametrically opposed to the stated aims of this bill, that this bill does not do what the explanatory memorandum says it will do but the exact opposite? As we on this side know, the government have a history of saying one thing but doing another. But to say the stated aims of the bill do one thing while the provisions of the bill do the exact opposite is an extraordinary act of hypocrisy, even from those opposite. Didn’t they expect anyone to look at the bill?

The bill that was presented to the House and passed by the House sought to gag Infrastructure Australia through the now deleted section 5D. This section was to provide, and I quote from Mr Deegan’s submission again:

… that Infrastructure Australia is not permitted to publish, unless it has a written direction from the Minister:

its evaluation of project proposals under proposed section 5A,

any evidence relied on in the preparation of any output, including national infrastructure plans,

the reasoning by which it reached its conclusions in any evaluation of any proposal, or in deciding the Infrastructure Priority List or preparing a national infrastructure plans, or even

its conclusions.

The submission goes on to state:

lt is possible that the Minister will give a carte blanche direction to Infrastructure Australia to publish all this material. But even if the Minister does so, the provision makes any claimed independence or transparency an illusion.

The submission states that section 5D(1)(b):

… makes whatever Infrastructure Australia does secret unless the Minister directs otherwise.

Well, we are getting pretty used to secrets from those opposite. This section would have prevented Infrastructure Australia from giving the Australian people advice on the infrastructure needs of this country without the express permission of the minister. Infrastructure Australia would have been able to inform public debate on the infrastructure needs of this country only if their research and recommendations were ideologically consistent with the views of the minister. It is despicable that those opposite would seek to gag a body like Infrastructure Australia in such a way, and I am glad that Minister Truss has come to his senses and has at least deleted this section.

The government talk about making Infrastructure Australia more independent, but their actions conflict with their statements. The minister has already sought to move aside the Infrastructure Coordinator, Mr Michael Deegan, putting him on ‘gardening leave’, for the evidence he gave the Senate inquiry into this bill and for other criticisms of the government’s infrastructure announcements. He has replaced him with an acting infrastructure coordinator, Mr John Fitzgerald. Unfortunately, Mr Fitzgerald may not be the best replacement. With regard to the East West Link in Victoria, Mr Fitzgerald put out a release on 29 April saying that it was a ‘meritorious project’. In Senate estimates he indicated that, as a Victorian official of Treasury but also as a private consultant for KPMG doing work on this project, he advocated for the project. Unfortunately, in my book you cannot be both independent and a paid consultant at the same time. Mr Rod Eddington, the former Chair of Infrastructure Australia, has been replaced by a former Liberal minister, the Hon. Mark Birrell. This is just a case of jobs for the boys and a clear example of the Abbott government politicising Infrastructure Australia. The Australian people deserve much better than that—much, much better.

The bill that passed the House of Representatives sought to prevent Infrastructure Australia from performing its fundamental role of investigating projects and future infrastructure needs through the now deleted section 5A(2). Again I would like to quote Mr Deegan’s submission to the Senate committee:

The proposed section 5A(2) empowers the Minister to determine by legislative instrument a class of proposals that Infrastructure Australia must not evaluate.

The rationale and policy intent behind this provision has not been explained.

…      …   …

Use of proposed section 5A(2) is likely to be interpreted as minimising scrutiny of the business case for certain projects – or perhaps a wide class of projects such as proposals for the Commonwealth to fund public transport.

Section 5A(2) was put in there to ensure that the minister could prevent Infrastructure Australia from scrutinising projects that the government wants to approve—unwarranted infrastructure projects in Liberal-National marginal seats, for example—or to prevent proper investigation into projects that would be beneficial to the nation but that the government is ideologically opposed to. As with other expert bodies that provide advice which this government finds inconvenient, the coalition once again tried to limit what could be researched in order to minimise their own embarrassment and protect their own ideology. I am glad the minister has also deleted this provision from the bill that has come to the Senate. I am pleased that in the bill we are debating today we are returning to the provisions under the current act which permit ministerial directions of a general nature only.

Labor is also putting forward amendments which will ensure that Infrastructure Australia retains the power to approve tax concessions for private sector co-investment in nationally significant infrastructure projects. This reform, brought in by the Labor government in the 2012-13 budget, aims to increase private sector involvement in major projects. The government proposed that this role be undertaken by a delegate of the minister, potentially outside Infrastructure Australia. Labor’s amendment leaves this to the infrastructure experts within Infrastructure Australia.

We know those opposite are climate change deniers. That is why they have decided to delete the existing function to provide advice on infrastructure policy issues arising from climate under the government’s changes. We on this side feel that this is a mistake and are opposed to this move. We know that the effects of climate change will have a significant impact on our future infrastructure needs. I was having a chat to my Tasmanian colleague Senator Polley, who is in the chamber and who has a bit of a background in shipping and transport. She was saying climate change is especially relevant, for example, when giving advice on ports and bridge heights. Labor’s amendments will allow Infrastructure Australia to retain this important function.

The government proposes to remove the current function for Infrastructure Australia to review alignment of government funding decisions with Infrastructure Australia’s advice. In the interests of transparency once again, Labor’s amendment will retain this function. We on this side of the chamber want to know, and want the Australian people to know, that spending on infrastructure actually meets the nation’s needs. I am glad that the government has made the changes that they have, but I call upon them to also agree to these sensible amendments.

Having world class infrastructure in the most appropriate places is the key to Australia’s future prosperity and it is too important for our nation for those opposite to politicise Infrastructure Australia for short-term political gain. Since its creation in 2008, Infrastructure Australia has overhauled, and has driven lasting improvements to, the way Australia plans, assesses, finances, builds and uses the infrastructure it needs to compete in the 21st century. Its achievements include: (a) completing the first ever infrastructure audit; (b) putting in place a national priority list to guide investment into nationally significant projects which offer the highest economic and social returns, with the former Labor government committing funding to all 15 projects identified as ready to proceed; (c) developing national public-private partnership, or PPP, guidelines to make it easier and cheaper for private investors to partner with governments to build new infrastructure; (d) finalising long-term blueprints for a truly national, integrated and multimodal transport system capable of moving goods around as well as into and out of Australia quickly, reliably and efficiently, including the National Port Strategy, the National Freight Strategy and more recently the Urban Transport Strategy; and (e) conducting pilot work on improving governance and developing rigour around evidence-based road funding.

This bill fails to deliver on the coalition’s promise to ensure better infrastructure planning and more rigorous and transparent assessments of taxpayer-funded projects. This is because the government do not want rigorous and transparent assessment of taxpayer-funded projects, because it is not in their own political interests. Unfortunately, the coalition government has a bit of form on politicising infrastructure projects. I quote from the Australian National Audit Office’s performance audit of the Regional Partnership Program:

ANAO analysis revealed that ministers were more likely to approve funding for ‘not recommended’ projects that had been submitted by applicants in electorates held by the Liberal and National parties …and more likely to not approve funding for ‘recommended’ projects that had been submitted by applicants in electorates held by the Labor party.

Unfortunately, we have already seen from this government, which has been in power for less than a year, a similar willingness to skew projects towards their own electorates while cancelling projects in Labor-held electorates. A recent article in The Age highlighted that in the Abbott government’s 2013-14 budget, of the new projects announced and funded, just under three-quarters were in coalition electorates. Monash University Professor of Transport Graham Currie was quoted in the article:

Professor Currie said Australia’s independent body for infrastructure decisions, Infrastructure Australia, was not being used by the current government to decide which projects to fund.

“The question is whether they want to be a professional government or they want to pork barrel, and whether we’ll forge the idea of trying to be professional about how we manage resources or just do it on a political basis.

“I don’t think that’s how a country should be run.”

I have to say that I agree with Professor Currie: I do not think that is how a country should be run either.

The article also looks at the existing projects which have received more funding in the budget, including the— (Time expired)