Senator RICE: I will continue my questions about the Western Distributor. Trying to get information about the Western Distributor is like playing a game of correspondence chess. You make one move and three months later you get a bit more information. That is how I feel about the information that we have been able to glean about it. It sounds like Infrastructure Australia is much the same. Are you still actively working on a business case for the Western Distributor, or your assessment of it? Or is it currently stalled, waiting for further information from the Victorian government?
Mr Davies : Right now we have gone back to the Victorian government requesting some additional information. We are waiting to get that so we can basically complete our work.
Senator RICE: When did you request that from the Victorian government?
Mr Davies : In November.
Senator RICE: So that is three months and you are still waiting on the information.
Mr Davies : Yes.
Senator RICE: From the last estimates, I ascertained that you had requested a copy of the independent peer reviews of the Western Distributor business case. Have you received those independent peer reviews?
Mr Davies : No, we have not.
Senator RICE: Given that we know those peer reviews have been undertaken, do you find it acceptable that, if you asked for them three months ago, the Victorian government have not forwarded them? It is not a matter of them having to do further work on them; we know those reviews have been undertaken. They could have been in the post to you the very next day.
Mr Davies : It is normal for projects to commission peer reviews. That is private and confidential to the proponent of the project. We did request those peer reviews. As we have spoken of before, often those peer reviews can provide useful context but, generally speaking, we are carrying out our own independent peer review—our own due diligence. So they can be useful, but we are asking many similar questions–hopefully more questions than the peer review would.
CHAIR: That was not Senator Rice’s question.
Senator RICE: We know that there is an information base there that existed before you requested it in October or November. They could have sent it to you immediately.
Mr Davies : That is a matter for the Victorian government.
Senator RICE: Have you raised that with the Victorian government in the intervening three months—as to why there has been such a delay?
Mr Davies : Yes. We have requested more information. We have requested—on two occasions—the peer reviews.
Senator RICE: And have you asked why there has been a delay?
Mr Davies : I do not have that information. I do not know why there is a delay.
Senator RICE: Have you received any explanation from the Victorian government as to why there has been a delay in forwarding you this information that you should have available to you?
Mr Davies : No.
CHAIR: In other experiences, with other states, for example, do you experience these delays? Is this normal tickety-tock?
Mr Davies : It is very much part of the process.
CHAIR: Can you now cite an example of your relationship with another state where they have a peer review report, you have asked for it, and three or four months later you are still whiling around waiting for it?
Mr Davies : I cannot think of one in recent times.
CHAIR: There may well be a reason for that.
Senator RICE: Do you think that in the usual course of affairs these peer reviews should be made available to you? Can you see a reason why they should not be made available to you?
Mr Davies : That is a matter for the project proponents.
Senator RICE: But for you as Infrastructure Australia, you are tasked with the job of assessing the information about projects, so that you can make wise assessments about them.
Mr Davies : As you know, we are trying to operate in a totally transparent manner. We publish our assessments on the website. We just—again—published on the weekend the 100 initiatives and projects, with clear descriptions of the problems, initiatives and the projects. We operate in a transparent manner. That is how we like to operate. We are relying on our colleagues in state and territory governments to provide us with the material that they think we need to adequately assess their projects. And again, it is a matter for the Victorian government.
Senator RICE: Does it make you a bit more questioning of the value of this project, given that the Victorian government is—it seems—refusing to forward you the independent peer reviews of the project? For me, I could only jump to the conclusion of there being a motivation that the project does not add up. There have been independent peer reviews that are being hidden from you. I know that my colleague in the state parliament, Colleen Hartland, has requested these under freedom of information and that request has been denied. In contrast, she also requested the peer review for the Melbourne Metro Rail Project. We got a redacted version of that. There was a lot of information that was not in it, but at least we got some information about that peer review. Initially, with these peer reviews they even denied that they had undertaken them. Then we managed to get that information out of them, and now it seems that they are point-blank refusing to even forward them to you, let alone the public. Does it make you question the validity of the project overall?
Mr Davies : We do not rely on other organisations’ peer reviews. We are very much relying on our own expertise and business cases.
CHAIR: Mr Davies, I almost never agree with anything the Greens say. Almost never—99.9 to infinity. But I have to tell you—and that was part of the thrust of my question—that the good people of Victoria are entitled to know whether their government is operating in a fair, open and transparent fashion with Infrastructure Australia, in an effort to try and get Commonwealth funding into a state project. I think that it is a writ-large question. I know that you are very careful, but it would seem that there is a case building that they are not cooperating with you in a timely fashion in the way that you might expect they would.
Senator RICE: Exactly. And, as Mr Mrdak said, they are proceeding apace, despite the fact that the environmental effects statement has been delayed and is not going to be available for public input until the middle of the year. From the media reports, they are proceeding apace. They are ready to sign on the dotted line, and yet they are not even forwarding some basic information to you as the national organisation that is set up to do independent assessments of such projects. Does that make you suspicious?
Mr Davies : I cannot comment on the—
CHAIR: Senator Rice, can I recommend that you ask the question a bit differently? Ask Mr Davies, is this consistent with the type of engagement that we have with other states on like projects. I think that is the only comparative we have. He is not going to answer questions about this; it is suspicious, but—
Mr Davies : On occasion, it takes time to get information out of our colleagues that we are asking for. In terms of the Western Distributor, we are waiting for some more information so that we can complete our assessment.
Senator RICE: I can understand that, at times, it takes time to get information because that information is not available. Here we have an instance of an independent assessment of a project that we know has been undertaken. It is sitting there. The Victorian government could forward it to you tomorrow. Yet it seems that for some reason they are not willing to do that. Do you find that acceptable? Do you find that that is helpful in your relationship with them in terms of your independent assessment of this project?
Mr Davies : In terms of the peer reviews, they may provide useful context but we are not—
Senator RICE: We don't know until we see them!
Mr Davi es : We are not waiting for those peer reviews to finish our work. We have requested other information to help finish our work.
CHAIR: Are you saying that you may well go ahead and make a recommendation to the federal government without independent peer reviews that are available but that you have not seen? Do you think you might be able to go over the top of that and say yes or no to the federal government without even having regard to this valuable data resource?
Mr Davies : Certainly, because we are doing our own independent peer review. It is our role to do our own review.
CHAIR: Just when you thought the world could not get any crazier.
Senator RICE: In terms of your assessment as to whether it is economically viable—and I know that you said in answer to a previous question that the funding sources were not something that you are looking at—there have been considerable concerns raised about the funding arrangements that Transurban appears to be about to make with the Victorian government, including from the former Premier of Victoria, Jeff Kennett. Just as the chair and I do not agree very often, I do not agree very often with former Premier Jeff Kennett! But he is very concerned about the funding arrangements that Transurban appear to be about to sign off on with the Victorian government. Do you have any view about those funding arrangements?
Mr Davies : We have not looked at that.
Senator RICE: Do you think that would be germane to your considerations of the economics of the Western Distributor, in terms of whether it is a good deal for the Victorian public?
Mr Davies : The funding of the project is a matter for the Victorian government. We have not looked at that whatsoever. We are looking at the economic business case.
Senator RICE: But whether it makes economic sense surely is connected to whether the Victorian public is going to be continuing to pay an excessive amount for this road for a very long time into the future—because of the arrangements the Victorian government is about to sign off on, it appears, with Transurban. To me, the two seem intertwined. Are you saying that you do not see any connection at all?
Mr Davies : In terms of the economic case, once we receive the additional information we requested, we will finish our assessment of the economic case. The funding and the commercial deal is really a matter for the Victorian government.
Senator RICE: Are you receiving information about their funding and commercial arrangements?
Mr Davies : That is not something that we look at.
Senator RICE: I will leave that there.