Speech: Greens support road transport infrastructure and safety
Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (11:52): I congratulate Senator Janet Rice on taking over the transport portfolio, and I look forward to working with her in this area. She has set out the Greens' very clear case on the Land Transport Infrastructure Amendment Bill. I reiterate the Greens' support for Roads to Recovery and black spot funding to improve safety and access on our roads. Some of my work in the portfolio of local government crosses over into this area. When I was in the New South Wales parliament, I saw how important road maintenance and road safety issues are to local government. It is an area of politics where some very important work is undertaken.
Constitutional recognition of local government is relevant to this discussion. Constitutional recognition is needed for many reasons, but one reason is to ensure that funding for local roads continues to flow. I again put on the record how disappointing it is that the issue of constitutional recognition of local government seems to have fallen off the political agenda of this government; it did appear when they were in opposition that they were not really committed to it. It is something that we need to continue to raise. If you want surety of roads funding for local government, it is most definitely relevant.
Over the past few months since the introduction of this bill, the coalition government—particularly the National Party, I have noticed—have been running some ugly politics, trying to accuse the Greens and Labor of undermining road safety because we would not simply wave the legislation through. That really is low, insulting and cheap politics. We have just heard Senator Glenn Sterle set out very clearly how important it is to have safety on our roads and how relevant this issue is not only for truck drivers but for all road users. For any members who did not hear all of the senator's speech, I would recommend it, because he set out the need for good rest breaks and decent pay for truck drivers and how important it is to stamp out illicit drug use. These are critical issues that serve as a real reminder of why we need decent regulations. This government is trying to run down these regulations, which then becomes a real safety issue. So if we are talking about safety, those factors also need to be taken into consideration.
While we are talking about road safety and local councils, it is also relevant to remember what happened in the government's first budget brought down in May this year. There we saw $1 billion ripped out of local government funding. Regional councillors and communities from many country areas have contacted me about this. They are really concerned about the way the government is handling local councils. Often within those messages there were comments about what this would mean for road safety, for road maintenance and for jobs in those country areas. Often the area with the biggest job allocation in local councils is road maintenance. That has been spelled out to me time and time again. The Municipal Association of Victoria have estimated that regional and rural communities could be hardest hit by the cuts. Again, Senator Rice pointed this out very clearly in her contribution. The President of the Municipal Association of Victoria, Bill McArthur, stated:
Commonwealth financial assistance grants are a core revenue stream for local government. The grants provide up to 27 per cent of rural councils’ total funding so rural communities will suffer a massive impact.
The local government associations of Queensland and South Australia have also detailed how regional and rural councils will be hit hard by this massive budget cut. The President of the Australian Local Government Association really nailed the impact on local roads in regional and rural areas, when she said:
These grants are used to maintain a great range of infrastructure including local roads, bridges …
There you have the importance of that government money for roads and bridges—$1 billion of that now ripped out—identified by these peak organisations that bring together our local councils and shires.
When we come to the debate about transport, the role of councils and the money that they are losing are very relevant issues. While the government is slashing vital support to regional councils, it is delivering billions of dollars to private motorway projects that will not improve congestion but will boost the profits of private developers. This is very relevant to this debate. It is essential that the money flows for road upgrades where they are needed because of safety issues. Meanwhile, we have a much greater flow of money into the hands of private motorway developers—clearly a section of the business community that is very close to the Nationals and the Liberals at both federal and state levels. The Abbott government have announced $3.5 billion in funding to the WestConnex, a private tollway in Sydney. They have done that despite the New South Wales government—their own Liberal-National colleagues at the state level—refusing to release the business case. The government are handing over that money while the community cannot find the details of who is going to benefit or whether there is any benefit at all.
Questioning in Senate estimates exposed the lack of confidence Infrastructure Australia has in the WestConnex project. This is largely because details and costs have been kept hidden. This is becoming a real theme with the development of urban motorways in this country. So it is not surprising that the Cross City Tunnel and the Lane Cove Tunnel, two big urban motorway projects in Sydney, have gone belly-up and into receivership. There have been similar problems with Brisbane tollways as well. So the evidence is in that there is a major problem with how these business cases play out. What do we see here? We do not see the government being transparent, being open with the public about the problems they are confronting. Even if they go ahead with their motorways, how are they going to make them work financially? You would have to assume that the reason they are being secretive is that they cannot argue the case.
I have set out the amount of money, coming in at $3.5 billion, for WestConnex. The secretive way they are handling the business case is a repeat of what happened with the east-west tollway in Melbourne. The federal Liberal-National government has committed $3 billion. What do we see? Another project with a secret business case and another project that has been rejected by the local community. I very much congratulate the communities around the proposed WestConnex project and the proposed east-west tollway for getting out there and informing people about the reality of what these projects will do to their communities. They are letting people know how these projects will create more congestion and more pollution and how these sorts of motorways often divide communities—sometimes you cannot even cross the road in your own area anymore.
There you have it—$6.5 billion in total for private tollway projects that are completely lacking in transparency. That is very relevant to this debate. When we are talking about the need for money for roads, we need to look at what the government is doing across the board in this area and to explore why they are being so secretive and who is benefiting from allocations out of the transport budget. The government has committed less than a third of that $6.5 billion to the Roads to Recovery program in the 2014 budget. Roads to Recovery comes in at $2.1 billion—money that we have always said is needed and should be allocated. As other senators have said, however, there need to be standards and we need to get it right.
When it comes to infrastructure and roads spending, this government is full of rhetoric about how it is going to benefit the majority of people, but in reality they are delivering it in a way that works for the big motorway developers. The government accuses the Greens of opposing road safety while at the same time it prioritises billions for the private sector through projects like WestConnex and the east-west tollway. What the Liberals and Nationals need to realise is that people are cottoning on to that. The government might try to slag us off by saying we are not interested in safety and they might sprout those words for their media grabs, but that is insulting. Saying that a person does not dare about the lives and safety of others is, I think, one of the worst things you can say about someone. But I am finding that the community can see through the government's media grabs. They can see that it is just a cheap way for the Liberals and Nationals to try to deflect criticism and divert attention away from the very important analysis the Greens bring to this debate about where the money is being spent and why these urban motorways continue to be pushed by government—when the evidence is in that they represent a failed model. They represent a failed model from the perspective of delivering transport solutions and they are certainly a failed model from the perspective of business success.
If this government were serious about improving productivity and safety, it would take off its blinkers when it comes to infrastructure investment and take public transport seriously. People often say, 'You bang on about public transport, Lee, but seriously people want to get in their cars.' Of course we know that people want to get in their cars. You need trucks. In a country the size of Australia, trucks will always be part of the transport mix. But the key way to reduce congestion on our roads is by having better public transport. That is how we can get traffic on our roads to move more efficiently—by giving more people access to reliable, fast, safe public transport. If they have that access, they will use it. Then the people who need to use our roads will be able to do so with less congestion.
We need good quality safe roads to connect our communities, and that particularly applies—and I will emphasise this again because the continual distortion of the Greens position gets a bit tiresome—in our regional and rural areas. But decades of bias towards roads funding has created bottlenecks in our economy. We are far from world's best practice when it comes to freight and passenger transport. We are back in the 20th century. I was doing some work on the South Coast of New South Wales, along the Princess Highway. It is one of those areas where there have been huge upgrades—in parts, not in all parts. Many of those upgrades have been done for safety reasons, although not just for safety. But there have been huge upgrades with lots of flyovers. In one place, I was able to look down on both the railway line and parts of the motorway. The contrast was extraordinary. You could see a one-line rail track which I doubt has been significantly upgraded in a hundred years—seriously, any upgrades would have been minimal. In stark contrast, you could see this incredibly fancy motorway that has had all the kinks straightened out and is now a very fast road for users. That speaks volumes about how governments—and I am talking about successive governments here, Labor as well as Liberal-National—have approached transport infrastructure.
We need to ensure that rail and bus services keep up with the demand in our cities. I am giving emphasis to the cities because clearly that is where there is considerable congestion, but these services need to be addressed in our regional areas as well. We need to continue to invest in our regional rail network and freight lines to build on the incredible transport legacy created by our forebears. They had vision and they put in the hard work. I often use the extensive rail network that spans our country and I often address community groups who are very passionate about our rail lines. Sometimes you wonder whether it had been up to the governments of today to come forward with a transport plan they would have had the vision of our forebears to put in such an extensive rail network. Our forebears knew that what they were building then was for the future; it was not just short term, with a couple of rail lines linking up a few communities. They had that vision, and that is what we as a society need to return to today. The planners, the engineers and the public officials who delivered such a comprehensive national rail system had the common sense, vision and understanding of the importance of public transport when it came to connecting our cities with our regions and our regions across this huge land.
The pattern of investment in roads at the expense of rail in recent years has shifted the balance. We now see huge problems across the country, with gaps in the rail network, the dangerous growth of B-double and B-triple trucks on our roads and the ailing public transport system in our major cities. There is not the vision or the coordination needed for safe roads and also for roads that will help boost the productivity of this nation while, at the same time, being a wonderful transport system that allows grandparents to pick up their children in the next suburb after preschool, people to catch public transport to do some volunteer work, students to go to a university a couple of suburbs away and people to get to work efficiently. All this should be fundamental to how a government approaches transport policies, not just one that looks at 'How do we do some favours for some mates?' who happen to be big motorway developers.
The government has refused to spend a dollar on new rail projects. We heard the Prime Minister say those extraordinary words: 'rail is a matter for the states'. How he has really belittled public transport! The proposed legislation makes it clear that land transport is an infrastructure issue that needs to involve all levels of government—federal, state and local. It provides a framework within which the federal government can fund particularly road projects. There is absolutely no reason why such a framework could not be established for important public transport projects. When the minister comes in, he will clearly be dealing with the details of the legislation, but it will also be very relevant to hear from the minister why such a framework—the minister will have the opportunity to set this out—could not be established for important public transport projects. The very name of the bill, 'land transport', would suggest that the funding allocated through this legislation would go beyond roads and perhaps into rail. Unfortunately, we know that is not the case. This is why, when I read the title and then the details of the bill, I felt that it was actually another one of those situations where the title of a bill is being used in such a way as to be misleading.
So, yes, the Greens will support this bill because the Roads to Recovery funding is important to ensure road safety, but it will be contingent on two amendments. My colleague Senator Janet Rice, who has carriage of this legislation, has set this work out very clearly. We believe it is entirely reasonable to hold this government to its election promise, which was:
To ensure more rigorous and transparent assessments of taxpayer-funded projects—
These are the words of the government—and they went on:
we will require all infrastructure projects worth more than $100 million to undergo a cost-benefit analysis.
So what could be the problem here? Surely those amendments should pass. We will support amendments to that effect to ensure the government are held to their word. In fact, we will move for the lower threshold of $50 million to ensure even greater transparency in terms of the allocation of public funding.
Additionally, we will support amendments to enshrine in legislation guidelines relating to the Heavy Vehicle Safety and Productivity Program. However, as we believe this program should be focused on truck driver safety, we will move to prioritise projects that improve the safety environment for heavy vehicles rather than projects that are purely focused on improving the productivity of road freight. The primary goal of government when it comes to road freight infrastructure should be to make sure that truck drivers are safe—this should be the starting point: truck drivers are safe—and then we can have safe roads. You cannot do one without the other, and this is where I become very disturbed with how the government plays out this issue. We are talking about the lives of people—people with families, people who are on the roads with such a huge responsibility driving the big trucks that we regularly pass. They should be able to go home to their families, and everybody they pass should equally always know that the roads are safe.
One of the best ways to ensure that our roads are safe and our productivity is enhanced is by starting the transition to freight on rail. This is not about taking work away from truck drivers; it is about increasing the productivity of our nation. We can all benefit from safe roads, greater productivity and a transport system that works effectively for all.