BIG on budget numbers but short on delivering the actual money.
That’s what Labor power-broker and Shadow Infrastructure and Regional Development Minister Anthony Albanese says about the Coalition government’s handling of its Bridges Renewal Program and general infrastructure policy-spending attitude.
However, the government has responded to Mr Albanese;’s pressure by revealing record funding today, to replace or repair 186 bridges across Australia.
Mr Albanese says the programs helps the federal government support bridge repair works with funding provided for local governments in rural and regional communities but has been under-spent by $80 million over the past four years.
He said bridges that are unsafe and have had weight restrictions placed on them are covered in the program that also helps to enhance economic activity and outcomes for the farm sector.
“In terms of getting produce to market this is having a big impact on the agricultural sector,” he said.
But with the Coalition only spending an actual $100m of $180m budgeted over four years, Mr Albanese said it was “a great example of this government’s underspend in infrastructure and how there’s a huge gap between their rhetoric and their reality”.
“There was a clear and unequivocal commitment to $180m being spent over four years on bridges in rural and regional communities and the actual spend is $100m and so it’s almost a halving, and that’s consistent with the underspend that’s there on the Pacific Highway and the Bruce Highway,” he said.
“In 2016 they said they’d spend $9.2 billion on infrastructure in that financial year, 2016-17, but the actual is $7.6b so it’s an underspend of $1.6b which is massive.
“What we have done is to go through in detail and identify where that underspend is, from money that was committed, to the money actually not delivered.”
Mr Albanese said former Transport and Infrastructure Minister Warren Truss had originally budgeted the $180m for the bridges program and the current minister Darren Chester was also to blame for the underspend.
“One of the problems here is that there are so many ministers in charge of regional infrastructure projects,” he said.
“This isn’t a budget save, which is when the government identify it and say it was $180 and they cut it and that can be argued about.
“But what we’re seeing here is budget cuts by stealth – so it’s not identified and therefore not worked out in any way that is transparent or leads to better outcomes.
“What we’re seeing here are commitments that are simply being broken, adding up to, in the last financial year, to a $1.6b save of which we’ve seen $80m saved from the Bridges Renewal Program.
“Time and again they make big promises only to capitulate to the Liberals around the cabinet table.”
But following inquiries from Fairfax Agricultural Media, Mr Chester said $162.53m under round three of the program would be revealed today, to fund the replacement or upgrade of 186 bridges across Australia.
It represents the largest funding package ever given out by any government to bridges across the nation.
“This new funding is in addition to the $216 million already committed under the first two rounds of the program, which has seen 201 bridge projects being upgraded or completed,” he said.
“The upgrade of these bridges will improve driving conditions for residents and local freight operators, by delivering safer and more productive bridges that are fit-for purpose.”
Mr Chester said the bridges program formed part of the government’s $75b infrastructure investment plan, which was “delivering the infrastructure Australia needs to support metropolitan and regional areas and remain competitive in a global market”.
“The Australian government’s financial commitment in this round will be matched by successful proponents, delivering a total investment of at least $345m towards upgrading bridges,” he said.
“To allow for a wider distribution of projects, the Australian government’s contribution under round three has been limited to $5m per project.
“The Coalition government has identified bridge upgrades and replacements as a national priority and committed $360m over five years from 2015-16 to 2019-20, with an ongoing commitment of $60m each year thereafter.”
Mr Chester’s office said Mr Albanese’s claims on spending in the bridges program were wrong with $90m allocated the current financial year and $420m budget from 2015-16 to 2020-21.