LABOR heavyweight Anthony Albanese says he’s aiming to attack his latest ministerial portfolio rival Barnaby Joyce’s “weakness” on policy detail and shine a spotlight on potentially “crude” pork barrelling for infrastructure projects.
Mr Albanese is Labor’s Shadow Transport and Infrastructure Minister and has gathered vast experience and insight, including into major nation-building projects like the $8.4 billion inland rail, having held the role in government and opposition since 2006.
He says commercially motivated infrastructure investments and developments - in both rural and metropolitan settings - play a critical role in delivering long-term budget outcomes while boosting national economic growth.
But Mr Joyce has been “dismissive” and shown “complete contempt” for metropolitan infrastructure projects and that attitude needs to change or else the Deputy Prime minister risks sidelining commercially minded stakeholders, he said.
Mr Albanese said the Coalition government has an overall $4.8 billion shortfall on infrastructure spending which contradicts what they’ve budgeted for since 2014 and actually spent.
The charismatic Sydney Labor MP says he also plans to call-out Mr Joyce’s habit of delivering political results by pork barrelling marginal country electorates, rather than serving the national interest in administering taxpayer funds, which is underpinned by the party leader’s “lack of judgment”.
In response, Mr Joyce, despite his own leadership challenges in recent days, has accused Mr Albanese of being “totally and utterly” distracted by his quest to take over the Labor leadership from Bill Shorten and saying the Opposition has double standards when it comes to pork barrelling and rural policies.
In somewhat of an understatement, Mr Albanese told Fairfax Media Mr Joyce was a “very different character” to previous ministerial opponents he’s faced, like Warren Truss and Darren Chester who preceded the Nationals leader after being dumped from the Coalition ministry following last December’s reshuffle.
“One of the things I’m going to do is to hold Barnaby Joyce to account, over detail on infrastructure,” Mr Albanese said.
“Barnaby tends to make broad brushed statements, some of which are not coherent, and people dismiss that as, ‘oh well that’s just Barnaby’ but I think as the Infrastructure Minister, in a portfolio which makes a big difference to peoples’ lives, he needs to be held to account.”
Mr Albanese said in Mr Joyce’s New England electorate, projects like the Bolivia Hill upgrade and the Tenterfield by-pass were funded by the previous Labor government - butthe contracts were only requested by the government, after the New England by-election was confirmed, for last December.
He said the Nationals leader, “needs to be held to account for that”.
“Part of challenge with infrastructure development is breaking the nexus that’s there between the political cycle with an election held every three years and the infrastructure investment cycle which is long term,” he said.
“An example of this sort of nonsense that Barnaby has come up with is saying the Coalition is the first government to invest in the inland rail but it’s not true and he knows it’s not true.
“That’s the one project that he seems interested in but there are other big challenges for the government to address like this absurd punishment for states voting Labor.”
Mr Albanese said Victoria was receiving under 10pc of national infrastructure funding from the federal Coalition government which presented “a major challenge”.
“Across a range of areas Barnaby’s going to have to be on top of the detail, like regional aviation,” he said.
Mr Albanese said Mr Joyce’s controversial decision to relocate the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) from Canberra to Armidale, to his own New England electorate, which Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon has relentlessly attacked him over in recent times, was a prime example of “crude pork barrelling” for the National Party’s political benefit rather than national interest.
“That’s bad policy and Canberra’s a regional city – Australia’s largest inland city – so the idea that something like that should be done, is the sort of crude policy that people don’t want to see happen in the infrastructure portfolio,” he said.
“Barnaby Joyce can’t afford to engage like that.
“He has a history of doing that (pork barrelling) but there will be a big focus, with him having the infrastructure portfolio, on whether he has an objective consideration of priorities that are in the national interest, rather than crude pork barrelling because the infrastructure portfolio requires projects that will make a difference to national productivity.”
Mr Albanese said road safety rates were increasing, after years of decline, which was another area of responsibility that the new minister would need to consider and cover off on the details of suitable projects.
He said an emerging “major” issue that Mr Joyce would also need to get on top of in his new ministerial role was the regulation of drones and developing gaps in laws around privacy and safety.
“There’s an increasing number of stories about drones dropping out of the sky in places where they shouldn’t be,” he said.
“The growth has the potential to be substantial and that requires government to be ahead of the issues rather than playing catch up.”
Mr Albanese said the “danger” of pork barrelling was “picking out” marginal electorates and making decisions which “don’t stack up, on their merits”.
“Barnaby has shown a lack of judgment – it was a lack of judgment to come to an event here in Canberra and to receive a personal check of $40,000 from Gina Rinehart, and then only after it became a public issue, saying he wouldn’t accept the cheque from Gina Rinehart,” he said.
“That showed a real lack of judgment.
“The move of the APVMA to Armidale showed a whole lack of judgment and when he was about to be appointed to the infrastructure minister’s job, which was the world’s worst kept secret, Barnaby was out there bagging projects in the city.
“That’s absurd behaviour for someone who was about to become the Infrastructure Minister.”
Barnaby returns fire
But Mr Joyce hit back saying Mr Albanese, like his previous ministerial rival in the agriculture portfolio, never asked him questions about transport or infrastructure, during question time in parliament.
He said Mr Albanese iwas also “totally and utterly distracted by his quest to knock Bill Shorten off” for the Labor leadership.
“If you want to know who has got a real distraction, it’s Anthony Albanese who is more interested in becoming leader of the Labor party than he is with any issue concerning rural or regional Australia,” he said.
Despite revelations last week of his affair with a female staff member which attracted unwelcome attention for his party, added to his disqualification from federal parliament last year over dual NZ citizenship that led to a by-election in New England, Mr Joyce believes he can overcome his own distractions to continue leading the Nationals.
“We’re doing it right now - we are driving agendas every day and that’s precisely what I do,” he said.
Mr Joyce denied he was light on policy detail, declaring his new Labor ministerial rival needed to start talking about his plans, and Labor’s vision for regional Australia, on transport and infrastructure projects.
Mr Joyce said he had a plan, handed down from Mr Truss, which carried forward projects like duplication of the Pacific Highway, work on the Bruce Highway, the $8.4b investment in the inland rail and constructing new dams.
“We can clearly spell out what our plan is for regional Australia - like sealing a third road across our nation, roads to recovery, bridges to renewal - and we can clearly show our vision for regional Australia,” Mr joyce said.
“But Anthony Albanese’s going to spend a lot of time on talking about how he can improve the lives of people living in the Labor Green battle of inner suburban seats.
“That’s where he’ll dwell because that’s where he lives.”
Mr Joyce said people who accused him of being light on details could judge him by his performance in the agriculture portfolio which went to David Littleproud, after the December ministerial re-shuffle.
“If I had a weakness for detail, then wouldn’t have Anthony Albanese have asked me a heap of questions (last week) in question time,” he said.
“Did he ask me one? No.
“How many questions did Joel Fitzgibbon ask me about agriculture?
“It’s probably not important to them (the average farmer in the paddock) at all - but it refutes the statement by Anthony Albanese.
“But if that is their belief, then their actions once more belie their statements, because they never ask me any questions.
“I know I’m never going to get a question so I go through my files, note by note, section by section, which is part of my portfolio duties and I enjoy it.”
Mr Joyce said in policy decision like the APVMA’s relocation to Armidale, Labor had a double standard, on pork barrelling.
“Whenever it happens in a Labor seat it's apparently good government and when it happens in a Coalition seat it's pork barrelling,” he said.
Mr Joyce said he’d spent four years in the agriculture portfolio which would now strengthen his capacity to deliver infrastructure outcomes that also benefitted farmers and economic outcomes in regional communities.
“One leads the other,” he said.
“Agriculture was about turning around the markets and increasing farm-gate returns now we’re turning around the infrastructure issues that are pertinent to them,” he said.
He said projects like the Rookwood Weir dam in Queensland had $130 million on the table from the federal government and would increase agricultural production by about $1b per year while providing continuous employment for up to 25000 people.
“That’s something Anthony Albanese should associate himself with,” he said.
“But we’ll construct that in due course.”
Mr Joyce said he also had on-ground experience of projects, like driving to inspect the entire length of the Bruce and Pacific Highways.
“I’ve made sure that my whole purpose is getting across the portfolio, not just reading the notes but actually getting out on the ground and seeing these things,” he said.
But Mr Albanese said, after the pressure-cooker of last week’s events, Mr Joyce was “under enormous pressure” and whether he’d continue as Nationals leader and subsequently as Deputy-Prime minister, was “a matter for the Nationals to determine”.
However, he questioned Mr Joyce’s judgment in dumping an experienced MP like Mr Chester from the ministry entirely, when first term MPs, like Mr Littleproud, were promoted, without experience.
“It was a very big call form Barnaby Joyce,” he said.
“There’s no doubt there’s huge division (in the Nationals) and the fact that his preferred candidate for deputy leader, *Queensland Senator) Matt Canavan, was defeated by a backbench Victorian MP (Senator Bridget McKenzie), can be seen as a repudiation of his leadership, by his own party.
“It is a concern that the exclusion of Darren Chester form any positions in the ministry looked like retribution and it was a significant call to be made.
“I think Darren Chester is well liked across the political spectrum – and that’s not to say there aren’t differences and I was critical of his performance in the portfolio.
“But to exclude him from the ministry was a very big call and one that Barnaby Joyce has to live with.
“It’s one thing to say he performed poorly but another thing to exclude him completely; especially when he’s been replaced by people who are very new to the parliament.”
Mr Albanese said the difference between the government’s proposed budget spending and what they’d actually spent on infrastructure had now reached $4.8b.
“According to their own budgets, that they’ve released on budget nights from May 2014 to May 2017, the actual underspend on their own terms, not even taking into account the cuts that they’ve made, is an extraordinary figure of $4.8b,” he said.
“That $4.8 is a very serious major project, or the federal funding for four or five major projects that could be done, or others worth much more than that, because of matching funding that occurs from other levels of government.”
Does this article interest you? Scroll down to the comments section and start the conversation. You only need to sign up once and create a profile in the Disqus comment management system for permanent access to all discussions.