IN RESPONSE to Labor Shadow Transport and Infrastructure Minister Anthony Albanese’s accusation that he’s a lightweight for policy details, Barnaby Joyce says bring it on.
“Where do you want me to stop?” the new Transport and Infrastructure Minister and Nationals leader said.
Mr Joyce’s preferred example, to show his capacity for details, is the $8.4 billion inland rail which he views as a nation-building project that his government funded, in last year’s budget, when others couldn’t deliver it.
“Let’s talk about the inland rail; I’ve got no notes in front of me,” he said.
“It’s about 1690kms long; a metre of steel weights 30kgs; it’s going to increase the carriage capacity to about 100 tonnes which is a bit better than two B-Doubles; trains will travel between 110-115kms per hour; and they’re going to be 1.8kms long.
“We are currently going through the process of unloading steel at Peak Hill and that construction will happen at about the end of May.
“On the Gowrie to Helidon link which is 26kms long we’re doing the geotechnology work, as we speak - that process is well under way.
“We’ve also got the interlink section between the Warrego Highway - which is 796kms long - and Charleville and we’ve spent $508 million from the commonwealth on a project (worth) in excess of $600m.
“This requires a duplication of the road and also pavement widening.
“If you go north from Brisbane between Cooroy and St Lawrence we have a pavement widening project, as we speak.
“The Coffs Harbour by-pass, I’ve been to that already, and we’ve purchased a lot of the corridor and we continue on with that project.
“On the Peninsular Development Road there’s 600kms on that project and we’ve got 200kms left to go form Weipa up to the north which is about 430kms of dirt so we have to start working out how we do that, like working with indigenous labour component.
“In the beef roads to section, we’ve got the Lynn section under construction and think we’ve got about 40kms left.
“How far do you want to go on details?”
But Mr Albanese said Mr Joyce never acknowledged that the inland rail project as it stood currently, actually stopped short of providing strategic links into major ports at either end in Brisbane and Melbourne and was therefore incomplete.
He said Labor in the previous government had put $600m into fixing up existing rail line and budgeted $300m towards procurement of rail corridor, for the inland rail.
“The government’s model that it has come up with now, is a debt model ($8.4b for inland rail in last year’s budget) that’s off budget and is an equity injection into the Australian Rail Track Commission (ARTC),” he said.
“That suggests equity injections can only be made only if it can produce a commercial rate of return to government.
“(Former Nationals leader John Anderson) presided over a project when the government changed over and they used a report from that project as an excuse to not put a single dollar into the first three budgets, of any form.
“That report found that the inland rail would not produce a return to capital for 50 years but now the only way the government is trying to justify it being off budget, is by looking at the ARTC balance sheet at a whole.
“But that’s a precedent that doesn’t really stack up in terms of the way that you commercially consider an infrastructure project, and that’s of real concern because what it means is, when reality hits, and there’s no political fix over what’s an economic issue, government will all of a sudden face a multi-billion dollar hit to the bottom line which is a risk for the project.
“The other thing they’ve done in order to change the cost-benefit ratios of the project is it stops 38kms short of the port of Brisbane at Acacia ridge and doesn't go to the port of Melbourne.”
Mr Albanese said the inland rail project was designed to boost the agriculture sector, take pressure off the east coast rail route, take freight off road and onto rail, and was one his party backed.
“There are many, many positives to it and part of the positives has to be getting goods to port for export but at the moment it doesn’t do that and it has to be addressed,” he said.
“When you look at that detail, Barnaby’s weakness will be to say, ‘oh you’re against the project’ but we’re certainly not against it.
“However, in this sector, which is very commercially minded and stakeholders look at projects with serious economic analysis which has a structure around it which we established around Infrastructure Australia to drive that (commercial focus) he just won’t get away with rhetoric without substance.
“And that will be a challenge for him and that’s before you even get to the challenge that’s there, overall, for the budget.”
Mr Albanese said Mr Joyce’s “rhetoric” on infrastructure projects had been “dismissive” of funding for cities but 80 per cent of Australians live in cities.
“Barnaby Joyce is the infrastructure minister but he’s been contemptuous of projects like the Cross River rail project that doesn’t just benefit Brisbane, it benefits the Gold Coast and the Sunshine Coast and its essential for the capacity of the rail sector in Brisbane and the whole of south east Queensland,” he said.
“That attitude, where he has explicitly shown that contempt for those projects, he’s essentially showing contempt for those Australians who live in our cities.
“Now regional Australia is critical and there’s a relationship between the two of course.
“Another reason why regional Australia is important for projects not just infrastructure…is that it has the potential to encourage people to live in regional areas, which takes pressure off the major capital cities, especially on the east coast.
“But in Barnaby Joyce’s approach…as the senior minister, and the Deputy Prime Minister….he can’t continue to show that contempt.”
Mr Albanese said according to budget forward estimates, the government’s infrastructure spend declines to $4.2b in 2020-21 from what was supposed to be spent last financial year in 2016-17.
“That investment is falling off a cliff and over the next decade the parliamentary budget office has found that infrastructure investment, as a proportion of GDP, falls from 0.4 to 0.2 which is half.
“That’s a major problem for the economy because infrastructure investment over the long term is one of the things that drives growth.
“What the government has relied up over the last four years is projects that were funded and under construction like the Redcliff rail line, and other projects on the Bruce Highway and Pacific Highway that were under construction when the change of government happened.
“But they’ve now been completed or are nearing completion and the government hasn’t replaced them in the pipeline of new projects and that’s why you’re seeing that investment over coming years, falling off a cliff.
“They haven’t developed a pipeline of projects so there aren’t any new projects coming on board…they haven’t stepped up with new projects.
“One of the ways they’re trying to return to surplus and improve the bottom line of the budget is a reduction in real infrastructure investment - but the problem with that is it creates less growth and impacts on the budget long term, because you don’t get that growth.”
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