Infrastructure in the Scullin electorate speech in Parliament

May I say how pleased I am, Madam Deputy Speaker Claydon, to be receiving the call from you.The Prime Minister might call himself the 'infrastructure Prime Minister', but he is not fooling anyone, especially not those Australians, 80 per cent of us, who live in our increasingly congested cities. His infrastructure record to date is lamentable and his vision for the future bereft. In this contribution, I want to focus on critical infrastructure issues facing those living and working in the electorate of Scullin and the northern suburbs of Melbourne. These examples are, of course, important in themselves—they shape people's lives in a fundamental way—but they also illustrate a wider problem that affects four in five Australians, all of those who live in our cities.

During last year's grievance debate, I spoke on a similar theme, and I cannot help but be disheartened and, indeed, angered by the lack of progress this government has made in delivering urban infrastructure. State governments, it is true, are acting, in Victoria by supporting the Melbourne Metro Rail Project and removing level crossings. In the Scullin electorate, Labor is proposing to extend the rail line to Mernda after four years of neglect by the Baillieu and Napthine governments—responding to and anticipating the pressures of growth and recognising where the jobs are in Melbourne today.

However, these challenges are beyond the scope of any state government. This was highlighted last week with the release by Infrastructure Australia of its Australian Infrastructure Audit. Despite the Prime Minister and the assistant minister's attempts to put a positive gloss on the audit's release, the fact is that this is a document which damns this government's inaction and sets out the scale of its consequences. They are grave. The audit found that demand on many key urban road and rail corridors is projected to significantly exceed current capacity by 2031. The importance of managing urban transport is underlined by the fact that, in 2011, the cost of delays on road in the six largest capital cities was $13.7 billion. This figure is projected to grow by around 290 per cent to $53.3 billion in 2031 in the absence of appropriate strategies including integrating land use and transport planning, new road construction, additional public transport investment and the introduction of demand-management measures.

Melbourne's north is very much on the frontline of these challenges. There is a lack of infrastructure here, but no lack of people. Indeed, recent Australian Bureau of Statistics figures put South Morang, which is in my electorate, as the fastest growing suburb in Australia, growing by 4,200 new residents in the year June 2013 to June 2014. I think of all the additional people trying to get parking at South Morang Railway Station in the morning; it is already virtually impossible.

Indeed, the Infrastructure Australia audit found that demand for public transport in the capital cities, as measured by passenger kilometres travelled, is set to rise by 121 per cent in Melbourne, and that, unless peak period passenger loads are managed and capacity is increased, commuters in all capital cities will see more services experiencing crush-loadings, where peak demand exceeds peak capacity. You would have to think that there would be urban infrastructure investment by any responsible government to match this population growth. Yet, as I mentioned in my previous debate contribution, the Abbott government has refused to contribute money to address this problem. They seem trapped by the Prime Minister's ideological aversion to public transport.

But it is even worse than this. It is not just rail that the Abbott government refuses to fund. For years now, in my electorate, there has been a grass-roots-led campaign fighting for funding for the O'Herns Road interchange in Epping, led by the Aurora Community Association but supported by many thousands of local residents. There is currently only one street for residents in the Aurora community to leave their neighbourhood. Traffic slows to a crawl during peak times and will get even worse once the Epping food market is in full swing.

The Infrastructure Australia audit predicts that, in Perth, Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane and Canberra, without investment in new transport capacity and/or the means of managing demand, car travel times are expected to increase by at least 20 per cent in the most congested corridors. In some cases, the report says, travel times could more than double between 2011 and 2031.

So let us pause and think about what this means for people's lives—their working lives and the time they get to spend for leisure and with their families. Victorian Labor supports, and has pledged to co-fund with the Commonwealth government, this O'Herns Road interchange upgrade. I note that various representations, including by me and my state colleagues, have been made to the Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development, but to no avail.

It seems that the people of Melbourne's north will have to wait for a federal Labor government if they want to see increased funding of transport infrastructure where they live and where they work. But of course funding for projects like these should not be reliant on the political pendulum swinging towards Labor. In government, federal Labor sought to take the politics out of infrastructure funding by giving Infrastructure Australia the independence to weigh up which projects most deserved federal funding.

I note in passing that Victorian Labor plans to establish a comparable organisation in Infrastructure Victoria. The Infrastructure Australia audit of last week stated that:

Establishing a robust, accessible evidence base to support decisions on infrastructure reforms and investments is also critical. Without this evidence base, it is difficult for our governments, the private sector, and the wider Australian community to have a clear understanding of where the major challenges lie.

Unfortunately, the Abbott government has no regard for evidence based decision making. This is true across the board but particularly true in terms of urban Australia, where of course one of the first acts of this government was to abolish the Major Cities Unit. I note that one of the principal pieces of work which should inform our decision making in this regard is the State of Australian cities report, supposedly an annual report, that was scheduled to be released for last year on 15 December 2014. We continue to await this report and the important evidence it would bring.

But whether the evidence would change decision making is of course a moot point. In this regard, one only needs to observe the Abbott government's obsessive—indeed, irrational—support for the east-west tollway as an example. It is the other side of the Prime Minister's Battlelines coin, matching the Prime Minister's personal distaste for public transport with the refusal to accept the verdict of the Victorian people last November. And, despite the evidence showing that this project will return, at best, 80 cents in the dollar and, at worst, 40 cents in the dollar, this most recent budget has committed $1.5 billion, in what is said to be a 'locked box', towards the East West Link rejected by the Victorian people. And of course in the lead-up to last year's Victorian election, the Prime Minister described the election as a referendum on the East West Link. Well, the people of Victoria have spoken, but the Abbott government refuses to listen.

Alan Kohler in the Business Spectator last week said something very interesting, something the Prime Minister and all members of the government should reflect upon. He looked at the detail of the budget papers and he found that details show a real decline in spending in the infrastructure and regional development portfolio of 11.2 per cent between the present financial year and 2018-19. This is the real truth that pulls apart the fiction the government pedals of being an infrastructure government led by this self-described infrastructure Prime Minister. It demonstrates a profound failure at two levels; of prioritising, of course, with prejudice overcoming evidence in terms of decision making. But it is worse than this. It is also the case that levels of investment, of productive investment, just are not fit for purpose.

Boosting our productivity of course requires a national approach to urban policy, including appropriate infrastructure investment in road and rail projects. But it is about much more than this. It is about sustainability and it is about livability. It is about enabling people to have more work and leisure choices to be able to spend more time with their families and their friends, and not to be stuck in traffic with all the pressures that that entails. Some of the challenges that social and physical isolation can have on communities are evident in Scullin. I am sure that they would be evident too in some of the communities in Holt.

Long commutes cost time and money. They put people under pressure. All of us know all too often how this pressure can manifest itself in grotesque forms, putting real pressure on communities and families. The stakes for properly connecting outer suburban communities are very, very high. All of us in this place owe an obligation to the communities we represent to connect the people who live in them more effectively to jobs, to schools, to hospitals and to opportunities more generally. I am determined to keep making the case for better urban infrastructure for the people who live and work in Melbourne's north, and also for a better and fairer way to ensure that all Australians get the infrastructure they need to lead decent lives.


Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.