Western Australia: Infrastructure Adjournment

12 November 2012

This evening I rise to talk about the importance of the Gillard government's investments in Western Australia. WA has all of the particular challenges associated with developing infrastructure in our big country, our wide brown land—vast distances, the great variety of communities and community needs and the absolutely essential need for government investment if we are to have infrastructure that lets our economy and our people fulfil their potential. As a Labor senator for WA I am proud of my state, of the strength and vitality of our economy and of the courage and resourcefulness of Western Australians. I am also proud of the investments and commitments of the federal Labor government to Western Australia.

Our state's growth is rapid and it is terrific to see a record level of federal government investment coming into WA to keep pace with that rapid growth. It is a great shame, I think, that the WA state government, which should be at the forefront of developing and strengthening our state, is falling short of that challenge. It is falling short and trying to shift the blame for its own failings and papering over its mistakes by dishonestly pointing the finger at the Commonwealth. I, like other Western Australians, am tired of Premier Barnett and Treasurer Buswell using the Australian government as a convenient place to lay blame for their own failures. I am tired of them pretty much acting as if they can say anything they like, however outrageous or untrue, to Western Australians and get away with it.

A good example: a couple of weeks ago both Premier Colin Barnett and Treasurer Troy Buswell said that a request to reallocate funding to upgrade the Bindi Bindi Curve section of the Great Northern Highway was gathering dust on Minister Albanese's desk. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. The Australian government approved the state government's request for a funding contribution of up to $16 million to a project the state government thought would cost about $20 million—so 80 per cent of the cost. Mr Barnett and Mr Buswell got their sums wrong. The project is going to cost double what they thought—$40 million. So it is their incompetence that has to do with the delay as the Australian government is now assessing the new request based on the new numbers.

The truth is, all up, the Australian government is currently spending $191 million re-routing the Great Northern Highway near Port Hedland to make it safer, with a $71 million contribution from the state, and $14 million towards the replacement of the Big McPhee bridge—the only sealed road between Kununurra and Broome on the Great Northern Highway, the enormous Great Northern Highway that spreads the length, north and south, of our state.

Troy Buswell also accused the Australian government of being petty in asking for the billions of dollars it is investing in Western Australian infrastructure to be properly acknowledged in the taxpayer funded 'Get the bigger picture' campaign. Long-established contractual arrangements for funding between state and Australian governments require the state to acknowledge the Australian government funding on any public materials. I guess those contractual requirements just slipped Mr Buswell's mind when he spent $1.5 million of taxpayers' money on what, I believe, is false advertising, trying to pretend that the massive investment of the Commonwealth just does not exist.

I am sure I am not the only Western Australian not happy at having our own tax dollars spent in this effort to mislead us. It is, however, classic Barnett government behaviour, where they try to paint a picture to show that anything that is good that is happening in WA is all the result of their hard work and brilliance. The simple fact is the Commonwealth government, the Gillard Labor government, is putting $1 billion into the four projects covered by the 'Get the bigger picture' campaign. The $1 billion Gateway project is getting 69 per cent of its funding, or $686.4 million, from the federal government.

Gateway WA is a very significant upgrade of the roads around Perth, including the widening of the Tonkin and Leach highways from four to six lanes. Anyone who has travelled to and from Perth Airport knows how much we desperately need this infrastructure upgrade. It is a long-overdue and much-needed upgrade that simply would not be happening without this contribution from the Gillard government. Also, there is the Perth City Link undergrounding of rail, which is costing $360 million, of which $236 million, or 66 per cent, is coming from the federal government; and a pilot study for a light rail to link Perth's inner northern suburbs with the CBD—a cost of $15.8 million, of which $4 million has been provided by the federal government. There is nothing petty about a billion dollars, and that is what the Australian government is spending on infrastructure in Western Australia in just this year alone. That is just the infrastructure portfolio that I am talking about. There is an awful lot that is petty about Troy Buswell playing politics with a legitimate request from the federal minister that he fulfil contractual requirements. But it is the same old bleating from the WA Liberals: 'WA Liberals good; Australian government bad.' That is the way they like to portray things.

They need to answer not only on these issues but on more. Minister Anthony Albanese has rightly called on Colin Barnett to explain why the Oakajee port project has not made much better progress more than three years after the Commonwealth pledged more than $300 million for the scheme. With such growing infrastructure pressures from WA's growing economy, I, like the minister, am left wondering if that money could have been spent more productively elsewhere.

We allocated this money back in 2009 because Premier Barnett said it was his top infrastructure priority for Western Australia. That money has been available for 3½ years, waiting to be spent. Under the original agreed time frame, when the project was first considered, we would have seen construction well underway by now. However, it is not. The simple fact is that Western Australia desperately needs to get more port infrastructure up and running. We need to take the pressure off the port in Fremantle and off other ports up and down our coast. The truth is that Western Australia has never seen so much money flowing to it—certainly not under the Howard government.

The real picture is quite different to Colin Barnett's 'bigger picture'. State-wide, the Gillard government has almost doubled annual federal infrastructure spending from $154 to $261 per Western Australian. All up, we are investing a record $3.7 billion over six years to modernise the state's transport infrastructure. We are investing $3.7 billion in roads and rail infrastructure—with $1 billion being provided in the coming financial year alone—over the six-year life of our current Nation Building Program, 2008-09 to 2013-14. This investment is almost twice what the former Howard government spent over a similar period of time in Western Australia and, as every one of us in Western Australia knows, that was a time when the state could really have done with more infrastructure money. We are bursting at the seams and we are growing rapidly.

Personally, I am particularly proud of Labor's investment in Perth's public transport. I know public transport is important and I know it is important to Perth, and so does the Gillard government. In contrast, how much did the Howard government spend on public transport in Australia? Zero dollars. The state Liberals in Western Australia have never built a centimetre of railway line in Western Australia. And, worse, our commuters, on our very well utilised train services, are being treated like sardines because of the failure of the state Liberals to keep up with investment and understand how important these public transport services are to Western Australians.

Then there is Commonwealth investment in our health and hospital services in WA. The federal government is fully funding a $255 million rehabilitation centre in association with the Fiona Stanley Hospital. Is that mentioned in the advertising for the Fiona Stanley Hospital as part of the Get the Bigger Picture campaign? No, it certainly is not. We are also spending $180 million on the Midland Health Campus. More than $40 million is being spent on primary care infrastructure in the state, and money is rightly rolling out to important health projects right around the state. For example, more than $50 million is going to the regional cancer centre for our south-west, which is well underway; $45 million is going to remote dialysis services; $12 million is going to a health care hub in Newman; and more than $5 million is going to help our very important Royal Flying Doctor Service upgrade its infrastructure. That is just health.

Let's have a look at education. Look at what BER has delivered for WA schools. There has been an unprecedented level of investment in both government and non-government schools right around our state. It has resulted in enormous improvements to all our schools—improvements that were opposed by the Liberal and National coalition. In fact, there was more than $870 million spent in WA on rural and regional schools alone, excluding the many metropolitan schools that also benefited.

So I would caution Western Australian voters against attributing all the improvements to rural and regional communities around the state to Royalties for Regions. It is a much-lauded and important scheme, but people need to take a look at what is actually being funded, because much of this work is underpinned by dollars from the Gillard government. Hundreds of vital local projects are being funded by the Commonwealth. Here is just some of what is happening: $15 million for the Carnarvon flood mitigation; $4.9 million for the West End recreation and entertainment precinct revitalisation in Geraldton; $2.5 million for St John Ambulance; and $1.2 million for Margaret River as part of the $5.9 million Surfers Point precinct redevelopment. And I had the great pleasure last week of being in Geraldton to commence the very first fibre haul for the National Broadband Network. These are just a few of the projects being funded by the Gillard government. I could go on—there are many, many more—but at this time of night I know you do not want me to.

What I will do is encourage Western Australians to take a look at the real picture around Western Australia. In that context, it would be remiss of me to talk about investment in WA without touching on the completely disingenuous debate about GST revenue that is taking place, a debate that is completely pulling the wool over the eyes of voters, including the ridiculous 'milking WA' ads that the coalition ran at the last election. Joe Hockey and the coalition have made it absolutely crystal clear that they have no intention of reversing the GST deal signed off by Richard Court and John Howard. In fact, it is Labor that has seen a review of GST revenue, a review that has reported to the Commonwealth and will be public in the near future, a review that is looking at how that money should be distributed between the states.

The simple fact is we have never seen so much money flowing into WA from the Commonwealth for important infrastructure investments—and justly so. WA communities need investment and support to continue to grow and to be secure. They need investment in road, rail, public transport, schools and community infrastructure to cope with what are at the moment pretty enormous pressures of growth. That is why support for the minerals resource rent tax has grown in WA. Western Australians, when times are good, want to see mining companies pay their fair share and for this money to come back to important community infrastructure in our state. It is wrong that the Liberals should want to roll back the minerals resource rent tax and risk billions of dollars of revenue. But what I find equally puzzling and surprising is that the Liberals would want to revert to a royalty regime, a regressive tax, at a time when commodity prices are down, hitting jobs and investment opportunities in my state. This is the very same argument that they put forward against the minerals resource rent tax to start with—that it would hit investments, jobs and people's lifestyles in WA.

What I would like to say in closing is that the Gillard government is getting on with the very important job of investing in WA—and rightly so. We are a growing state, the powerhouse of exports for our nation's economy. The Commonwealth are investing in WA because we believe in WA. We believe in its people. We believe in its future. We know that not only is it fair and in the best interests of Western Australia that the Commonwealth government invests in our state but it is in the best interests of the nation to invest in a state that has so much potential, a state that, in this Asian century, is part of Asia. The Gillard government understands the importance of Western Australia and the importance of supporting development in our great state. It is a crying shame that the Barnett government seems to understand neither.