Infrastructure Australia Amendment (Social Sustainability) Bill 2017
This, for me, is important legislation, and I call on the government to bring it on for debate.
Transport, and particularly rail transport, together with telecommunications, are central tenets for those of us who live outside the regional cities in terms of infrastructure. In my electorate, after years of being a safe seat and political inaction, it is very hard for us to manage the two problems we have with public transport, particularly our rail, and our telecommunications. So, as an effective local and independent member of parliament, I am very pleased to be able to represent my community with this private member's bill.
Today, I present this particular legislation in this place. Later on, in the Federation Chamber, I am going to be talking about another aspect of public transport: the problems we have with the Australian Rail Track Corporation and its maintenance of our Melbourne to Albury train line. Last week I spoke about the importance of a vision and the need for high-speed rail connecting Australia. And a couple of weeks ago, when we were last here last year, I talked about the need for a charter of budget honesty so that when government brings legislation to this House it actually pays attention to the impact on rural and regional Australia. So today's legislation is a very specific example, when I ask the government to pay particular attention to its infrastructure and how that impacts on rural and regional people.
In presenting this legislation, it is an amendment to the Infrastructure Australia Act 2008. The purpose of the bill is to strengthen the social and community benefit considerations that are assessed when Infrastructure Australia looks at the value of infrastructure projects, audits existing infrastructure, complies lists of infrastructure priorities and develops infrastructure plans. The amendment requires Infrastructure Australia to consult with the community when developing corporate plans and to consider the future needs of users when providing advice to the minister; the Commonwealth; state, territory and local governments; investors in infrastructure and owners of infrastructure.
One would think this was obvious. One would think that people are at the centre of everything we do. It used to be that way in rural and regional Australia. It used to be that we had strong governments and oppositions that put people first. But we have moved to a case where money, return on investment, the finances and the market drives us, rather than putting people first. What I am proposing in this legislation is that we bring the two together. Of course, the market is important and, of course, the economy is important, but equally so are people are. We are skilled and clever enough to be able to join it at the hip. That is what this infrastructure bill is about. We do the economics, we do the finance, we consult with people and we make sure that, in the long term, the people's needs are addressed in exactly the same way as we make sure that the economic roles are addressed.
The role of Infrastructure Australia is to provide advice on nationally significant infrastructure priorities. The current act has a strong focus on the economic and productivity considerations of infrastructure. However, little attention paid to the social benefits of these proposals. This bill amends the Infrastructure Australia Act 2008 to require Infrastructure Australia to evaluate the social and community benefits of infrastructure projects and to give equal treatment to the economic and productivity gains.
The intent is that, by Infrastructure Australia assessing the social benefits of infrastructure projects, benefit connectivity—including public transport—would be considered a priority for rural and regional Australia as well as for freight movement. I just want to say that again, because it is really, really important: connectivity. The current proposal on the list for Infrastructure Australia is that we build an inland rail route, which has got great support and is really important. But what we need to understand is the connection between freight rail and passenger rail. The real concern that I have is that freight rail, because of its economic consequences, will get precedence and priority over passenger rail. We already have enough problems in my electorate in Northern Victoria with passenger rail. We do not want to see it become worse because freight rail gets priority.
Under the current arrangements, Infrastructure Australia's consideration is heavily weighted towards the economic productivity gains of infrastructure and does not fully account for the social and community needs. The current infrastructure priorities list includes many rail projects. Among those in rural and regional Australia, the focus is only on improving freight movement and not providing passenger services. The driver for infrastructure outside of capital cities is measured in economic terms and not in social good. This is unlike projects in the cities, which largely focus on easing urban congestion, for example, or other clear social benefits. We need the same level of judgement for our country people as we do for our city people. The example that I bring before the House is the Inland Rail project, which is currently on the priority list. It should deliver improved passenger services as part of its social benefit, as well as improved economic services.
In bringing this to the House and in bringing this bill on, it is part of what I am calling on the government to pay attention to. What is its vision for rural and regional Australia? What is the legacy that this particular government wants to leave when it has finished its term in parliament? Sure, we want economic development. But it is much, more important than just doing the economy: we want an enhanced social and community environment and we want an environment where the people of Australia, just like the opposition speaker has just said, trust the government because we believe that the government has got our social and community needs driving at the centre of its policy.