CEDA INFRASTRUCTURE CONFERENCE 2023
‘DELIVERING ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL VALUE’
Senator, the Hon Bridget McKenzie
Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development
24 MARCH 2023
GRAND HYATT, MELBOURNE
In conversation with – Diane Smith-Gander AO, Chair of CEDA & Senator McKenzie
(check against delivery)
Diane Smith-Gander AO: Welcome Senator McKenzie, you really don’t need much of an introduction, but of course you are the Shadow for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development and a National Party Senator from here in Victoria, and clearly a very passionate advocate for regional Australia. We all know that the Senator has held a very broad range of senior leadership roles, both within the National Party but also in Cabinet roles in Coalition Government, which had had a real focus on economic portfolios. So obviously a very good background for the shadow portfolio that she now finds herself in. Now I guess I could have had the opportunity to make a few jokes about wouldn’t life be different if we had a high-speed rail link between Canberra and Melbourne, or maybe even a train from Tullamarine.
Senator Bridget McKenzie Not yet!
Diane Smith-Gander Not yet. Not yet. We’ve had a series of very vibrant conversations today. We’ve heard a lot from the Minister about guiding principles, about values, about equity and economic security, de-carbonization for this to be sort of key principles around prioritizing infrastructure investment. But I think I’d be very interested to hear initially where you see the big infrastructure challenges and opportunities and what do you think Australia needs to get right in the sort of medium to long-term?
Senator Bridget McKenzie Thanks Diane. Great to be with you and I would have loved to have been there in person, but Qantas wasn’t for me today. But I think when you come to those sort of questions – how you answer is asking another question: what sort of Australia you want us to be in decades to come?
I want us to be a very strong, prosperous, sustainable and safe place to live for our citizens. And so they are the principles I guess, that I bring to my decision-making. I’m obviously a National Party senator, so I’m interested in equity and service provision and ensuring that our regions are not left behind, particularly in their role as the powerhouse and economic driver, not just historically, but I have a great ambition for that to continue well into the future. I also want to ensure that our infrastructure investment ensures equity, intergenerationally and, in trust, generationally.
I think the big challenges that we’ve got coming forward is the issue of decarbonization. The decision that was taken by both sides of politics in this country, the first time ever, and I think the significance of that particular outcome has been missed, is that both sides of the Australian Parliament want to see a net zero emissions economy for Australia by 2050. We just have very different ways of wanting to get there and I think the infrastructure portfolio can play a key role in assisting.
If we get the key decisions wrong along that journey, it will have negative outcomes not just for us environmentally and with our emissions, but I think also with our economy. So many different challenges. I know you’ve heard a lot about the micro infrastructure issues, workforce, etc. today, and I’m sure you’re well across those issues, but how do we deliver on the AUKUS deal from an infrastructure perspective? And also the role that energy plays going forward over the coming decades. You see the increase in steel inflation alone in recent ABS documents. You can see that having affordable energy available across our economy in decades to come is critical to making sure that infrastructure projects for all levels of government and private investors is actually affordable. That means looking at things like nuclear energy, which the International Energy Agency itself says that nuclear technology also with carbon capture and storage, are two technologies the globe needs to actually use to ensure that we reach our global ambition to net zero, but also keep our economy strong.
Diane Smith-Gander I think we could have an entire conference on nuclear yes or no on energy transition and so forth, and we’ll have a session on this actually right after this one. But I must say that you have really honed in on one of the big conversations that we have been having here today which is about this long dated nature of everything that you need to do in infrastructure. And I think it was the Deputy Premier of Victoria who expressed it quite simply, often the people who make the decision and take the heat upfront are not the people who get to cut the ribbon when the project is delivered. So I’m interested in how you see Infrastructure Australia. Now there’s a review underway. Is Infrastructure Australia the way that we can potentially keep the flame through projects? What are you hoping it might be able to do? If there is changes required it’s going to have to be changes in the Act. So what’s the Opposition hoping to see from this review?
Senator Bridget McKenzie Oh we want to say obviously Infrastructure Australia for its role in assisting projects right across the country to give governments of the day the confidence to invest and a series of information in which to prioritize projects. Now at the end of the day, and I’m sure the Minister herself would agree that governments, because we are a democracy, governments of all colours are going to want to invest in particular projects for their own particular reasons. And that is life in a liberal democracy. But the Infrastructure Australia review has been completed and the Infrastructure Australia Bill I think was tabled this week in the House, but we’re definitely looking at debating that over coming weeks.
The Bill would seem to narrow the scope of Infrastructure Australia. We’re only going to have three commissioners and I would be asking are any of them going to be rural and regional Australians? This is important given the importance of infrastructure in ensuring equity across the regions and economic development. We also want to make sure that the Bill also suggests that it’s going to see a narrowing of the scope of Infrastructure Australia, which I’m not sure we want them to see. We know some states have their own infrastructure assessment bodies, but the role of these bodies in government decision making I think is still quite unclear with the current Government given their $2.2 billion commitment to the suburban rail loop hasn’t been through the Infrastructure Australia process. So how government uses Infrastructure Australia still remains to be seen. But I’d like to see robust methodology that actually takes into account some of the things that I care about, like long term economic advantage to rural communities and investment rates etc. in a way that ensures that no matter who is in government, we’re not cutting funding to certain communities and certain key infrastructure projects that are going to deliver benefits overall.
Diane Smith-Gander That very much is the theme of this conference about delivering both economic and social value. We’ve had some very good conversations about things like provision of water. Access to clean water is a basic human right, and how can you make a business case for all the places that people want access to it in Australia? How do you think about that? And I think that comes to your point there about the importance of balancing regional development versus expenditure in very large population centres. And that’s a question that has come up from our audience and I think might take you to how you think about that and how you think about projects like Inland Rail in providing jobs and economic opportunities to regional Australians, I would love to hear about how you think about that balancing of regional development versus the very large population centres and expenditure there?
Senator Bridget McKenzie Well, that’s one of my former ministerial roles and I was really excited with the regional development work we were doing in that policy area. We were able to deliver, I think in excess of $9 billion in the March budget to really hone in on catalyzing investment into rural and regional communities to safeguard, if you like, against the decisions of both sides of politics towards net zero, so they could harness the opportunities that they are going to bring, but also assistance to overcome some of those challenges.
Unfortunately, that was all cut so I’m looking forward to the Labor Government increasing the ambition, and also thinking about and being realistic about who pays the cost for those decisions and making sure we get the policies right to support growth in a decarbonized Australia over the coming decades. But the Inland Rail project first envisaged very, very long ago as a project that was going to cart up wheat as a bulk commodity from one end to the other and almost 20 years on from that first sort of look at it, we’re seeing a catalytic project which already, whilst simply under construction, has been supercharging the regional economies that it’s going through.
There’s thousands of jobs and investment. We’ve got the intermodal hubs that are being developed in places like Parkes. The spin off economic development that’s occurring around a community like Parkes, it’s just mind blowing with people moving from all around the country to what used to be small country towns or regional centres, that I hope over coming decades will become 21st century regional capitals with everything to offer, all the opportunity that’s available in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. And I can see that happening simply because a government took the bold decision to put the money on the table and get Inland Rail built.
I think in the Schott Review, and I know you’ve heard from Kerry today, I’m sure she will be disclosing challenges and the way things could have been done better. But I think when we look at this project, when it is completed, we all are going to be very proud, both sides of government, depending on who cuts the ribbon, on the benefits that it will be bringing, not just to the communities it traverses through, but indeed our nation. It really is a nation building project. It’s going to change the way we do business and change the way that these communities exist along through. The other thing I was going to mention about the Inland Rail, when it was first conceived in 2005, nobody thought about what contribution this project would make to lowering emissions because we weren’t even having those sort of debates and discussions. The role that this Inland Rail will play in getting B Doubles off our roads, which will lead to great safety outcomes, but indeed incredible emissions outcomes, because we know the transport sector itself is one of those huge ones. But the stat that I have is the 1800 metre Inland routes train will have the capacity to carry the same volume as 110 B-double trucks. So, every day getting that amount of trucks off the road to shift everything that comes in on our ports, all the containers, it’s going to be double stacked, etc. is going to be amazing and I think we all need to be very, very proud of the role of the Inland Rail project plays in decarbonizing our transport sector, particularly our heavy sector.
Diane Smith-Gander I’m of course from Western Australia where the Inland Rail won’t be. But I have to say, having spent last week driving 4000 kilometres from Perth up to the Pilbara and back again and having come across not just B-doubles but triples and quads, which can go up to 57.5 metres long, any of those that we can get off our roads will certainly lower my blood pressure as I attempt to pass them.
Senator Bridget McKenzie I think you raise a really great point. I was out in the west a few weeks ago and I met with the transport industry, you’ve got that terrible situation in the Kimberley, the bridge is out the roads degrading, they were saying the Tanami needs to be brought forward as one of the key freight routes. But they were very concerned about the quality of road and the impact it’s having on the trucking industry and the truckers themselves in terms of their health outcomes. So I think we could all do better in getting more trucks off the road and I don’t think the trucking industry sees it as an “us” or “them”. I think they’re very, very keen to have a collaborative discussion with rail about how we all can make the freight task more efficient, effective, safer and prosperous for Australians.
Diane Smith-Gander I think that is absolutely spot on Senator. We’ve had a lot of conversation about that interoperability, and I agree with you. I do not think it is a competition between road and rail. We have really come to the end of our time. Thank you so much for being with us. I know it just seemed to go. Look, this is the classic consultant question and that’s my background. Is there anything you really wanted to tell us that I didn’t give you a chance to?
Senator Bridget McKenzie I know everybody that’s interested in this space is in that room, and I just wanted to reach out and say, I have a very public email, I have an office, and I’m very keen to engage on these issues because you’re right, this is $120 billion pipeline over decades and we’ve got to get it right. And we’ve got the minister that’s making the announcement will very rarely ever be the minister cutting the ribbon. And I want us to have a constructive conversation about how to make our country safer, more prosperous, sustainable, and strong. So please don’t be strangers. I’m keen to hear from you.
Diane Smith-Gander Thank you very much, Senator. Can we thank the Senator in the usual way?