Alan Tudge: the congestion busting minister

In late August, the Federal Government was turned upside down, with former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull ousted from the top job, and Scott Morrison taking over the leadership position. With a new Prime Minister came a fresh Cabinet, and Federal Member for Aston, Alan Tudge, became the new Minister for Cities, Urban Infrastructure and Population, with population a new addition to the portfolio. Here is Infrastructure Magazine’s exclusive interview with the new minister, finding out his vision for the sector, key projects and how the industry can overcome current challenges.

Firstly, congratulations on your appointment to the portfolio of cities, urban infrastructure and population; what are your main goals for this portfolio in the future?

Thank you. Infrastructure investment has been a core priority of the Coalition Government over the last five years. With more than $75 billion in funding and financing committed to new and upgraded infrastructure over the next decade, the Coalition is a major player in public infrastructure investment. We have also been a policy leader. We have overhauled the way the Commonwealth invests in major infrastructure, including restructuring Infrastructure Australia to be a truly independent advisor to governments, implementing more innovative financing and project delivery structures which are driving greater efficiency. We have initiated the successful City Deal model and established a 10-year rolling pipeline of upcoming investments to provide certainty to the market and the community.

However, there is more work to be done in this space. In particular, all levels of government must work together to make our cities function better. Our cities are vibrant, cosmopolitan and economic powerhouses. I want to maintain this vibrancy and economic growth, and I will be working closely with my state and territory counterparts to deliver the investments and the reforms needed to support our urban centres. Our existing City Deals are already returning benefits to the people of Townsville, Launceston and Western Sydney. I am committed to building on the success of these deals to help Darwin, Geelong, Hobart and Perth capitalise on the opportunities created by the next round of City Deals.

In our largest cities, the supply of transport infrastructure has struggled to keep up with the demand of growing populations. It is well accepted that governments have been playing catch-up with their urban infrastructure programs over the last decade, particularly on our congested road and rail networks. Our existing urban infrastructure commitments, such as our $2.33 billion investment in Perth METRONET and our $1.255 billion commitment to upgrade the M1 between Gold Coast and Brisbane, are helping. Our challenge is to keep our focus on long-term solutions to our congestion crisis, including cleaning up pinch points to make existing networks more efficient, as well as improving connections to orbital and regional centres to help spread demand.

Finally, an important expansion of the portfolio has been taking on population policy, alongside cities and infrastructure policy. These three policy areas are inherently interconnected, and opportunities to further integrate the government’s policy settings will ensure we can make our cities even better places to live, work and play.

You mentioned the area of population has been added to this portfolio; what is the main aim of this addition and how will population impact future infrastructure investment and planning? 

The Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, created the new portfolio which merged population policy with urban infrastructure and cities policy. It made a lot of sense to combine these three areas as they are so interconnected.

Population growth, for example, is the major reason for building more infrastructure, while our big capitals are where most of the growth is occurring. If we get these three levers right, then our cities will be even better places to live.

In 2002, Australia’s population was projected to increase by 2.5 million by 2017. In reality, it increased by five million — double the projected growth. In Melbourne, the increase was more severe over the same period. The city increased by 1.2 million people, compared to the expected 400,000 – three times what was projected.

At the same time, smaller urban areas are hungry for more people to support local growth. High-quality public infrastructure is essential to support the ambitions of these cities and regional centres, and to attract the workers they need.

Our City Deals are already taking steps to better integrate our infrastructure investment decisions with local land use planning. Ultimately, our national population settings and how growth is distributed will be the key driver of Australia’s future public infrastructure needs. Integrating these policies into the portfolio recognises that population trends are at the heart of infrastructure investment decisions, particularly for our urban areas. Conversely, it also ensures that planning for appropriate levels of infrastructure investment is embedded into our population strategies.

What do you think are the biggest challenges currently facing the infrastructure sector?

Transport congestion is already costing the Australian economy up to $25 billion per year and this is estimated to rise to $40 billion by 2030. Every day commuters across the country are stuck in traffic, spending hours on the road each week, which they could be spending at home with their families. Many of the trains have reached crush capacity, if there is a train line at all.

While expenditure on public infrastructure has increased markedly — greatly assisted by the Federal Coalition in the last five years — due to the time it takes to deliver new projects, urban transport networks in our largest cities have simply not kept pace with the demand of a fast growing population. Solving the growing congestion crisis in our big cities will mean delivering the right urban infrastructure, ahead of need. This includes all levels of government identifying network deficiencies early, setting out long-term, predictable plans for investment, and working together to better integrate transport investment with urban and demographic planning.

At the same time, we also need to have sufficient capacity and skills in the market to build the infrastructure projects the country needs. The Australian Government’s 10 year, $75 billion infrastructure investment is supporting the construction market and sustaining Australian employment. Recent unemployment figures confirm this with Australia recording the lowest unemployment rate since 2011 at 5.0 per cent. More importantly, a pipeline of priority projects announced in the 2018–19 budget is responding to the call for greater certainty in the construction market, delivering long-term confidence and enabling forward planning.

The pipeline includes programs and projects across all states and territories, in urban and regional areas, and of varying scale and scope, thereby providing opportunities for industry participants of different size and capacity.

What would you say are some of these main infrastructure projects that will have the biggest impact on the infrastructure sector and australians? 

Our investment agenda is delivering the upgrades to transport networks that Australia needs. This means investing in packages of works which can reshape our cities and major transport corridors, such as the continuation of works on the Bruce and Pacific Highways that are modernising our key freight corridors. It also means combining our investments with reforms to help generate new economic and social opportunities, such as through our City Deal model. Nowhere is this approach more apparent than through our investment in the Western Sydney Airport and supporting infrastructure.

As the Prime Minister has said, Western Sydney Airport is the biggest game changer for Sydney since the Harbour Bridge. By itself, it is the largest civil engineering project underway in Australia but it’s also part of a wider  package of infrastructure investment in the surrounding region — including the North-South Rail Link and the road upgrades through the Western Sydney Infrastructure Plan.

When it opens in 2026, this full-service airport will be well connected to Sydney’s transport network and to the world. The Australian and New South Wales Governments have jointly committed to deliver the first stage of a North-South Rail Link from St Marys to the Badgerys Creek Aerotropolis via the new airport with a joint objective of having rail connected to the airport in time for its opening. Work is already well underway on the jointly delivered business case for this rail line. In addition, our governments are investing $3.6 billion in roads near the airport as part of the Western Sydney Infrastructure Plan.

A Development Authority is also being established under the Western Sydney City Deal to encourage development and jobs around the aerotropolis in knowledge intensive industries. Through this massive program of  infrastructure investment, we are transforming the Western Sydney region into a new, third city for Sydney with the airport at its centre. Western Sydney Airport will keep Sydney, New South Wales and Australia open for business. A key benefit is the jobs generation. Unlike many other types of infrastructure, the airport will support more jobs during operations than in construction. This means long-term job opportunities for the Western Sydney community — and the economic benefits of the airport will not only be felt locally. Western Sydney Airport will support tourism and high-value freight, while businesses located at the nearby aerotropolis will benefit from 24-hour access to global markets.

Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, called you the “Minister for congestion busting” – how are you planning to reduce the level of congestion in australia’s major cities?

There are three main points to our congestion-busting plan:

  1. A massive boost in infrastructure expenditure to build the major intracity road and rail networks and address local congestion pinch-points
  2. Easing the population pressure off the three big cities and more rapidly grow the smaller states and regions
  3. Building a better population planning framework

I outlined the Coalition direction in my speech to the Menzies Research Centre in early October:

The Congestion Challenge: More Infrastructure and Stronger Population Planning to get better Cities. Our plan will build on the work the Coalition has undertaken for the past five years. The Coalition lifted expenditure as soon as we came to office, including funding to deliver key intracity spines over the next decade. We are already delivering major, city-shaping upgrades like WestConnex, which will allow commuters to bypass 52 traffic lights and cut travel times between Parramatta and the city by 40 minutes. But we are also investing in planning for the next round of intracity spines, such as the Western Sydney rail line and the North East Link in Victoria.

In particular, we recognise that passenger rail remains the most efficient way to move large numbers of people in peak periods and we have committed almost $9.4 billion to upgrade our passenger rail networks over the next decade. We are also investing in freight rail upgrades, such as our $400 million commitment to upgrade Port Botany rail line in Sydney, to help get freight vehicles off the roads in some of the most congested corridors.

In the immediate term, the government is also alleviating high-priority local pinch-points across our major cities. While getting major infrastructure links right is critical for our cities’ long-term sustainability, it is often local pinch-points that cause the greatest delays for commuters now. The government has been investing in congestion-busting packages in Melbourne, Sydney and Perth, and at Budget 2018 we set aside a further billion dollars to address urban congestion. This additional allocation will focus on our most congested urban networks, with works identified through a robust, data-driven process to get the best value out of our investments for commuters. We will make further announcements about these priority works early next year.

Beyond direct investment, I would also like to see pressure taken off our largest cities by supporting the growth and prosperity of our smaller states and our regions. Even as our largest cities face the challenges of rapid population growth, other areas are crying out for more people. Settling even a small proportion of new migrants to these smaller states and regional Australia can make a big difference to both these centres and to our crowded east coast capitals.

To help this transition, we are looking at our national population settings, including working on measures to have more new arrivals go to the smaller states and regions, and require them to be there for a least a few years. We are also supporting better transport connections between major urban centres and their regional orbitals.

What types of infrastructure investment would support a vision for more decentralised cities? 

An important first step to decentralisation is to better link up orbital population centres near our major cities, such as Gold Coast or Geelong, as well as across our regional towns. Better transport links bring down the time and cost of getting from affordable secondary cities to the employment markets in larger cities. In turn, the greater dispersion of population to our orbitals helps drive local economic activity in these smaller cities, making them increasingly attractive places to live and work even aside from their connection to the nearby capital city.

Through Budget 2018, the government has committed funding to deliver the next round of connecting infrastructure to orbitals. For example, we have committed $1.225 billion towards four projects to upgrade the M1 Pacific Motorway to improve congestion, safety and travel times for the thousands of commuters who travel on the Pacific Motorway to major metropolitan employment centres in Brisbane. Beyond just looking at the closest orbital cities, we are also investing $1.75 billion through a Regional Rail Revival package to cut the travel times for thousands of people travelling daily from regional Victoria to Melbourne for work.

We are also working with the states and the private sector to plan for longer-term infrastructure upgrades to support interregional travel, including through our $20 million Fast Rail Business Case investment. Under this commitment, the government is funding three business cases which look at long-term faster rail solutions to support urban, regional and rural development.

These business cases will look at options that would significantly reduce travel times and improve access to affordable housing and employment opportunities outside the major capitals. My department is working closely with successful proponents to progress the three business cases and it is expected that they will be delivered to the government by mid-2019. At this time, the government will review the outcomes in detail and explore opportunities to take forward the projects in partnership with state governments and the private sector.

How should the government and industry balance the construction of new infrastructure with the optimisation and maintenance of current infrastructure?

While most road and rail infrastructure is owned by the states, and sometimes operated by the private sector, the government strongly supports optimising the use of existing infrastructure.

The government’s Infrastructure Investment Program funds projects involving technological enhancements and improved operational practices to avoid delaying the need to implement more expensive construction solutions. As part of our standard project assessment processes, we check the extent to which the proposal has considered non-construction options, such as the use of technology to improve safety and capacity before investing in new infrastructure projects.

For example, we have funded a number of projects to install Intelligent Transport Systems to improve traffic flow and reduce accidents on busy or dangerous roads, such as on the Bruce Highway corridor between Brisbane and Caboolture.

There have been reports of the intention to unveil a national population policy — what will this policy entail and how does the government plan on dealing with rapid population growth?

The Coalition will be unveiling our population policy in due course and as mentioned, I delivered a speech to the Menzies Research Centre that outlined our direction. Our plan is to continue to invest in major infrastructure, take pressure off the big cities through decentralisation, and develop a better planning framework with the states which better matches population growth with infrastructure spend.

The challenge for Australia is that our population growth is not evenly distributed. As I have outlined, we have very fast population growth in Melbourne, Sydney and South East Queensland. While the overall population of Australia has been growing at the rapid rate of 1.6 per cent per annum, our three large population centres have been some of the fastest growing cities in the world. Melbourne last year grew by 2.7 per cent, Sydney by 2.1 per cent and South East Queensland by 2.3 per cent. At the same time, we have the smaller states and many regional areas that have barely grown and crying out for more people.

South Australia, for example, grew by just over 10,000 people last year. Melbourne grew by 10,000 every 28 days. South Australian Premier, Stephen Marshall, however, wants to grow South Australia by another 15,000 people each year. The same pattern is mirrored in many of the smaller states and territories. For example, the Northern Territory Chief Minister wants to grow Darwin faster. The Tasmanian Premier has indicated his desire to more rapidly grow his state.

Further, there are regional areas across Australia that simply cannot get people to do the work available. Three hours from Melbourne, in the beautiful seaside town of Warrnambool, they have unemployment of 3.8 per cent and businesses struggling to get workers. The recent headline of their local paper was “Wanted: 1000 workers!”. Other regional parts of the country are the same.

We need a more even distribution of growth across the country to support the smaller states and regions, while taking pressure off Melbourne, Sydney and South East Queensland.

There have also been reports of possible measures encouraging new migrants to move to regional areas — will this be something included in a population policy?

While the government is looking closely at opportunities to support greater migration directly to regional areas and to the smaller capitals, this is not a radical idea. There are already a number of visa programs that support regional migration. The success to expanding this approach will be matching the skills of new migrants with the skill shortages in rural and regional Australia. Currently, net overseas migration is heavily skewed towards our largest centres. While it accounted for 64 per cent of our overall population growth in 2016-17, the figure is around 73 per cent for our biggest two cities. Hence, settling even a slightly larger number of new migrants to the smaller states and regions can take significant pressure off our big cities.

There are some constraints on this, of course. For example, 25 per cent of our annual migration intake is directly related to an employer sponsoring a person for a job where they cannot get an Australian. We do not want to jeopardise the growth of those sponsoring businesses, and hence the wealth of our nation. A further 30 per cent concerns family reunion; typically, an Aussie marrying a foreigner. We cannot send a person’s spouse to a different state.

So taking areas of constraint into account, we are working on measures to have more new arrivals go to the smaller states and regions, and require them to be there for at least a few years. In that time, the evidence suggests that many will make it their home for the long term. This will require close cooperation across different agencies, including with Regional Development Minister, Bridget Mckenzie, to ensure we get the settings right so that those smaller states and regions can benefit economically from population growth.

A further method for supporting regional growth (and taking pressure off our big capitals) is to better connect and integrate our orbital cities. Fast rail is an effective means of doing this, as has been noted by the Federal Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Infrastructure, Transport and Cities, led by John Alexander MP. If a person in Ballarat, for example, can commute to Melbourne in 45 minutes rather than the present 75, then the opportunities for Ballarat’s growth would accelerate markedly.

We are presently investigating the potential for faster rail links between our big capitals and surrounding regional centres. Three detailed business cases are already underway and will be finalised mid next year — Newcastle to Sydney; Sunshine Coast to Brisbane; and Shepparton to Melbourne. Victorian Opposition Leader, Matthew Guy’s $19 billion commitment to fast rail from Melbourne to Geelong (32 minutes), to Ballarat (<45 minutes), to Bendigo (70 minutes), and to Traralgon (62 minutes), is consistent with our agenda. We would be pleased to work with him on his decentralisation plans should he be elected.

We can also more generally develop and support the growth of our regional centres and smaller capitals. We are doing this through several initiatives:

  • Our public service decentralisation agenda led by Minister McKenzie. In May 2018, the government announced positions from five Commonwealth entities are to be moved with more to come
  • Our City Deals to support growth of key regional centres and smaller capitals
  • The $272 million Regional Growth Fund and $641 million Building Better Regions Fund
  • The funding of large-scale road, rail and defence projects outside of the big capitals
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