By Senator the Hon Bridget McKenzie, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development and the Nationals Leader in the Senate

Australia’s population is forecast to grow by the size of the city of Adelaide in the next five years, according to the 2023-24 Federal Budget.

This rapid increase in migration is being used to shore-up our skilled labour market and support economic growth after the COVID-19 slow down. However, increasing our population by 1.5 million people without a plan for the necessary infrastructure is something I do not support.

The success of this migration effort must be accompanied with the supporting infrastructure to meet the demand of a larger population.

As the Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, I believe that a strategic approach to infrastructure investment is essential in supporting economic growth and boosting national productivity.

It is my primary objective to be constructive in this role to ensure that together we are building a more prosperous, sustainable, safe and strong future from the capital cities to the suburbs and remote corners of Australia. My job is to collaborate and contribute to set an alternative policy direction as part of an economic blueprint for a future Australia.

However, it is also my responsibility as Shadow Minister to critique the government’s decisions and policies to ensure we strive for the best outcomes for the Australian public. Rapid infrastructure growth should not come at the cost of worsening congestion, gridlocked streets and unsafe roads.

In government, the Coalition made record investments in infrastructure. Prudently we were willing to invest when the cost of money was low,  to deliver a much needed boost to the nation’s capital stock, and enhance the economic capacity of the regions which will be most affected in the transition to net-zero.

In times of challenging global economic headwinds, rising cost of money and increased State Government indebtedness, it may be tempting for the current Federal Government to pull back from an ambitious and bold infrastructure agenda. It is my view that it is vital to economic growth to maintain the focus on delivering the economic infrastructure needed to support industry and a growing population.

To give infrastructure planning the certainty and continuity it needs, the Coalition put in place a $120 billion 10 year Infrastructure Investment Pipeline. This pipeline ensures that local roads, key freight routes, ports and rail corridors are expanding in the right places and that proper planning can be made by industry.

Delivering projects requires long timelines for planning, design, and construction. As I have said on many occasions, the Minister announcing a project is rarely the Minister cutting the ribbon. The Labor Government decided to conduct a review into more than 400 infrastructure projects in the Infrastructure Pipeline while making significant cuts to infrastructure spending in their first two budgets.

As a newly elected government, I respect the Labor Government’s right to conduct this review. However, the review has resulted in considerable uncertainty which is being felt most acutely by businesses that had been contracted to deliver the projects that have been put on hold, along with communities who have been waiting for critical infrastructure projects to be delivered.

Construction companies that have secured materials, workforce, equipment and have scoped the delivery timeline, have been required to suspend operations with no certainty of continuing. The cost of delays affects company profits which are already under pressure from inflation, supply and labour shortages.

Businesses require greater transparency and assurances from the government to allow them to minimise the cost fallout of delaying and halting projects. Tier 2 and tier 3 contractors in particular bear the brunt of this uncertainty.

At a time when insolvency is running rife throughout the construction industry, business viability needs to be a key consideration of government. A broader concern is that the 90-Day Infrastructure Review may also result in transport infrastructure projects of national significance being shelved or delayed significantly.

Examples include:

  • The $12 billion Melbourne Airport Rail Link project put on hold by the Victorian Government. This project has been in the works since 2014 with the $5 billion committed by the Commonwealth and matched by the Victorian Government. If this project is not delivered, Melbourne will remain one of a tiny few major international airports without a rail link.
  • Major upgrades to the M1 Pacific Highway in New South Wales, as well as improvements to bust congestion and improve freight efficiency on the M5, M7 and M12 motorways have been captured by the review.
  • In Queensland, plans to build transformative new rail to the Gold and Sunshine Coasts are at risk of being scrapped, as well as future stages of the $13 billion Bruce Highway upgrade project.
  • In South Australia plans to take trucks off the dangerous South Eastern Freeway and suburban streets by progressing a greater Adelaide freight route, starting with the Truro bypass, have been delayed.

In addition, ongoing road funding and road safety programs were referred to the review, raising concerns about the future availability of funding that councils have relied on for decades such as the Roads to Recovery program, Bridges Renewal Program and the Black Spot program.

Unfortunately, the new government’s response to the Coalition’s bold infrastructure vision that included Western Sydney International Airport, Melbourne Airport Rail, the Outback Way, Inland Rail and Middle Arm ports infrastructure has been a live music stadium, another AFL ground and an unfunded suburban rail loop costing over $200 billion.

The government of the day is entitled to make discretionary decisions and set the agenda. However, as the Shadow Minister it is my responsibility to scrutinise that agenda to ensure Australia benefits well into the future. It is a responsibility I take seriously.

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