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March 20, 2014

Mr CHESTER (GippslandParliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Defence) (13:24): It gives me great pleasure to join the debate on the Land Transport Infrastructure Amendment Bill 2014 and to follow my good friend the member for Oxley. I fear he may need some counselling; he seems to be in denial. He seems to be despairing over the fact that the Australian people felt so strongly about the Labor government—the six years of allegedly good Labor government—that they kicked them out of office. If the Labor Party was quite as good as the member for Oxley likes to pretend they were, then the Australian people would not have needed to boot them out of office at the last election. One reason why the Australian people removed the Labor Party was that they failed to manage the Australian economy. There are a vast number of other reasons, but they failed to manage the Australian economy and the Australian budget. Over Labor’s years in government we saw accumulated deficits in the order of $123 billion, with deficit budget after deficit budget. We were on track for $660 billion worth of debt. It might come as a newsflash to the member for Oxley, but the Australian people care about issues relating to value for money and making sure that the Australian taxpayer’s money is spent in an appropriate way.

If you listened to the member for Oxley, you would believe the fairytale that the only governments that are any good for Australia in terms of building infrastructure are Labor Party governments. It is simply not the case. The coalition has a strong and proud record of supporting infrastructure development in our nation. As a regional member of parliament, like many others in this place, I have a strong interest in land transport infrastructure. I am sure that most regional MPs, as they travel through their electorates, receive feedback from their constituents on a daily basis that the state of the road and rail networks is one of the biggest issues, if not the biggest issue, in our communities. In our cities, the roads are obviously in better condition but they are heavily congested. So it is important that the federal government works in partnership with both state and local governments on improving the road network for very good reasons, such as economic productivity and social connectedness.

I welcome today’s debate, because the coalition are committed to building the infrastructure of the 21st century which our nation needs to help meet the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. We are certainly committed to making sure that regional Australia gets a fair share of the road and rail infrastructure budget, which is being made available under the current government. Australia’s future growth will be significantly influenced by our capacity to deliver more appropriate, efficient and effective infrastructure. Regional Australia in particular needs good transport links. It is critical to the social life of our communities, but also for the economic prosperity of our region. In particular, the roads in many communities are the arteries of community life. Without good road networks, our communities simply struggle to connect with markets and to connect with their neighbours. It is critical that the federal government plays a role in supporting both local and state government in that regard.

I am pleased to see that the new government is working hard with both the state and territory governments to deliver nationally significant infrastructure projects that will help to grow Australia’s productivity and improve our living standards. The new government is also working in partnership with the private sector to maximise some private capital investment in infrastructure, to leverage off the public funding that is available for important infrastructure projects throughout our nation.

Importantly, this bill continues the successful Roads to Recovery program, which was established under the Howard government in 2005. The member for Oxley talked about the habit of incoming governments to rebrand or change programs. It is interesting to note that the Roads to Recovery program, which started in 2005, has survived through changes of government, firstly to the Labor Party and now back to the coalition. It is a good program. It is a program that local governments throughout Australia greatly appreciate, because it gives local government the flexibility to decide and to set the priorities that they want to set within their own communities. It trusts local communities, using the money provided by the federal government, to make the decisions to address local concerns. As the former shadow parliamentary secretary for roads and regional transport, I had the opportunity last year to travel extensively throughout regional Australia. I visited many councils, including the council in the member for Bendigo’s electorate, where councillors, the mayor and the executives are very keen for Roads to Recovery to continue into the future.

Ms Chesters: They are.

Mr CHESTER: I note the member for Bendigo’s agreement in that regard. I think members on all sides realise the value of the Roads to Recovery program and, I trust, will continue to work towards increasing the opportunities for local government to improve the road network throughout Australia.

One of the key things about the Roads to Recovery program is that it helps take some of the pressure off the rate base for some of our smaller regional councils. Many regional councils have a very limited capacity to raise funds. The resources provided through the federal government help those small councils to deliver services in their communities, the funds for which would otherwise be absorbed by their road budget.

In saying that, it is important to note that in some of these small rural and regional councils the road budget, as a proportion of the total expenses for those local government areas, is far bigger as a percentage than it is for some of the metropolitan areas. So it is disproportionate to how important the road infrastructure funding is for these communities.

cont: March 25, 2014

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland—Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Defence) (11:57): In continuation, Deputy Speaker Broadbent, I recognise that you have very strong support for regional road infrastructure in your community, as it is a neighbour of my community of Gippsland. In that context, I am very proud of the coalition’s record regarding the Roads to Recovery program. Also, the coalition is now developing a new program building on the success of Roads to Recovery, an initiative targeted at our regional bridge network. The regional bridges renewal program will see in the order of $600 million being spent on improving the regional bridge network, with the federal government working in partnership with other levels of government to maximise the value for money for Australian taxpayers through this program.

The coalition will also continue to support its Black Spot Program, which targets high-risk, high-accident areas. As we know, investment in road safety through better infrastructure certainly delivers long-term outcomes for our communities. As a member who is very passionate about road safety, having advocated it in the past in my role as the shadow parliamentary secretary for roads and regional transport, I am very pleased to see the initiative of Senator Alex Gallacher, who is working with me on establishing parliamentary friends of road safety, which already enjoys enormous support across the party divide in both chambers.

I have some very strong views on road safety, on which I will reflect in a moment. Before I get to that, I want to briefly mention the opportunities which will come through the coalition government’s work on road infrastructure in relation to my electorate of Gippsland. Members would be aware that the continuation of the duplication program between Traralgon and Sale is ongoing. There was another announcement today by the Deputy Prime Minister in relation to that program. It has been an excellent program for the people of Gippsland, with $140 million allocated by the federal government. I am pleased to see the coalition government is continuing to honour those commitments. There are also $45 million from the Victorian state government towards that initiative.

The Deputy Prime Minister has taken a personal interest in that project. He has visited Gippsland on several occasions with me. He has travelled along that section of road and he recognises well the opportunities that exist for road safety upgrades on that stretch of road. I can confirm, following his visit earlier this year that the Deputy Prime Minister is committed, as am I, to seeing the duplication project continue on to further stages. The current $175 million allocation will not complete the project. There will be requirements for in the order of $450 million in total before the project is done.
There is some real interest from both the Deputy Prime Minister’s office and the Victorian coalition government to see those further stages proceed once we finalise the work that is already underway up until 2016. I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his interest in that regard and also the Victorian coalition government for its continued support under the funding model of 80 per cent by the federal government and 20 per cent by the state government.

As you, Mr Deputy Speaker Broadbent, would be well aware, further east beyond Sale the Princes Highway is not on the national network and was not able to attract federal funding under the previous Labor government, but I am very pleased to see that the coalition, in the lead-up to the last election, made a commitment to the people east of Sale to support some co-investment on that section of road. It is still not on the national network and that is an issue of concern for the longer term, but the federal government has shown a willingness to commit to funding for some new overtaking lanes in the section east of Nowa Nowa; $11 million will be allocated for some new overtaking lanes in the coming years. There has also been funding allocated for a new rest area, which will have benefits particularly for the heavy vehicle industry and for some of the recreational traffic travelling through the far east of my electorate.

There is a lot more work to be done in relation to the Princes Highway east of Sale. The Deputy Prime Minister has shown he is willing to get out on the road. He has travelled that length of highway with me and is aware of my concerns with regard to the lack of shoulders on many parts of that section of highway but also some of the alignment issues and the lack of overtaking areas.

Building and maintaining a safer road network can save lives because it not only helps to reduce the frequency of accidents but also can reduce the severity of those accidents when they do occur. The coalition is well aware that the nation’s road toll has fallen significantly—in 1982 there were 2,900 deaths and in the past couple of years there were around 1,300 deaths across Australia—however, we recognise that there is more that can be done to reduce the road toll and the number of serious injuries from vehicle accidents. When I begin my work with the parliamentary friends of road safety I will continue to support efforts to reduce road trauma among some of the identified high-risk parts of our community, including Indigenous Australians, motorcyclists, young males, cyclists, pedestrians and regional road users, who continue to be disproportionately represented in our road accident statistics both in terms of the severity of the accidents such as fatalities and regarding serious injuries, which is often a hidden element of the road toll. We hear a lot about the actual fatalities but we do not hear about the people who suffer lifelong injuries that cause them and their families enormous social disruption and cause them economic pain in terms of their capacity to be involved in employment or other opportunities in the community.

I am very keen to work across the party divide with the parliamentary friends of road safety in this coming term of parliament. I am particularly keen to see continued bipartisan support for investment in safer roads. I refer to the Australian Automobile Association’s report three years ago entitled How safe are our roads? That document states:
We need to create a genuinely safe road system, in which improving the safety of drivers, vehicles and roads is of mutual importance.

Safe roads minimise the chances of these crashes happening, and if they do occur, they minimise the severity of the crash. Engineering measures to improve safety don’t have to be high cost and best of all, they last decades!

I think it is fair to say there has been a very heavy focus on improving driver behaviour and enforcement measures at a state level, but I believe the federal government can play a very significant role in improving the overall safety of the road network—for example, in the way that we allocate our funding through Roads to Recovery, by encouraging local governments to spend that money in areas where there has been a high accident history or by working with state governments on initiatives to improve the safety of the road environment. The research that underpins the National Road Safety Strategy found that 50 per cent of the anticipated reduction in road fatalities would come from building safer roads and that is consistent with the earlier work by AusRAP, which argued that building safer roads had the capacity to save more lives than the combined impacts of improved driver behaviour and increased law enforcement. That is a piece of information which is often lost in the debate around road safety. The research indicates that if you build safer roads you can have a greater impact on the road toll than the combined impacts of improving driver behaviour and increased law enforcement. I believe there is a very significant role for the federal government to play in partnering with their state governments on that issue.

In pure economic terms, many of the roadside engineering solutions are comparatively low cost when compared to some of the productivity losses and the health costs associated with fatalities and serious injuries. We need to reduce the level of serious injuries because the cost to the federal budget and to the state budget is staggering. Information from previous years shows that road accidents cost the Australian economy in the order of $27 billion per year. When we have 25 people dying and 600 people seriously injured every week on our roads, there is an economic imperative for the state and federal governments to continue to tackle this issue. All the research indicates that safer roads are critical to achieving a reduction in those costs on the community. I am only talking about the actual economic costs to the Australian government, but there are also costs in terms of trauma and social dislocation that occur in the wake of serious accidents. We all understand that. There is not a person in this place who has not been touched by the road toll in some form or another.

The federal coalition government has made it very clear that it intends to be an infrastructure government. The Prime Minister himself is driving that agenda with the Deputy Prime Minister and other ministers. We understand that if we work with other levels of government we can achieve some very significant outcomes for the economy and also for the social wellbeing of our community. I am looking forward, as I said, to working with Senator Gallacher and other members in this place who are interested in road safety as part of the parliamentary friends of road safety organisation. I believe the Parliament of Australia can show more leadership in the way we tackle the road toll. One of the great ways we can do that is by continuing to drive investment in safer roads throughout our nation.
Debate adjourned.

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