Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall MP speaks on the Infrastructure Amendment Bill 2023

10 May 2023

I rise to support the Infrastructure Australia Amendment (Independent Review) Bill 2023, which is currently before the House. I'm strongly in favour of increasing transparency, accountability and integrity in infrastructure delivery.

Australia needs more forward-thinking planning and more-targeted infrastructure to address the challenges of our future, and the Australian people deserve to know where public money is being spent on infrastructure; that it stacks up on merit, not on political gain and ambition; and that it is value for money. There is a clear issue. For too long budget announcements have been made with a fanfare of hi-vis vests on infrastructure and roads and various projects in particular seats without a real focus on need and merit, which is where public funding should be attributed. The challenges facing Australia over the next two decades will grow in complexity as investment capital becomes more constrained. Australia's infrastructure sector must lift their performance in national planning and project selection to meet the increased demands and build the country up so that it is prepared for the future.

Infrastructure Australia's role is to provide cross-sectoral, independent and quality advice to the Australian government on infrastructure projects which are nationally significant. This must be frank and fearless advice. Infrastructure Australia's purpose is to help the government prioritise so that Australia's economic future is safeguarded and we can be prepared for the future through building appropriate and future-orientated infrastructure.

Sadly, in the past, despite being the government's national adviser on planning and prioritisation, Infrastructure Australia has been poorly directed by the government. It has been undervalued and under-utilised, leading to ineffective development of infrastructure. A key feature of being an independent advisory body is maintaining the highest standards of transparency and accountability, an area in which Infrastructure Australia will benefit from improvement. If Infrastructure Australia continues to be undervalued, new infrastructure will fail to meet the needs of a growing population grappling with the effects of climate change in the future. We know these are very real issues we face. The restructuring of Infrastructure Australia's governance and increased transparency will stop the enabling of pork-barrelling and politically motivated infrastructure projects going up in electorates in place of projects which will actually meet Australia's needs and stack up on merit.

I note a number of members in this place are moving amendments which I support. The member for North Sydney's amendment I strongly support. It is requiring the introduction of annual statements on performance and budget process, which will help increase transparency and hold projects accountable to delivering quality outcomes. Making annual statements publicly available on Infrastructure Australia's website will help the Australian people trust that infrastructure developments are on track to improve their lives. Increased public accountability will bring forth better project outcomes and more frequent evaluations of the progress of nationally significant projects. It will incentivise the government to invest in areas that are important to communities and important to Australia's future.

I note the member for Wentworth has also flagged amendments that I support. These are around cost-benefit analysis in which the benefits must be found to outweigh the costs for any project over $100 million in spending. This is an obvious way to make sure Infrastructure Australia can help the government direct funds to the most necessary and impactful areas. Directed, careful and forward-thinking planning is of utmost importance in this area.

As well, I'm extremely supportive of a reference pricing model, which will better inform and estimate the cost of projects. The benefits and costs of time overruns being better accounted for and planned for cannot be underestimated or understated. In the past, overruns have led to inefficient use of funds and higher-than-expected spending. Better planning so this happens less will allow infrastructure development priority areas to be better addressed, and I note, to that effect, the Albanese government, in terms of the budget, having a real look at the infrastructure spend. We absolutely must make sure there is that efficiency lens put over infrastructure announcements and projects.

Climate in infrastructure is a major aspect. Amendments made to the Infrastructure Australia Act by the Climate Change (Consequential Amendments) Act 2022, which was passed in this place last year, mandated that Infrastructure Australia must consider Australia's greenhouse gas emissions targets when conducting audits of important infrastructure, providing advice to the government and planning new projects. It's clear, for example, that infrastructure very often focuses on transport. Transport is our fastest growing sector of emissions because with a growing population comes a growing reliance on, too often, individual vehicles, so infrastructure needs to focus on provision of public transport and increasing higher capacity transport options. The requirement that Infrastructure Australia must consider impacts on climate of these projects is incredibly important.

It's a real opportunity here for Infrastructure Australia to take the lead on climate action and prioritise projects which will help Australia adhere to and comply with our targets and be more ambitious in emissions reduction. Let's prioritise greener homes and efficient buildings, try to shift the dogged focus from roads onto projects which will make Australia greener and more efficient, will move more people and will be more effective in supporting industries—transport of goods, supply chains, food. All those things can be done more efficiently and sustainably.

Infrastructure Australia can also decide and advise on what Australia's asset portfolio and future infrastructure should look like to get to net zero, the essential target Australia must pursue to safeguard our climate and environment. I urge Infrastructure Australia, with its new governance structure, to advise that all new projects invested in by the government do not endanger Australia's emissions targets. We must ensure we reduce emissions as fast as possible, and we should earnestly work towards an improvement in sustainability of Australia's built environment, something that often is not focused on. Some 75 per cent of emissions emit, essentially, from our urban zones, so infrastructure decisions around urban zones become incredibly important, from access to energy to transport to the built environment. We know there is still a lot of work to be done when it comes to resilience-building, transition and adaptation in so much of our built environment, and sadly that is an area yet to receive much focus or funding from the government to ensure that happens.

The Infrastructure Australia Amendment (Independent Review) Bill 2023 is nevertheless a good start for investing in a more sustainable future and making sure that investment is directed at our highest priority areas for infrastructure. These amendments will lead to increased transparency and a re-evaluation of Infrastructure Australia, which will help restore the independent advisory functions that Infrastructure Australia needs to perform to ensure Australia's needs are met.

Australia needs to do away with pork-barrelling and move towards building a sustainable future. We need to have some vision of where we see Australia in 10, 20, 30 years time. We have some visionary people in our society, like Damon Gameau with his 2040 vision or his Regenerating Australia film, where he looks at current infrastructure and where it may well go as technologies evolve and habits change. It's really important that we have that forward focused lens, because as much as appreciate the past, and the past has contributed to where we are, you cannot stand still. It is only by facing the future that we will in fact build the kind of society and country and infrastructure that we need, and we owe it to our younger generations to ensure it's capable. I commend this bill to the House.