ABC News Weekend Breakfast

Interview

DCI042/2017

07 May 2017

Subjects: Infrastructure, Federal Budget, the veterans' affairs, media reforms.

Andrew Geoghegan: Well to discuss this we are joined live from Melbourne by Transport and Infrastructure Minister, Darren Chester. Minister, good morning.

Darren Chester: Good morning.

Andrew Geoghegan: Now, pre-Budget announcements have focused on roads, rail, and runways. Is infrastructure spending shaping up as the centrepiece of this Budget?

Darren Chester: Well, there is always a lot of speculation at this time of year as we approach the Budget. It's about 48 hours to go. Obviously as the Infrastructure and Transport Minister, I'm very keen to see increased spending on major projects that our kids and our grandkids will thank us for. So there has been a lot of speculation, but I can wait the 48 hours to see what's actually in the Budget. But I can assure Australians that we are getting on with the job of delivering the infrastructure that our communities need into the future.

Andrew Geoghegan: There is news in today's newspapers that you have struck a deal with the Western Australia Government for a $2.3 billion road and rail project. Can you confirm that?

Darren Chester: Absolutely. We have been working closely with the newly elected Western Australia Government. Obviously from time-to-time there's going to be an impasse between states and federal governments on our different priorities for different projects. We recognised after the Western Australia election that the McGowan Government had a different view on the Perth Freight Link project. We still believe Perth Freight Link is an important project, we believe it will need to be built at some stage into the future, because of its capacity to reduce congestion in the suburbs of Perth.

But at the same time we have to be pragmatic; we have to work with the government of the day, you have to play with the cards you are dealt with. We've worked through a process with the West Australian Government to make sure that West Australians aren't disadvantaged, that those infrastructure projects we announced today, about 17 different projects, will roll out in an orderly manner, and there will be jobs associated with that across Western Australia.

I might say one of the really important parts of the project or the agreement is an additional amount of money, about $44 million, for some additional road safety works in Western Australia. Because we have had some really difficult years in Western Australia on regional roads with road trauma.

Andrew Geoghegan: Why didn't this sort of project come about—the infrastructure building and so on—at the height of the mining boom when revenue was so high?

Darren Chester: Well there has been a lot of work going on in Western Australia over that period as well. As you'd understand and I'm sure your viewers understand, there is an ongoing list of projects right around Australia which is beyond the capacity of the Federal Government to fund by itself so we work closely with state governments. The Prime Minister has made it very clear he's keen for us to work even more closely with the private sector in the future to try and work through ways we can perhaps fund these projects in a more innovative way to allow the construction of projects, as I said before, that our kids and our grandkids will thank us for.

We need to be investing in good road, rail, airport, seaports, that future generations will benefit from enormously.

Andrew Geoghegan: Darren Chester, today is the beginning of UN Road Safety Week. This coincides with an uptick in road deaths in Australia recently. How are you planning to address that?

Darren Chester: Well that's a terrific question. We are going to address that in partnership with our communities. We need to all accept responsibility in relation to road trauma and reducing road trauma.

Now, obviously as the Minister of Infrastructure and Transport I have a responsibility to invest in safer roads. As an individual road user, though, people who are driving their own cars or motorbikes, or are on pushbikes, have to accept their own responsibility for their own safety as well. Police can't do this all by themselves; they need us to be active partners in addressing road safety.

I have created a real national focus on this since taking over this role in the last 18 months and I have worked closely with state minister counterparts; I have worked with Police Commissioners as well. We want to see additional research into areas that we're not quite sure what impact they are having on road traumas, areas like mobile phone distraction. We need to do some more research into how we can crackdown on illicit drug use, because that is showing up more and more in our road trauma statistics. And as part of that work, I will be announcing a review into the national road safety strategy later on today, as part of this UN Road Safety Week.

Andrew Geoghegan: Because all governments, state and federal, have poured a lot of money recently into upgrading national highways, such as the Pacific, Hume and Bruce. You're saying that more needs to be done as far as that driver behaviour is concerned.

Darren Chester: You're spot on. It's all of those things. We need to have safer roads, whether they are arterial roads or major highways. We need to have safer drivers—so that's us taking responsibility for our own actions. And we need safer cars; we need people purchasing the safest car they can afford because we know that reduces your chance of having a crash in the first place, and if you're in a five-star rated car you actually have lower amounts of severe injuries if a crash unfortunately occurs. So it's safer drivers, it is safer roads, and safer cars, and it is also about not taking it for granted or not becoming accepting of road trauma as a price we have to pay. I think we need to redouble our efforts. We have been good in Australia since the 1970s at reducing road trauma, but in the last couple of years there has been an increase in deaths and serious injuries. And that concerns me deeply as the Minister but, more importantly, concerns me as a father and a road user. With young people on the roads in my own family, I want to make sure that I'm doing everything I can to keep the roads as safe as can I for them. And they are recognising that there are real challenges. No-one gets out of bed in the morning thinking they are going to be in a road crash, but we need to make sure we're working together to try and address it.

Andrew Geoghegan: Can you confirm that this Budget the Government will allocate funding towards building an inland freight rail network between Brisbane and Melbourne?

Darren Chester: I can confirm in this Budget that the Government will get on with the job of delivering the infrastructure we said we'd deliver at the last election and the Prime Minister has made it very clear he wants inland rail construction to start this calendar year. I'll have a lot more to say about inland rail after Tuesday night's Budget speech. But it is a very exciting project. It's one that's long overdue. It will open up the eastern seaboard of Australia in terms of freight connections between Melbourne and Brisbane. I'm very excited about it, but I can wait two more sleeps to talk more about it.

Andrew Geoghegan: But you have said you want construction to start as soon as possible. Can you say whether this will be purely a government funded or be a public-private partnership?

Darren Chester: I'm sorry, I can't. Look, construction will start this year. We have money already in the Budget from last year's allocation to start construction. There will be a lot more to say about it on Tuesday night. It's one project that I think unites Queensland, New South Wales and the Victorian state governments. They're on board with me and they want to see the work start. We're working closely with the communities along the route. This is a project of massive proportion; it's a 1700 kilometre rail link between Melbourne and Brisbane. It will mean that we have a transfer of freight from road on to rail, which will obviously improve road safety, but from an economic perspective it's a way we capitalise on those free trade agreements we've been so successful at negotiating. It's going to open up regional Australia and it's something I'm very excited about. But unfortunately I can't talk too much more about it until Tuesday night.

Andrew Geoghegan: This comes as the Treasurer talks of good and bad debt. Is infrastructure nation building, if you like, does that all play to that narrative about good debt?

Darren Chester: Well it is about building the infrastructure that our kids and our grandkids will thank us for. It's taking that long-term view, beyond the electoral cycle, recognising that if you build good infrastructure, you actually change people's lives and you save people's lives. We change lives by reducing congestion, improving productivity, creating jobs for people right around Australia. But you also save lives through those investments in road safety initiatives. So I can understand exactly what the Treasurer is talking about. It's what I live and breathe every day in my role.

I've got the great honour of being an Infrastructure and Transport Minister where we actually get to build things that the Australian community wants to see in their community. Unfortunately, there is never enough money to build everything I want to build. But we keep working closely with other levels of government, whether it's a state government or local government, on projects that will really make a difference in people's lives.

Andrew Geoghegan: So in your view, what is the bad debt that should be cut?

Darren Chester: I'm not going to comment on what's in the Budget. I can't comment about what may be coming up on Tuesday night.

We need to make sure that we are treating the Australian taxpayers' dollars with an enormous amount of respect and getting value for money for them. If there are areas of expenditure that the Australian taxpayers and the Government sees as being wasteful or being a poor use of that money, then we need to look at those areas very closely. It is the same, whether it be in my portfolio or someone else's portfolio.

Andrew Geoghegan: Tasmanian Senator Eric Abetz has called for the $300 billion debt ceiling to be re-introduced—that was scrapped in 2013. He has said that he will introduce a Private Members' Bill. Do you think he'll get much support?

Darren Chester: No, I don't.

Andrew Geoghegan: Why not?

Darren Chester: I don't think he will. You asked me whether he will get much support. I don't think he will.

Andrew Geoghegan: So that's the wrong decision, you're thinking? There is no call for it?

Darren Chester: I will rely on economic and financial forecasting advice from the Ministers responsible, being the Treasurer and Finance Minister. Erik can have his opinion, he's welcome to it. I don't agree with him.

Andrew Geoghegan: Another announcement that appears to be forthcoming is money directed towards helping veterans; $350 million, perhaps, boost to the Department of Veterans' Affairs. Can you give us some more detail on that?

Darren Chester: Look, I think that is an important announcement today. I spoke to the Minister for Veterans' Affairs Dan Tehan before I came on your program. Dan is completely focused on making sure we honour the legacy of all our veterans, and the way we honour that sacrifice and the service of previous generations is to look after today's veterans.

We are finding that some of our younger veterans coming back from conflict areas or once they retire from the Defence Force are struggling with life after Defence. So our challenge is to make sure that the skills they have—many of those skills are easily transferable into the workplace—working with business and industry that they can see a meaningful career for themselves outside Defence Force. But also for those who struggle after their service lives, with things like PTSD, making sure they get the help they need when they need it. It has got to be timely, it's got to be effective and they've got to be able to get it straight away.

So in terms of the announcement that Minister Tehan made today—I think there is $350 million in total—it means that our veteran men and women will have more support into the future. I guess we are on a journey on this issue of mental health issues; we are coming to grips and understanding more and more the impact of mental health in our community. And obviously in our defence communities and our ex-servicemen and women, it's one area that we can do some more work. And I'm very proud and pleased to see my good friend and colleague, Minister Tehan making that announcement today.

Andrew Geoghegan: Just lastly on another issue: yesterday we had the Communications Minister, Mitch Fifield, announce reforms to the media sector. That will include abolishing broadcast licence fees. That means the Government will forego a significant amount of revenue. How will you account for that, particularly as far as balancing the Budget is concerned?

Darren Chester: Well, Senator Fifield had a bit to say about that yesterday. It is worth recognising that the media landscape has changed so dramatically and is continuing to change so dramatically that the licence fees, which were linked to revenue, had become really a redundant way of approaching the issue of media regulation in Australia.

He also announced yesterday some reforms in relation to abolishing gambling ads during sporting events, like the AFL or rugby league, before 8.30 as a measure to make sure we're not normalising gambling for young viewers who may be watching those programs before 8.30 and getting a distorted view of what sport's all about. I'm not against gambling or legalised gambling by any stretch, but I don't think mums and dads want it rammed down the throats of their kids while they're watching the local footy games on the NRL or the AFL.

Andrew Geoghegan: Transport and Infrastructure Minister Darren Chester, thanks for your time.

Darren Chester: All the best, have a great day.