AustCham Breakfast

Speech

DCS009/2017

27 July 2017

Beijing
E&OE
Subject: Chinese-Australian infrastructure investment

Well, thank you very much for that warm welcome. I must say I have had a very warm welcome everywhere I have been in China.

We live in a very complex and changing world at the moment and that is reflective I think of Government policy settings. If you looked at the Australian Government now and tried to figure out what the overall narrative, the overall direction is, you would have to say there is a very strong focus on issues of security. But also issues of providing certainty and confidence to other governments, to our business sector, and to our own community, and it drives many of the decisions you are seeing being made by the Australian Commonwealth Government.

In an environment where there are many challenges in an ever-changing world, we are endeavouring to be relentlessly positive about the future and embracing those challenges and accepting that change is occurring and trying to make sure that we maximise the benefits of that change for our people and our region. We are very focused on the fact that our economy is transitioning and we are trying to grow jobs in that transitioning economy, and that again motivates the Prime Minister and senior ministers in just about every decision we make: how is this decision going to have a positive impact on our nation?

So in a complex world though, I sometimes think we overthink issues. In a complex world, there is still a very crucial point I would like to make: people always matter, and we are all in the people business. We are all in an environment where we need to build relationships, whether it is building relationships within your own business, within the community you live in, or across state borders and national borders. We are all in the people business and I think we are seeing that more and more in the way that our relationship—the relationship between Australia and China—is continuing to prosper.

We have seen in the last 12 months, for example, 1.2 million Chinese visitors to Australia. That is an incredibly positive thing not just because of the tourism revenue it brings to our nation, but also because of the people-to-people links it brings where people are going to have to talk to each other. We are going to have to find ways to understand each other, to understand the social and cultural complexities of each other's lifestyle. Those people to people links I think are critical for the future of our two great nations, and I want to see more of that in the future. So, the fact that now 450,000 Australians have made return visits is an incredibly positive thing as well and so it's great, and I should have recognised the team from The Beijing Post that are here today—Dan, Elizabeth, and others—it's great to have you here and get a better understanding of the work you're doing to keep building those relationships here within Beijing and across China.

When I say we are all in the people business and we need to drill down to the fact that people always matter, it is a challenge for governments to make these complex issues real to our communities and help them understand why decisions are made. For example, why do I care if I am living in a little country town in Victoria if my government has been able to organise, in partnership with China, a new free trade agreement? Why do I care about that if at the same time my kid can't get a job in their hometown? Now, why do I care about this great deal that an Australian business just made in China if I don't feel safe in my own home at the moment? So these are the challenges the Government's working with. We have got issues of security, where we need to make sure that people do feel safe at home, do feel safe on the streets, do feel safe on our national borders; but at the same time, we don't want to scare them. We want them to be confident, be optimistic about the future. So it is a challenging time and we need to, as a government, keep working every day to make our positives real to people so they understand what the benefits are going to be.

Now, what's all this got to do with my role as Infrastructure Minister? Well, the Infrastructure Minister's job in Australia is the best job in the Australian Parliament, by far, because it is the actual job where you get to build stuff. You get to build stuff that people care about. You get to actually make a difference in people's lives. Now, I often say that it is all about building the type of infrastructure that our kids and our grandkids will thank us for. It is projects that go beyond one term of Parliament and perhaps go beyond our own individual lives.

But I look at my brief experience here in China over the last three days. China is building infrastructure that the kids and the grandkids will thank the Chinese Government for. Projects like the high-speed rail are truly inter-generational—an extraordinary project—and to get an appreciation of it just for four or five hours the other day and travel at 300 kilometres an hour just to see what infrastructure is being developed here in China was terrific.

The Belt and Road Initiative I see in a similar vein. It is a project that is all about connecting; connecting communities, connecting nations, providing new opportunities for future generations [indistinct].

There is a long way to go yet. It is a bold project, it is a challenging project, a lot of complexities to it, but if we can make it bring the communities along the route and explain to people why a project like that is good for longer term, I can see nations putting aside their individual differences and seeing the great prize that is on offer into the future.

When I talk about infrastructure in Australia, I also often talk about the fact that this is about changing lives and saving lives. When we talk about changing lives it is pretty straightforward. When you are stuck in traffic, you can't get anywhere, the fact that someone's going to build a new motorway or better rail link means you get home and can see your family quicker. That is going to change your life. It is going to mean more time with your family, which is where you want to be. You don't want to be stuck in traffic.

But perhaps more importantly, good infrastructure actually saves lives as well. In a time when we are still seeing increases in road trauma in the Western world—we are still seeing too many people killed and injured on our roads—I am very proud of the fact that if we invest in good infrastructure we do change lives, and we actually save lives as well.

In Australia right now we have got a very bold infrastructure program, although I feel a bit intimidated saying that in China when I see the magnitude of the developments that are occurring. But by Australian standards—with a population of 25 million people—we have a $75 billion infrastructure investment program over 10 years, and it is a program which is focused on changing lives and saving lives. It is focused on major projects like the Inland Rail. Melbourne to Brisbane Inland Rail is a freight link we don't have right now.

What has that got to do with China? Well, the Chinese-Australia free trade agreement was one of the driving factors between improving our freight connectivity in Australia, so we can get our products to market, so we can supply the Chinese market. So it makes sense that we will change lives in regional Australia. You will see more people with the opportunity to live in these regions—these great regions in our country—they link into the cities, and then those cities are linked into the world. So, it is a great project, and it's one that's only taken us 100 years to get organised on. So, change doesn't happen quickly in the Australian Parliament, but it is a great project and I'm very proud to be delivering it.

We have the Western Sydney Airport project, which is a $5.3 billion equity investment by the Government into building the Western Sydney Airport. It is a bold project for Western Sydney. It's a great project. It's one that will transform Western Sydney based on a huge growth, an important growth corridor in Sydney, and one that we are particularly proud of. But having seen the second Beijing Airport under construction, I am extraordinarily impressed with the level of development which is occurring here in Beijing.

Another project—which isn't as refined, but where I see enormous opportunity—is for Chinese business linking with the Australian Government's $10 billion National Rail project which was announced in the Budget. That is a reflection on the fact that we have underinvestment in rail in Australia in recent decades. We are putting a $10 billion prize on the table for the state governments to come to us with projects that will transform the rail network in Australia. I don't expect any time soon we are going to see trains hurtling along at 300 kilometres an hour in Australia but I do see real opportunities for us to work with Chinese businesses on increasing the speed of the rolling stock of the existing rail network in Australia. I think there is some real transformation that can occur, and in some ways—we have an old saying in Australia—is you need to crawl before you walk. Our trains are very slow speed. I think we can get some significant improvements reasonably quickly by working with some of the experts that are here in China who have developed the high-speed rail project, and I was told yesterday that the development of high-speed rail also saw some incremental increases on other rail networks over a total period of 10 years as well. Perhaps not as high a speed, but certainly transforming some of the regional communities by achieving faster speeds on those rail networks.

It is not just the Federal Government, the state governments in Australia are also investing very heavily in metro projects which, again, I think will see opportunities for greater relations and improved partnerships between us and some of the experts in the field here in China.

One other point I would like to make is we are in the process now of developing a National Freight and Supply Chain Strategy. Now, governments have worked on these strategies and they normally sit on the desk or sit on the shelf somewhere and never get implemented. The point of this National Freight and Supply Chain Strategy is to work with the private sector and provide the investment pipeline to begin understanding where the freight and logistics bottlenecks are in our country. Whether it is first mile or last mile, what we can do about it, and how we are going to strategically invest to improve that freight and supply chain. So, it's an important piece of work, and it will give us the investment blueprint for the future, so that any incoming government can look at this strategy and say: well, this is the list of projects where we should be progressing next, not jumping around all over the place to suit the political whims of the day. So, it is an important piece of work, and one that I expect to come back to me by the end of this calendar year, and inform budget decisions before the 2018 Budget.

Our challenge in a vast nation like Australia is getting our products to markets, both within our own country but also to capitalise on the free trade agreements that have been negotiated. So, it's a challenge of connectivity. It's about connecting regional communities within themselves, connecting our cities, and connecting our nation to the world; all the challenges that China is dealing with as well, and dealing with them very remarkably well at the moment. So, with those words, thank you so much for the opportunity to be here. It is a great privilege to come and address your group. I wish you well in your work, and I look forward to returning at some stage in the future. Thank you very much.