14 January 2017
Paul Fletcher: I just want to make some comments about the report that’s been issued by the Commonwealth Auditor-General into the WestConnex project. And I want to make the point, first of all, that the report that the Commonwealth Auditor-General has issued today has nothing to say about the substance of the project. It has nothing to say about the design of the project; it has nothing to say about how the physical construction is proceeding; it has nothing to say about the many benefits the project will deliver – time savings of 40 minutes travelling from Parramatta to the airport, for example; the fact that traffic will be taken off crowded inner city roads and put into the free-flowing motorway tunnel; the fact that the M5 is being duplicated and extended inwards towards the city, the M4 is being extended inwards towards Haberfield, and then those two will be connected in stage three by a free-flowing motorway tunnel.
So this Auditor-General’s report has a very narrow and specific focus on the question of the approval processes within the Commonwealth Government for the $1.5 billion grant and the $2 billion concessional loan that were provided to support this project.
Now, I notice that the Shadow Spokesman has had some things to say. It’s important to understand the context for the Auditor-General’s report. The Shadow Minister last year called for an Auditor-General’s report in the context of him walking away from Labor’s commitment to WestConnex. Labor committed $1.8 billion to the WestConnex project. In fact, this report makes it clear that Labor committed $1.8 billion to the WestConnex project. But with Mr Albanese last year, under pressure from the Greens in his inner city seat of Grayndler, he was looking for a reason to walk away from WestConnex, and writing to call upon this report was part of that process. The fact is, you cannot trust Labor and the Greens to deliver substantial transport infrastructure, but the Turnbull Coalition Government in Canberra, working with the New South Wales Government, is determined to see this project delivered because of the benefits it will bring for Sydney and the people of Sydney.
And can I make one final point about the concessional loan, which is a feature of the arrangements between the Commonwealth and New South Wales. The concessional loan had a number of benefits. It allowed stage two of WestConnex to proceed more quickly than would otherwise have been the case. And indeed, I’ve spoken this afternoon with Dennis Cliche, the chief executive of Sydney Motorways Corporation, who has confirmed to me that in his view the concessional loan allowed work on stage two to commence some 12 to 18 months earlier than would have been the case had that not been there. And the other point is this: By providing support in the form of a loan, the Commonwealth is providing money that we are going to get repaid. As traffic builds up on WestConnex, as traffic levels build up and the tolling revenue streams increase, the Commonwealth will be repaid under the concessional loan. And so we’re getting value for taxpayers, because that money will come back to the Commonwealth and then will be able to be spent on other useful, important priorities of government, at the same time as supporting this vital project which is so important for Sydney to help people move around efficiently, to bring the district parts of the city together, and to take traffic off inner city streets.
Question: Labor says that you’re building a road that hadn’t been planned.
Paul Fletcher: What’s going on here is that you have a very important project, it is recommended by Infrastructure New South Wales, it’s got a business case, a benefit-cost ratio of 1.7, the benefits exceed the cost by 70 per cent. It’s been approved by Infrastructure Australia. This is an extremely important project, and Labor committed $1.8 billion to support this project. In 2014, the Shadow Minister, Mr Albanese, was on ABC Radio criticising the Coalition for not spending enough money on WestConnex. By 2016, he’d done a backflip, and he’d told Fran Kelly on her program that Labor had never committed 1.8 billion; it had only committed 25 million for planning. Quite extraordinary when there is a paper trail of Labor committing 1.8 billion, as the audit report today has acknowledged.
So let’s be clear: this report has nothing to say about the substantial merits of the project, but focuses on a narrow, technical issue which is the approval processes within the Commonwealth. It had one recommendation, one recommendation only, which is about the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development making some changes to its processes in the way it provides advice to ministers where a loan is being contemplated. That’s a sensible recommendation, and of course the department will be accepting it.
But we need to understand the context here. Labor has an inglorious record on WestConnex. They have completely changed their tune. It’s driven by politics. It’s driven by Mr Albanese’s personal fear of losing his seat – his inner city seat – to the Greens, and he was quite prepared to sell out the people of Western and Southwestern Sydney, even though when he was in Government, he was backing WestConnex because as he correctly identified at that time, WestConnex will deliver significant benefits for the people of Southwestern and Western Sydney.
So Labor can get on with trying to squabble with the Greens over votes in the inner city. What we in the Coalition are focused on, with WestConnex and so many other projects around the country, is delivering transformational infrastructure that will help people move around the city more quickly, that will help people enjoy better lives because if they can get to and from work more quickly, that will increase efficiency, productivity and safety, and transform our cities for the better.
Question: Did the Coalition hand over $1.5 billion before the business case was made?
Paul Fletcher: What we have done in relation to WestConnex is we have provided support to the New South Wales Government with a view to getting the project moving quickly. We did that very effectively. The money was provided to the New South Wales Government. We provided grant money. We also provided the $2 billion concessional loan funding. That has now been provided in a series of tranches over the next few years. So, a staged series of payments. Again, I make the point: the money that’s provided under the concessional loan will come back to the Commonwealth. It’s a loan. So this is a very financially prudent and responsible way of providing financial support for this important project.
There is a recommendation. There’s one recommendation in the audit report that goes to a technical issue of how the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development should provide advice to ministers when a loan is in contemplation. That’s a sensible recommendation, and the Department of Infrastructure has made it clear it’ll be taking that.
Question: Yeah, but was the money handed over before the business case was made?
Paul Fletcher: It is not unusual for there to be payments at an early stage of the process. A similar thing happened, for example, under the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd Government in relation to $500 million for the Ipswich Motorway. But the point I make is every payment after that went through a process of not being handed over until the Department of Infrastructure was satisfied that milestones had been met.
The other point I make is what the Turnbull Government and the Coalition Government in Canberra here have done is we have worked to provide support for this project so that it could go ahead as quickly as possible, to deliver the benefits to the people of Sydney. There is an Infrastructure Australia recommendation that this project proceed. It was based upon originally a proposal from Infrastructure New South Wales. The benefit-cost ratio is 1.7. There is one technical recommendation in this audit report for the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development, which the department has indicated it will take.
Thanks very much.