Address to Australian Local Government Association National Local Roads and Transport Congress

Speech

WTS030/2014

13 November 2014

‘Corridors and Collaboration’
Tamworth Memorial Hall

Good morning ladies and gentlemen.

It is a pleasure to be back in Tamworth and to again address the Australian Local Government Association's National Local Roads and Transport Congress.

Regrettably, I was unable to personally attend last year's Congress in Alice Springs as it coincided with the first sitting of the new Parliament.

Since that time, the Government has been delivering on its election promises to build a strong, secure and prosperous Australia by:

  • Fixing the budget;
  • Building the roads of the 21st Century;
  • Abolishing the carbon and mining taxes; and
  • Stopping the boats.

We've said what we would do; and we're doing what we said.

Before I speak about the benefits to Local Government and regional Australia from these election commitments, I would first like to acknowledge the presence of the ALGA Board; and in particular offer my thanks and congratulations to outgoing ALGA President Felicity-Ann Lewis for a commendable and productive presidency.

Felicity-Ann has been a driving force for local government and communities across Australia and has considerably raised the profile and concerns of local government at the national level through her tireless campaigning and lobbying.

I wish her all the best in her future endeavours.

I likewise offer my congratulations and welcome to the newly elected ALGA President, Troy Pickard; I look forward to working with you and further developing the Government's strong and collaborative relationship with ALGA.

I warmly welcome all Mayors and Councillors and local government officials in attendance today—especially those newly elected from the recent South Australian and Tasmanian local government elections. As a former Councillor and Mayor of 14 years myself, I understand the honour, privilege and challenges of delivering local solutions to local challenges.

At a speech to the Infrastructure Partnerships Australia Conference in Melbourne in September, I spoke of the importance of collaboration and partnerships with local government. There I explained that the Government's ‘commitment to delivering infrastructure at the community level—where it is often most important—can only be done in partnership with local government.’

The Government values its relationship with, and voice of, local government and regional Australia. Only when we collaborate can we achieve the best outcomes for the communities that we collectively serve.

That's why ALGA has a seat at the table when discussing issues of national significance at each COAG meeting. ALGA is on the Steering Committee in the Reform of the Federation White Paper, and I am aware the organisation has made comments on the first Issues Paper released by the Prime Minister in September.

State and individual local government bodies presented insightful submissions in relation to the White Papers on Developing Northern Australia and Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper. I look forward to their contributions to the upcoming White Paper on Taxation.

Building, maintaining and improving the corridors that drive the nation's economic prosperity is of paramount important to the Government.

Safe, efficient, connected and comprehensive transport now and into the future is a vital concern as we accept that by 2030 Australia's population will grow to 30 million, our freight task is expected to double—and treble along the eastern seaboard—and based on current trends, congestion costs the economy $15 billion each year.

Each of these factors—individually and collectively—requires that we, in our respective levels of government, have a responsibility to put the necessary planning in place, accompanied by the necessary reforms.

Local government has a big stake in that future because it is often where the vital decisions about servicing a bigger population must be made.

And the Australian Government is working to deliver infrastructure that benefits our communities.

Our record $50 billion Infrastructure Investment Programme includes crucial road, rail, intermodal and port projects, which in combination with state, territory and local governments, will leverage over $125 billion in new investments across our cities, regional centres and rural communities.

The Government's massive works programme will deliver more jobs, better infrastructure and a stronger economy for regional Australians, with local government as the key beneficiaries.

I understand that there has been a great deal of anxiety across local governments arising from the Government's decision to temporarily pause the indexation of the financial assistance grants for three years and the impact this may have on local roads.

Much about the Government's position has been misunderstood and misreported. Allow me to present a few facts.

This Final Budget Outcome for 2013–14 confirmed a $48.5 billion deficit.

Labor left Australia with no plan to fund the future and address their unsustainable spending trajectory over the medium term. This brings into sharp focus the need for budget repair and all sectors and levels of Government are contributing to the task.

Labor left Roads to Recovery in limbo and local councils stranded, with this vital program terminating on 30 June this year.

This Government is absolutely committed to repairing the budget and driving economic growth through collaboration with local government in delivering productive infrastructure.

That's why this Government has committed over $3.8 billion in new money to local government and regional initiatives that were never provided for under the previous Labor Government.

  • $2.1 billion for the new Roads to Recovery Programme;
  • $1 billion for the new National Stronger Regions Fund;
  • $300 million for the new Bridges Renewal Programme;
  • $565 million for the Black Spot Programme; and
  • an additional $200 million for the Heavy Vehicle Safety and Productivity Programme.

I am proud to say that every dollar of that $3.8 billion has been provided under the Coalition.

The first Roads to Recovery quarterly payment was made on Tuesday (11 November), the second quarterly Financial Assistance Grants payments will be made on Monday 17 November. This amounts to local governments receiving in excess of $600 million in the month of November to invest in productive infrastructure and service delivery.

Roads to Recovery was initiated from this Congress in 2000 and established by the Howard/Anderson Government to deliver safer roads and improved access and, therefore, better economic and social outcomes for communities across Australia.

Over the past 13 years since we put it in place, Roads to Recoveryhas become essential to local councils to assist them in their enormous responsibility to maintain over 650,000 kilometres of local roads.

Roads to Recovery is a partnership between our two levels of government that unfailingly delivers at the local level.

The uncertainty local councils endured these last few months was absolutely unnecessary and shows Labor and the Greens were more interested in playing cynical games than fixing the problems facing our communities.

In 2015–16, under Roads to Recovery, each local government around the nation will receive the equivalent of one extra year's funding. And until 2019, the minimum amount of their own funds that councils must direct to road construction and maintenance each year to access their Roads to Recovery allocation is anchored at 2013–14 levels.

And, under the Coalition's new permanent Roads to Recovery Programme, Tamworth Regional Council has access to more than $11 million to maintain over 3,000 kilometres of sealed and unsealed local roads under its jurisdiction.

This means that for the next five years Tamworth and, indeed, all local government areas, have more money to spend on their community priorities as well as future funding certainty.

In this year's Budget we acted on our election commitment and announced the new $300 million Bridges Renewal Programme.

The first round closed on 28 August with around 270 proposals received.

We also extended the Heavy Vehicle Safety and Productivity Programme until 2019, committing a further $200 million over five years.

Round Four closed on 28 August with my department receiving around 150 proposals. I expect to announce successful projects under both programmes in coming months, with the next rounds opening in late 2015.

We are delivering on our promise to broaden the eligibility criteria of the national Black Spot Programme to make it easier for regional communities to compete for a record $565 million—including additional funding of $200 million for vital road safety projects.

Over the next two forward Budget years our investment in Black Spot will almost triple to $160 million a year. At least 50 per cent of the funding in this period will be dedicated to fixing roads in regional Australia.

And as you know, Round One of the $1 billion National Stronger Regions Fund opened in October.

The Fund is an opportunity for local communities to invest in their own future by nominating infrastructure projects that will have an economic and social impact by improving the productivity and liveability of their region.

I hope many here are involved in putting together applications to meet the closing date of 28 November. The new and reinvigorated RDA network may be of assistance in identifying good local projects, preparing applications and project delivery.

In addition, as part of our $314 million Community Development Grants programme, we are delivering almost 300 small grants for community projects across Australia.

We will also continue to provide $9.3 billion to 2017–18 under the Financial Assistance Grants Programme.

The temporary pause in indexation is more than offset by the injection of new funds under the programmes I have outlined today.

I want Federal money to build local infrastructure, not fund court cases to stop projects and I make no apology for giving priority to funding for roads.

I want to briefly mention the National Partnership Agreement on Land Transport Infrastructure Projects (NPA) which allows for the delivery of the Government's Infrastructure Investment Programme to 2019.

Although this agreement is signed by states and territories it assists in driving regional development through the construction and planning of major national road and rail links.

A new requirement of the NPA, which applies to more than half the $50 billion investment—$27 billion to be precise—is for all projects receiving Commonwealth funding over $20 million to have a local industry participation plan.

The intent of the plan is to benefit local governments by creating opportunities for local businesses to become involved in infrastructure projects, which will further develop their capability, improve their competitiveness and provide jobs.

Importantly, this one NPA replaces individual MoUs signed by states and territories and so contributes to the Government's policy of reducing red tape.

The $229 million National Highway Upgrade programme is another initiative with significant regional benefits.

Under this programme, states and territories can apply for funding for critical safety and productivity improvements on the national network. 

Expressions of interest have been received by my Department and I expect to settle indicative funding allocations by mid-December.

I'd like to move now to a debate I hope local government will continue to be actively involved in—future road pricing and funding reform.

In May this year, the Ministers for Transport and Infrastructure Council agreed to start implementing a suite of initial heavy vehicle road reform measures that focus on improving the services provided to operators, and lays the ground work for informed debate on future reforms.

Now these initial measures include developing asset registers and agreed service level standards, improved data and demand forecasting, publishing heavy vehicle expenditure plans, and investigating ways for industry to negotiate and pay for improved access.

As a part of the early reform work that's been undertaken was the introduction of the new single national overwidth permit system.

Sadly that system, which was scheduled to commence and did commence on the first of January, did not cover itself in glory; indeed, it collapsed within four or five hours of opening.

No tier of government can look on that experience with anything other than some embarrassment, but also hopefully learning a lot of lessons.

And I suppose I can innocently wash my hands of it and say it was done by the previous government; but I'm not going to do that.

The reality was I think the previous government undertook reasonable due diligence, they engaged the best lawyers and auditors in the country who attested to the fact that it was going to work.

But it collapsed within hours.

And there were two fundamental reasons.

One was that the states dumped a whole pile of applications on the regulator on the first morning, some of which they had had in their own systems for many months, and clearly the system was overloaded.

But the second, and it's the reason why I'm raising this this morning, the second most fundamental reason why it collapsed was that local government wasn't ready for it.

Local government have in all states had the power now, and the responsibility, to actually give permits for overwidth vehicles travelling on their road systems.

And everybody assumed it happened. But in reality, particularly in country local authorities, it's obvious it didn't.

People just went through without asking.

I think in Victoria there was a reasonable relationship with councils and the state government had a bit of an idea about which roads and bridges were safe; but in reality the councils were not being asked.

And so when the regulator rang up local councils and said: ‘Hey we've got this wide load that wants to go through your council area, can they go through?’ they were generally met on the phone with dumbfounded ignorance: ‘I don't know.’

One council said: ‘oh there is a guy here that does that but he's on two weeks leave.‘ The truck was at the boundary of the shire and wanting to come in with this load, and he was on two weeks leave and nobody else in the council could do it.

So we have been using the months since that time to try to correct the system and make it work.

There's been consultation, and in the ALGA, there's going to be more work to be done because councils do have the local knowledge that's necessary to enable a permit to be issued safely for a wide load to pass, or a heavy load, to pass through your territory.

We don't want your bridges collapsing; you know which ones are strong and which one's aren't.

There'll need to be, and we are developing, a list of automatically approved routes—there's over 500 on the list already.

But we want local government to participate strongly in the development of the routes that you are prepared to allow overwidth vehicles to use, and overweight vehicles to use, and those that you're not.

There will be always some exceptions, and the biggest early problems occurred in Melbourne in relation to movement of cranes around the city.

Cranes often only go to a site once in their life. And so there will be new work that has to be done, but we are going to have to work a lot better to make our national road reform work if we're going to deliver the economic benefits that might flow.

So we're just at the beginning; we want to work with all levels of government and industry to improve the quality of our road services, and that's why you're here today.

The Productivity Commission has recommended that state governments hold telemetric trials to test potential charging reform options, and create special road funds as a better way to allocate the spending of road money.

The Government is currently considering those options and consulting with stakeholders.

I've spoken about the Government's valued partnership with local government, our $50 billion-plus infrastructure investment program; however all governments have a responsibility also to work beyond the current programs.

The Australian Government is committed to evidence-based infrastructure planning; reforming Infrastructure Australia's structure has been an important example of this commitment.

And as part of those reforms Infrastructure Australia is undertaking an audit of nationally significant infrastructure and developing a 15-year plan of infrastructure priorities.

That plan is being based on a new audit, and other research and analysis, undertaken by Infrastructure Australia, and will guide our investment decisions into the future—the next 15 years and beyond.

For the first time, Infrastructure Australia will get ahead of the game; it will actually be identifying the priorities before governments make the decisions about which roads will be built.

And that's clearly the way planning is meant to work.

We have a busy program ahead.

The Government is committed to undertaking further reforms.

We want to work with other tiers of government and to deal with the reforms that are going to be necessary to make our system work best.

A key finding of the Productivity Commission report was that land corridors should be preserved to meet demand and avoid lost productivity as existing infrastructure assets become capacity constrained.

Preserved corridors will only remain viable if they're protected from encroachment. We've got some classic examples of how that's worked well, the most recent being the preservation to site for the Badgerys Creek Airport, which now, after 50 years, is finally going to be put to use.

So the Australian Government is working with ALGA and state and territory options on getting land preservation and planning right.

Local government must be involved through the Productivity Commission process, contributing multiple submissions about managing infrastructure at the local level.

I want to thank ALGA and local government more broadly for their valuable contributions.

And finally, thank you also for having the pleasure and then privilege and opportunity to be part of this year's congress.

As I said at the beginning, we're about creating a stronger Australia, and that requires an unwavering eye on the future, and partnerships are integral to us getting the task completed.

Without doubt, ALGA and local government is the sector where a lot of this future will be focused.

Most journeys begin and end on local roads, and the Australian Government and local government journey on local roads together.

I am pleased to say it will be a journey that won't end.

I look forward to our continuing collaboration, look forward to working with the new board of ALGA, and wish you a successful congress and constructive and useful debate, which will help further the cause of making sure our country has an infrastructure network that can meet the challenges of the century ahead.

Thank you.