Transcript - National Press Club address

JULIE HARE, HOST: Hello and welcome to the National Press Club here in Canberra for today’s Westpac address. My name is Julie Hare and I’m the education editor at the Australian Financial Review and a board member here at the club. Our guest today is Hon Catherine King. She’s the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government and her address today is titled “Investing in resilient infrastructure and building communities”. Ms King was first elected to Federal Parliament in 2001 to represent the electorate of Ballarat. She’s covered portfolios both in Government and in shadow Government, in areas as diverse as health and ageing, transport and regional services. She holds a degree in social work and a masters in public policy from the ANU and recently – I actually can’t believe this. She recently got a law degree from Deakin University. How she did that and her work as a politician remains to be a big question. Anyway, prior to entering Parliament, Ms King worked in the social welfare sector in Ballarat and later in the public service in Canberra as a director of the Commonwealth Department of Health and Aged Care and also as a senior manager at KPMG’s health consulting practice. You can follow the conversation on Twitter @PressClubAus or #NPC. Please welcome Catherine King.

CATHERINE KING, MINISTER: Thanks so much for that introduction Julie. It’s lovely to be back here at the Press Club. I think it’s my third time but my first time as Minister for Transport, Transport Infrastructure, Regional Development and Local Government and the subject, really, of my speech today is focused on infrastructure, but I know that there will be lots of interest in other parts of the portfolio.

Can I start by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the lands on which we gather, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, and pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging. This is the year of the Voice and I am so proud to be part of a Government that’s committed to implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full. In a decade to come, I hope very much as a country that we look back on the year of 2023 and let us ensure that this is a year that we make progress on that long road to reconciliation.

Can I also acknowledge my colleague Alicia Payne, who’s one of the local members here and also making a huge contribution as part of our national Parliament and our Australian Government. To Ambassador Gallardo, Peru’s Ambassador to Australia; Peter Duncan, the chair of the Australian Rail Track Corporation; and to Mike Mrdak, former secretary of the Department of Infrastructure and also someone I count as a good friend.

Infrastructure, of course, plays an essential role in our nation’s economy. Its industries employ thousands of people, building our nation, building our communities and keeping us connected with one another. From the biggest projects, like METRONET in Perth, to smaller projects like Mickleham Road in Melbourne, infrastructure shapes our lives. In 2021–22, 8.9 per cent of Australia’s gross domestic product was accounted for by Australia’s infrastructure industry. And over the four quarters to October last year, $36.4 billion was spent on infrastructure projects across Australia.

To pick out just a few projects, 14,000 workers will together build the Sydney Metro to Western Sydney Airport, including 250 apprentices; 6,500 workers will deliver the M8 Ring Road upgrade in Melbourne. In WA, Metronet is supporting over 10,000 jobs over the life of that program. Thousands have worked and are working today as I speak on the Bruce and Pacific Highways. But good infrastructure doesn’t just create jobs during construction. It is a long-term investment and a long-term driver of employment, national productivity and of opportunity.

One of the biggest infrastructure projects in the country right now is Western Sydney Airport. It will support almost 28,000 direct and indirect jobs by 2031, five years after the airport will open in 2026. Yes, these jobs are being directly generated from construction, but our infrastructure investment will also see jobs created in operations, in retail, in hospitality, freight and logistics and even in child care. Importantly, these benefits and this opportunity will flow to local residents in Western Sydney, with workforce targets meaning that at least 30 per cent of jobs during the construction phase must come from local residents. When the airport opens, this will increase so that a minimum of 50 per cent of Western Sydney Airport jobs will go to Western Sydney residents. And our skills guarantee means that 10 per cent of our workers on Commonwealth-funded infrastructure major projects will be an apprentice, a trainee or a paid cadet. For Western Sydney Airport, that’s at 20 per cent.

Investment in Pilbara ports, Middle Arm and projects like them across the country will similarly deliver jobs for the future. Across the nation, 190,000 workers are building a better future through public infrastructure projects alone, working in jobs as varied as architects, to electricians, glaziers to geophysicists and just about everything in between. Those 190,000 workers are earning a good living. They are supporting their families; they’re putting their kids through school; and they’re spending money in their own communities and neighbourhoods.

With the car industry having left our shores it’s our construction workers, our engineers, our designers and architects and builders who are innovating across this industry. Countless other young Australians are working on these projects, learning trades, picking up the skills that will give them a long rewarding career working on major projects all over Australia. These workers and trainees and the families they support can be found in every single part of the country, from digging the Metro tunnels underneath Swanston Street in Melbourne, laying the tracks for Inland Rail or putting new tarmac down in the Tanami from Alice Springs to Yuendumu and beyond. This is before you get to the impacts that infrastructure has on communities once it’s built. The Suburban Rail Loop, for example, will reshape Melbourne just like METRONET is reshaping Perth. It will create new employment hubs, entertainment precincts and growth areas, better connecting millions of Victorians with the opportunities that they deserve.

I’ve already mentioned the Tanami, a project I visited, but it is impossible to overstate the impact of this project and our other investments in roads in remote communities across the Northern Territory. These roads are a lifeline for supplies and services, the things that all Australians take for granted, that they need to live a decent life. We know that building better, more resilient and more flood proof infrastructure has a significant contribution to make to closing the gap.

Infrastructure is where we make the investments that make our economy more productive and more resilient and they importantly make Australians’ lives more liveable and more fulfilling. Smart infrastructure investment not only allows businesses to grow, but it allows people and communities to access new jobs and new opportunities. It allows people to live better lives and to get ahead. And yes, infrastructure has a critical role to do the economic job of improving productivity and creating jobs as well as providing the sort of stimulus that the economy needs in downtimes, but that can’t be its only purpose. Infrastructure is where we see economics meeting people, meeting their expectations, meeting their aspirations and allowing them to meet each other. That’s the point of it.

To understand how infrastructure connects us, it’s useful to consider when the alternate happens. What happens when these connections are not there and when they fail? Just last week I was in Fitzroy Crossing and, as you know, that community has been devastated by recent flooding. The Fitzroy Crossing Bridge, if you haven’t seen the pictures, looks like a broken rollercoaster. It is not meant to look that way. And locals are ferrying goods in tinnies across a fast-flowing river that is still flood-affected. Sadly, two have lost their lives. For the local community, it means that their only connection east along the Great Northern Highway towards Katherine and beyond to eastern Australia has been lost, and for the nation it means that one of our significant freight routes carrying cattle, fresh fruit and vegetables and the necessities of daily life has been cut.

In the short term, the Western Australian Government is establishing a barge service, but in the longer term, a new bridge will be needed to connect East and West Kimberley. It’s a powerful reminder of how integral infrastructure is as well as how we need to ensure our road and rail networks are sustainable, durable and reliable. A preferred proponent was last week named to construct the new Fitzroy Crossing Bridge, but the task of making our entire freight network more resilient will take years of effort and years of investment. The fact is that in 2023, that we were relying on a 1970s single-lane bridge to carry freight across year after year points to a significant problem, significant vulnerabilities, not just in Fitzroy Crossing, but across our freight network as a whole.

Phase 1 of BITRE’s Road and Rail Supply Chain Resilience Review makes it clear. The essential networks that we rely on have been neglected for too long and they are increasingly vulnerable. The document is publicly available and for those who are interested, it is absolutely well worth a read. What it shows is pretty startling. The critical freight routes that cross our continent are vulnerable. The transcontinental rail line, the Stuart Highway, the Carpentaria Highway, the South Coast Highway in Western Australia and the main Westrail line out of Sydney are all vital transport links and they are all weighted at high risk. These routes struggle to cope at the best of times; as the climate changes we will see more and more disruptions. The roads we choose to build and maintain, the rail lines we choose to upgrade and the investments we make, they matter. And there is significant lost opportunity when we don’t make those investments.

The simple fact is the past decade where the Liberal and National Party treated the infrastructure investment pipeline as their own election fund has been one of significant lost opportunity. They chose to spend money on commuter car parks, urban congestion projects and roads of strategic importance that miraculously seemed largely only to be needed in Liberal and National Party seats. That’s why I am so determined that Commonwealth investment is targeted, that we invest in products that deliver productivity growth, connect communities, futureproof our freight routes and deliver both economic and social returns. Ensuring that we get the benefit underpins the decision that I as a Minister and we as a Government have made so far.

A prime example of the previous Government’s failures and the serious impact of this is Inland Rail. I want to remind people the reason that Inland Rail was invested in in the first place: to increase our nation’s productivity to take freight off our already congested roads to move them efficiently and safely by rail and to get goods to market more quickly. The previous Government I think lost sight of this. They didn’t see it as a project that had those goals and under my predecessor, frankly, the project became something of a strange vanity project for him. And now Inland Rail – it is way over budget and it is way behind schedule. To get it back on track, Minister Gallagher and I together the shareholding Ministers of the Australian Rail Track Corporation, tasked Dr Kerry Schott to provide us with a review into the entire project and she had a very big job on her hands. Katy and I are working closely with our Cabinet and ERC colleagues to finalise a Government response to Dr Schott’s review and we’ll release that review and the response together. We’ll have more to say on that in the not-too-distant future.

But I can tell you when you see the report, it does make for gripping reading to those who want to learn the lessons about how not to do nation-building. Dr Schott found significant concerns about the governance and the delivery of the project. It is, frankly, a damning indictment on the National Party and a salutary lesson as to why they should never have their hands on portfolios with large discretionary funds again. When I think of the project, I believe those original goals are still incredibly important, particularly as we consider how to improve the resilience of our national freight system and our supply chain.

Across rail, industry tells me that their networks, largely owned and operated by ARTC, effectively face closure on 20 per cent of days. The track from Moss Vale to Unanderra was closed for 209 days to October last year. Tracks to Port Augusta and through the Hunter Valley have seen recent disruptions. And the important track from Parkes to Broken Hill, a key node for our east–west freight link, was closed from late October to late January, forcing trains from Sydney to Perth to detour via Melbourne. We need to build more resilience into our network.

Indeed, it was with lessons like Inland Rail in mind that the Prime Minister asked me to review Infrastructure Australia and to do the work necessary to revitalise that organisation as the Commonwealth’s independent adviser on nationally significant infrastructure projects. It was established in 2008 by the now Prime Minister to provide the Commonwealth with advice on developing the infrastructure investment Australia needs for a better future. It was set up to be a rigorous expert independent body to provide advice to the Commonwealth Government about priority infrastructure investments. But over recent years, it’s tried to do too many things and ended up being sidelined by a Government that, frankly, was not interested in its advice.

Guided by the advice of Nicole Lockwood and Mike Mrdak, who is here today, our changes will put in place a stronger, more focused Infrastructure Australia. I will be introducing legislation and then appointing three commissioners to lead the organisation into the future. The revitalised Infrastructure Australia will produce a more refined, more targeted infrastructure priority list; will develop a national planning and assessment framework to support national consistency in infrastructure assessment, including the way benefit–cost ratios are calculated; be more active in the post–completion stage of infrastructure projects so that we can learn and inform future projects; work to build the capacity of local government and our regions to undertake more rigorous assessments of infrastructure projects; work more closely with the infrastructure bodies set up by States and Territories; and participate as an integral part of the budget process in advising me and the Expenditure Review Committee on request from State and Territory Government.

When you boil it down, we’re remaking Infrastructure Australia to ensure that we make better decisions. Making the right decision matters to people in cities, it matters to those like me who live in the regions and it absolutely matters in remote Australia. These decisions are perhaps more important to get right now than they have been ever before. Earlier, I ran through the numbers of people who are working to build our infrastructure, almost 190,000 of them in public jobs alone. What I didn’t mention is that this is not nearly meeting the demand.

Infrastructure Australia’s Workforce Supply Dashboard tells us that there is currently demand for 283,400 workers across the infrastructure sector. That’s a shortfall of over 94,000 workers. In September this year, the shortfall is due to peak at about 112,000 workers. This shortage is particularly felt in relation from engineers to surveyors, project managers and labourers amongst many others. The shortage is hitting every State and Territory and it’s being combined with rising costs in construction materials.

At a time like this, we can’t build everything at once. People like me would love to but we can’t. We have to be strategic and we have to ensure that we don’t add to inflationary pressures. Without getting too political, we have to work out which projects are deliverable and which are just political window-dressing. These are not easy decisions to take, but I would rather be honest with people now than to do what the previous Government did – building hope that an undeliverable project would one day be built.

I want to give a current example; you might be aware in the seat of Aston there’s a by-election. In this electorate, the previous Government made three upgrade promises ahead of the 2019 election, an election I don’t think they expected to win, but one that they were desperate to make sure that they hung on to a number of seats. Aston was one of them. They made commitments to Napoleon, Dorset and Wellington Roads. The previous Government claimed that the Commonwealth would provide 100 per cent of the funding for these three roads. They committed $50 million to Napoleon, $50 million to Dorset Road and $110 million to Wellington Road – $210 million in total. They all sound good. They’re great projects. But the problem is for me to actually build them, I would have to find $1.3 billion. This money was not in the budget and there are examples such as this littered right the way across the infrastructure investment pipeline. We did some of the work of cleaning up this mess at the last Budget, but there is, of course, more to be done.

A major part of this involves working closely with all levels of Government to identify the actual cost of projects and when they can be delivered. In the current economic climate, we’re working across the Federation to streamline the infrastructure investment pipeline, ensuring that key projects are prioritised and Australians see improved equity, transparency and value for money. To help with this end I’ve been working with my State and Territory colleagues through our regular Infrastructure and Transport Ministers meeting to refine our work plan and to focus our time on a core set of objectives. This new work plan will guide our activity to the end of the year and will be updated with priorities as they shift.

It focuses on market capacity constraints affecting the construction industry, improving the interoperability of rail systems, decarbonisation of infrastructure and transport, heavy vehicle productivity and, importantly, road safety. These reforms might not always be glamorous and I’m not expecting to see them on the front pages tomorrow, but it is strong foundations like this that allow us to build an infrastructure pipeline that will stand up. Of course, this more targeted investment in infrastructure should also bring with it advances in the road towards net zero. As it is across the Government, it is a key focus of mine.

Assisting our transport and infrastructure sectors to contribute to our net zero target is an enduring focus and one that requires a detailed road map to guide our efforts. From road to rail to water and in the air, we’re working across industry and across the economy to decarbonise essential industries. We’re encouraging the uptake of electric vehicles and rolling out charging infrastructure through a National Electric Vehicle Strategy. We’re looking at Euro 6 standards for heavy vehicles and fuel efficiency standards, and Chris Bowen and I will have more to say on a number of important initiatives when our Electric Vehicle Strategy is launched in coming weeks.

On the seas, we’re partnering with global partners to deliver green shipping lanes while in the air we’re working with industry to increase the use of sustainable aviation fuels ready to help that very difficult to abate transition to a cleaner future. Just yesterday, I was at the Avalon Air Show hosting a Jet Zero roundtable while at the same time on display outside the room was SAF-fuelled helicopters and jet engines. The future is clean. The future is coming and we need to ensure that it comes with jobs and investment here in Australia. This is an attitude that is now spread across my department and of course across Government.

We’ve established a taskforce in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to advise the Government on how to support those regional communities in particular as Australia transforms to a net zero economy. A net zero unit has been established in my department to identify how the infrastructure portfolio can work across Government and with the transport and construction sectors to help achieve net zero and improve the resilience of our transport networks and supply chains in the face of ever-increasing extreme weather events. That’s why we’re investing in projects to support the Port of Newcastle and the Hunter region becoming hydrogen ready, alongside the Townsville hydrogen hub and others in places like Tasmania, Gladstone and the Pilbara. Investing in greener technologies and getting to net zero isn’t something we can pick and choose. It’s an obligation on all of us.

In the time remaining, I just want to briefly turn to some of what’s next. Just like I’m determined to prioritise the hard work of building resilience over empty announcements, I’m determined to maximise the role of Government in the places we live, leveraging our position as an investor in people and places to help grow the economy and to improve the communities that we all call home. It’s one of the lenses through which I look at infrastructure investment. It’s particularly how I approach the task of investment in the Brisbane Olympics and Paralympics.

We inherited from the previous Government and previous Prime Minister one line in a letter. No funding appropriated, no actual venues chosen and no costings completed. Brisbane 2032, in my view, provides an opportunity to transform the city of Brisbane. The Brisbane Arena right in the heart of the new Roma Street Precinct will anchor urban renewal across that part of the city. It will change how the place feels, how we interact with it now and into the future. It will deliver a great facility for athletes and for people watching them, but after the two weeks it’s over, it will leave a huge legacy, a better space for the community to use long into the future. It’s the same approach that we’re taking to our investments in regional precincts.

Across Australia, from cities to towns, we will be partnering with Local and State Governments to redevelop town centres and civic space. In November last year, I was in Muswellbrook to recommit our $10.5 million funding to their town centre redevelopment as well to tour of the work they’ve done so far. This new town centre will be a space for the arts, community and cultural events, farmers markets, outdoor performances, screenings and creates a new sense of identity and activity in that town. At its heart is the Upper Hunter Innovation Precinct, providing STEM skills and training to interested small businesses, young people and the broader community. The Mayor, Steve Reynolds, told me that it would also act as a catalyst encouraging private investment and driving a continued redevelopment of Muswellbrook. You don’t have to take his word for it though. You can see it yourself with stage 1 of the project almost finished. It’s a much smaller stage than the Olympics but you can see the incredible change its brought to that town and the community that call it home.

It’s these sorts of investments that I want to see across our regions and towns. Some of the city deals of the previous Government like that in Launceston, developed by the previous government and developed and being implemented by ours, they managed to achieve this. They’re really good projects. But most others became little more than a disconnected grab bag of election commitments. I’m determined to see that change and to see opportunities for urban renewal at the heart of what we as a Government can leverage with our programs.

It’s an incredibly exciting time for infrastructure. We need to keep making those important investments that get us home quickly and safely and build a better future for communities large and small. But we need to recognise that we’re living through a time of great change and the decisions that we make now can set our nation up for a stronger future. This portfolio deals with the long game. Building things takes a long time and there is no way of getting around that. The Albanese Government’s job and my job is to set the guiding principles and to make sure we invest in things that make a real difference to people, not just build things for the sake of it.

When it comes down to it, the role of this portfolio is to build the resilient and productive backbone of the nation that gets you home safely, gets you home quickly and builds a vibrant community filled with opportunity. It’s about making our roads safe, our rail reliable and the places we live great places to live. Thank you very much for your time here today.

JULIE HARE: Sorry, I was bossing the Minister around.

CATHERINE KING: That’s all right.

JULIE HARE: Under the previous Government, Infrastructure Australia’s board was described as “hopelessly politicised”. Labor has made integrity a core feature of its time in Government. But there’s already been questions raised about some issues, $2 billion to the Melbourne Suburban Rail Loop before the Victorian election and whether a proper cost–benefit analysis has been done over the Melbourne to Brisbane Inland Railway. Now, I know your three commissioners of Infrastructure Australia haven’t been appointed yet, but can you absolutely guarantee that Labor will not bulldoze independent due process and decision-making?

CATHERINE KING: Absolutely. The first thing in terms of Infrastructure Australia and the way in which I’ve approached pretty much, well, all the board appointments in my portfolio is on a merits-based process. I’ve asked particularly the department and I know Katy Gallagher is also doing this work across Government – is to have a proper skills matrix and to advertise and go out to market. You might have seen we’ve just done that recently with high-speed rail. We’re asking for people to apply for this board. I’m not looking for political appointments. I’m looking for people who fill the skills matrix. I think you’ll see when the Inland Rail report comes out why it’s so important to actually do that to deliver these projects.

JULIE HARE: First question, David Crowe from The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

DAVID CROWE: Thank you, Julie. Thanks, Minister, for your speech. Just picking up on one of the themes there, you mentioned Inland Rail going over cost and also behind schedule. Snowy 2.0 is over budget and also behind schedule. We know from the economic figures that the cost of construction keeps going up. There are these labour shortages as you mentioned, supply chain problems in getting materials. So, the cost keeps rising; it’s rising faster than inflation. What does that mean for the affordability of the projects that you’re looking at as you head towards the May Budget? Are you going to have to delay projects in the May Budget and bite the bullet and maybe allocate less to them because they’re simply not going to be able to be done in time or their costs are going up too much and you’ve got to basically do more with less money in real terms?

CATHERINE KING: I’m going to flip it a bit because really what we’ve done is we haven’t delayed projects. Projects are delayed and they are delayed because of all the factors you just outlined – because of labour shortages, because of construction costs, because planning approvals haven’t been able to have been got, particularly for some of the projects. What Inland Rail really demonstrates and again, as I said, when you see the report, is just how important it is to be on top of every single part of this. And I think Minister Bowen would say the same with Snowy Hydro, he has responsibility for the delivery of that project, is just how important it is and that’s the right the way through from the governance of these projects, so GBEs having good strong skills-based boards, but also Ministers really making sure they’re actually asking questions about how much is this going to cost, rather than just being focused on a headline. And I think that’s, unfortunately, what we’ve seen with some of those projects you mentioned.


JULIE HARE: Anna Henderson from SBS.

ANNA HENDERSON: Thank you, Minister. You mentioned the Tanami Track a few times in your speech. I just wanted to understand whether the delays and the skills shortages could affect another road that was an election promise for Labor, the Outback Way, which is another huge spending project. What other election promises may fall by the wayside because of these issues? And whether or not fastening up the skills and migration review could have meant more of a pipeline of people to actually do this work – I understand that’s now delayed until the second half of this year.

CATHERINE KING: Yeah. Thank you. And I understand, Anna, you’ve got your mum and dad here as well today – I thought I’d give them a shout-out – who are from regional Australia so it’s lovely to have you here as well for your first Press Club. So, I guess what I’d say – and I’ve been to the Tanami recently and there’s a fantastic local construction crew who’s actually doing that work. I think they’re one of the really great South Australian family businesses and stories that are doing that project. Outback Way, the same. The money is available in the Budget for that, but again what I have to do at every Budget and, of course, all the time if I’m keeping on top of what’s happening with this pipeline, is to work with the State and Territory Governments about delivery and what’s happening on the ground. So, some of those projects can be flood-affected and weather-affected and there can be labour shortages. It’s not our intention with the Tanami I want to go full steam ahead to get that done; the Outback Way in the same way. But we’ve got to keep working with State and Territory Governments about what is actually happening, rather than just constantly saying we’re going to deliver these projects on these dates when we know we’re going to have underspend after underspend each year if we don’t keep an eye on it.

ANNA HENDERSON: And on the migration review?

CATHERINE KING: In terms of that, well, I think the good thing is we’re seeing people come back to Australia. We’re seeing students come back, we’re seeing workers come into Australia as well, and that’s an important part of the migration review and an important part of us lifting the migration cap on visas – on people coming into the country for this year. But we think very strongly that this is – you can’t do one without the other. We have to train more Australians to actually take these jobs. It’s why 180,000 fee-free TAFE places was part of our election commitment and part of our delivery in the October Budget, training more Australians here; the skills guarantee to actually build in the requirement for construction companies to employ apprentices, trainees and cadets to get that future workforce. But migration is going to have to play a part as well and I’m working closely with Clare O’Neil and Andrew Giles on that. Thanks, Anna.

JULIE HARE: Ben Westcott from Bloomberg.

BEN WESTCOTT: Thank you very much for your speech, Minister. Ben Westcott from Bloomberg. On high-speed rail, you’re seeking board members for your authority. You mentioned in your original release when that bill was passed, the business case for it was organised under the previous Infrastructure Minister, Labor Infrastructure Minister, you might have heard of him, Mr Albanese, and....

CATHERINE KING: He reminds me every now and again.

BEN WESTCOTT: Yes. In that he said there’s a $2 return on investment for every $1 spent. There was also a cost of more than $100 billion. Under your Government, you’ve said that you will focus very much on following the advice, following the experts on infrastructure decisions. If it comes back that high-speed rail is too expensive and does not make return on investment, will you sort of abandon the dream once and for all?

CATHERINE KING: The first same thing in terms of high-speed rail and one of the roles of the High-Speed Rail Authority and of the board will be to redo the business case for high-speed rail. Obviously, that’s important. We’ve said very closely the first part of it – I think, you know, of course, we want to build the entirety of it but you have to start, and the start has to be Sydney to Newcastle. I think in terms of the last business case was done, that was seen as the most viable part to start at in terms of the volume of people commuting and the volume of people living there. I think that will only become stronger and that’s really the focus in those first early years of the High Speed Rail Authority. We’ll, of course, ask them to work closely with Infrastructure Australia on the financing mechanisms for how we actually deliver and do high-speed rail. We’ll have to work with the New South Wales Government. They’ve got money already on the table for faster rail in that area, whether we combine those projects. So, there’s a big task to do. I’m determined to see it done, but, of course, we want to make sure it doesn’t become another Inland Rail, that we’re not seeing its costs blow out, that we’re really carefully managing that and we are doing what we can deliver. It’s why while there’s lots of people saying we want you to build Canberra to Sydney tomorrow, we want you to build the Melbourne link, everyone wants those things, I’m very, very focused on that Sydney to Newcastle bit because I think that’s where really the business case will stack up. But we have to do the work. We have to start that. And that’s really what the legislation and recruiting a new board and a new chair or a chair to this organisation is all about. Thank you.

JULIE HARE: Can I just ask a question about regional Australia? There was a report from Regional Australia Institute today about the movement of people not just out of cities but from the sea changes and tree changes during COVID to places like Noosa and Byron Bay, moving further out into really regional areas. Obviously, there’s issues of infrastructure when you start getting movements of people and there’s also issues of services around education, hospitals, et cetera. Have you got any modelling that would suggest that we’re going to see a continuation of that sort of migration west of the Dividing Range?

CATHERINE KING: Yeah, it will be interesting to see it settled. I know Liz is here from the Regional Australia Institute, who are doing great work actually bringing these really interesting population movements out, but also backing that up with evidence and good research as well. It will be interesting. I don’t know, I guess, is the short answer to that. It feels like it is a change that is staying. I think obviously COVID saw a lot of people – in my hometown of Ballarat we saw a lot of new families move in and they’re staying. They’re staying, wanting to have a different work–life balance. Many of them are still – back to commuting to Melbourne now as well and as you said we’re seeing those sorts of regions that have become really very expensive to live in, see people move out of those. I think it is a trend. I think it is a trend that will continue. But what it does require Governments to do is to think between Local, State and Federal, about where do you invest money and how do you invest money. We’ve developed a Regional Investment Framework that really largely is about making sure Government invests in people so building the capacity of our people, including our local councils to lead change in our regions; investing in our places, so liveability and infrastructure; investing in services and our economy. And that will certainly guide the way in which Government looks at region by region. We’re obviously highly focused as well on those regions where we know that there will be transition and changes coming and that’s part of the job that Prime Minister and Cabinet and the taskforce that’s established is doing as well.

JULIE HARE: Thank you. Sara Ison, The Australian.

SARA ISON: Thanks for your speech, Minister. You mentioned electric vehicles and just on that, I wanted to ask obviously electric vehicle owners don’t pay a fuel excise and that goes in part to things like the upkeep of roads. Is the Government to look at a fuel use tax; or, if not, what plan do you have to make up for the loss of that fuel excise going forward? And if I could just follow up on Crowy’s question, sorry. Just regarding Snowy, would the Government consider a gateway review process, a review at every step of the way like States and Territories do for infrastructure? This is being advocated by Infrastructure Australia and so on.

CATHERINE KING: On Snowy, I’ll leave that to Chris Bowen to answer about that. But we are required. There are milestones built in through the infrastructure investment pipeline that actually require where projects are up to. I see those fairly regularly. Whether there can be an improvement on that, I think part of what the review of Infrastructure Australia said to us very clearly was that that sort of post-project evaluation phase is not something Infrastructure Australia has done previously. But it actually does need to have a really critical role in saying where did things go wrong or right and what do we need to learn from that? That will certainly be built into the legislation, but part of the infrastructure investment pipeline is my department works very closely with their counterparts to look at where project milestones are. And we’ve asked States and Territories to be much more forthcoming in some of the data around that so I can make clearer decisions about the flow of money. In terms of the other part of your question can you repeat that?

SARA ISON: The EV and the fuel excise – consider a road use tax.

CATHERINE KING: At the moment, you’ll be aware there’s a High Court challenge a number of States have introduced in the absence of a sort of national model about this have introduced that. So, really, we’re awaiting – we’ll see what the High Court has to say about the State and Territory taxes. We flagged in the consultation paper on the Electric Vehicle Strategy that, you know, this is an issue that is going to be challenging going into the future. But I think there’s a real danger here. At the moment we’re really in the mode of two per cent of vehicles are electric vehicles at the moment. We’re really in the stage of we’re actually trying to incentivise and encourage uptake and that includes me looking at fuel efficiency standards as well. We’re in that phase at the moment. You know, we’re not at the stage at this stage of then looking at we’ve got a critical mass of electric vehicles where we’re going to have to replace that revenue. We’re not at that stage yet.

SARA ISON: Thank you.

JULIE HARE: Tom Lowrey, the ABC.

TOM LOWREY: Hi, Minister. Tom Lowrey from the ABC. Thanks for your address. Can I get you to elaborate on the challenges around Inland Rail? I appreciate Kerry Schott’s review is still on your desk but I was wondering: Have the costs been reviewed upwards? Will those trains ever reach Gladstone? And how significant are the changes you’re prepared to make to that project?

CATHERINE KING: That’s a lot of questions. I think many of those answers you will find when we release the review and the Government’s response to that, but I would like to say is this is an incredibly important project for our national freight task. Its job of Inland Rail has to be to contribute to our national freight task, to look at how we move freight. It also adds to decarbonisation; if we’re getting trucks off our road, we’re getting them on to rail, we have a much better story to tell around transport and emission. It’s an incredibly important project. I also acknowledge very much for towns like Moree, for Parkes, for Wagga, this is an incredible economic opportunity for them, and you’re starting to see industrial zones, intermodal hubs, built around these communities. And Kerry Schott’s report absolutely reiterates the importance of Inland Rail. There’s a separate process that the previous Government started around the business case to Gladstone. We haven’t received that. I think the Queensland Government is running that and we’ll obviously look at that when that comes in. But a lot of your questions will be answered when the report comes out, but good try.

JULIE HARE: Melissa Coade, The Mandarin.

MELISSA COADE: Hi, Minister. I’m Melissa Coade from The Mandarin. Last year, Infrastructure Australia released the 2022 Market Capacity Report and it gave advice to people involved, public servants involved, in the infrastructure portfolio to be better at risk management and also better with proactive sequencing of major projects. I’m interested to know, having been a former federal public servant yourself, what your focus is as Minister on their capability to manage your expectations now as the Minister?

CATHERINE KING: I have wonderful public servants, some of whom are here in the room, who are doing extraordinary work and have been managing complex large-scale infrastructure projects for a long period of time. I think, you know, one of the things that I’ve asked for Infrastructure Australia to do and we’ve actually been tasked by National Cabinet to do is update that work that Infrastructure Australia is doing on market capacity. One of the things I think was happening previously is that really strong relationship you need between Infrastructure Australia and my department wasn’t there, and I think some of that was driven by my predecessor basically wanting to do particular things and to get outcomes in a particular way and not necessarily wanting to hear that alternate advice. Part of what we’ve been doing, particularly through the Budget process – it surprised me. I get advice through the Budget process from my department about here is what States and Territories are asking for and what you might think about funding, but Infrastructure Australia is not part of that at all. It hasn’t been. So, that surprised me. One of the things we’re trying to do is bring Infrastructure Australia in partnership with the department into that actual Budget process and budgetary decision-making, and I think that will make for better outcomes from both my department’s point of view, but also from the way in which Infrastructure Australia thinks about its interface with Government. At the end of the day, I am Infrastructure Australia’s major client. I am their client about, you know, what they need to tell me where they think Government investments need to be made and that’s a real change and shift from the way they’ve been operating for the last decade and we’ve got a bit of work to get them there.

JULIE HARE: Jade Gailberger, Herald Sun.

JADE GAILBERGER: Jade Gailberger from the Herald Sun. Thank you for your address. I would like to ask you about infrastructure investment in your own State. The Commonwealth Games is being held in Victoria in 2026. Will you have to recuse yourself from deliberations about federal funding? And will Victorians be happier in the upcoming Budget in regards to infrastructure spend after $1 billion was cut from the October Budget?

CATHERINE KING: So, there’s not a State and Territory Government that doesn’t come to me and say that they’re not getting their fair share which I think means we have probably got the calibration right in terms of the infrastructure investment. We invest on the basis of projects and that’s always an important thing to do. In terms of the Commonwealth Games, we don’t have an ask before us. I think the Premier has written to the Prime Minister about an ask and we haven’t got a detailed ask on the table yet. We’re awaiting that at the moment. I think largely the issue will be around legacy for us and particularly in terms of the athletes' villages and what legacy that might leave around social and affordable housing, but again I don’t have anything before me. I would have to recuse myself I think if it was a benefit to my electorate of Ballarat, but I think in terms of the broader infrastructure investment, whilst I’m a Victorian, I don’t recuse myself from every Victorian infrastructure decision but certainly if it benefited my own electorate, I would have to have someone else make that decision.

JULIE HARE: Georgie Moore of the AFR.

GEORGIE MOORE: Georgie Moore from the Fin Review. Do you now have a time line of when you’ll bring in a fuel efficiency standard? When will Australians have one? Labor went very gung-ho before the election but we haven’t really heard anything about it since. With respect, please don’t just say, “We’ll launch our Electric Vehicle Strategy in a few weeks.” I’m after detail. Do you have that time line? How far away....

CATHERINE KING: Goodness me a journalist after detail. Who knew? There you go. So, as you’re aware, the consultation paper was launched. We had over 500 submissions. I think it might have been more than that, and I had constituents in my own electorate with the first electric – well, I tell a lie. It was the first electric ute in Australia but someone in my constituency had converted an old Ford truck ute with a battery, and so they were claiming their 1936 ute was the first-ever electric ute in the country. It is pretty clear from the submissions that we’ve looked at that a fuel efficiency standard is necessary in this country and something that is strongly supported by all of the submissions. But it is a complex piece of work. It is as complex as the safeguard mechanisms. It’s going to require decisions about the CO2 levels, it’s going to require decisions about credits and debits. So, it’s a complex piece of work. But you’ll hear more about that in the not-too-distant future when we launch the Electric Vehicle Strategy, which is not there yet.

GEORGIE MOORE: Can you give me any indication of what time frame if you have one?

CATHERINE KING: No, I can’t. I’ve got to respect our Cabinet processes. But not too far away. It’s sort of like someone in the back of the car, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?”

GEORGIE MOORE: If I may be naughty and sneak in another question. Picking up on Sara’s question on EVs, wouldn’t Commonwealth action on road user charges be easier to do now while EV users are in the minority, as you said, to avoid being accused a big new scary tax or after States have all gone their own way and it is impossible to pick up the species and put it together again?

CATHERINE KING: The problem we have at the moment and we are in the position, basically the previous Government, you know, they knew that this is a long-term issue that we’re going to have to deal with. Obviously, we already have a road user charging model in relation to heavy vehicles, but, you know, at the moment we have got different States doing different taxes and I think we’re going to wait to see what the High Court says. We’re obviously a party to that. We’re opposing what States and Territories have done. It’s a big call for us to do, but we have done that. And we are going to wait and see what happens there. We mentioned it in the consultation paper on that EV Strategy, but we’re not contemplating it right at this point in time.


JULIE HARE: Paul Sakkal, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Thank you.

PAUL SAKKAL: Thanks, Minister. Paul Sakkal from The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. The Aston by-election you mentioned; three roads you mentioned, Dorset Road, Wellington Road, Napoleon, it sounded like – correct me if I’m wrong, but you said they were meritorious roads, that would be nice to have; there just wasn’t the money there. Do you have any intention on revisiting those projects? Could they be announced before the by-election?


PAUL SAKKAL: If not, if they are meritorious and you’re not willing to go back to them, does that provide some evidence that the Labor Government is disinterested in a seat that was until the last election a very safe Liberal seat?

CATHERINE KING: No, I wouldn’t read that in. I know the area well. I grew up in the southeastern suburbs of Melbourne and I have got a sister-in-law who lives there who rang me about Wellington Road in particular as well.

PAUL SAKKAL: [indistinct] off Wellington Road.

CATHERINE KING: There you go. So, you might have an interest in there. You might have grown up in similar suburbs. Look, this is the problem I’ve got is that we have been left with a Budget with a trillion dollars of debt. We have got growing expenditure in a range of areas that we do not have a lot of control over so whether it’s from the National Disability Insurance Scheme, our social security aged pension payments, et cetera. I’m a member of the ERC and I see every day that there’s fantastic and great proposals being put forward by colleagues, but I’ve got a role to play to make sure that our Budget and our pipeline is sustainable. And being honest with people, this is what happened with those three roads. There was never enough money announced to build those roads and for me to find in the context of the current Budget an additional $1.3 billion – and that’s without one of the other projects I see – I think Alan Tudge sent an email out when he was leaving – was also Monash rail, which is the Rowville–Monash rail, which we also cut in the budget. That would take it up to about $3.3 billion I would have to find to actually build those projects. It’s just not realistic in the current Budget context. And that’s one seat in one electorate in one state. That is replicated right the way across the country when you look at the 800 projects that are in the infrastructure investment pipeline.

JULIE HARE: Next question. Luca Ittimani from the Australian Financial Review.

LUCA ITTIMANI: Thanks, Minister. Luca Ittimani from the Financial Review. You mentioned the Western Sydney Airport in the speech. The proposal for that project included – between New South Wales and Federal Government – Metro rail links, rapid bus links, new roads. Now, all of those projects are facing issues at the moment. Metro links are under review or delay. Roads are still under construction, facing significant congestion, and the New South Wales Government is concerned that those rapid bus links may not end up being delivered and has called on the Federal Government – in Premier Perrottet’s words – to stump up the funding. Does the Government have any concerns that the viability of that project is being limited by these connection concerns?

CATHERINE KING: So, the first thing is we’ve started on the Western Sydney rail. So, I was there with David Elliott, actually, when we turned the first sod on that. So, that project started and the road projects are well underway. There’s this myth that somehow emerged – I’ve seen it a couple of times in the media now – that I want to quash really firmly. The National Land Transport Act sees the Commonwealth doesn’t fund buses. We’ve never funded buses. We don’t fund public buses. The Western Sydney city deal makes it absolutely clear that the bus network is the responsibility of the New South Wales Government. Absolutely makes it clear. And, in fact, Malcolm Turnbull, who signed the deal, actually rang the Prime Minister to confirm that. So, can I say very, very firmly if Domenic Perrottet is concerned about the bus links to Western Sydney Airport, he better get a wriggle on and he better fund them and build them.

JULIE HARE: Tony Melville, National Press Club director.

TONY MELVILLE: Tony Melville, Minister. The number one issue for businesses across the country at the moment is skills and labour shortages. For the regions it’s particularly intense. One of the barriers to getting people to go to the regions is housing shortages. It’s hard to keep people there, hard to find places to live. It can be expensive in a lot of areas. What’s the Government’s thinking on addressing that issue? And I suppose associated with that as well as the migration issue. How can you get more migrants either temporary or permanent to go to the regions to fill those gaps?

CATHERINE KING: The first thing we’ve got legislation in Parliament has passed the House and it’s before the Senate on the Housing Affordability Fund and that is really critical to actually being able to get investment in social and affordable housing right the way across the country but particularly in the regions. Regions have great opportunities in terms of land availability. We’re seeing really interesting investments in infill, and I know in my own hometown there’s a based – I think it’s just moved into WA, but Nightingale Housing, for example, if anyone knows them from Melbourne have done a really interesting model in trying to get more affordable housing and more denser housing into Brunswick and areas like that, but they’re also doing that in regions. I think they’ve built one in Ballarat. There’s one in Bendigo at the moment as well. There are housing associations and local governments right across the country who are hot to trot on this. They want to be involved. They want to see land released. They want to be involved in developments. But they can’t because that capital investment is really difficult for them and that’s really what the housing affordability fund that Julie Collins has got is really about. In terms of obviously migration, we talked a little bit about that before. This is a problem that is decades in the making. We haven’t been training enough kids. We haven’t been getting enough young people and people making career changes into the construction sector. You know, I’ve got an engineering school in my hometown. There are hardly any students. We built this magnificent engineering facility when we were last in Government but just trying to get people into engineering; it’s been a really big problem in terms of that focus. COVID has obviously exacerbated that because we were papering over the cracks with that with people from overseas but we’ve got a really big issue about how do we actually build and develop and grow this workforce for the future, get kids into that sector, get more women into the sector at the same time as still having to rely on migration, but not only doing that?

JULIE HARE: Maurice Reilly on behalf of our director, Tim Shaw.

MAURICE REILLY: Tim Shaw I’m asking this for.

CATHERINE KING: Tim asked me the last time I had Health whether I was an organ donor. That’s what he asked me. I remember.

MAURICE REILLY: You said you played piano.

CATHERINE KING: I said I wasn’t a current organ donor because I would have had to have been dead – no, that’s terrible – but I was on the register, yes.

MAURICE REILLY: I think I’ve forgotten my question.

CATHERINE KING: Sorry, Maurice.

MAURICE REILLY: Minister, Brisbane Airport. Community members say you are not engaging with them on curfews and noise et cetera that apply to Australian airports.

CATHERINE KING: What I would say really clearly is that we are not intending to implement a curfew or a cap on movements at Brisbane Airport. That would have significant economic consequences for the great State of Queensland and for Brisbane Airport. It’s been an issue that has been weaponised by the Greens [indistinct] campaigning way and many of the people engaged in the community organisations were part of that protest movement, frankly. What they’re asking for is a curfew I think from 10 until 6 and a cap on movements of up to 46 per hour. If you compare that with Sydney Airport, it has a cap of 80. They’re asking for, frankly, what is probably one of the most extreme measures on an airport anywhere in the country and we simply cannot do it. What we are trying to do, though, is mitigate the noise. So, I think it would be fair to say that aircraft noise wasn’t as strong a feature on Air Services Australia’s radar as it should have been. I think that we saw with the opening of the new runway in Brisbane, it opened during COVID so the aircraft have come roaring back, really, which is a great economic story for us, but it has meant that people in Brisbane have been experiencing noise where they haven’t experienced it before. We are seeing [indistinct] come in over the bay, which is a good thing. It helps to mitigate the noise. We have got an independent group being established, which we’ve committed to do. The terms of reference have signed off on that and we’re in the process of getting membership for that. And that will be the way I engage with the community. I’m not going to promise to people in Brisbane or any of the other airports that I’m going to completely stop aircraft noise. I’ll do the best we can to get Air Services Australia to work with me to mitigate that noise but the things this community organisation, they’ve basically said if I don’t do a curfew, they’re going to protest and, unfortunately, then they’re to go to have to curfew because I can’t do what they’re asking me to do.

JULIE HARE: Our final question from David Crowe.

DAVID CROWE: Thanks, Julie. Minister, one of the big issues around at the moment in federal politics is whether to stop investment in new coal and gas. This is what the Greens want with the safeguard mechanism also with the National Reconstruction Fund. You mentioned the Middle Arm project in the Northern Territory. Some people hate that project because they see it as a way to export more gas. What is your response to people who say make sure your infrastructure projects do not support new gas and new coal? Can you do what they want?

CATHERINE KING: Well, of course not. We know that gas and coal are going to continue to have a role to play in the way in which our energy operates in this country and obviously, you know, through Chris Bowen’s portfolio we have a very strong focus on bringing renewables in, trying to – we obviously have a commitment to net zero and to do all of that work and we’re confident that that is where we’ll get to. But what I would say with projects like Middle Arm, with projects like the Pilbara, at Port Hedland, I’m interested in not funding one company over another or one industry over another. I’m interested in building that common-user infrastructure that enables new industries to come. And Middle Arm in particular is a really critical economic story for Darwin and the Northern Territory. Providing an opportunity for new businesses, our focus has to be obviously on green hydrogen, on renewables. They’ve got Sun Cable coming, hopefully, if we can get that back up, but that’s coming. That’s a large focus. I think they’ve had about 30 different industries interested in Middle Arm. It’s got to go through really vigorous environmental approvals which haven’t even started as yet. What I’m interested in is investing in that common-user infrastructure, not benefiting one company over another, but really does see jobs and growth and growth and particularly tries to see renewable investment in Australia, but we’re not banning coal or gas.

JULIE HARE: Okay. Minister, thank you so much for your time today.