09 November 2017
Subjects: Midland Highway Upgrades, Tasmanian Freight Equalisation Scheme, infrastructure investment, citizenship, road safety
Darren Chester: It is great to be here just out of Launceston today to check on the progress of this fantastic project. All up we are spending $500 million on the Midland Highway; 80 per cent of that funding is coming from the Federal Government and 20 per cent by the State Government, and it is good to be here to see the progress on this $44 million project, which is going to improve traffic safety and improve efficiency and improve productivity in the region. I am here with Joe from Shaw Contracting, and Joe, I wouldn't mind if you would say a few words just from the company's perspective, how it has been going particularly from a worker's view, and how many jobs have been created here?
Joe Luttrell (VEC Shaw Joint venture): Thanks Darren. Look, we commenced work here in March 2016, and we have had up to 80 to 100 people at any one time working on the project. We have constructed two major bridge structures, we have moved about 500,000 cubic metres of earthworks, and we are looking to have the project finished very close to and opened by Christmas, with some finish off works in January. The project has been great for the VEC Shaw Joint Venture, two local Tasmanian companies, we have been able to employ a lot of new full-time equivalents and up-skilled a lot of existing people. So the roadwork project and funding has been fantastic for business and we look forward to further projects on the Midland Highway.
Darren Chester: Look, from our perspective as a government, it is great to be investing in better, safer roads. We know that we are going to reduce road trauma, we know it is going to improve the efficiency of the local economy, so it is a great investment in the future of Tasmania. I look forward to seeing more projects rolled out in the months and years to come.
Question: I just want to say, is it sort of on track? Have there been any delays? I don't know who is best to answer that. Is everything sort of on track to finish?
Joe Luttrell: Look, the project is probably four months ahead of the contractual completion date, and as we said, we would like to have the main traffic on the main highway prior to Christmas, and some finish off works on the old highway in the New Year.
Question: How do we ensure that we don't have any seal failures or anything like that? How do we make sure that everything is in tip-top shape?
Joe Luttrell: Yeah look, obviously there has been one or two seal issues on the project, and we have worked closely together with State Growth to find the root cause of those, and we believe that we have come up with solutions and there will be some rectification works that will be in line with completion in December. Moving forward we are working together to ensure that we get the right solution for the right price as well.
Question: So we are confident that that is a problem that has been solved and hopefully won't occur again.
Joe Luttrell: We would like to think so, yes.
Question: On the Freight Equalisation Scheme, has it been rorted by companies exporting forestry residues?
Darren Chester: Well no, it is not. Majestic Timbers, the company involved, is entitled to claim under the TFES scheme. It is a scheme that has put in place to allow Tasmanian companies to compete with mainland companies in the sense that it allows for product to be traded across Bass Strait and around the world. Just like on the mainland where there are companies which benefit enormously from major infrastructure projects which allow them to get their products to market, the TFES scheme is designed to help Tasmanian companies get their products to market.
Question: But doesn't it show that the scheme is not performing as it is designed to if a company can export a low-value product solely from the subsidy?
Darren Chester: Well, the point is of all the companies that claim the TFES scheme—this particular company is 36th on the list in Tasmania—there are a lot of companies that claim more under the Freight Equalisation Scheme than this particular company. It is a legitimate use of a naturally-grown product in Tasmania, to find markets for it throughout the world. Just as other companies on the mainland benefit from infrastructure investments by the Government to get their products to market, the Freight Equalisation Scheme is designed to help Tasmanian companies compete on national and world markets, so I think it is a legitimate use of the scheme.
Question: Isn't it essentially the Federal Government making up for state subsidies that were taken away from Sustainable Timber Tasmania by the State
Darren Chester: I don't think so. It is a question of providing a scheme which allows for Tasmanian companies to compete on national and world markets. I mean, by virtue of being an island, Tasmania has some more difficult transport needs to be met, and I think the scheme is a good way of balancing that out. Now, if you look at the mainland, there are plenty of companies on the mainland which are able to trade into the market because of infrastructure provided from the public purse. This is, I recognise, this is taxpayers' money being provided under the TFES scheme, that is intended to allow for jobs here in Tasmania, and I make no apologies for being part of a government which is focused on creating jobs and growth opportunities in all parts of Australia, but particularly areas of regional Tasmania which have suffered from job losses in the past.
Question: But is shipping low-quality wood for barely any profit at a huge expense the best way to use that taxpayer money?
Darren Chester: Well, the scheme is available for companies that are eligible to get their products to market. The company has found a market that wishes to use that product, and it is being utilised in a way that generates jobs here in Tasmania. The people who are opposing the use of TFES in this case are opposing it for political reasons, not for any concern about the scheme itself. Seriously, this is a company which is 36th on the list of TFES scheme users here in Tasmania. Each year, that scheme is underutilised in terms of, we could support more Tasmanian businesses seeking to trade into the mainland and around the world, and we look forward to seeing the future utilisation of the scheme to help grow jobs here in Tasmania.
Question: So you have faith in the way the scheme is operating in this instance?
Darren Chester: I support the scheme and the way it is operating. I support in particular the way it helps to provide for more job opportunities for Tasmanians. We are a government which is very much focused on jobs and growth opportunities. It is not a slogan; it is about providing opportunities for people to have control of their own economic destiny. Now, Tasmania is a state which has benefitted from this scheme because it is important that you're able to trade into the national markets and world markets on a competitive basis. It is a great state, Tasmania, but you can't all be about tourism. You have got to be able to move your products into the world as well. Tourism is a vital part of the Tasmanian economy, but you also have to manufacture things and get them out into the world, and the TFES scheme allows that to occur.
Question: Labor have said this morning that the Budget documents show that the Government's first three budgets promised to invest $415 million into infrastructure, and only $323 million has been invested, so what do you have to say about that?
Darren Chester: Well, on a beautiful day like today, you could come to Tasmania and talk about the future and be positive about this great state, or you could come down as a bitter, grumpy old man like Anthony Albanese. I mean, seriously, he wants Bill Shorten's job, he wants my job. Quite frankly, he hasn't got a single idea for the future of Tasmania. Every cent we have allocated to Tasmania will be spent in Tasmania. Any delays in spending of that money has purely been caused by weather delays. Those of you who live locally will be very aware of the major flooding event you had last year. That has caused some delays in terms of getting projects rolled out, but every cent we have allocated to Tasmania will be spent here in Tasmania.
I am looking forward to having a conversation with the state Minister Rene Hidding again tomorrow. I am in Hobart for the state Transport Ministers' meeting, and Rene has some great ideas about future investments in Tasmania and I am all ears. I want to hear about his future plans for this great state, not this bitter, twisted old man from Sydney, Anthony Albanese, coming down here and whinging all the time.
Question: What about your future plans for Tasmania? Have you got anything on the cards that you sort of want to add there?
Darren Chester: Yeah, I spent this morning in Derby. I went out to catch up with the Mayor, to see progress on the great economic revitalisation which has occurred through the investment in the mountain bike trails, and the point I was making in meeting with the Mayor this morning was that the latest round of Building Better Regions Fund has been announced this week, and that's more than $200 million available across Australia for regional communities to invest in the type of infrastructure that is going to create more jobs into the future. What we have seen in Derby through local, state and federal investment in those mountain bike trails, it cost about $3 million but it is now delivering in the order of $30 million per year to the Tasmanian economy.
So I was talking to the Mayor about other projects that we could co-invest in in the future that would benefit his community, but also benefit other parts of regional Tasmania. The conversation that I have already had with Rene Hidding around further infrastructure investments are around about better, safer roads and how we link our regional communities not just to the visitor economy, but also to the agricultural sector and for moving freight. One project which obviously comes to mind is further conversations around what we do with Bridgewater Bridge into the future. So there is a range of projects that are being talked about and we need to explore those more fully with both local and state government.
Question: On the citizenship matter, do you think that …
Darren Chester: I am an Australian, by the way.
Question: Well, where were your parents born? I suppose that is the question.
Darren Chester: They were all born within 50 kilometres of where I was born in Gippsland, and I have a very un-exotic family background, I am afraid, but I am quite happy to say that today.
Question: Do you feel that Justine Keay, Tasmanian politician, do you feel like she should make documents known and step down?
Darren Chester: Well, what the Prime Minister has indicated during the week is that we now have a process we want to put to the Parliament where Members of Parliament will need to declare their citizenship background, and that includes the place of birth of their parents. I think that system of declaration is the best way to go forward. It is a question of Members of Parliament taking responsibility for declaring, whether it is in the House of Reps or the Senate, and I think that is the way we should progress this issue.
You know, seriously I think the Canberra press gallery needs to have a cold shower on this one. When I get out and talk to people in Derby or in Albany or in Moe or in Traralgon or in Clermont in Central Queensland, first of all they make a joke about the citizenship issue, and that is the last they talk about it. They talk to me about jobs; what are you doing about local roads; what are you doing about local airports; what are you doing about seaports; what are you doing to invest in the future of this great country.
Fair dinkum, they could not care less about the citizenship issue. I mean, the Press Gallery has got to calm down and realise there are far more important issues to be resolved in our nation right now. Every Member of Parliament will need to declare their citizenship background. That is appropriate. The High Court has made a ruling, we know exactly where we stand on Section 44 of the Constitution, and let's get on with delivering for this great country.
Question: This morning Labor has said that they are the ones that invested the money for this infrastructure project when they were in power. How do you respond to that?
Darren Chester: Well, I laugh at them. I mean, the Australian people provide money for these projects. This is taxpayers' money. It is not Labor money, it is not Liberal money, it is not Nationals money, it is the Australian taxpayers' money. Now, the money has been provided by taxpayers who give it to the Government to make infrastructure investment priorities, and the priority that we have made—and I am glad to hear the Labor Party still supports this as a priority—is the Midland Highway investment. Now, we are continuing to roll it out.
I mean, let's be serious about this. Who was the last Transport Minister that lasted 10 years in this job? Inevitably you will have a Transport Minister start in a role and a future minister may well deliver the project. Mr Albanese has just got to calm down and be serious with the Australian people. He may have announced the project, but these people are out onsite building it and they are using the Australian taxpayers' money to do it.
Question: Do you think there's further infrastructure investment needed in Launceston, especially because of the university upgrades, things like that?
Darren Chester: I think there is always a need for more infrastructure investment in our regional communities in particular, and as a regional Member of Parliament, someone who is passionate about regional growth, I am very supportive of anything I can be doing to secure additional funding for regions like Launceston to bid into. The Building Better Regions Fund, as I said, has got more than $200 million into it, there is an opportunity there for Launceston to bid for additional funding. I would like to see further stages of Midland Highway upgrades beyond this 10 year plan. I think that is important as well. I would like to see further investment in the visitor economy. I think one of the things we have been doing very well here in Tasmania has been investing in infrastructure that is attracting tourists, but there is always more to be done.
You have always got to be renewing your product to make sure that people continue to come to enjoy this beautiful part of the world, and one of the great drivers of that economy is obviously better transport links. I drove today from Launceston to Derby and there are sections of that road that obviously would benefit from further investment. So I am having conversations with local government and with the state government on how we might do that in the future.
Question: So Tasmanians can expect another 10 years of road works on the Midland Highway [indistinct] to the state's capital and back?
Darren Chester: Well, I think what Tasmanians have every right to expect is Ministers to visit to get an understanding of the challenges, get an understanding of the regional priorities. That is my role at the end of the day, is to the listen to the local community and understand what their priorities are going forward, work with local government, work with state governments to deliver the best possible outcome.
Now, I am very pleased to see progress on this $500 million project, but inevitably as the state grows the pressure on the road network will continue. There will be a need for further investment. We want to have better, safer roads in Australia, particularly in regional Australia, because we know that it will save lives. Too many people are killed and injured on Australian regional roads. Last year in the order of 1,300 Australians died on our roads. We need to do more to reduce the number of serious injuries which result in deaths and serious injuries for Australians. Now, the way we do that is driving responsibly ourselves, but also through governments investing in better roads.