Chester criticises government’s infrastructure changes

Member for Gippsland Darren Chester has hit out at the federal government’s proposed changes to infrastructure funding, saying the “biggest losers” will be regional communities and local councils.

Federal Minister for Infrastructure and Transport Catherine King spoke at a conference hosted by the Australian Financial Review on Tuesday, and said the government would abandon the 80-20 funding split for infrastructure projects.

In an attempt to place more responsibility and culpability on the states, the majority of so-called ‘national significant’ projects worth at least $250 million will be a 50-50 funding split between the state and Commonwealth. There will be exceptions on a case-by-case basis, and jurisdictions such as South Australia and Northern Territory with vast regional road networks, but smaller populations will be largely exempt.

“I think we are investors, we’re not just a bank. I think that’s important to understand,” Ms King said at the AFR Infrastructure Summit.

“So, the convention of 80-20 for regional and rural projects… the convention has been 50-50 in our cities.

“There’s also the sort of incentives for managing cost escalations have not always been there and our view very simply is it’s important that we get more investment into those regional and rural roads but that we share the risk of those fairly.”

Mr Chester, who is the Shadow Minister for Local Government and Regional Development, said this would make many regional projects unviable.

“This is the beginning of a major cost shift onto local councils and ratepayers, and a plan to abandon infrastructure projects in regional areas,” Mr Chester said.

“In government, the Coalition recognised that good infrastructure investments could change lives and save lives.

“We changed lives by reducing congestion and improving productivity and we invested in life-saving road projects across the nation. We also trusted local councils to identify priority projects and help them to fund critical work which they wouldn’t be able to do as quickly if they relied solely on their rate base.

“Localised road treatments like installing traffic lights or roundabouts at intersections with a high crash history are proven to reduce the severity and frequency of crashes and I would argue they are nationally significant.

“But Minister King hardly mentions road safety at a time when trauma is increasing and her long overdue review of the infrastructure investment program has stalled much-needed investment in new projects.”

Ms King said there would be no monetary cuts to the 10-year $120 billion infrastructure pipeline, but said certain projects would need to be cancelled to reach that figure.

“For too long under the Coalition, Commonwealth infrastructure spending focused on electoral rather than national benefit and in doing this it expanded the Infrastructure Investment Program from roughly 150 projects in 2012-13 to nearly 800 in 2022,” Ms King said in a media release on Tuesday.

The premiers from the three biggest states, New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland, have all criticised the announced changes.

Victorian Transport Minister Danny Pearson flagged his misgivings about the proposed 50-50 funding split.

“It would be concerning if the Federal Member for Ballarat, Minister King, sought to walk away from regional Victoria, that would be concerning and disappointing,” Mr Pearson said.

“Generally the projects that tend to be funded are more regional and rural projects.”

Mr Chester said the option of 80-20 funding splits for regional projects had allowed the previous Coalition Government to bring forward major highway upgrades in regional areas and reduce road trauma.

“We used the 80-20 model to bring forward massive improvements to the Bruce Highway in Queensland, Pacific Highway in New South Wales and the Princes Highway in Victoria,” Mr Chester said.

“None of those life-saving and nation building projects would have proceeded if we had tried to get the respective state governments to split the bill 50-50.

“Minister King has a city-centric plan to focus her infrastructure budget on metropolitan areas and starve regional communities from the much-needed investment in life-changing and life-saving projects.”