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Speech on High Speed Rail Bill

On Wednesday 28 September 2022, I made a speech in Federal Parliament on the government's High Speed Rail Authority Bill 2022, after moving an amendment which would ensure that the new infrastructure is fully publicly owned, is low-emissions, and is manufactured in Australia. You can watch the speech here or read the full transcript below.

E WATSON-BROWN: I move the second reading amendment circulated in my name:

That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House:

(1) notes that private ownership and delivery of essential infrastructure often leads to worse outcomes for the community and the environment, as corporate profits are put ahead of everyday people's interests; and

(2) calls on the Labor government to:

(a) deliver a fully publicly owned high speed rail network, from infrastructure construction to service delivery, that is run for the public good, not for profit;

(b) ensure high speed rail infrastructure development utilises to the greatest extent possible green steel and other green technologies to minimise carbon emissions during the construction phase; and

(c) ensure the new trains and other associated infrastructure are manufactured in Australia, helping to reinvigorate domestic manufacturing and create jobs".

High-speed rail represents an incredible opportunity for Australia. What an exciting prospect—linking capital cities, including Brisbane, and regional centres on Australia's the east coast. It's going to go a really long way to helping us decarbonise domestic travel, by significantly reducing domestic flights. And it can open up new economic opportunities, particularly in regional centres, as earlier speakers have mentioned. Politicians have talked about it for decades, so now is the time to get it moving. This bill for a new authority, the High Speed Rail Authority Bill 2022, could be the moment we finally get this crucial infrastructure happening.

But I am currently a little concerned that there could be some embedded difficulties caused by underfunding it and putting forward a framework that could lead to partial or wholesale privatisation. At the 2022 federal election, the Greens brought a policy of committing $17.7 billion over the next four years for the initial stages of high-speed rail development, because we do support the idea of high-speed rail. This government has committed only $500 million over the same period. As previous speakers have measured, this is a completely inadequate amount to get the high-speed rail off the ground. At best it will allow the purchasing of some land, the commissioning of route planning for the Sydney to Newcastle link and the hiring of core staff.

The 2010 feasibility study estimated the cost of the overall project from Brisbane to Melbourne would be $114 billion or, in today's terms, about $135 billion. So where's that extra $134.5 billion going to come from? The government hasn't clarified this, but it's pretty clear that much of it could well come from private finance, who would end up with a significant if not a majority stake in the operation and want their profit from this investment. As is always the case in public-private partnerships, this could lead to chaotic and slowed project delivery, higher prices for passengers, downward pressure on rail worker wages, and potential corner-cutting on regulations on environmental and social impact. Unfortunately, nothing in this current bill ensures this privatisation—partial or wholesale—won't take place, and that's our concern. The very fact that the authority will have to spend so much of its time just trying to secure finance for this operation could itself be an enormous delay on the project rollout, which is a huge concern, given that Australians have already waited decades for this infrastructure and that any feasible time frame for delivery is at least a decade long.

This is such crucial public infrastructure. It needs to be publicly funded and publicly owned. We believe that that's the only way to deliver it quickly, cheaply, efficiently and with environmental sustainability and social benefit at the centre. Before members of this chamber ask how else would the government pay for the infrastructure itself, I want to question why they aren't asking the same of the over $100 billion the government intends to spend on nuclear submarines, or of that $244 billion we mention a lot that the government will hand to the billionaires and megarich as part of the stage 3 tax cuts. There's $350 billion or so sitting right there which could be used. Why not use that to fund an obvious social good like high-speed rail? Long story short, we can afford to deliver a fully publicly owned high-speed rail network; we can't afford not to. Underfunding and partially privatising our public infrastructure can set it up to fail. It's what happened to our NBN, with its highly corporatised structure, reliance on private finance and delivery via subcontractors.

Even if the government is committed to full public ownership of this high-speed rail infrastructure—and that in itself isn't clear, as the bill doesn't explicitly stipulate it—what's to stop a future government from using the exact same framework of this authority and this funding arrangement to push for an extremely privatised model? I think we need to lock in a far more robust plan for public funding and public ownership now, or we could end up paying an enormous price in years to come.

I want to add that keeping this infrastructure entirely in public hands means we could ensure that the trains and other infrastructure are made in Australia. We could ensure that the infrastructure is rolled out as much as possible with green steel so that we can keep the emissions of the set-up phase as low as possible. We could ensure that the rail corridors and stations are planned in a way that is ecologically sustainable and socially beneficial. We could guarantee lower cost ticketing so that everyone in Australia could enjoy the benefits. If we do fund this through public investment, not private interests, like those very complex land value uplift schemes, we don't have to worry about those private interests being prioritised over quality infrastructure and service delivery for the people. As we said, and everyone agrees, it is a crucial piece of infrastructure and it needs to be done right from the get-go.

We've some of the busiest flight routes in the world. Melbourne to Sydney is the world's second-busiest domestic route. Brisbane to Sydney the world's eighth-busiest domestic route. Pre COVID, these had reached close to 100,000 flights a year in total, producing enormous emissions. The International Energy Agency has shown that the introduction of high-speed rail around the world has led to significant reductions in air travel on many specific routes—Paris to London, and Seoul to Busan, for instance. In these cases, air travel was halved when high-speed rail was introduced. High-speed rail in Australia can do the same thing, massively decreasing our transport emissions and providing people with a high-quality, comfortable and enjoyable transport alternative to flying. With all the delays and chaos at airports at the moment, I think people are begging for a convenient and reliable alternative to air travel.

Many members of my Ryan community are affected very badly by constant flight noise. They are rightly concerned about pollution over their homes and our natural surrounds from these round-the-clock flights that they are suffering through. High-speed rail is crucial to cutting flight noise and this pollution long term. The only way to truly reduce flight noise in the long run is to reduce the overall number of domestic flights at our airports. Caps on flights and curfews will be easier to sustain with high-speed rail available as an alternative. More tranquil cities and suburbs—what a wonderful thought. It would be a more efficient and environmentally friendly mode of travel. It's a huge win-win.

So it's commendable that the Labor government is finally making a first step, but there remain some gigantic question marks over the authority and the plan for delivery and service of this infrastructure. I think we all agree it's time to get moving on high-speed rail, and this bill is a good first step, but we need to ensure that we set up this crucial infrastructure to truly benefit all Australians long term. The government's current plan just leaves one wondering if the settings are absolutely right for that.

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