Topic:  Commonwealth infrastructure projects under suspicious review; 

08:30 AM ACDT
Monday, 1 May 2023


Will Goodings:  Speaking of where the country may well be going, The Oz has a story this morning that potentially has ramifications for South Australia. The Infrastructure and Transport Minister federally, Catherine King, will a little bit later today announce a 90-day independent review of the ten year, $120 billion infrastructure pipeline. What does it mean for roads? What does it mean for projects that have been given the green light here in South Australia? The Federal Opposition Leader in the Senate is South Australian Senator Simon Birmingham, and he joins us now in 5AA Breakfast. Senator, good morning to you. Are there any South Australian projects that you immediately lend your mind to that might get looked at in the review and ultimately axed?


Simon Birmingham: Good morning, guys. It’s good to be with you. Well, this is a very worrying and suspicious review. I mean, there are big projects, obviously, the biggest of them all being the North South Corridor, which has already been delayed by the state and federal Labor governments. And whilst I see there’s some attempts at reassurance there that funding will still be provided on a 50-50 basis, people would be concerned if there were any further delay to that given the congestion on South Road is a real thing every single day at present. And the fact that it’s been pushed back and instead of starting this year will now be starting later and finishing later means people will be living with that congestion and those delays for longer. But rural projects, particularly worryingly here, because I see Labor’s suggesting that they are going to honour their election promises regardless apparently, of whether or not those promises stack up. But they’re revisiting other projects and there weren’t that many Labor election promises in rural Australia. And so, projects, be they work on the main north Road heading up to Clare or be they work in terms of extra crossings in Port Augusta or rural road upgrades more generally. They are things I think that we need to be looking very carefully at making sure that rural South Australians don’t get an even worse deal than they usually do out of these investments.


David Penberthy: Well, the Government says that the review is going to be independent Birmo, but I mean you’ve been in government, you know how these things work. You can sort of have an independent review, but you set the parameters that are designed to achieve the required outcome. And is there a risk with all this that it could almost be like a sort of, you know, a whiteboard scenario in reverse where they sort of end up going through what would be seen as lesser projects involving fewer people, which you would think inevitably could mean regional and rural Australia. All the sorts of seats that you guys have historically held where the sort of metropolitan gaze of your opponents wouldn’t normally extend to some of those projects out of town that you mentioned before.


Simon Birmingham: Pembo, both the timing and the scope of this review are deeply suspicious. The Albanese Government is this month going to mark 12 months since the last election and next week it’s going to hand down a second budget. So why on earth would you be initiating this type of review a week out from your second budget? When in fact all of this work, if they were going to change any of the projects, should have already been done. It should have been done weeks and months ago. They’ve had a year to be reviewing the projects that were in the ten-year infrastructure pipeline, and that’s what we set in place. We recognised that infrastructure projects don’t just get designed, developed and delivered overnight. They take a ten-year pipeline and that’s why we laid out a $120 billion, ten-year pipeline of different projects right across the country. Then the scope of it is equally very suspicious for many of the terms that you highlighted, which is that the scope of this, they are saying, won’t look at the merits of any promises Mr. Albanese made during the election campaign. So, whether they stack up or not, they get the tick and flick apparently, but it will go back and then try to no doubt find ways to axe smaller projects elsewhere. It says it’s going to give priority to bigger projects, which means those smaller projects are most likely to be often in smaller communities, rural and regional communities, or a smaller state like ours. And so we could well be on the raw end of the deal here.


Will Goodings: The impetus for this feeds into a broader philosophical question about good financial management, and the Government I’m sure, will argue that in part this is the government doing its part of the job to try and combat inflation, because to this point, to my mind, it’s been left entirely to the policy of the Reserve Bank to try and get it under control by lifting interest rates. And the Government hasn’t done a whole lot for political reasons to fight that. So, what are their options? They can either raise taxes or cut spending and this would fall into the latter category. Philosophically has this government done enough to fight inflation? And if they needed to do more, why is this a bad idea as opposed to when their other option is something like raising taxes?


Simon Birmingham: Well they certainly haven’t done enough. In fact, they’ve hardly done anything to help fight inflation. They’ve left all the heavy lifting to the Reserve Bank. Last year’s first budget by the Albanese Government actually increased spending by $115 billion. It made the structural deficit within the budget worse, not better. Now they’re enjoying windfall gains thanks to the conservative commodity price assumptions that we put into the budget. I’ve seen the reports that they’re going to change that approach to conservative price setting. So, if we see a budget surplus or something close to it delivered this year, it will be thanks to the fact that we were very conservative on the revenue forecast and they’ve been exceeded. If they go and change those forecasts-


Will Goodings: Senator, if they need to do more to combat inflation. And cutting spending out of or reviewing spending on infrastructure is not a good move. What would you suggest they do? Would you suggest they increase taxes?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I’d suggest they don’t increase spending elsewhere. And my prediction is that we might see some trimming to the infrastructure budget, and that’s actually capital investment, which should be less inflationary and doesn’t have an ongoing structural impact on the budget and should make the economy more efficient and effective by investing in those infrastructure projects. But I think we will see an increase in areas of recurrent spending. And so, I doubt that these cuts, if there are some to infrastructure, are going to be reductions in overall government spending, they’ll actually be shifting and they’ll be shifting from that capital into recurrent, which will actually make the Reserve Bank’s job harder, not easier.


Will Goodings: Just before we let you go, Senator Birmingham, you didn’t jag an invite to Kyle Sandilands’ wedding? I didn’t see you there.


Simon Birmingham: Invite must have been lost in the post somehow.


David Penberthy: What did you think of that. Was it and was it. Did it raise an eyebrow that the Prime Minister was not only there but deejaying? What did you think of that?


Simon Birmingham: Look, how he chooses to spend his personal time is in some ways his business. Clearly, entirely his business. But this was a high-profile wedding. I’m not aware that they’re known to be close personal friends. So, it does look more like it was a bit of an indulgence on Anthony Albanese’s part. And obviously, plenty of people are asking questions about the company being kept there and while lots of, you know, kind of Kyle Sandilands had what might be called a colourful Sydney guest list, and while I don’t always agree with Andrew Bolt’s columns, I thought he probably did nail it a little bit today in terms of the fact that you know, is that really the company Anthony Albanese wants to be keeping. And you know and when you look at the flak that former Victorian Liberal leader Matthew Guy copped for, you know, dining with a mobster, you know, was it lobster with a mobster was a headline at the time. Well, there are a few mobster type characters at this wedding on the weekend and our Prime Minister.


David Penberthy: Absolutely. Senator Simon Birmingham, the federal Opposition Leader in the Senate. Thanks for joining us this morning. I’ll tell you what, looking at that crowd, you know…


Will Goodings: Colourful.