A bid to tighten the safeguards on major road and rail projects has been blocked in federal parliament after Labor and the Coalition joined forces against moves by teal independents to reveal more about the $120 billion cost.
Calling for more scrutiny of the mammoth spending, the independent MPs sought changes to stamp out “pork barrelling” and force governments to reveal the costs and benefits of new proposals before sinking taxpayer funds into the projects.
But their bid was lost when the major parties used their numbers to defeat the moves, which included an amendment copied from a proposal from Prime Minister Anthony Albanese when he was in opposition nine years ago.
The debate heightened the tensions between Labor and the crossbench over integrity in government and the priority for vast projects including the rail line to the Western Sydney Airport, the Melbourne Airport Rail, the Inland Rail and competing road-building proposals in every state.
Independent MP Allegra Spender wanted the government to accept changes that would prevent the peak agency for big projects, Infrastructure Australia, approving proposals that could not show the benefits outweighed the cost.
“This is, you would think, an uncontroversial amendment, one which simply requires public money be used prudently and one which was previously proposed by the prime minister himself,” Spender said.
“But it is only controversial because it takes away the power of the government to make investment decisions which are positive politically but negative economically.”
The key amendment would require a cost/benefit study on any project worth more than $100 million before it could be added to the Infrastructure Australia priority list, a non-binding guide to political leaders on the projects that deserve funding.
Another amendment put to parliament on Wednesday would require Infrastructure Australia to release its regular audits of the priority list so the public could learn more about the costs and benefits of the projects.
Spender gained support from Greens leader Adam Bandt and his fellow MPs as well as all other crossbenchers in the lower house: Kate Chaney, Zoe Daniel, Helen Haines, Dai Le, Monique Ryan, Sophie Scamps, Rebekha Sharkie, Zali Steggall, Kylea Tink and Andrew Wilkie.
Queensland independent Bob Katter was not in the chamber but former Nationals cabinet minister turned independent Andrew Gee voted with the crossbenchers. Gee moved to the crossbench last December because of his support for the Indigenous Voice, although he remains listed as an MP on the Nationals’ website.
But the amendments were defeated when Infrastructure Minister Catherine King gained Coalition support, sending a signal that the government would also have the numbers in the Senate to defeat any similar amendments. The government passed its draft law, the Infrastructure Australia Amendment (Independent Review) Bill 2023, in its original form.
King defended the decision to reject the amendments because some information was too sensitive to be released.
“We are committed to making information public where possible but a major role of Infrastructure Australia will be to inform the budget process, something which did not happen under the former government,” said a spokeswoman for King.“This means some advice will be subject to cabinet confidentiality.”
Coalition infrastructure spokeswoman Bridget McKenzie wanted an amendment to increase rural representation at the peak agency but did not support the push from the teals.
“Other proposals would have increased costs, decreased investment, and reduced the ability of governments to initiate projects – which is surely fundamental to a democracy,” she said.
The government, which says its infrastructure spending will be worth $120 billion over the decade ahead, has put the new law to parliament with a promise to set up a new structure at Infrastructure Australia with an advisory council of experts and federal officials to advise on big projects.
But long-term plans are on hold while the government waits for a review of all major infrastructure projects to be done by three top experts over the next three months, leading to options to drop or delay plans at a time when construction costs are soaring and costs may blow out.
Kylea Tink, the member for North Sydney, warned during the debate that defeating the amendments would mean the Labor government was “no less likely” than the Coalition to engage in pork-barrelling with road and rail projects.
Le, who represents Fowler in western Sydney, said voters should not be surprised that Labor promised greater transparency before the election but voted against it after gaining power.
“The two parties are the same – they go to an election, make a promise to make a change, and when they’re in government they don’t do it. They keep the status quo,” she said.
“As a result of that, our society, our communities, pay the price for the lack of infrastructure planning because no one has the courage to change the policies that would benefit the community.”
Daniel, who represents the Melbourne electorate of Goldstein, said the crossbench amendments were “sensible and genuine” and she would have moved a further change, to require at least one woman on the board of the peak infrastructure agency, but the government was not open to suggestions.
“This is not an example of the better government, the better way of doing politics, that Anthony Albanese promised the community,” she said.
Spender, the member for Wentworth in eastern Sydney, said she had spoken to King about the amendments on March 29 and hoped the Senate might be open to similar amendments.
“It’s disappointing that the ALP’s commitment to integrity didn’t survive their shift into government,” she said after the vote.
“We don’t have money to waste. One of the amendments I moved was the same as an amendment moved by the prime minister when he was shadow minister for infrastructure in 2014. It’s very disappointing that the major parties have got together to block amendments that would provide integrity, transparency, and better policy on infrastructure projects.”
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