In Parliament

2008 SEPT 16 – AusLink (National Land Transport) Amendment Bill 2008

AUSLINK (NATIONAL LAND TRANSPORT) AMENDMENT BILL 2008

September 16, 2008

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (6.06 pm)
— The AusLink (National Land Transport) Amendment Bill 2008 highlights a range of issues that are very dear to the heart of Gippslanders— and, I suspect, to all rural and regional communities. I seek to make several points in relation to a key aspect of the bill: to extend the Roads to Recovery program from 1 July 2009 to 30 June 2014. I notice that in the gallery today we have some of the departmental staff. I encourage them to keep up the good work because, out in Gippsland, we love the program—and long may it continue!

In my handful of days in this place I have had to listen to a lot of rhetoric from the government in answers to a range of questions in question time as it has desperately tried to rewrite history and attack the legacy of the previous government. But, to the best of my knowledge, no-one has ever attacked the Roads to Recovery program, because it has stood the test of time as a great policy initiative, driven by former Leader of the Nationals John Anderson and implemented by the coalition government.

I refer to a statement by Mr Anderson in 2001, which I think explains the simple beauty of the Roads to Recovery program:

Local councils right across Australia have embraced Roads to Recovery and demonstrated that the government’s decision to give them discretion to determine their own road funding priorities has been absolutely correct.

Roads to Recovery is helping build the social and economic infrastructure of local communities, enhancing road safety, access to education, health care and other amenities and creating sustainable jobs.

As I said, it is a great program that has stood the test of time. I will focus on the issue of road safety in a moment, because I believe that if you fix country roads you will save country lives. That is one of the key reasons why major investment in the regional road network by all levels of government is so important. But going back to Roads to Recovery, local councils in my electorate have repeatedly told me that they love this program. It bypasses the state government and lets them decide on the best course of action in their local area.

It really does build on the common sense of local councillors. I strongly believe that it goes to the heart of local people developing local solutions to local problems. I have a great deal of respect for councillors in these local areas, because they have that knowledge and the practical experience of their local area. They get to set their own funding priorities and they gain the maximum value for their region as well, because on many occasions they can then package the work in a way that makes it more efficient for contractors, if they have to travel to the region, or for their own shire staff.

So Gippsland has perhaps benefited more than most. I take up the point made by previous speakers that I tend to think this is because of the good work of the local member and that it is based on need rather than any allegations of pork-barrelling in relation to this program. But Gippsland has benefited more than most, to the tune of about $28 million over the past four years. That is a very significant sum of money. I think that reflects the fact that Gippsland has a vast geography and a network of roads and bridges that demand such significant development. East Gippsland Shire, for example, has 2,719 kilometres of road and 230 bridges—and many of those bridges are wooden and, as we would all be aware, wooden bridges there are well past their life expectancy in many cases, and the council is in desperate need of additional assistance in the future. Wellington Shire faces very similar issues.

I meet with my local councils on a regular basis to discuss their concerns and, although work has started in many cases, over a period of years through Roads to Recovery, the work ahead of the councils is never-ending. I think that probably reflects the need for infrastructure investment in our regional areas, Wellington Shire in particular. It has 3,168 kilometres of road, 100 concrete bridges and 77 timber bridges. Latrobe city, although a somewhat smaller municipality, still has 1,500 kilometres of road and 71 bridges. Quite simply, the task in front of these councils, with their restrictive rate base and their very limited opportunities to raise additional revenue, makes the Roads to Recovery program vitally important to them.

I argue that Roads to Recovery should not just be extended into the future in terms of time lines; I would encourage the government to work towards increased funding in the future. Having said that, I acknowledge the government’s commitment, because $350 million per year is a very substantial investment. I regard it as a very positive step in the right direction and a continuation of the good work of the Nationals and the previous, coalition government, because the need is enormous and councils will continue to struggle to keep up with the demand for infrastructure in the future. Our bridge network throughout Gippsland is deteriorating, as I mentioned before, and councils do have a very limited capacity to raise funds themselves through rates or from other sources.

I must stress that roads and bridges are going to be the critical arteries in the Gippsland region for a long time to come. They certainly link our towns for economic and social activities, and we will be relying on our private vehicles to move throughout our region on an ongoing basis into the future. It is actually one of the main reasons why I have campaigned so strongly for an increase in the single age pension: we need further support for our pensioners, for our people with disabilities and for our carers, because in the Gippsland environment, with the high costs involved in travelling throughout our region, strong, safe local roads will always be a critical element of life in the Gippsland community. Fuel costs do have a disproportional impact on regional people, and pensioners and people on low incomes certainly fall into that category, and our regional areas are so dependent on private vehicles for work and pleasure.

I urge the government to continue to take action to assist pensioners and low-income earners in this regard because, although public transport is something that is gradually improving in my electorate, it will never serve the more rural and remote areas of electorates such as Gippsland. I wrote to the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government in relation to this issue after the matter was raised by local constituents and the Wellington Shire Council in particular. In terms of passenger movements on the public transport network, I note that the numbers east of Traralgon are rising faster than in any other part of the state of Victoria. While the delivery of public transport services is primarily a state responsibility, previous Commonwealth governments have co-funded major infrastructure and rolling stock improvements. So I urge the minister to look at joint funding opportunities for public transport in Victoria in addition to the great work that we are doing here with the Roads to Recovery program.

As I mentioned in my first speech just a couple of weeks ago, Gippsland is a world-class producer, and we need further investment in our transport links, not just for those social opportunities and for safety but also to move goods more efficiently to and from our region. Our timber industry, our agricultural sector, our food manufacturers and, as I will point out in a few moments time, our tourism industry all rely very heavily on a good road network.

Programs like AusLink and Roads to Recovery are significantly important in regional areas across Australia but perhaps no more so than in Gippsland with the Princes Highway project. Major projects like the upgrade of the Princes Highway east of Traralgon and all the way to the New South Wales border are essential developments for my region, and it is good to see that there is some bipartisan support for it. Although there has been a lot of talk about duplicating the Princes Highway east of Traralgon under AusLink, Gippsland is really looking to see more action from the current government.

I must say that I was surprised and disappointed by the minister for regional development when he attempted to use that particular highway upgrade as an opportunity to score cheap points when speaking in question time recently. The minister was correct on that occasion in claiming that I had written to his office in relation to the $140 million required to upgrade the highway, but what the minister did not tell the House on that particular occasion was that the project was actually promised by his own government, and the Prime Minister himself has repeatedly made the promise in relation to the highway duplication project. So I was somewhat disappointed that the minister did not provide an update on progress on his own promise and that he attempted to belittle the people of Gippsland and the Shire of Wellington on whose behalf I had written to his office. I have subsequently written to the office of the Prime Minister to get an update on the progress of this important project. Of course, the upgrade of the highway must not stop at Sale; we need upgrades right throughout the Gippsland region, through to Bairnsdale, into the future. It is something I will work on with the government whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Members who are familiar with the AusRAP star ratings would know that the stars are awarded to roads depending on the level of safety which is built into the road. The safest roads attract the four- and five-star rating, are likely to be straight, have features like two lanes in each direction separated by a wide median, have good line marking, wide lanes and sealed shoulders. But the highway through Gippsland only attracts a two- and three-star rating in most areas, which the RACV regards as unsatisfactory for a major highway, and I certainly support the RACV’s position. In the far east of my region the highway between Orbost and the New South Wales border is in urgent need of safety upgrades. The road is regularly used by very heavy vehicles and an increasing number of grey nomads towing caravans or driving the larger recreational vehicles. The highway is very narrow and winding and has many sections where the lack of sealed shoulders is a major hazard for us. Work has been undertaken in some areas and I do congratulate both the current and previous governments for the work that has been undertaken. But there is an enormous amount still to be done and I urge the federal government and the state government to work in partnership to improve the safety of the Princes Highway right through Gippsland.

I want to comment further on the need to build safer roads, which I think is a critical element of the Roads to Recovery program. Sadly, as we are all aware, a disproportionate number of people continue to be killed or injured on country roads, and that includes in my electorate of Gippsland. I know we have all been touched by road trauma in our own lives through family and friends. In addition to the deaths we have experienced, serious injuries are quite horrific and there is a long recovery process. Some people never fully recover from those accidents.

In addition to this huge emotional toll, the shattering of families, there is also a significant economic toll, if I can be so crass as to measure it in those terms. So the investment in better roads actually makes economic sense for governments as well, because every dollar spent on improving road safety has an economic pay-off as well as a social bonus.

That brings me right back to road funding in regional Victoria and particularly the Gippsland area, which of course I am most interested in. The Victorian road toll has trended downwards over the past decade but unfortunately the regional road toll has remained disproportionately and stubbornly quite high. During 2007 a total of 27 people were killed on roads in the east Gippsland, Wellington and Latrobe city areas. This year unfortunately the trend is worse and it has prompted a major effort by Victoria Police in trying to improve driver behaviour and cracking down on illegal activities like speeding, drink-driving and those types of activity. I strongly endorse the police in their efforts but recognise that it really is only part of the answer. In my previous role in the state parliament of Victoria as a chief of staff we pushed a very strong message out into the community that if you fix country roads, you will save country lives. I make that point here again today: if we fix country roads, we will save country lives.

I refer to the AusRAP report from February of this year and quote from the report:

Most crashes occur when ordinary people make everyday human mistakes. Sober, drug-free, responsible drivers obeying the speed limit and wearing seat belts frequently die on our roads. Safe roads minimise the chances of these crashes, and if they do occur they minimise the severity of the crash.

The AusRAP report goes on to make what I believe is a very critical and salient point for us all to remember and one that governments should acknowledge: safer roads have the potential to save nearly as many lives as safer vehicles and improved driver behaviour combined. Further, the report goes on to say that if we improve the safety of roads, improve driver behaviour, improve the safety of vehicles and adopt smarter safety technology we will save as many as 700 lives every year, most of these through modern, safe roads.

This is not solely a federal government responsibility. All three levels of government are involved in road funding, which I must admit often adds to the confusion in my community. We are sometimes unsure which level of government we need to go to about responsibility or funding for black spots or upgrades to certain roads. I simply reinforce the point made by the RACV that there is a funding shortfall in road construction and maintenance in Victoria. I do believe the previous government deserves to be commended for initiating the Roads to Recovery program and I am pleased to see that it will continue after 2010. I congratulate the current government for that. I also will be making sure that my electorate of Gippsland receives its fair share of the funding pool and I will work collaboratively with the government to improve road safety in my electorate in the future.

The bill also amends the definition of a road so that it includes heavy vehicle facilities such as rest stops and parking areas, which is another important component. I have mentioned this in the context of discussions that I have had with transport operators in my electorate. The land transport sector is certainly doing it tough with increased fuel costs, high interest rates and strong competition from some of the larger operators. But there are many small business owners who are struggling to meet the overheads of running their trucks in what is a very competitive environment. They are telling me that they are nervous about their future and that of their families with the Rudd Labor government proposing to increase taxes on trucks. There is also some confusion over the heavy vehicle regulations between jurisdictions.

Operators are telling me that they cannot understand why the government is pushing for a massive increase, for example, in registration charges, with B-doubles increasing from $8,500 to $14,000 per year. They make the point clearly that B-doubles are a very efficient way of moving freight. These small business owners feel that they are being unfairly targeted by this approach. They simply cannot pass on the costs; they cannot boost their rates. So some of them are running the very genuine risk of rescheduling their maintenance or cutting corners in the future—maybe servicing will be cut back—and, again, that could have an impact on safety. I think everyone supports a safe work environment, particularly across our transport sector.

My attention has also been drawn to the state transport regulations, including the national heavy vehicle driver fatigue reforms. Opposition members have already expressed their concern about the lack of uniformity between states on these regulations. I am concerned about the ability of truckies to comply with the law because of the lack of services, particularly in my region.

One of the key issues for the truckies in my region is the provision of rest areas. Very limited facilities are provided along the major transport routes linking Gippsland to Canberra, Sydney and beyond. In the absence of these safe rest areas, it is difficult to understand the somewhat heavy-handed approach and the extraordinary penalties that will be handed out for relatively minor logbook infringements. This is causing a great deal of concern in the transport industry in Gippsland. With no disrespect whatsoever to many of the operators in my region—they are excellent drivers—bookwork is not always their strongest point. To be fair to them, we must avoid making the process of filling in the logbook too complex and time consuming; otherwise, it becomes another inefficient impost on a small business operator. I am concerned about small breaches in terms of timing or filling out logbooks. There are areas in the logbook process where significant fines and demerit points will apply. This will severely affect the opportunity for these small business operators to earn a living in the future. I think there is goodwill on behalf of the transport industry, but we need to make sure that some reasonable tolerance and common sense prevails on this issue.

A further point on rest areas concerns an emerging issue that I am not sure members in the metropolitan areas would be aware of, and that is the growing force of the grey nomads, which I referred to earlier. Those who are in the fortunate position of owning a recreational vehicle and of possessing a desire to get out and tour our nation are certainly welcome in Gippsland; however, tourism infrastructure must be upgraded to meet modern demands. In our community of Gippsland, there is a pressure point developing. The large recreational vehicle owners and the traditional caravan park operators, it is fair to say, are not necessarily getting along very well. The RV owners do not want to pay for a site in a caravan park because their vehicles are largely self-contained and they do not need the facilities which are on offer. So many of them are parking illegally in our streets and in our parks, but that is a very difficult concept to prove when the owner of the vehicle can argue that he or she is just resting. It would dangerous to force them to keep driving.

I raise this issue in the context of this bill, because it is an emerging issue in regional areas. We are going to need more funding to provide rest areas which meet the demands of the modern traveller in regional Australia. You will find that, in addition to the heavy transport industry, many recreational vehicle operators are very keen to stay in rest areas. There is safety in numbers. If we provide them with toilets, shower facilities and other associated facilities, they will certainly appreciate it. I know that a toilet pump-out facility is not the most glamorous piece of road infrastructure that we can talk about, but the provision of such a facility would certainly add to the holidaying public’s enjoyment of our regional areas. It will also get rid of the friction that is developing at the moment in many country towns between the caravan park operators and the RV owners who do not desire to pay for a site because they are in a selfcontained vehicle. State and federal governments, both past and present, have not managed to fully support the regional tourism industry and so allow us to develop the opportunities that exist.

I think this is an important piece of infrastructure, and I will certainly promote it and encourage the government to provide it in the future. Providing safer and better roads, along with infrastructure such as quality rest areas, has benefits for the tourism sector as well as for the heavy transport industry. I know from my own experience in Gippsland that once we improve roads and the links between our major towns—in this case, from Melbourne through to Gippsland—there is increased traffic. We have experienced this as a direct result of government investment in roads like the Pakenham bypass. I congratulate the state Labor government for that. It has developed into a major link for our region and benefited the tourism and small business sector.

In closing, I certainly support the Roads to Recovery investment in upgrades to rest areas and parking facilities as this will lead to a safer roads. There appears to be at least some level of bipartisan support for major government funding in these vital roadworks to improve safety and transport efficiency, and I welcome that. I certainly look forward to working with my community to ensure that the needs of Gippslanders are not neglected in this process.

(Time expired)

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