Janet outlines the Greens' support for high-speed rail


Senator RICE (Victoria) (10:35):  I rise to speak to the High Speed Rail Planning Authority Bill 2017. The Greens support this bill as a useful next step in getting east coast high-speed rail on track in Australia. Thank you to Senator Farrell for bringing on debate on this bill because high-speed rail is a hugely important issue for the connectivity of our major urban centres on our east coast and has huge potential to transform the regions along its route. High-speed rail will cut pollution, enhance business and passenger transport, and generate positive economic returns. This bill paves the way for an important initial step in getting get high-speed rail on track, but there is more to do and consider if we are going to get this transformational project right.

Australia and Antarctica are the only two continents without high-speed rail in operation or planning underway. It's an absolutely standard mode of travel for those living and visiting Europe, Japan, China and, increasingly, across the rest of Asia. North America is set to join them with a high-speed rail service currently under construction in California. Africa has got high-speed rail in Kenya—with plans much further along than Australia's—in other countries, such as South Africa, and there's a link between Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.

Now is the time to take action and catch up with the rest of the world on high-speed rail. It is beyond time for us to catch up. Just imagine getting on a train in the centre of Melbourne and arriving in the centre of Sydney just three hours later. Imagine having access to the internet, being able to use your mobile phone, walking freely around the carriages and sitting down to have a meal in a restaurant. Imagine transforming the regional towns on the outskirts of our cities, less than an hour away—Shepparton, being 45 minutes from Melbourne—into economic centres. Imagine a mass-transit long-distance transportation system that can be powered by clean and renewable energy and reduces the impact of pollution and car travel on our cities and country.

Imagine the difference this is going to make to where people will be keen to live, do business and study. Imagine an infrastructure initiative that unlocks regional Australia whether it's Shepparton, Albury-Wodonga, Goulburn, Grafton, Taree or Casino. This is what we need in Australia. Our population is concentrated in the big cities, especially along the east coast, unlike in the US or Europe where many, many more people live in cities with populations of a couple of hundred thousand people. Living in that scale of city is much more sustainable—it's much easier to eat local produce, know your community and be connected to the natural world. You have easy commuting by active transport as well as shorter, quicker trips by cars and public transport. In fact, I can't see how we can possibly cope environmentally and socially with the projected increase in Australia's population to 46 million by 2030 without high-speed rail. Otherwise, we will be bequeathing the status of mega cities on Sydney and Melbourne and all the inevitable malfunction that will go with that.

High-speed rail and fast, reliable, high-capacity internet are the major commitments that are needed to unlock the elusive, long sought-after but never achieved Holy Grail of decentralisation in Australia and all the social and environmental benefits that go with them.

This is the promise of high-speed rail and, after many decades of discussion and delay, the time for high-speed rail has arrived.

The Greens have got a longstanding commitment to seeing high-speed rail realised in Australia. We're not afraid to think big and, like many Australians, we have a vision of a connected, efficient transport network. A fast train connection between our major east coast cities has been part of that vision for many years now. At the 2010 federal election, the Greens took real, firm policy commitments on east coast high-speed rail to the electorate as part of our vision for a 21st century transport system. Following that election, the Greens made high-speed rail a part of our minority government agreement to support the Gillard government, and we secured $20 million for a feasibility study into high-speed rail. This was such a hopeful, exciting time, and we are proud to have put high-speed rail on the agenda and to have made it a commitment of our minority government agreement. We saw the phase 1 and phase 2 reports from the strategic study that stemmed from that agreement. My colleague Adam Bandt, the member for Melbourne, was a huge supporter, and still is a huge supporter, for high-speed rail. In 2012, he released a report as part of the studies into the wider benefits of high-speed rail. That found that there was a potential $48 billion in benefits over 30 years from high-speed rail.

A High Speed Rail Advisory Group was established to advise the government on key industry and community issues arising from the reports. Then, at the end of 2013, the High Speed Rail Advisory Group was abolished by the then Abbott government—just like that. This time line sums up exactly how the fractious nature of Australian politics and the election cycles have proven poisonous to the long-term nation-building projects that are absolutely essential and important to the future of our community.

So the key function of this bill is establishing the authority to bring together state and federal stakeholders and to get the work started. It's a useful thing, because getting high-speed rail underway requires a truly collaborative undertaking involving the governments of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and the ACT, and many local government bodies. The Greens have had a longstanding commitment to the establishment of a similar authority as a key part of progressing east coast high-speed rail. That's the reason that we are supporting this bill. But we do call on MPs and senators across the parliament to maintain their sights on the level of commitment that's needed to get the coordination right and also get the investment right. It's going to take real commitment and a strong signal from governments to really get this moving. Vision and hard work are both essential elements.

The Greens took to the most recent federal election a comprehensive commitment that included such an authority, and it also laid out the other key steps that are necessary to get this visionary project underway. We committed $1½ billion specifically to high-speed rail as part of our costed transport policy package. This is the kind of commitment that's needed now to get things moving. We pointed to the key things that need to happen: we need to fast-track the intergovernmental agreements and legislation to get high-speed rail moving; we need to establish the dedicated authority to develop and manage the project; we need to prepare a detailed financing and investment plan for the project; we need to determine the final rail corridors in conjunction with the relevant state and local governments, secure ownership of the routes and confirm the development and operation plan of the project through an intergovernmental agreement; and we need to begin the process of undertaking a comprehensive environmental impact statement. Our commitment would have kick-started the authority's work and, importantly, it would also have enabled us to kick-start securing the ownership of the rail route. We have to have a comprehensive and properly funded approach to maximise the benefits of high-speed rail and to minimise any impacts.

We know that we have to be reducing our reliance on polluting coal, gas and oil, and that is the other really wonderful beauty of high-speed rail. Reducing our use of coal, gas and oil means, sadly, that we will have to be flying less. I would love to be able to take efficient, fast, high-speed rail from Melbourne to Canberra rather than having to fly here. The International Energy Agency noted late last year how high-speed rail presents major opportunities for reducing carbon pollution from transport. They outlined a scenario aiming to meet the goals that we have signed up to under the Paris Agreement, where high-speed rail would be substituted for nearly all global aviation activity up to 1,000 kilometres by 2060. High-speed rail makes sense in this regard, because there's the double benefit that the energy use per passenger of travelling by high-speed rail is about 90 per cent lower per kilometre than that of flying. And high-speed rail, of course, has the potential for that energy use to be zero carbon if it's powered by renewable energy, which is the direction the Greens would want to see it take.

And it works. Where high-speed rail has been implemented, air travel has been able to drop. Both the government and the Labor Party haven't yet taken seriously the carbon pollution from flying and so do not discourage it in any way—in fact, the opposite. The International Energy Agency outlined several examples of how the introduction of high-speed rail has led to significant reductions in air travel on specific routes. These include Paris to London and Seoul to Busan. For both of these routes, after high-speed rail was introduced, the amount of air travel between the cities dropped by half. High-speed rail in Australia would do the same.

Did you know that Melbourne to Sydney, on the basis of the number of flights happening over a year, is the world's second busiest air route? It has 54,519 flights a year. And Brisbane to Sydney is the eighth busiest air route in the world, flying 33,765 times. There is an awful lot of potential there to be reducing the pollution from air travel by substituting high-speed rail trips for a very substantial number of those flights. The phase 2 feasibility study undertaken by the government told us that by 2065 high-speed rail could attract 40 per cent of the intercity air travel on the east coast and 60 per cent of regional air travel. On the three main sectors—Sydney to Melbourne, Sydney to Brisbane and Sydney to Canberra—high-speed rail could attract more than 50 per cent of the air travel market. And we believe that these are conservative estimates, given the value of high-speed rail in reducing carbon pollution.

The Greens believe not just that we should build high-speed rail as part of our plan to reduce carbon pollution from transport but also that, once it's built, we need to have policy levers that will incentivise its use as part of reducing our carbon pollution from transport. The phase 2 study didn't include consideration of a potential price on carbon applying to transport domestically or to aviation fuels. Surely we're going to come to our senses one day, at some stage, and recognise the climate emergency that we're facing, and we're going to realise that limiting our carbon pollution isn't just an optional extra and that it's absolutely essential to be doing this around the world as part of our survival as a species on our small blue planet.

So taking every measure we can to shift away from the dangerous pollution of coal, gas and oil is going to be necessary, and this is inevitably going to mean a large reduction in air travel. Yes, there are investigations going on at the moment into zero-carbon air travel, whether fuelled by biofuels or solar power, but they are a long way off. In comparison, high-speed rail is a technology that we have here and now and that we could be moving forward with in Australia today. There is so much potential. Where is this government when it comes to thinking ahead and committing to transformative projects like high-speed rail? We just have not heard any real commitment. It was notable that in Senator Molan's contribution he went out of his way to not talk about high-speed rail. He talked about all sorts of other transport projects, but high-speed rail was completely off the agenda.

I note that the Faster Rail program seems to be this government's sole nod to improving rail connectivity. We're going to need considerably more than that if we're going to truly accommodate our growing population and their travel needs. The one thing that we haven't seen from this government is the recognition that the hard graft of developing infrastructure in the public interest really does need to be done by government. Its willingness to award the CLARA consortium funding for a business case worries me because the CLARA consortium's proposal is predicated on a set of ideas that are about developer profits, not fit-for-purpose, connecting, high-quality transport infrastructure. We will wait and see how that CLARA consortium business case evolves, but I have to say that the fact that that is the only commitment that the government has adds another level to the disappointment that many of us have about this government's lacklustre—to say the best—approach to building public infrastructure in the public interest.

There are always, of course, those who will say that high-speed rail is too expensive. Not only can we afford it; it is absolutely essential. We would see that an authority would have as part of its core work the investigation of a variety of sources of funding for the full project cost. We know that this project would bring net economic benefits. The government's phase 2 report told us that there'd be more than $2 in economic benefit for every dollar invested. So the answer to the question of how we pay for high-speed rail is, in fact, another question: how can we have an efficient, pollution-free transport system without it? It's transformational, country-shaping infrastructure.

We have choices about how we can raise and spend money. We're currently debating whether to give the big end of town $65 billion in tax cuts and watch as they send their profits offshore. Instead of tax cuts, we can choose to invest money in projects for the public good. We could abolish negative gearing and capital gains tax, a net saving of $51 billion over 10 years. We could invest this money into projects like high-speed rail or public housing or education and health funding—investments that will reap rewards over many decades. We could choose to spend the $17 billion we're currently planning to sink into the Joint Strike Fighters in other, much more positive investments. And we can take advantage of the low interest rates we've got at the moment and borrow money to invest in nation-building infrastructure like high-speed rail.

Our $1½ billion kick-starter which the Greens pledged to high-speed rail at the last election was part of our Infrastructure Bank policy, a long-term revenue plan that decouples long-range infrastructure financing from the annual budget cycle. Instead of having public money tied up in lazy and speculative investment, particularly in the housing market, the Greens laid out our vision to redirect spending towards the new economy.

As I've discussed, there are ways to approach this scale of investment and ensure that it's done in the public interest. What we're not seeing is any dedication to that kind of hard work from this government. We like to think of ourselves as a forward-thinking, innovative nation, and in many respects we are, but on high-speed rail we have been stuck. We don't seem capable of looking beyond election cycles. Labor and Liberal governments alike have been so focused on projects that will give them a boost at the next election rather than thinking to the future. They're happy to just bask in the glow of the sugar hit of the immediate economic benefits of a growing population rather than spending the right amount of money so that we have the benefits of infrastructure in the long term that will actually be needed for our growing population so that that growing population will be able to live the high-quality lives that we do today.

We are spending the inheritance of our children and grandchildren, frittering it away in the form of $65 billion tax cuts that will go straight into the pockets of largely overseas shareholders and big business. We are letting down future generations unless we commit to ambitious, transformative, nation-changing, nation-building projects. We are a global laggard in so many ways. Imagine how it could be if we had real commitment and real vision beyond the next opinion poll. I'm not the first to say this, but this Prime Minister has been a dismal disappointment when it comes to vision, ambition and policies that set us up for generations to come.

Now is the time to be investing in projects such as high-speed rail. We need to take action now, not be held back by the dinosaurs on the coalition backbench. Surely, high-speed rail is a project that could transcend the usual political divides. Surely, it is something that even the National Party can come on board with; the benefits to regional Australia, after all, are huge. The Greens support this bill. We want to see work commenced on east coast high-speed rail and we also want to see all parties commit to the long-term, to the long game, before this first step so that we can realise this transformative project once and for all.

Speeches in Parliament Transport and Infrastructure