GOVERNMENT BILL: Infrastructure SA
September 6th, 2018
On the 6th of September, Mark gave a 2nd reading speech on the Infrastructure SA Bill 2018.
The Hon. M.C. PARNELL: The Greens support the second reading of this bill. The bill creates a new statutory body, Infrastructure SA. This body will have the responsibility to advise the government on all matters to do with public and private infrastructure. The new body will be responsible for preparing a 20-year state infrastructure strategy and a statement of capital intentions. It is important to realise that this new body will not actually build anything itself but it will be involved in advising government and it will be involved in putting in South Australia's bids to Infrastructure Australia to get national funding for state projects.
No-one can doubt the importance of getting infrastructure decisions right, whether it is physical infrastructure or social infrastructure, it is what holds our communities together. However, I think it is also fair to say that over many years, possibly forever, there has been suspicion around how infrastructure decisions are made. I mean, who has not been at the water cooler, in the front bar or at the barbecue where the conversation turns to, 'Why on earth did they build that?', or, 'Why did they build this project in preference to this other one which is far more important?' People will hear about the cost-benefit analysis of a certain project that has been put forward and they will ridicule it because it will make no sense to them.
We all appreciate how important infrastructure is but it is an area that is surrounded by a great deal of suspicion. I guess when it comes to suspicion probably the main situation is around election time when the question is posed: why did that community get a swimming pool? The answer is often, 'What? That marginal seat that may decide the fate of the government?'
It seems to me that if we have a body of people who are appropriately chosen, that are representative of different sectors of society, that make independent assessments and provide independent advice to government, then perhaps—just perhaps—there may be a little less pork-barrelling. It may be a little bit more difficult for the government to justify the unnecessary project in the marginal seat if it does not cut the mustard with Infrastructure SA. I am not going to state my expectations any higher than that. We will leave it at hope—hope that better infrastructure decisions will be made and there will be less pork-barrelling.
The Hon. John Darley in his contribution talked about government agencies talking to each other. Again, in the front bar, around the water cooler or at the barbecue who has not heard the story of the gas people coming to dig up the road, they patch it up and a week later the water people are back and they dig up the same patch of road, and then maybe a couple of weeks after that the electricity authorities are in and digging up the same patch of road? It might be a cliché but, like most clichés, it is borne out of experience. It is what happens. So having an overarching body properly resourced that can actually look at these issues and make recommendations then perhaps—just perhaps—we might prevent some of those things from happening.
We know when it comes to advisory bodies that it is the same as with computer programs: rubbish in, rubbish out. We need to get the best possible advice, and that brings us to the bill, it brings us to the composition of Infrastructure SA and it brings us to the job of work that Infrastructure SA has in preparing this 20-year state infrastructure strategy. What struck me when reading the bill was not just that the composition as expressed in the bill does not guarantee that all of the relevant interests, especially community interests and local government interests, will be represented—that is not at all clear.
However, when it comes to this main job of work that I think Infrastructure SA has, writing the 20-year plan, when you have a look at the things that the plan must contain and the processes that Infrastructure SA has to go through, it is completely inadequate in terms of consultation with stakeholders. The words are very simple: it just says in the bill:
(1) The 20-year State Infrastructure Strategy must…
(d) consider relevant information provided by the public, private and not-for-profit sectors...
It does not actually oblige them to ask anyone what they think. It does not oblige them to be proactive in their communication with all these different sectors of society. It is only if someone happens to find out what is going on, and they happen to lodge a submission, that they have to take that into account. That is a pretty poor way of doing things. In some ways it harks back to the old methods of simply 'stick it in the Government Gazette, put a little classified ad up the back of the paper and hope that no-one responds but, if they do, give them lip service.' We have to do much better than that.
I notice that the Hon. Clare Scriven, on behalf of the Labor Party, has filed a number of amendments that go to some of these issues. They certainly go to public consultation, accountability, transparency and openness, and to which documents get published and how they are published. The Greens are very attracted to many of these. There are others we are not so sure about, and there are a few I still have question marks next to, and I will listen to the debate in committee very carefully.
On that question of public consultation, both the Labor Party amendments and the filed Greens' amendments seek to achieve more certainty in terms of public involvement in the preparation of the infrastructure plan. The Labor amendments take a fairly traditional approach in terms of a requirement to advertise and call for submissions.
The Greens' approach might raise a few eyebrows, but basically I have taken one of the biggest pieces of legislation that we have on our statute books—the Planning, Development and Infrastructure Act—and had a look at the process in that. That act was the one we debated over—I cannot remember—was it 50 hours? It took us up until Christmas. We were told that if we did not pass it quickly we would be sitting on Christmas Day, if people cast their minds back to the previous parliament. That bill is about infrastructure—it is now an act of parliament—and it seems there is a provision in that act on how to engage the community. It is called the Community Engagement Charter.
That document has now been endorsed by the government. It seems to me that, if that is the guiding document for consultation with the community over planning, and that infrastructure is really a subset of planning, then that is a guiding document for this project as well. We will have that debate, I guess, when we get into committee. What I am pleased about is that, whether it is the Greens' amendment or the Labor Party amendment, I would be very surprised if this Legislative Council does not insist on the government incorporating better communication and accountability measures in the bill, and we will see when we get into committee which of the different models has favour.
I am pleased that members of this council are taking this bill seriously, as seen through the amendments. I am looking forward to the committee stage, but certainly as a matter of principle the Greens are strongly supportive of having independent advice to government on infrastructure so that we can perhaps avoid some of the shocking pork-barrelling that has gone on in previous years and some of the appalling infrastructure decisions that do not hold up to any level of scrutiny at all. If we can improve on that situation, then the state will be better off as a result.
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