Economy, Question Time, Tuesday 7 November, 2023

Senator BABET (Victoria—United Australia Party Whip) (14:39): My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Finance, Minister Farrell. A recent statement by the IMF, the International Monetary Fund, stated that the Australian government ‘should implement public investment projects at a more measured and coordinated’ pace’—for example, infrastructure—’to alleviate inflationary pressures’. Now, I’m not usually one to support bodies like the IMF, but the government—both sides of this chamber—loves to bend the knee to unelected globalist bodies. It just so happens that, this time, I agree with them and they’re speaking my language! To play your role in tempering inflation, what wasteful projects will your government potentially cancel or maybe delay?

Senator FARRELL (South Australia—Minister for Trade and Tourism, Special Minister of State and Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:40): I thank Senator Babet for his question and the opportunity to answer it in a fulsome way. Of course, I start by going back in time a little bit to indicate just the sort of mess that the coalition left us in. After 10 years of announcement upon announcement upon announcement but then no delivery, we are now delivering on an infrastructure program that is fit for purpose—and I stress the term ‘fit for purpose’—fiscally responsible but, above all, deliverable. Now, as you say, we commissioned an independent review to ensure our infrastructure program is deliverable and does not place added pressure on inflation and the cost of living, two issues that I know you’re concerned about.

This review was necessary because the former government was all about announcement and no delivery. Projects were left without adequate funding or resources, and projects without real benefits to the public were approved. No doubt the National Party was mixed up in all of those sorts of decisions. Minister King said the review has found more than $33 billion in cost overruns across the infrastructure investment program, with a high likelihood of future, as-yet-unknown cost increases. Minister King is working closely with the states and territories to determine the outcome of the review. The former government announced projects without checking if they were priorities of the state first—no surprises in that—and this resulted in those projects being stalled for years or, worse, costs blowing out.

The PRESIDENT: Senator Babet, first supplementary?

Senator BABET (14:42): Thank you, Minister. We’re talking now about wasteful projects and talking about the previous government. Fair enough. Let’s speak about that for a second. Let’s speak about Snowy 2.0. Snowy 2.0 is a wasteful project; we all know that. It was the Liberals’ idea; it wasn’t even your idea. It went to $2 billion and then to $5.9 billion, and now we’re looking at $12 billion. The boring machine—the one that digs all the tunnels and things like that—has been bogged for about a year. It got stuck. What are you going to do to fill that hole? Are you going to cut your losses and give up? How about nuclear instead? How about that? Let’s give up on Snowy 2.0.

Senator FARRELL (14:43): I again thank Senator Babet for his question. No, we’re not going to give up. This is not a government that gives up. I understand what you’re saying about the cost overruns for Snowy 2.0, but the reality is that, if we’re going to move to that renewable future—to the status, as I described in a previous answer today, of renewables superpower—we do need Snowy 2.0 to work. Despite the under-resourcing by the former government and despite all the promises, we will be the government that delivers on that. It’s important from this point of view—I’m sorry to keep harping on South Australia, but I happen to know a lot about it.

The PRESIDENT: Senator Babet, second supplementary?

Senator BABET (14:44): Thank you, Minister, for attempting to answer the question. Now, projects like Snowy 2.0 take skilled tradespeople away from the residential construction sector at a time when we’re facing a housing shortage. Do you agree that wasteful infrastructure projects like Snowy 2.0 are contributing to our skilled labour shortage? If they are, shouldn’t we at least pause them for a little while, at least temporarily, to help people struggling with housing? Might that not be a good idea? A better idea is to go for nuclear instead, but anyway!

Senator FARRELL (14:44): Thank you, Senator Babet. You’re very focused on nuclear there, I notice. Just finishing what I was going to say in my previous answer: we have surplus solar energy in South Australia during the day. That can be used to pump water up to the top of the Snowy and to produce energy at night, when we don’t have solar. But, under the Liberals and the Nationals, the number of infrastructure projects in the pipeline blew out from 150 to almost 800, and the projects were left without adequate funding, resources or, more importantly, genuine commitment. It would be irresponsible to move ahead without fixing the backlog and cleaning up the mess that the former government left behind, and that’s why Minister King has commissioned an independent review of the Infrastructure Investment Program. This review has allowed the federal and the state- (time expired).