I rise to speak briefly to the North East Link Bill 2020.
At the very heart of this bill is the establishment of the North East Link State Tolling Corporation in
relation to the North East Link road.
The new tolling corporation will be the primary body responsible for the imposition, collection and
enforcement of tolls in relation to the use of the North East Link tollway. It can be argued that the
government has a mandate to progress with this project as part of its Big Build. Some might argue that
toll roads do not constitute core policy for Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party. Some might argue that the
location of this proposed road in the eastern suburbs is a long way from the regional corners of western
and northern Victoria. However, minor parties are accountable for every vote they cast in this chamber,
and therefore any bill which legislates the tolling of roads in Victoria should be carefully considered.
Unlike its ugly cousin the West Gate Tunnel, the North East Link is slightly more edible. I am sure
my colleagues in western Victoria would agree that the West Gate Tunnel has been very unpopular,
especially in the parts of western Victoria where the government wishes to put contaminated soil.
However, the fact that the state government is collecting the tolls from this new road is a major point
of differentiation. Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party does not necessarily support the tolling of major roads.
However, if the revenues are being returned to Victorians, this is surely a better outcome than
increasing Transurban’s dividends for shareholders.
Moving away from the tolling of the new road and onto the cost, any project which requires $16 billion
from hardworking Victorians should undergo rigorous scrutiny. Does the $16 billion price tag take
into account that the bosses of the CFMMEU and its allies are demanding wage increases of 4 per cent
or 5 per cent every year between 2021 and 2028 for workers on the project? I suspect not. I only wish
that our teachers and emergency services workers could get anything close to that pay rise. Wouldn’t
that be nice? Does the $16 billion price tag take into account potential cost blowouts due to
construction delays and pending legal challenges? I suspect not. All of these credible questions remain
unanswered at the same time as Victoria is navigating the health and economic crisis.
Then there is the issue of China. In October last year Premier Daniel Andrews signed a memorandum
of understanding with China on its Belt and Road Initiative. Let me make this clear: Derryn Hinch’s
Justice Party is not anti-foreign investment or anti-China. Australia’s economic growth is contingent
on China’s success. We have all been beneficiaries of trade with countries around the globe, but when
Victorians are being short-changed, it is up to all of us in this chamber to speak up. One of the largest
consortiums bidding to build the North East Link is backed by China Construction Oceania, which is
part of the China State Construction Engineering Corporation that is rolling out the Communist Party’s
Belt and Road Initiative. This coincides with unfair tariffs being placed on Australian barley.
Is Victoria relying on borrowed funds from foreign states to pay for this megaproject? Can Victoria
continue to service existing debts if interest rates rise or state revenue continues to decline? Most
importantly, is there any risk that the newly established tolling corporation will be privatised against
the wishes of hardworking Victorians and sold to the private sector or, more worryingly, a foreign
country? I worry that the state government is engaging in selective diplomacy by ignoring trade
tensions with China in some industries while striving for greater trade in other industries, potentially
undermining Australia’s sense of sovereignty. The public is understandably anxious about this.
Finally, I sum up my contribution to debate on this bill on a positive note. Rural and regional Victoria
is ready and waiting: ready for growth and waiting for much-needed funding. From the construction
of a new art gallery in Hamilton to the completion of the Murray Basin rail project, country Victoria
has hundreds of shovel-ready projects—projects which would drive job growth in communities where
there is high unemployment, projects which would unlock economic growth on a grand scale through
improved freight and passenger rail services, projects which actually have public support.
The North East Link is arguably needed. It is a project which responds to the immeasurable population
growth in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, but I am concerned that this project is not currently in the
best interests of Victorians. I call on the government to reconsider funding arrangements for the project
and while doing so invest in communities across western and northern Victoria.