Catherine King has used a National Press Club address to announce sweeping reforms in the way her office and department operate.
The minister for infrastructure, transport, regional development and local government said the changes would include an overhaul of independent advisory body Infrastructure Australia.
The reform measures will see three commissioners appointed to the body based on merit. These commissioners will be tasked with ensuring Infrastructure Australia has a more active role in the post-completion stage of projects, guiding future initiatives, working closely with equivalent state and territory government agencies, and developing a regime to ensure local government and regional bodies can undertake more rigorous assessments of projects.
“Over recent years, [Infrastructure Australia] has tried to do too many things and ended up being sidelined by a government that, frankly, wasn’t interested in its advice,” King said.
“Guided by the advice of Nicole Lockwood and Mike Mrdak, our changes will put in place a stronger, more focused Infrastructure Australia.”
“When you boil it down, we are remaking Infrastructure Australia to ensure we make better decisions,” she said.
Labor will soon introduce legislation into parliament to bring the changes into effect.
Infrastructure Australia, which was created when Anthony Albanese was the responsible minister in 2008, warned last December of the need for an uplift of APS capability to meet the challenging future demands of national major pipeline projects. In particular, it underscored the ordinary challenges of infrastructure projects — cost and timeline blowouts — were under extra pressure by supply chain challenges, the rising cost of materials, and a significant shortfall between available labour and demand.
The 2022 market-capacity report highlighted the specific need for government employees dealing with infrastructure works to improve risk-management practices and complete proactive sequencing of the major projects pipeline, into the future.
The Mandarin questioned the minister about what capabilities she wanted to see bolstered in her department, and whether addressing any particular pain points might help manage the expectations of her office.
King responded by lauding the experience and effort of her APS team and suggested that the way Infrastructure Australia “interfaced” with the government needed reform after being lost in the wilderness in the nearly 10 previous years the Coalition was in power.
“I have wonderful public servants […] who are doing extraordinary work and have been managing complex, large-scale infrastructure projects for a long period of time,” King said.
“One of the things that I think was happening previously is that the really strong relationship you need between Infrastructure Australia and my department wasn’t there.
“I think some of that was driven by my predecessor basically wanting to do particular things and to get outcomes in a particular way, and not necessarily wanting to hear alternative advice,” she said. The independent body is responsible for maintaining an infrastructure priority list to ensure public funds are sensibly invested in projects that will deliver the best outcomes for Australian communities.
As part of the minister’s revamp of the body, it will be required to make a smaller and more targeted list.
“I am so determined that commonwealth investment is targeted — that we invest in the projects that deliver productivity growth, connect communities, future-proof our freight routes, and deliver both economic and social returns,” she said.
King noted that she was surprised when she became minister that Infrastructure Australia was not involved in the Budget process to help her determine strategic investment opportunities for the government. She said Labor was committed to changing this arrangement and wanted to see a better partnership between Infrastructure Australia and DITRAC with respect to budgetary decision-making.
“I think that will make for better outcomes from both my department’s point of view, but also from the way in which Infrastructure Australia thinks about its interface with government,” King said.
“At the end of the day, I am Infrastructure Australia’s major client. They need to tell me where they think government investments need to be made, and that’s a real change and shift to the way that they’ve been operating for the last decade.
“We’ve got a bit of work to do to get them there,” she added.
The minister also used her address to outline the critical role that nation-building had to boost Australia’s productivity, make the economy more resilient, and create jobs and essential services. The importance of the portfolio went far beyond stimulus and productivity — they were community lifelines to supplies, and where economics met human aspirations.
“The critical freight routes that cross our continent are incredibly vulnerable. The transcontinental rail line, the Stuart Highway, the Carpentaria Highway, the South Coast Highway in WA, and the main west rail line out of Sydney — all are vital transport links and all are rated at high risk,” King said.
“These routes struggle to cope at the best of times — as the climate changes we will see more and more disruptions. The roads we choose to build and maintain, the rail lines we choose to upgrade and the investments we make — they matter,” she said.
Also in the works is the government’s highly anticipated response to Dr Kerry Schott’s review of the Australian Rail Track Corporation, which exposed governance and delivery problems with the Inland Rail project.
The minister also made a number of references to the net-zero focus of the government’s infrastructure investment decisions, which would be guided by the goal of decarbonising the nation’s essential industries from road to rail, on the water and in the air.
The National Electric Vehicle Strategy would be a part of this vision, along with a Jet-Zero round table for the aviation industry and the creation of ‘green shipping lanes’ with international partners on the seas.
“Investing in greener technologies and getting to net zero isn’t something we can pick and choose — it is an obligation for us all,” King said.
DITRAC now has its own in-house net-zero unit to deliver work across government and with the transport and construction sectors to help achieve net zero and improve the resilience of our transport networks and supply chains in the face of increasing extreme weather events.
A new task force within the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet has also been established to advise the government on how Australia’s net-zero economy transition does not leave the regions behind.
“The future is clean, the future is coming, and we need to ensure that with it comes jobs and investment in Australia. This is an attitude that is now spread across my department and across the government,” King said.