Amendment: Port of Melbourne Lease Transaction Bill 2015

Mr HIBBINS (Prahran) — The question put before us is: do we agree to these amendments? The Greens will not be opposing these amendments, because while they do go to mitigating the very worst of the privatisation of the port they certainly do not provide for a port that would be in any way better run than it would be in public hands. 

Even though we will not be opposing these amendments, there is certainly still no justification for the long-term lease of the port, which certainly is not in the public interest. The main thrust of these amendments is to improve the regulatory oversight of the Essential Services Commission in regard to rent prices, a provision for 10 per cent of the funds raised to go into rural infrastructure, the provision of a rail freight plan and the length of the lease.

Before I get into those particular aspects, it is incredible that this entire negotiation process was conducted under the threat that the Treasurer would use special powers within the State Owned Enterprises Act 1992, put in by the Kennett government, to lease the port without going through the Parliament. This was a piece of legislation that was opposed by the Labor Party at the time it was introduced, in 1992. Back then the shadow minister responsible for state-owned enterprises, Mr Kelvin Thomson, said that the bill for that act was 'a disgraceful example of Parliament being asked to surrender its position as the custodian of state-owned assets'. He went on to say:

All honourable members would expect a bill like this to contemplate organisations such as the State Electricity Commission, the Gas and Fuel Corporation of Victoria, Melbourne Water and so on.

He went on to list a number of bodies, warning against privatisation. He went on:

Other bodies that could be privatised are the Port of Melbourne Authority …

So not only did we have Labor opposing these special powers the Treasurer has now threatened to use but warning against the very privatisation of the port of Melbourne that we see before us.

As I said, these amendments mitigate some of the very worst aspects of the privatisation, but they certainly do not provide for reasons why we should be privatising the port. In fact the best case put against privatisation has come from the Labor side; it came from the member for Melton, who said:

Once a government enterprise is sold off, the revenue base disappears. This house has heard a number of debates about the regressive nature of state taxation. The sale of these government business enterprises, and thereby the forfeiture of revenue from them to the Treasury, will mean Victoria's economic and budgetary position will worsen.

I could not put it better myself. The privatisation of public monopolies is a bad deal for this state. It has been a disaster for this state, and there is nothing to suggest that privatising the port will result in a benefit for those who use the port. It will not be a benefit to Victoria. In fact it has been a failure in the past.

We are told that as part of these amendments there will be greater regulatory oversight of rents, with the Essential Services Commission being able to have inquiries and make recommendations. But where does the power actually lie in enforcing those? The reality is that for all this talking up of what a great sale price we will get, the more money that a private investor spends on this port, the more will need to be raised through either reduced investment or higher fees, and they will come from exporters who use the port.

We have got a promise of a 10 per cent cut of the proceeds going to regional Victoria. The reality is that this is just a short-term bit of money for what will be a long-term hit on rural economies. It is not a victory to have a big chunk of the proceeds of the sale of the lease spent in rural Victoria because again this is a short-term benefit when the long-term detriment will be for rural economies.

An honourable member interjected.

Mr HIBBINS — I will put that question to you. It is not sticking up to seek a handout when really the best hand up for rural economies will be a well-managed port in public hands. If we look at the debate in the upper house, I think there are a number of unanswered questions about how that money can actually be spent, and I would urge The Nationals and other rural members to keep asking those questions about how those funds can be spent from the actual port.

Now we have also got in these amendments provision for a plan for freight rail access from the port, when in reality we already have a fully funded, fully costed project in the port rail shuttle. Expressions of interest could go out now — this could be delivered — but instead in these amendments that we have got it can planned within three years, it must be able to be delivered in five years, and that is after the actual sale, which could be in another couple of years. That is a decade. Again we are pushing freight rail off into the never-never when, if this government was fair dinkum about shifting freight to rail and getting trucks off our streets, it would be delivering the port rail shuttle now, not shifting it off into the never-never.

Now you might ask, 'Well, if you do not believe in privatising our assets, where are you going to get the funds for this transport infrastructure?'. Instead of flogging off our state assets in this government's best imitation of the Kennett years, we were promised a rational conversation about public debt, but we have hardly had that. At a time when interest rates are at record lows and when economic growth is soft we need to give Victorians the confidence that a bold, long-term infrastructure plan can be put in place, but rather we have threats and games — 'Well, if the port doesn't sell, then this level crossings project won't actually go ahead'.

The government needs to wean itself off its addiction to public private partnerships, where we are absolutely paying through the nose on these availability payments, much more than we would do if we were borrowing the money publicly. Just look at how much we are paying for the desalination plant, and look at how much we would have paid for the east–west link. There is land value capture. There are the dividends you actually get from assets you own. These are much more cost-effective ways of funding transport projects and major infrastructure than handing over control of the last major state-owned asset — a public monopoly — to private hands.

This is a bad deal for Victoria. These amendments go some way to ameliorating the very worst of privatisation, so the Greens will not be opposing them, but for a short-term financial hit we are losing control of a vital asset and we are doing long-term damage to our economy and long-term damage to rural economies. We are going to see rises in fees or a loss of investment in the port. It is a bad deal for those who use the port. These provisions for freight rail simply are not good enough. The government needs to embrace a new way of funding its major projects and major infrastructure.

The Greens stand with those who believe that public assets should remain in public hands. Privatisation of the port is a bad deal, but these amendments go some way to mitigating the worst effects, and we will not be opposing them.