Wednesday, 11 August 2021
Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee; Report
At the request of the chair of the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee, Senator Sterle, I present the report of the committee, Management of the Inland Rail project, together with accompanying documents, and I move:
That the Senate take note of the report.
I thank Senator Sterle for the tabling of this important report. I first visited communities within Queensland impacted by Inland Rail in 2018 in Cecil Plains, and I was struck by the fact there with so many people who were going to be impacted by the Inland Rail proposal that were just being paid lip-service by the government and by the Inland Rail Authority itself. So I was pleased after the 2019 election that an inquiry was set up by the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee. I thank the chair of that committee, Senator Sterle, and the other members for the work that they have put into this over numerous years but particularly the amount of travel that they dedicated to this. As people would know, the Inland Rail is obviously a big project and they covered off many of the geographic areas down in Melbourne, through regional New South Wales, in South-East Queensland and indeed in Gladstone itself—which is an issue I will talk about soon.
My concern about Inland Rail, based on the work I had done through impacted communities in South-East Queensland, is that all these concerns were being raised and there was all this consultation that was supposedly taking place, yet no-one was taking the concerns of these residents seriously. Whether it be the impact of flooding on Cecil Plains, the impact on business in that area, the way it comes down the range from Toowoomba into Ipswich and the impact of the noise on those local communities—let alone where it is supposedly due to terminate, in Acacia Ridge—and the thousands and thousands of truck movements that will result from that, again, the local residents hadn't been adequately consulted. It was through this process that I also came to learn more about Gladstone and the potential of Gladstone as a destination for Inland Rail and the fact that it had never actually been adequately consulted.
I'm going to focus my remarks on Queensland, because my community involvement was dedicated to those hearings in Queensland. Everywhere you go in Queensland, there are problems associated with the proposed route of Inland Rail. The cost has already blown out. We know it was $4.7 billion, and then it went up to $14.3 billion. And even under that proposal they haven't actually said how it is going to get down the range from Toowoomba into Brisbane. We know that when the second road line was built through there that cost $4 billion, so you can imagine the cost of building a rail network from Toowoomba down the range. They're saying that's going to be done in a PPP, but someone would have to pay for that. So the cost of this project is absolutely enormous, and it seems like the government have taken their eyes off the ball. They're not focused on the issues that the communities have been facing. They're not actually trying to sort those problems out. They are just saying that they're going to plough on with this project.
I was particularly pleased that the committee took the opportunity to have a hearing in Gladstone. The work that the fantastic Mayor of Gladstone, Matt Burnett, and the Mayor of Banana, Nev Ferrier, have been putting in with surrounding communities shows the potential. You couldn't see a more stark contrast between the communities of Banana and Gladstone councils and the concern that we've heard through South-East Queensland, where we've got one community that would welcome this project and another that has so much concern about the disruption that will be caused to people's daily lives. As part of this committee report, the government need to ensure that they're consulting with these communities but also that the Inland Rail authority don't just pay lip-service to communities. When they actually have consultation, they should genuinely listen and consult. Of everyone that I have spoken to—and it would be tens and tens of people who were part of these consultative committees—I haven't met one who's had a good experience. I had plenty of them that were dedicated; they turned up. But after a while they were exasperated and could not see that they were being taken seriously. They felt as though they were like mushrooms—just being fed rubbish and expected to go along with it.
So this report is an important one. I think the recommendations are very good. The focus on Gladstone is one that I'm pleased with. That is of enormous potential. But the business case needs to be updated; it is out of date and needs to be considered, and that is something where Gladstone should also be considered.
As I said, the committee heard from many advocates arguing the connection to Gladstone, including Mr Abbott, who's been appointed by the councils up there and also the Regional Development Authority to put together a proposal, which was compelling and something that should be seriously considered by this government. Again, there was a focus on the cost. We heard that the estimated cost of the rail link coming from Toowoomba to Brisbane is about 50 per cent of the cost for 10 per cent of the distance. That gives you a sense of how expensive it is to get down the range and into Brisbane—let alone the proposal that was floated by the member for Bonner. He has delivered very little in the time he's been here, but he's all of a sudden proposing some sort of a tunnel to be used, despite the tunnel having no money behind it and no distinct route to follow.
The impact on residents in Acacia Ridge and those where the trucks would travel would be absolutely dramatic. We heard from groups from the border down into the Scenic Rim, through Logan. The Mayor of Logan himself is someone who has raised his concerns with the committee. His focus was on the number of trains that would be travelling along the route. He said:
With the introduction of Inland Rail, this frequency is expected to increase to 45 trains a day, running 24 hours a day, by 2040. In addition to the increased frequency, these trains could be up to 3.6 kilometres long, and about 40 per cent of each would have capability to be double stacked.
These are substantial increases in his community in Logan.
We also heard from the community in Acacia Ridge. I did a forum with the fantastic member for Moreton, Graham Perrett, to which we invited people from Acacia Ridge to come and have their say. Again, they raised the lack of consultation, the fact that no proper study had been done, the impact of extra trains and the fact that there would be thousands and thousands more truck movements through that part of the world. I never had a lot of time for the former member for Moreton Gary Hardgrave, but he is now chair of the local community consultation committee. He explained that there was genuine concern in the community in the Moreton electorate. He said:
… Acacia Ridge is not purpose built for the task, and to deliver the sort of additional freight truck tasks onto south side roads would be devastating for the areas from Acacia Ridge to the port of Brisbane.
I know that Mr Hardgrave isn't always flavour of the month with those opposite, but I think on this issue he's speaking the truth. He is more in touch with what's going on in the Moreton community than this government is. Indeed, I think you could replicate that statement with regard to the entire south side, Toowoomba and from Gowrie to the border as well.
It is clear the current Acacia Ridge proposal is inadequate, and the committee understands that there may be multi-intermodal options across South-East Queensland. Again, Inland Rail, all of a sudden about six weeks ago, said that Acacia Ridge was under review. We asked, 'When did it come under review?' and they said, 'It was always under review.' Once they're under a bit of pressure from local communities, they seem to make things up to justify what they're doing, rather than genuinely taking the concerns on board.
As I mentioned before, my involvement with this came from the concerns of affected farmers on the Condamine floodplain. It's pleasing that, as part of this report, we commend them for their efforts. They paid, out of their own pockets, for independent modelling to look at the impact of floods on the region and, basically, dispute what the ARTC findings were. They went to the expense of using their own money to question what the ARTC were putting forward. We acknowledge the work that they have done. In the report, we also emphasised the comment by DA Hall that the level of discrepancy would destroy people's homes and destroy their businesses and livelihoods.
This report is so important because it does highlight some of the concerns that the ARTC and Inland Rail have not taken seriously. The Senate committee have done a good job on that. I commend Senator Sterle. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.
I rise to speak to the report of the Rural and Regional Affairs References Committee on the Inland Rail. It's about a part of Queensland that, like Senator Chisholm, I'm very passionate about, not least because I grew up there.
I'd like to add my support to what Senator Chisholm said about a Gladstone route. Ideally, that would go along parallel to the Leichhardt Highway, from Goondiwindi up through Miles, Wandoan, Taroom, Theodore and then eventually on to Gladstone. That would open up possibilities, because there are a lot of coal beds along that route, and there's also the Nathan Dam. It's a massive dam that could capture a lot of water to be diverted southwards into the Murray-Darling as well as to provide the people on the Dawson River with a lot more water security. If we could get a rail line up through there, we could open up new coal deposits. Also, if we didn't want more coalmines, we could look at putting a nuclear power station in Barakula State Forest, which is just north of Chinchilla. It's the biggest state forest in the Southern Hemisphere. If you had a big water source there, the Nathan Dam, you could open up a lot of possibilities.
It's really important that we create wealth through that region, because that region has been hard done by. It is where a lot of maternity wards have been closed by none other than the Queensland Labor government. They're trying to shut down the Theodore maternity ward, and I'm pleased to acknowledge the good efforts of Colin Boyce, who has been fighting very hard to keep it open. Colin is running for election in the electorate of Flynn. He's replacing Ken O'Dowd on the LNP side. Miles has also had its maternity ward closed down. Just down the road, 48 kilometres away, my home town, Chinchilla, has also had its maternity ward closed down. So it would be great if we were to open up railway lines, build more dams and generate more royalties from coalmines. We could use that money to put back the maternity wards that state Labor have closed down. While we're at it, we could probably buy back a few of the poker machines that were allowed into Queensland under Wayne Goss as well. We really don't need any or more of those things in Queensland; they've done nothing but destroy families. I know that Labor always talk a big game when it comes to looking after women. I think it's about time they reversed their policies of the last 30 years and actually shut down the poker machines and reopened some maternity wards, which is what used to happen under the prior Liberal National Party government. I know my good friends here, Senator Reynolds and Senator Cash, are from the great state of WA, and they don't need poker machines, so I fail to see why the rest of the states in this country need poker machines.
I just want to touch on the inland route going through to Toowoomba, which I was never in favour of. I was always in favour of the original route, which was going to go down through Warwick—in what they call dog-burr country—rather than running across the beautiful black-soil plains of the Western Downs, but unfortunately that route got moved. For those of you who understand the Constitution, you will know that it's the state government that owns the railway lines, not the federal government. Unfortunately, we've been kind of kneecapped, and we've copped a lot of the blame for the alignment of the route. But, in typical Queensland Labor style, they're actually doing a reverse privatisation, where they're trying to flog off the railway land that they own to the federal government to get money. That's why they don't want to go down the Warwick route, which would require new land and buybacks that way. What they're doing is a reverse privatisation. We know the state Premier's got a lot of experience in that, because she privatised Queensland Rail, which is a great model; I love privatisation! Let's sell assets to generate income, spend it on one big inner-city project and destroy all our future revenue so we've got nothing to pay for future recurring expenses—
Senator Patrick interjecting—
Well, Senator Patrick, if you want to know the history of the Queensland government, it was the state Labor government that sold Golden Casket, which used to fund hospitals. They sold Queensland Rail. I think Senator Watt was in the government when they sold Queensland Rail. I think he's even on record admitting that was a big mistake. Don't worry, Senator Watt; I won't let you forget it anytime soon. What else did they sell? They sold the wind, solar and gas generators. They sold the Port of Brisbane for six times earnings. Why would you sell the Port of Brisbane for six times earnings? It was 99-year lease. They sold the forestry plantations for five times earnings, and not all that was leasehold; some of that was freehold. They literally gave away the assets, which was madness.
Back to the Inland Rail, if we want to forward in Queensland and get it back on track, we need to build. Ultimately, if you went to a desert island, would you (a) go to a foreign bank and take out a loan or (b) build? If we want to get back on track in this country, we have to start building. We have to do what Lachlan Macquarie did in 1810, when he got here. For the first 17 years of the colony, we relied on foreign currency. We had a drought in 1805, and all of the foreign currency got repatriated. They started bartering and trading in rum. Of course, we all know what happens when you drink too much rum; it all ends up in a bit of a rum rebellion and all sorts of nasty things. Lachlan Macquarie was the first governor to see Australia as a country, not just a colony. He knew that every country needs its own currency, because that way you can issue sovereign credit against sovereign wealth. We have to look at an infrastructure bank. I'm just about to run off to meet the Treasurer—hopefully he doesn't stand me up again—to talk about getting an infrastructure bank going in this country, because we can match sovereign credit against sovereign wealth.
A lot of people will tell you that you can't print money. Guess what? We're printing money now. We're printing $5 billion a week, but we're spending it. That will cause inflation, because, if you're printing and spending, you're going to increase demand. But guess what? If you print and build, you'll increase the supply of essential services. You'll provide more water. You can supply more power from power stations. You can provide better transport routes. Not only does that raise revenue for governments, which then means you've got fewer taxes going forward; it increases the supply of central services and it pushes down the cost of doing business. So it will make Australia much more competitive in trying to compete with other countries. If we want to bring back manufacturing in this country, we need to start building. That is the only way forward, and this inland rail is the perfect example. I'm agnostic. I'd basically go both ways: one to Gladstone, one to Brisbane. I'd prefer it to go via Warwick—just north of Warwick there—because Warwick is a great little town. I think it got shafted when they moved it up to going around the north part of Toowoomba, which just doesn't make sense. It's a big dogleg that adds 70 kilometres to the route. That is a great way to open up and, basically, tap into the all the wealth in this country. I'm speaking from the heart here: there's no better place do to that than in the Western Downs and the Maranoa, which is God's own country. I'll leave it there. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.
Leave granted; debate adjourned.