Murray Basin Rail Project

I MOVE – That this House requests that the Minister for Transport Infrastructure, the Hon Jacinta Allan MP, attend a public meeting, to provide information and answer questions about the Murray Basin Rail Project, at a time of day and at a place in Northern Victoria of her choosing, on or before 15 November 2019.”

I will resume my speech from 16 October by re-stating the basic purpose of this motion, from the perspective of Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party. 

Primarily, it is intended to be an information-seeking exercise … one that gives Victorians more detail about the future of the Murray Basin Rail Project. 

This is through requesting that the lead Minister, Jacinta Allan, attend a public meeting to provide information and answer questions in relation to the project. 

As I said on 16 October, the Murray Basin Rail Project was meant (to paraphrase Minister Allan’s own words from 2015) to:

  • have standardised the Murray Basin rail network;
  • more efficiently allowed primary producers to transport greater produce (especially grain, horticultural produce and mineral sands) to port; and
  • Significantly boosted jobs and the regional economy. 

By the time last year that it was supposed to have been completed, it would also have delivered a host of other benefits, including creating faster travel times and increasing the loads that could be carried – thereby removing around 20,000 truck trips off Victoria’s roads. 

Instead, it is less than half finished and, disastrously, it is generally believed that the track is in a worse state than when the $440 million project began. 

To cut a long story short, the project centred on changes of gauge on the Mildura, Manangatang and Sea Lake lines and upgrades to the track between Ballarat and both Geelong and Maryborough.  However, before things came to a halt some time ago now, the only part of the track that was standardised was the section between Ararat and Merbein – and even that work was beset by many problems. 

Many Victorians are now completely in the dark about the project’s future.  This includes thousands of individuals whose livelihoods are closely tied to its fate.  As well as private sector companies that made multi-million dollar investments on the basis of clear commitments from the Government.  They all need answers, urgently. 

Most of my constituents and I just want information – and recognition of the fundamental democratic principle that politicians should always be answerable to the public.  We should never forget in here the basic obligation in any democracy for government to be genuinely responsible, accountable and transparent – especially when something has gone terribly wrong.

I will happily acknowledge that Minister Allan has (as far as I’m aware) willingly continued over recent years to make her staff available to brief other MPs (including me) on the project. 

However, that in itself highlights one of the key problems here.  Which is that whilst we, as MPs, have the opportunity to receive behind-closed-doors briefings, the general public has received very little detail for a long time now. 

Said with all due courtesy to the Minister’s advisers, the answers in her office’s briefing to me also offered no real advance on her statements to PAEC on 12 June that, I think, represent her last expansive public comments about the project.  

The answers in that briefing were also largely at odds with the information and commentary that is continually coming from many key stakeholders.

By that, I mean the observations on the public record of people like Dean Dalla Valle (the CEO of Pacific National), who says “the cost of having this project not meet its planned potential is a cost this country can ill afford”.

Similarly, VFF Grains Group President Ashley Fraser describes this as “a critical piece of infrastructure … (and says the VFF urgently wants) a commitment to the project and firm timelines”.

Likewise, the Rail Freight Alliance Chairman Glenn Milne observes (on behalf of 28 Councils throughout Victoria) that “industry has invested millions of dollars in new locomotives, rolling stock conversion to standard gauge and warehousing and the silence from the Victorian Government on the future of this project is deafening”.

If all of that isn’t enough in any case, perhaps another way of demonstrating the need for a public appearance by Ms Allan (and therefore yet another reason why this motion should be supported) is if I outline just some of the many burning questions that need answers.  They include questions like the following:

  • If it is the Minister’s position – as she has said more than once – that the original 2012 business case was clearly deficient, why would she have ever agreed to implement it? 
  • Why did physical track inspections apparently only occur years into the project rather than beforehand, especially when $5 million was specifically allocated in 2015-16 to pre-construction safety and maintenance work?
  • Why (as first reported by Stock & Land’s Andrew Miller) has rail track more than 100 years old been used in this project, and laid on new sleepers and ballast?  Moreover, how common has this practice been on this and other recent Victorian rail projects? 
  • Does the Minister concede that such action severely compromises another of the project’s main goals – which was to allow trains to travel at wheel axle weights of 21 tonnes rather than 19? 
  • On what dates respectively did the Government first become aware of (a) the possibility and (b) the certainty that the allocation of $440 million would be exhausted without the project reaching completion?  And on what dates respectively did it formally inform the Federal Government of each of these two things?
  • Is it true (as I keep hearing) that Deputy Prime Minister McCormack’s office has been frequently contacting Minister Allan’s office to try to talk about what needs to be done to continue the project, but is barely hearing anything back in return? 
  • What is the status of the revised business case on which work apparently started many months ago now?
  • Will the once-regular industry advisory group meetings ever be convened again?
  • Given the Government is clearly struggling to find new money for this project, should people also now be worried about the implications for other regional rail projects like the North East Rail Line and the Shepparton Line upgrades? 
  • Since the Andrews Government came to power in 2014, how much in total has been spent on transport-related infrastructure in and around Melbourne and how much, by comparison, in regional Victoria? 
  • Will the Government not be allocating any further money to the Murray Basin Rail Project until at least the time of next year’s Budget? 
  • Would the Government still complete the project if it was rescoped to a lesser version of the original plan – or would the current model be the minimum model to which it would commit? 
  • If the Federal Government did not again supply at least half of any new funding, would that mean the Victorian Government would not commit any further money to the project?  Worse still, is there any truth to the gathering rumour that it is now Minister Allan’s plan to try to transfer all responsibility for the project to the Federal Government?
  • Alternatively, will the Victorian Government provide a guarantee that it will still complete the full Murray Basin Rail Project – and, if so, by when will the work be finished?   

I hope Government Members who speak in this debate today might themselves answer those questions.  Albeit that it remains crucially important that people have a chance to hear the answers first-hand from the Minister herself. 

Despite many peoples’ frustration, there remains enormous interest (as well as financial investment) in the Murray Basin Rail Project’s future … and I genuinely believe their respect for her would increase if she personally spoke with them and provided frank answers to their questions and concerns. 

In closing, let me therefore reaffirm that Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party urges Ms Allan to attend a public meeting about this project.  Because we believe that, if she does so, it will improve understanding on all sides – and it will give affected communities and stakeholders throughout the State (and beyond) at least some of the information that is critically needed.  

Like many thousands of people, our Party hopes very strongly for a full resumption of the project as soon as possible. Whatever the future of it might be, though, the very worst thing right now for anyone with a stake in the project is to continue to be met by more silence. 

And, on that note, I commend this motion to the House.