SHADOW Infrastructure and Transport Minister Anthony Albanese says the Coalition government’s $8.4 billion inland rail budget allocation is a pretend government investment.
While the Nationals are claiming it as a significant landmark win for delivery to regional Australia, Mr Albanese said the Labor party already funded a study for the Melbourne to Brisbane rail line and put $600 million in the budget which has already been spent.
He said the $8.4b that will allow the Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) to finance the rail project’s construction was “all off budget”.
“They haven’t found anything for it; it is all off budget,” he said of the 2017-18 budget revelation this week.
“They are pretending that it will produce a return without any actual government investment.”
Mr Albanese was also critical of a review into the inland rail project handed down in 2015 conducted by former Nationals leader John Anderson who he said was “not a friend of the Labor Party”.
He said in that review, set up when the Coalition government first came to office, Mr Anderson said the project wouldn’t repay the capital within 50 years.
Mr Albanese said he was supportive of the inland rail project - but was concerned about the budget treatment describing it was “just a fiddle to get it all off budget”.
“It’s a matter of whether you are actually putting any cash in for the project, or whether you have this view that it will all be off budget and produce a return in order to make the budget figures look better and that is what they have done here with this particular project,” he said.
“The assessment from John Anderson himself, the former Leader of the National Party and former Transport Minister, said that it wouldn’t produce a return within five decades.”
Mr Albanese said in the 2016 budget, the Coalition promised it would also spend $9.2b on infrastructure in the current financial year - but the 2017 forecast showed it would actually invest only $7.6b in 2016-17.
Construction on the 1700 kilometres of rail line – an estimated 1200kms on upgrading existing track and 500kms of new routes – has been flagged to start this year on brownfield sites in NSW.
Farm groups have roundly welcomed the nation building project as a means of cutting freight costs for primary producers and boosting market access; especially export destinations in Asia.
Transport and Infrastructure Minister Darren Chester $8.4b was now “on the table” for the inland rail and the federal government could get on with working with the community, and doing preliminary work to ensure “we actually maximise the benefits while at the same time minimising the impacts on the local community”.
He said the inland rail budget allocation was framed as an investment because $8.4b of equity was being put into the ARTC and “we expect a return on that investment for the people of Australia”.
“In terms of returns, we’re looking at a very long term investment – we’re talking decades,” he said.
“That is why the federal government is the right investor, because we have the patience of our capital to invest that in ARTC for the longer term.
“This is a project that is generational in the sense that it is our kids and our grandkids who will be thanking us for it in decades to come.”
Mr Chester said the inland rail line would help to reduce freight movement by road on the eastern seaboard and improve safety.
He said every train - about 1.8kms long - using the rail route in the future would take more than 100 B-doubles off the road, which in terms of road wear and tear and road safety was “a great thing”.
“This is a project that really is about building infrastructure for the next 100 years,” he said.
“We have finally made the big decision to put $8.4b into this Melbourne-Brisbane route 100 years after the transcontinental was finished.
“I’ve got to say, in the world of Infrastructure Transport Ministers, the chances of you starting a project as big as this and being the guy who cuts the ribbon in the end is pretty slim.
“So it’s about 2024 before it gets finished.”
Mr Chester said the Prime Minister had made it very clear he wanted construction to start this year, “and that is our ambition, our expectation”.
“There’s certainly some work going on already in terms of upgrading the existing track to make it future-proof and available to serve the inland rail project, but you will see work roll out steadily from then on,” he said.
“A lot of discussion will occur particularly over the next 12 or 18 months with the environmental impact statements and getting approval from landholders and working with the state governments.
“It’s a pretty complex piece of work, but it’s one that I think is very exciting and people out there are really looking forward to.”