NATIONAL Farmers Federation (NFF) president Fiona Simson has warned the federal government must heed the hard lessons of failed community consultation from the early days of Coal Seam Gas (CSG) mining, when drilling down into the nitty gritty details of the inland rail’s construction and buying out existing farmland.
Ms Simson joined other lobby groups in welcoming the announcement by federal Treasurer Scott Morrison that the 2017-18 budget had provided $8.4 billion to help the government fund construction of the iconic inland rail line from Melbourne to Brisbane.
The Coalition government will help fund the 1700 kilometres of rail line with $8.4b in equity to be provided to the Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC), with construction set to begin in 2017-18.
The project will see 1200 kilometres of existing rail line upgraded during the $10b construction phase to carry bigger loads on more powerful trains, in bulk and container loads.
But the government will also use the $8.4b to acquire land to build 500kms of new rail line with vital sections of the track set to intrude on existing farming operations, mostly in NSW and Queensland, sparking complex negotiations.
Ms Simson said the federal government needed to work very carefully and sensitively with land holders and make sure their consultation process was “genuine and sound”.
She said genuine consultation with farmers was lacking - particularly in the early days of the CSG and mining discussions - and that failure could not be repeated during the inland rail’s build.
“I think government should have learnt a lot about holding genuine consultation and genuine conversations and meaningful discussions with landholders about their concerns and what’s important to them and the need to be open to the best options and opportunities available,” she said.
“It’s never just about funding - money is always part of the conversation but it’s not the sole conversation and it can’t be the sole conversation.
“It really needs to be about genuine consultation and genuine discussions and genuine planning and careful planning about the best routes and options for the inland rail project, if it goes through existing farmland.
“Ideally, generations ago, we would have set aside land for our roads and our rail and our telecommunications infrastructure and everything else, all in the one corridor.
“But unfortunately that hasn’t occurred and it has meant we’ve had to plan, as we’ve gone along, which does mean these projects will now need to go through existing farm land but I’m sure with genuine consultation and intent with landholders, it is possible.”
While the government must take on board lessons from the CSG experience, Ms Simson said landholders also needed to understand the inland rail project’s benefits and what it would bring to them, given its capacity to open markets and cut freight costs.
But she said the government needed to be sensitive that they were also seeking to gain access to someone else’s land, with many farms being inter-generational family operations.
“Those people feel they have rights to their land and therefore the government has to ensure the process is very clear and transparent and the landholders are dealt with in a very sensitive manner,” she said.
“The government needs to look very carefully at the route for the inland rail and make sure that we’re building a rail line that’s built for the future and as much planning can be done, or has hopefully already been done, before approaching any landholders.”
Transport and Infrastructure Minister Darren Chester said the ARTC would be using a combination of government equity and public private partnership, for the Toowoomba to Kagaru tunnel section; the most complex element of the inland rail’s construction.
The Coalition has previously allocated $894m for some of the project’s preliminary works and to help determine where specific sections of the rail line will be built.
GrainGrowers policy general manager David McKeon said the inland pail project to be completed by 2024/25 would ultimately improve freight rates for the grains industry.
However, he called on the ARTC to also consult closely in the months ahead with those farmers whose properties would be directly affected by the development.
Mr McKeon said the government must also recognise the inland rail project was just one key element in an overall national freight and supply chain strategy.
He said efficient freight paths for the entire Australian grains industry were crucial to support export growth and regional economies.
“While the inland rail project is a major step forward, Australia needs a national freight and supply chain strategy which is comprehensive, long term and includes the requirements of the grains industry in moving a crop of more than 62 million tonnes harvested last season efficiently and cost effectively from farms to market,” he said.
“There’s been much talk over many years about the cost of agricultural supply chains and the urgent need for investment.
“Given the federal government’s commitment to identifying the national freight and supply chain priorities, we want to make sure agriculture receives priority planning, investment and regulatory improvements which will underpin this vital export industry and indeed the Australian economy.”
CEO of Pacific National David Irwin said thirty years since the ambitious inland rail link was first suggested, the 1700km rail line was now well on track to become a reality following the $8.4b budget commitment.
“Australia has a growing problem that can’t be ignored – we are trying to move too much freight on our increasingly congested road and rail networks along our Eastern seaboard,” he said.
“Inland rail is a true game-changer and we commend the government for its commitment to such an important nation-building project.
“We look forward to working with the government and all the communities along the route to see inland rail become a reality and ensure it’s a huge success once operational.
“We want a swift and smooth construction program and a clear path to the day the first freight trains can start using the route – and this will ensure potential investors and rail operators can plan for the future with greater certainty.”
Pacific National has an extensive network of rail freight operations across Australia including in regional areas.