Oct 12, 2015

High Speed Rail Planning Authority Bill 2015 – Second Reading

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (10:08): Nation building requires forward thinking.

When Ben Chifley initiated the Snowy Mountains Scheme in 1949, he understood that he would not be Prime Minister when it came to opening this great project, which was finally completed in 1974.

But Chifley also understood that by their nature, the biggest projects—the real national game changers—take many years to plan and multiple political terms to deliver.

Chifley knew that true nation building is not about winning short-term political acclaim, but about taking decisions today that prepare our nation for tomorrow—a tomorrow many of us may not have even contemplated.

A responsibility of leadership is vision—the ability to imagine the future and take steps now to prepare for its demands.

As former US President John F Kennedy once said, ‘Things do not just happen. They are made to happen.’

The proposed high-speed rail link between Brisbane and Melbourne via Sydney and Canberra is a project that should be made to happen.

It would revolutionise interstate travel for our children and grandchildren and open up massive development opportunities for the cities and towns along its route.

In December of 2013, I was proud to introduce the first private member’s bill of the 44th Parliament—one that would create a high-speed rail planning authority to get the ball rolling on planning this exciting project.

The bill would create an 11-person authority tasked with beginning detailed planning and, importantly, securing the rail corridor to prevent it being consumed by urban sprawl.

Regrettably, the Prime Minister of the day had no interest in rail and refused to bring the bill on for debate.

The bill before us reprises that bill.

It provides an opportunity for a fresh look at this issue in line with the change of leadership within the government.

I note that the new Prime Minister presents himself as something of an enthusiast when it comes to trains. If he is serious about boosting mass transportation, he needs to do more than tweet selfies.

He could start today by bringing this bill on for a mature debate about high-speed rail that puts aside politics and focuses on the national interest.

Let’s examine the facts.

As transport minister in the former Labor government, I established the facts with a two-part study involving extensive consultation with industry and including international operators of high-speed rail, as well as significant community input.

The study, published in April 2013, included the business case for the project, consideration of environmental issues, projections of patronage, proposed route, proposed stations and proposed time lines.

It found that high-speed rail down the east coast of Australia was a viable proposition.

For example, it found that high-speed rail would return, for the Sydney to Melbourne section, $2.15 in economic benefit for every dollar invested.

The report found that once fully operational across the Brisbane to Melbourne corridor, high-speed rail could carry approximately 84 million passengers each year.

At speeds of up to 350 kilometres per hour, people would be able to travel from Melbourne to Sydney in less than three hours—the same duration of an express trip from Sydney to Brisbane.

The report found the optimal staging would involve building the Sydney to Melbourne line first, starting with the Sydney to Canberra corridor.

Later, building would continue from Canberra to Melbourne, Newcastle to Sydney, Brisbane to the Gold Coast and the Gold Coast to Newcastle.

The report also found that high-speed rail would face challenges.

The 1,748-kilometre line would pass through four major cities and its delivery would demand significant cooperation between multiple governments in multiple jurisdictions.

With so many players involved, Commonwealth leadership and coordination will be essential.

High-speed rail would also be an engineering challenge, requiring at least 80 kilometres of tunnels, including 67 kilometres in Sydney alone.

But despite these challenges, the experts said that high-speed rail had huge potential, particularly if we consider where our society is headed over coming decades.

We can anticipate that an increasing population and the growing pressure for a carbon-constrained economy will drive the economics of this project ever more positively over time.

The other challenge is that if we fail to act soon, the great potential of high-speed rail will be made more difficult.

That is why this bill proposes to create an 11-person high-speed rail authority to bring together all affected states as well as rail and engineering experts to progress planning and, critically, focus on the corridor.

As minister, I allocated $54 million in the 2013 budget for the authority to commence its tasks.

That funding was cut by the incoming government.

Its 11 members would include:

one member from each of the states affected—Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory;

one member representing the Australian Local Government Association;

one member nominated by the Australasian Railway Association; and

five members appointed by the Minister for Infrastructure on the basis of qualifications or expertise—to make sure that you got that engineering expertise on the authority.

The authority’s roles would include consideration of:

land use planning relating to the corridor;


measures to minimise environmental impact;

public consultation; and

intervention to purchase the corridor. It is important that I stress that the former Labor government consulted widely in developing this project. Indeed, this bill reflects the unanimous recommendations of an expert committee. That committee included former Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer, the Business Council of Australia’s chief executive, Jennifer Westacott, and Australasian Railway Association Chief Executive Bryan Nye. It was chaired by the deputy secretary of my former department, Lyn O’Connell. The group judged the issue on its merits and recommended the establishment of a planning authority, which is exactly what is proposed in the bill before us.

High-speed rail exists in every continent other than Australia and Antarctica. New projects are underway all over the world, including in the Asian region, in the UK and in the United States. Whenever I talk to people who doubt the viability of the project, I ask them to consider the pace of change in modern Australia.

In 1949, when Chifley began the Snowy Mountains Scheme, Australia was vastly different from the way it looked in 1974, when the project was completed. In the same way, we cannot begin to imagine the shape of Australia in 2050. But we do know the population is likely to have doubled. We do know that that will be concentrated precisely on the route of this high-speed rail proposal. We can expect the world will have moved to carbon constrained economies, making rail a more attractive economic option as well as a travel option.

According to the high-speed rail study I referred to earlier, travel on the east coast of Australia is forecast to grow about 1.8 per cent every year over the next two decades and to increase by 60 per cent by 2035. The study said east coast trips would double from 152 million trips in 2009 to 355 million trips in 2065.

There is another compelling reason to proceed with high-speed rail that has received less attention but will ring true for many members of this House. I am referring to the massive boost a high-speed rail line would provide for the regional centres along its route. Stations are proposed for the Gold Coast, Casino, Grafton, Coffs Harbour, Port Macquarie, Taree, Newcastle, the Central Coast, Southern Highlands, Wagga Wagga, Albury-Wodonga and Shepparton. I note that this bill will be seconded by my colleague, the member for Newcastle, and members who are present in the House include the member for Indi, whose electorate would benefit substantially from this project.

This project will position these centres to take some of the population growth pressure off our capital cities, which will no doubt be a key issue in the future. Importantly, it will also provide for uplift value by the economic improvement that will occur in those regional centres to be factored into the building and construction of the high-speed rail line.

It could also be a massive improvement in liveability. People could live in, say, Newcastle or the Southern Highlands and commute quickly to Sydney on a daily basis. Or new businesses could establish themselves in regional centres, taking advantage of lower costs while still being a short ride away from the nearest state capital for the purposes of marketing.

High-speed rail does require broad support. Its construction would occur over many terms of government and, indeed, changes of government, which is why it requires broad discussion by this parliament. It requires leadership. So let us lead. On that basis, I commend this bill to the House.

The SPEAKER: Is the motion seconded?

Ms Claydon: I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.