Oct 19, 2018

High Speed Rail Shouldn’t Run on Party Lines – Opinion – The Herald Sun – Friday, 19 October, 2018

If there is one thing we know about Australian voters in 2018, it is that they are tired of needless political division.

After five prime ministerships in five years and inadequate progress on national interest issues like climate change and indigenous reconciliation, Australians want less politics and more action.

That’s why we should be seeking out areas for cross-party collaboration in the national interest.

One area ripe for bipartisanship is the construction of a High Speed Rail Link from Brisbane to Melbourne via Sydney and Canberra.

This project would not only revolutionise interstate travel and boost tourism, but also turbo-charge regional economic development and decentralisation.

While the former Labor Government completed a positive feasibility study on the project in 2013, the Coalition Government has failed to advance it, defying an international trend toward greater investment in fast rail.

However, the Government’s position appears to have changed.

We know this because last month, the Herald Sun was leaked a list of more than $7 billion worth of infrastructure projects, including High Speed Rail, to which the Coalition secretly allocated some funding in this year’s Budget.

But rather than release the funding now, the Government has decided to squirrel away these projects for announcement during the next federal election campaign.

That makes no sense.

Instead of delaying action for political reasons, we should just get on with it.

With this in mind, on Monday (September 15) I re-introduced a Private Member’s Bill to Parliament that would create a High Speed Rail Authority.

The authority would conduct advanced planning for the project, finalise the business case and begin to explore options for private sector investment.

It would also work with the governments of Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory to commence the important process of preserving the corridor for High Speed Rail before it is built out by urban sprawl.

That’s critical. Even if actual construction of High Speed Rail does not commence in the near term, we can save money now if we prevent ongoing development along the corridor.

We should also be exploring the intense interest from international companies which have experience in building High Speed Rail projects and say technical advancement is reducing the cost of such projects.

These steps can commence now.

There is no reason for delay. As we know from the leak to the Herald Sun, the funding is already available.

The 2013 feasibility study found High Speed Rail was viable and would return more than $2 in economic benefit for every dollar invested.

As Infrastructure Minister at the time, I asked an independent panel to examine the feasibility study and propose the best way forward.

That panel included former National Party leader and Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fisher, the Business Council of Australia’s Jennifer Westacott and the late Bryan Nye, of the Australasian Railway Association.

They recommended exactly what I am proposing in my Private Member’s Bill – the creation of a High Speed Rail Authority to advance planning and corridor protection.

Since 2013, the case for High Speed Rail has strengthened.

Strong population growth is causing severe traffic congestion in our capital cities, particularly in Melbourne, the nation’s fastest growing city.

Part of the response must be to increase investment in urban rail, as well as better roads.

However, another part of the solution is promoting greater growth in regional Australia so it can absorb a greater proportion of increases in our population.

That’s where High Speed Rail can be a game changer.

It would open up significant development opportunities for the regional communities along its path – cities like the Gold Coast, Casino, Grafton, Coffs Harbour, Port Macquarie, Taree, Newcastle, the Central Coast, the Southern Highlands, Canberra, Wagga Wagga, Albury-Wodonga and Shepparton.

If, for example, people could travel the 190km journey between Melbourne and Shepparton at 300km an hour, businesses would have greater incentive to establish operations in the regional city, taking advantage of its lower overheads.

This would create new jobs – the essential ingredient to any policy for regional development and decentralisation.

High Speed Rail will require significant public and private investment.

It will also take years to develop, with the job taking a number of electoral cycles.

That’s why it requires bi-partisan support.

But above all, High Speed rail requires vision. We need to think beyond the three-year electoral cycle, envision a better future and take then take the necessary steps to make that vision real.

My Private Member’s Bill provides the platform for bipartisanship on High Speed Rail.

The Morrison Government would be serving the public interest if it jumped on board, supported the Bill, established the authority and advanced the project.


This piece was first published in The Herald Sun today: https://bit.ly/2q2t2Cp