ABC Victoria Statewide Drive

Interview

DCI031/2017

03 April 2017

Subject: North East rail line, Hazelwood workers, Tudge, polls.

Nicole Chvastek: The Federal Infrastructure and Transport Minister, Darren Chester, has decided to find out firsthand what it is like, he has taken the trip this morning. Darren Chester, good afternoon.

Darren Chester: Good afternoon to you too, Nicole.

Nicole Chvastek: So, where do you start and where do you finish?

Darren Chester: Well, we started at Southern Cross first thing this morning. I have had a bit of a break now in Wangaratta, where I have been meeting with local community representatives. I have been meeting with the council and being able to look at a few of the other road projects in the town as well. But back on the train, finishing off the journey, and we will be in Albury later on this evening.

Nicole Chvastek: What has it been like?

Darren Chester: Well it has actually been quite a good trip in the sense that I have had a chance to speak to a lot of passengers and get a better understanding of their concerns about the times where the train service has being cancelled in the past they have had to go on coaches and that type of thing. There are issues obviously, Nicole, with the line in providing for a fairly rough ride in places and reduced speed limits, which concerns people. Also, the rolling stock is very old—it dates back 30 or 40 years. People have taken the opportunity to raise their concerns with me directly and it has been very good as a fact-finding mission if you like from that perspective.  Now the challenge I guess is for me as the Federal Minister to see how I can work with the State Minister and see what we can do in terms of further improvements.

Nicole Chvastek: Because the line I understand is not classified as a premium line unlike the Ballarat and Bendigo lines. Why is that?

Darren Chester: Well that is a really important point, Nicole. You need to understand, of course, public transport is primarily a state responsibility, but the Prime Minister has made it very clear he is is comfortable with me as his Minister working with the state governments on improving passenger transport. Now, in Victoria the Ballarat, Bendigo and Geelong lines were the beneficiaries of some major upgrades over the past decade, but other lines in Victoria have missed out in terms of major funding in that regard.

So I think that’s really where the opportunity is in terms of the North East line or the Gippsland line or some of the lines in regional Victoria where more and more people are saying we want better train services. It provides for better connectivity within our region, but also gives us a better link into those major metropolitan areas.  I think it is a real opportunity for us, Nicole, in regional Victoria in terms of the ageing population that people want to go out to move into regional areas—whether it is a tree change or sea change—but they still want to be connected to their life in the city perhaps and still have those good transport links. Now I think here is the real challenge about how we work together at the state and federal level to deliver that for people.

Nicole Chvastek: Okay, so what can do you do about it because regional Victorians are also being told that we have go to be part of the global economy and it is really difficult to be part of the global economy when we have got patchy communications and second-rate transport?

Darren Chester: Well I think you have touched on two of the biggest issues in regional Victoria and it all comes down to one word, which is connectivity. Whether it is connecting through better road, or rail, or airport links, or telecommunication links, what it takes is investments by governments in partnership with the private sector, where possible, to provide that connectivity right throughout our region.

Nicole Chvastek: So what will you be investing in the Albury line in the upcoming Budget?

Darren Chester: Unfortunately, for you I am not going to announce Budget decisions today and I understand why you have asked me that question, but I am sure the Treasurer would be very unimpressed if I started making announcements six weeks before his Budget is delivered.

Nicole Chvastek: I guess people want to know that something is going to happen because this has been a bugbear in regional for years and years and years. We are told on the one hand that we’ve got to step up, we’ve got to contribute, we’ve got to be part of a modern economy, and yet our infrastructure isn’t a modern economy’s infrastructure?

Darren Chester: Well I am not trying to be evasive, but you know I can’t make Budget announcements before the Treasurer actually makes the Budget decisions. But what can I say, Nicole, is you and I have spoken before about the $3 billion program that I was able to negotiate with the State Government last year and that work is rolling out right now.  I fully understand that people want more and as a Minister, and as a Victorian, as a regional person, I want to see more spending for regional Victoria as well. So that is why I go in to fight in Cabinet and in the Budget discussions for progress in regional Victoria. Now, whether it is more mobile phone connectivity, or better road and rail links, or better airports these are the sort of the things that I am fighting for every day.  I am hopeful and optimistic that I have made a good case and that during the Budget process we will get some success there. But I think it really is a question of how the state and federal governments can work with the local community to deliver the sort of service they expect. I understand, Nicole that no one is going to believe it until they see it, so we have to deliver for them.

Nicole Chvastek: I am speaking to Darren Chester, the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, and Nationals Member for Gippsland. Darren Chester, we will be hearing later in the program from a former Hazelwood worker who is disgusted that the hundreds of hard hats that symbolised the last days at the power plant were taken down less than 24 hours after the emotional farewells. They have been fearing that those hard hats are going to be put in the bin, and they have asked for them—or at least some of them—to be retained as part of a memorial wall, a tribute to those who worked there and the 50 years of service that they gave to keeping the lights on in Victoria. What is your reaction to the owners of Hazelwood ordering that those hard hats be removed?

Darren Chester: Well I understand the sensitivities as you described, Nicole, and I think it is critically important that we make sure that those hard hats are secured and that they aren’t just thrown out as you’ve just suggested is a possibility. I don’t think anyone would be so insensitive as to do that.

I guess a difficult part to this, Nicole, is there is still workers going back into Hazelwood involved with the rehabilitation of the mine site and the demolition of the power station. Now, I am not sure that those workers going back every day seeing their mates’ helmets on the fence is going to necessarily be good for their mental health or wellbeing as well. So I guess we need to find the right balance there, because I certainly want to pay due respect to those workers who have done so much hard work for our community, and so I think, yes, there needs to be suitable recognition of that, but at the same time I understand why it wouldn’t be necessarily that good for people going to work every day seeing their mates’ helmets hanging on the fence and wishing their mates were with them.

Nicole Chvastek: Well, I mean, Hazelwood is now winding down, the plant, as it stands, is not going to be there for much longer. Would it have been that difficult to leave effectively a memorial wall of some of those hats in place or at least consulted with the workers, who only finished up a few days ago, about their removal?

Darren Chester: Absolutely, Nicole, and that’s why I don’t want to be seen to be disrespectful at all of the workers, but there’s going to be a lot of workers, in the order of more than 100, still going there on a daily basis involved in the rehabilitation of the mine site and the destruction of the power station itself. So that’s the only point I was making in that regard. I am very sensitive of the fact that the workers, I thought, made a very symbolic gesture, and it was a very poignant moment to see those safety helmets on the fence with messages to their workmates, to their families, and everything else. So I think that needs to be treated sensibly.

Now, I think we can work our way through this with Engie and make sure that the company involved shows due respect to the workers who have done such a great job for Victoria. But I am sensitive to the fact that other workers are going to be going back to that work site now for the next couple of years, and I’m not sure that seeing your mate’s helmet there every day is necessarily going to be the best way to turn up to work every day.

Nicole Chvastek: Support for the Coalition, support for the Turnbull Government, has tumbled to another dangerous low, it is reported in News Corp papers, following divisive debates on company tax cuts and race hate laws. Darren Chester, what is your reaction to this? Because the suggestion is that if an election were held tomorrow your government would lose in a landslide.

Darren Chester: Well the good thing for me as a Minister and a regional Victorian is that an election is not going to be held tomorrow. It’s going to be a couple of years away, and I have got a couple of years to deliver all of the things that I said I’d deliver for the Australian people and for regional people, and we have just got to get on with the job. We have got to get on with the job of delivering all those things that people care about, whether it’s job security for them and their families, whether it’s better roads and rail as you and I have just talked about, mobile phone black spots.

Nicole Chvastek: Do you think that welfare cuts while you are watching front pages of Bronwyn Bishop, who has been caught out rorting the system and refusing to provide details of her so-called travel entitlements, do you think that is a good look for the Government? At the same time, you have Centrelink recipients receiving robo-calls, which some of them have claimed are effectively terrorising them for money that they doubt that they even owe.

Darren Chester: What I think, Nicole, is we need to deliver the things we said we’d do for the Australian people in terms of the infrastructure they want, the better services they want, getting control of the budget. All the things we said we’d do in the election campaign, we’ve got to focus on delivering those and not talking about ourselves or inwardly focussed about opinion polls or what one Member of Parliament thinks about another Member of Parliament. People don’t care. They just want to see better roads, they want to see better bridges, they want to see better rail connectivity, they want to see mobile phone black spots, they want a job for their kids, they want to be able to go to a hospital and see a doctor, they want a good school for their kids to go to. That’s the stuff governments should focus on. The moment we start talking about ourselves we deserve to get a kick in the backside in the opinion polls.

Nicole Chvastek: So why aren’t you delivering those things?

Darren Chester: Well we are, Nicole. I mean, this is what I am here in Wangaratta today for, is to talk to the community on how we can improve their rail services into the future. I’ve been out around four or five different projects here, with the Roads to Recovery program, the Heavy Vehicle Safety program, where new facilities have been built here that are going to change lives and save lives in this community by improving road infrastructure.

These things are happening on a daily basis and we need to remind people that nothing happens overnight when it comes to infrastructure. But we need to keep on building the things that people need in their communities and we need to keep promoting positively the opportunity to live and work in regional areas like the north east, like Gippsland, like Ballarat, all those great parts of regional Victoria. We need to be relentlessly optimistic and positive about them and keep investing in them.

Nicole Chvastek: One of Australia’s top criminal barristers, Robert Richter, says that it is clear that the federal Human Services Minister Alan Tudge, or someone in his office, committed an offence punishable by up to two years in prison by revealing the personal details of a Centrelink client who complained about her robo-calling. Darren Chester, this is yet another bad look isn’t it? This is yet another complaint. This is yet another concern by some in regional Victoria that the emphasis is in the wrong place, that there is a huge disconnect between the Bronwyn Bishops of the world who have decided that she has unilaterally decided that she is not going to give the Finance Department any more information about the money that she spent—which may have been legal or illegal we’ll never know because she’s not going to provide any information—and people who were receiving Centrelink payments who are being, as this particular recipient says, terrorised by the department for a little bit of money that they may have overspent in 1986.

Darren Chester: Well you have covered a lot of ground there, Nicole. The first point you raise is in relation to legal opinion from the lawyer who admitted himself he doesn’t have the full facts about the case involved and Minister Tudge made his decision based on the advice of the Chief Legal Council, the Department of Human Services. This is a person that has all the facts in front of him in relation to that case. Now I don’t have any more information that is in front of me in terms of how that case came to light.

Nicole Chvastek: But the optics are really poor, Darren Chester.

Darren Chester: But in terms of the broader issue, the other issues you raised there, I agree entirely. The moment Members of Parliament are on the front page of newspaper being seen to have done something wrong and then not using taxpayers’ money in a way which taxpayers would want them to use it, we deserve a kick in the backside in the opinion polls and we’ve got to get back to focussing entirely on the job we’re elected to do.  That is some of the things you and I have talked about before. I mean when I walk down the streets of Wangaratta or here in the Latrobe Valley, people are talking about what jobs they’re going to have for them, what’s the energy security future look like in Victoria, what’s the job security look like for my kids, can I to get to a decent school and is there going to be a doctor when I go to the hospital who’s going to be able to look after me. These are the things that governments need to be focussed on, and I think by and large we are doing a very good job in that regard but when you get distracted by these other issues, I can understand why the Australian people take a very dim view of this.

Nicole Chvastek: Darren Chester, you are going to jump on the Ballarat line and pop up and see what is happening in this town any time soon?

Darren Chester: Well I did have the good fortune last week actually, a group in Ballarat came to Canberra to lobby for some projects in different areas and I told the Mayor Samantha Macintosh I would love to come back up there. You might know I have done a fair bit of running in Ballarat with the Tann clan, which is a fantastic running group up there, and I would love to get up there and meet some old friends but also to look at some of the projects that we are keen to promote. Just as I love getting out to all parts of regional Victoria there is a lot of jobs out there, Nicole, that need to be done and we have got to get out there and deliver them.

Nicole Chvastek: I would like to have a chat with you in the studio next time you are in Ballarat.

Darren Chester: We can even do talkback callers.

Nicole Chvastek: Fantastic, it’s a date. Thank you, Darren Chester.

Darren Chester: All the best, Nicole, take care.