Transcript of Doorstop, Nationals Party Room, Wodonga, Victoria



05 February 2015

Topics: Inland Rail, Liberal leadership, Coalition agreement, commuter issues in regional areas, seat of Indi, Nationals' succession plans, lessons from Victorian and Queensland elections.

Warren Truss: Well ladies and gentlemen it's a great pleasure for the National's team to be in Wodonga. Every year at this time the beginning of the parliamentary year we meet together to talk about the year ahead, to plan the issues and talk about the issues that are important regional Australia and therefore important to the Nationals. To plan how we can better represent the people of regional Australia and to talk about our hopes and aspirations for the year ahead.

The agenda today is going to include a wide range of issues of importance to regional Australia. Issues like health care in the regions, issues like better education for people who live in country areas and particularly access to that education and the capacity to be able to live away from home to receive a tertiary or skilled qualification. We'll be looking at the importance for providing infrastructure in regional communities and look at progress on our $50 billion infrastructure commitment to the roads and railway lines of Australia. We'll be looking at how better services can be provided like broadband and mobile phone coverage in regional communities. We'll be looking at what we need to do to ensure that regional Australians share in our nation's growth and prosperity. We all know the regions contribute enormously to our nation's wealth and when the regions are strong so is our country and so for that reason it is vitally important that we have strong and healthy and vibrant regions to guarantee that our country will get through the difficulties, the economic difficulties that are confronting the globe at the present time and indeed problems with commodity prices et cetera that are affecting our own profitability as a nation. We can resolve those issues as a nation and regional Australia will play a very big part in delivering answers to those serious questions for our economy. And the Nationals are ready and willing and determined to play a leadership role in delivering those very best possible outcomes.

One of the issues that's been an infrastructure target and a priority for the Nationals for a long period of time has been the Melbourne to Brisbane inland railway line. This is a nation changing project. It will provide opportunities to move freight seamlessly and easily from north to south. It will take literally thousands of trucks off the road. Essentially the road transport task or the transport task for our nation is expected to double over the next 20 years and treble over the next 30 years. So unless we've got a better rail system, unless we've got better shipping arrangements the reality will be that our road system will simply be unable to cope. So projects like this are vital to ensure that our economy will be mobile and able to move freight around the country in the decades ahead.

It's a significant project in that it meets Melbourne and Brisbane by an inland route. It's a project that we committed to when we were last in government way back in the Howard government days and it was at that time that the preferred route was identified. Not much happened while we were out of government but now we've committed $300 million to get the project ready for the construction phase and to begin early construction.

We have appointed a committee under John Anderson to take this project forward. They have been doing a lot of work in upgrading the business case. They've been doing work on identifying some of the key issues to be addressed in relation to the route and I'm pleased to announce today and additional $29 million commitment to that process. This $29 million will help to complete the business case for the project, identify routes, deal with some of the challenging engineering issues particularly in this instance in Country New South Wales and Southern Queensland.

Over half of the total cost of the Melbourne to Brisbane railway line is likely to be engaged in the last 100 or so kilometres from Toowoomba to Brisbane. There are significant issues associated with the engineering and of course a passing a freight line through an urban area. Now those are challenges which have to be resolved if this line is to be successful. Some work has already been done on the prospect of tunnelling the inland freight line underneath the city of Brisbane or the suburban areas of Brisbane to get to the port. Work is being done on what is the best way to bring the line down the Toowoomba range but a lot more development needs to be done in that regard.

The previous Queensland government was committed to the Melbourne to Brisbane railway line and I hope that the new government whenever it's formed in Queensland will share that commitment because it's absolutely vital that we have the support of the state governments. They are owners of the track, of the existing track. The ARTC is the lessee of those tracks as a key role but we're also looking to ensure that both communities are engaged in that process. It will be a project of particular interest to [indistinct] Wodonga because the preferred route goes through this area and then moves up through Parkes, Moree in New South Wales and then into Brisbane [indistinct] Toowoomba.

So that is a huge project, one the Nationals have believed in and one when we get the Government were actually getting on with the business of delivering the project.

Now John Anderson is here and can I give him the opportunity now to say a few words about the work that his [indistinct—background cough] has been doing and what they propose to do in the year ahead.

John Anderson: Warren thank you very much. Good to be with you and the team. It feels like old times. This is essentially the interim report, we're getting very close now to being able to hand very substantial information onto the Deputy Prime Minister and the Government about this major project. It is of the order of a modern snowy mountain scheme in terms of its scope, its size and its cost. I would say that we need it as a matter of national priority now as construction jobs in the mining sector are lost, this can soak up a great deal of unemployment that would otherwise occur. That's in the short term. In the long term this hooks up the most productive regions of Australia in a way that will help them enormously boost their existing businesses, build new businesses. I've been staggered as we moved around that the ideas for new businesses that are emerging, the new concepts for value adding, taking advantage of the Asian Century and what have you and it will of course benefit all Australians in a number of ways. It will help build a bigger stronger economy, it will create more jobs and therefore people paying taxes at a time when frankly the Australian economy has headed into some quite rough waters largely because of what's happening internationally and it will of course lower the cost of goods to all Australians everywhere. It will for the first time give a modern economy a modern rail network. It will complete the task of overhauling the mess of the little individual fiefdoms that we have in Australia as a set of colonies and everyone ran their railway lines into their own ports and made certain they couldn't be operated with the state next door's railways—and you know all about that [indistinct] Wodonga.

All of that is coming to an end under the ARTC, but this major project will lift—connect every major port, even the two resource states of Queensland and Western Australia with high-speed, modern, fast capacity crane freighters and it'll be needed for the future in a big time. It has, in closing, before you may want to ask some questions about this—I'm sure you'll have some for the Deputy Prime Minister—but it also has real amenity and environmental advantages. Whilst there'll be enough jobs for the truckies to keep them busy forever, because of the expanding economy, this will take about 100,000 truck movements a year off the corridor, it will free up Sydney's rail and road network, so there's a great benefit for a very crowded city in that and of course trains are environmentally friendly and particularly fuel efficient. So, I believe that it is very much time that Australia took a project of the Snowy Mountains scope on, this is it and it will benefit regional Australia, but in benefiting regional Australia it will provide a serious economic boost for the rest of the nation.

Question: Mr Truss, are you concerned that the Liberal Party leadership problems could damage the Nationals electorally?

Warren Truss: Well, I think it's important that we are a strong and stable government and therefore that the leadership issues are settled and settled quickly. I've regarded as a privilege to work with Tony Abbott. He's got a strong commitment to out country, a vision and determination, he works hard and he has been a good partner for the Nationals.

Question: Is the coalition…

Warren Truss: So it is important that those issues be resolved and be resolved promptly and then we get on with the business of delivering strong, stable and assured government.

Question: Is the coalition agreement in government unconditional?

Warren Truss: Well, the coalition agreement is actually between Tony Abbott and me and that's an agreement that we submitted to the Governor-General so that she was able to commission the Government. So that is an agreement between the Nationals and the Liberals, but particularly it's an agreement between Tony Abbott, as leader of the Liberal Party, and me, as leader of the Nationals.

Question: So if that changed it would have to be renegotiated?

Warren Truss: Well, you'd have to have a different agreement obviously, but at this stage I don't think that's likely to be an issue.

Question: Some of your colleagues have publicly called on Liberals to stick with Tony Abbott. The deputy leader's got his house in the line apparently. Are you making the same call to those Liberal backbenchers that may be wavering in their support for the Prime Minister?

Warren Truss: Well, it is an issue for the Liberal Party, but I've made it absolutely clear that I'm happy to be working with Tony Abbott, I think he's doing a good job and I would like his leadership to continue.

Barnaby Joyce: I think it's very important to understand too that, I was saying [indistinct] would know that I come with the house.

Question: Have you been sounded out from any third party in the Liberal Party whether you would support the change…

Question: Have you been sounded out by any third parties in the Liberal Party whether you would support a change in leadership?

Warren Truss: No.

Question: Mr Truss, you said you want it resolved quickly; do you think there should be a spill next week to resolve it quickly or how should they resolve it quickly?

Warren Truss: Well, I think everyone should support the leader; they should make it clear that they will back this government and they'll work constructively with Tony Abbott to make sure that we deliver for the people of Australia.

Question: Mr Truss, Malcolm Turnbull has been floated in some reports as a potential other candidate for leader. Would the Nationals be able to work with Malcolm Turnbull if that happened?

Warren Truss: Well, I don't think there will be any other candidates. I think Tony Abbott is the leader, he should remain the leader and everyone should get in behind him.

Question: Do you find it frustrating that you're trying to have this party room meeting and, you know, do you find that the leadership speculation is a distraction from the message you're trying to get across?

Warren Truss: Well, I hope that shortly you might get around to asking us questions about the Nationals… [Laughter] …and what we're doing and our determination to work as a united team who contribute constructively to the Government and also, in particular, to deliver good policies for Australia. Now, we've got ministers who are involved in some of the key areas of the economy and service provision in this country and we have, therefore, a vital role to play and we're determined to do that in a constructive way and we want to get on with that job. And therefore we want to talk about policy issues not distractions about leadership or other questions.

John Anderson: [Indistinct] from the bush, I reckon everybody in the inland is supporting the inland rail; they'd like the rest of Australia to know about it. So it'd be a handy thing out of this if Australians got to hear about this project on the scale of a Snowy Mountain scheme, because it's important for the nation now, not just the inland.

Question: In fairness to the project though, you said that half of it's going to be spent in Queensland. We've got huge commuter issues in Albury/Wodonga at the moment; is there any plan to try to fix commuter issues in regional areas?

Warren Truss: Well, that's a separate issue; that is urban and passenger transport and that's traditionally been a service that's been provided by the states. Now, we have this particular commitment to the freight sector, the Commonwealth's constitutional responsibility is linked essentially to our trade powers and that's the reason why we've been involved in freight rail more so than passenger rail. Now, I acknowledge that there are passenger trains on many of the lines that the Commonwealth, through the ARTC, has been managing or—and funding. But urban public transport and indeed passenger services have traditionally been a responsibility of the states. The fact that the Commonwealth is committed to providing 80 per cent of the funding for regional roads on the national highway means that the states have got freed up additional funds that they can then devote to their responsibility, the area which they can do best, namely passenger transport services.

So we think it's best if each level of government does what it is best able to do. And traditionally it's been that passenger services have been provided by the states, the Commonwealth has been particularly involved in the interstate road and rail network and for that particular reason, this inland project very much fits our constitutional responsibility.

Question: Wouldn't the inland line though be using the Melbourne to Albury existing line, which is already plagued with a lot of ongoing track problems? What's the plan to combat that?

Warren Truss: Well, I guess, yes—to answer the first question is yes—the chosen route for the inland rail, the preferred route does go through Albury and then, as I mentioned previously, across the parks. There is work going underway to repair and the legacy issues associated with the existing track; that's well advanced, although there's still about another 12 months of work to do to get rid of those sink holes, which have been there right from the very early days of the construction. The ARTC has an obligation to get that truck up to the standard that was—and maintain it at a standard agreed with the Victorian Government, who are still the original owners of the track. So they're working on that and making good progress, but there's still about another year's work to go.

Question: Will there be any discussion today of future candidates for Indi?

Warren Truss: Well, I don't think we'll be involved in discussing who might be the candidate, but certainly we are interested in contesting the seat of Indi at the next Federal Election. Because it's held by an independent there will be a need I think to maximise the effort of the Coalition to ensure that we put forward good candidates and that we give the people of this area a choice; a choice to be involved on the Government ventures of the next Parliament.

Question: It was…

Warren Truss: If you want somebody who's actually sitting around the table when the decisions are being made you actually need a Coalition member in the Federal Parliament. An Independent can certainly talk and say things but in reality they're not there when the decisions are being made and for that reason I think that the people of Indi would really like to be a part of the decision-making process and the Nationals are determined to give them that option at the next election.

Question: Cathy McGowan is advocating for that passenger rail improvement. Sharman Stone is this morning as well. You know, if you are interested in gaining Indi do you think that there is a role for federal members to advocate for improvements to passenger rail?

Warren Truss: Well all Federal Members are—good local federal members are advocates for their region. All the people standing behind me are local champions. They're there to sight for their electorates and some times they will fight for—on issues that are important to their electorate which are no specifically within the Commonwealth responsibilities but that's being a good local champion and the Nationals always prided ourselves by being people who stick up for their own area, that make sure that we get a fair share of our nation's growth and prosperity and that there are decent services provided to regional areas and some of those services are going to be provided by the Commonwealth, some are going to be provided by the State and some are going to be provided by the local government and we want them all to be first class.

Question: Do you think you win Indi at the next election?

Warren Truss: We intend to be competitive and we think we can win but it will depend obviously on the support of the local people and their determination to have a representative in the next government.

Question: Have you had any push back from the Liberal Party? I Know Sophie Mirabella was obviously as member in Indi.

Warren Truss: Well we've also had encouragement from members of the Liberal Party who believe that the vote can be maximised by running parties—candidates from both parties.

Question: You speak about working together with the Coalition though, are you going to go head to head with them?

Warren Truss: Well we'll work cooperatively in a campaign, because we'll have the common objective of making sure that Indi's represented in the next government, that we will be competitive and offer the people a choice. Offer the people a choice. And I hope that we will choose a candidate that will be someone that the people of Indi would want to be their representative.

Question: Mr Truss, given it is the first party room meeting of the year, can I ask what are you plans? Do you plan to stay on until the next election and do you plan to contest the next election given that you're probably—you know, you always want to look to the future in new party room meetings?

Warren Truss: Well I—at the time I stood for the last election I made a commitment for the term. I'll make decisions about the next term as we get close to the end of this one.

Question: Is there a succession plan for when you do decide to move on?

Warren Truss: Well I'm very fortunate to have a very able team, a very able team. A lot of people with extraordinary ability and who would make excellent leaders and I have got no doubt that when I make the decision to move on or to retire that there will be a very, very capable person who can take my place.

Question: What are the lessons for the Federal Nationals Party Room following the Coalition losses in Victoria and Queensland?

Warren Truss: Well everyone certainly needs to look at what's happened in Queensland and Victoria and learn the lessons. There's obviously going to be a lot of soul searching and examination, I think especially about the Queensland election which was such an—with such an unprecedented turnaround. Never before in history has there been such volatility.

And so anyone who doesn't take a good look at that and learn from it deserves to have the same thing happen again. So there are a number of issues that clearly are of importance and I'm sure we'll be talking about those things today but the Victorian and the Queensland Labor campaigns were very similar in many ways. Neither the Victorian Labor Party nor the Queensland Labor Party talked any substation policy platform to the last election They were just against things.

In Victoria they were against a road, in Queensland they were against leasing of assets. And they endeavoured to and successively endeavoured to turn the campaign into a referendum on a single issue.

Now I think Bill Shorten's tried to do the same thing at the federal level. You haven't heard him squeak about policy and I don't think you'll hear any policy or particularly cost policies from Bill Shorten for a year and he will try and get through the whole election campaign without saying anything. He'll just be against things.

Now it's a lot easier to mobilise people to be against things. But in Queensland for instance, the LNP had a policy platform to build more than $30 billion worth of infrastructure, road, rail lines, hospitals, schools, really vital things for a state. Infrastructure was let to run down under the period of the Labor Government, so the Queenslanders want that.

They also have the biggest debt of any state in Australia. So there are very serious issues with their credit rating and it seems that people voted against all that infrastructure, against the risks to their credit rating and a plan to deal with the debt because they were against leasing assets.

Now somebody's going to have to come up with a solution—if you're not able to sell anything, if you're not able to lease anything, how do you pay down your debts? And those debts are real. The bankers are not going to forget about them. They want their interest every day and those are going to be very serious issue that the people of Queensland have to address.

Now from Victoria's perspective, and let me say this as Federal Transport Minister, I'm concerned about their decision to seemingly be prepared to pay well over $1 billion in compensation to not build a road. And what is particularly alarming is that there are no alternative projects around that are ready to go.

Now John mentioned how vital it is for us to be building things with the economy in the state that it is and with so many people being made—their tasks in building mines and mining industry infrastructure coming to an end, that those people need to be found alternative employment. And that is part of the motivation for our $50 billion infrastructure plan.

Now we've got a lot of skilled people, we've got a lot of contractors who are very keen to get another job, this is a great time for us to be building national infrastructure. And so for Victoria to sort of just build nothing for a couple of years while they plan something else will be a blow to the Victorian economy but it'll also be a blow to the national economy.

Now I also think we need a very quick assurance from the Victorian Government that they will honour the rest of the Commonwealth-State Five Year Road and Rail Infrastructure Program. There is a signed agreement between the Victorian Government and the Commonwealth Government to build roads and railway lines et cetera in Victoria.

Are they going to renege on that entire program? Now—which includes a lot of roads in regional Australia and regional Victoria like the Western Highway, the Princes Highway. Are they going to honour those contracts or are they going to be cancelled as well? And I think it's very important for the people of Victoria, and particular regional Victoria to have an assurance that the Victorian Government will be prepared to honour the projects that have been agreed between the two governments—after all the Commonwealth pays 80 per cent of the cost of most of those projects, are they going to walk away from their 20 per cent and mean that there'll be no road construction in areas in country Victoria?

So I think it's vitally important for the confidence of the State of Victoria that there be an early commitment by the State Government to the balance of the construction program in this state so that we can get on with planning and letting contractors and employing people.

Question: What does it say about the Coalition at the moment that if they don't—if the Labor Party in Queensland or federally or in Victorian don't have any plans, voters would still overwhelmingly prefer them in charge?

Warren Truss: Well I think that raises some real issues about the democratic process and how it is possible for governments to be reforming governments in the future.

Do you—do the voters want governments to say nothing and then deliver a whole lot of surprises after the election? I thought the tradition with democracy was that each side would put forward their platform for the three or four years ahead and the voters would choose between that platform.

If in fact the rewards are for those who simply oppose and then make it up as they go along after the election then I think that is very—that sends really serious questions to which about how we manage policy development in the future.

But that's the kind of challenge that we'll have to deal with in our meetings today, how you best are able to implement a forming agenda and also secure the votes of the people of Australia to deliver that program and then how that can fit within an electoral cycle.