Transcript: Doorstop Interview, Victorian Nationals State Conference, Echuca

Interview

WTC013/2015

15 May 2015

Topics: Victorian election and East West Link, Echuca second bridge, Horticulture, Johnny Depp's dogs

Warren Truss: This has been the first opportunity to consider the issues that led to a change in government in Victorian and to start the planning to make sure that we win the election here next time around.

It's very important for the people of Victoria that they have a government that has got a progressive attitude towards the state and wants things to happen and, in particular, will be supportive of the construction of vital pieces of infrastructure that will cross regional Victoria and, of course, the City of Melbourne.

In every state, the Federal Government in the 2015 Budget funded significant projects that will add to the infrastructure network of our nation. In every capital city there is a major road or rail project under way, except Melbourne.

The decision of the Victorian Government to axe the East West Link project without any project in its place means that there'll be an enormous gap in the infrastructure industry of Melbourne.

This was a big project ready to go, would have employed seven thousand people. Now it has been cancelled and there's nowhere for those people to go.

This morning I had discussions with the Victorian Transport Minister to talk about what projects might be able to be brought online once Victoria has returned the $1.5 million that they must now give back to the Commonwealth because they decided not to proceed with this project.

There's a huge cost to Victoria as a result of the cancellation of the project, perhaps, close to $750 million for nothing. There could be a major construction project underway in Melbourne right now that would transform the traffic flows of the city, make a real difference, but the Victorian government has decided that it's not going to proceed and there's simply nothing else in sight for quite some time.

Their proposed rail project is three or four years away. Even the new project being proposed by Transurban is still a couple of years away from construction and, so that means that the people who were going to be engaged on the East West Link project will not have another job to go to in Melbourne.

Now, we're looking at what options there might be. Clearly, there are a number of projects which the Commonwealth had agreed to with the previous Victorian Government, including upgrading the Western Highway, the Princes Highway and the Tullamarine project in Melbourne which the current Government seems to have endorsed. Now, we're pleased about, but certainly the construction agenda in Victoria will be a pale shadow of what's happening in every other state where the Commonwealth has contributed and committed $50 billion towards infrastructure projects over the next five years.

Question: Locally, is there a role—I'm sure you're aware about the whole Echuca second bridge saga, is there a role for the Federal Government there in terms of funding down the track?

Warren Truss: Well, it's not a part of the national network but we've always expressed a willingness to talk to the New South Wales and the Victorian Governments about the project once it's gone through the appropriate Infrastructure Australia process and it's certainly a project that's always brought to my attention when I'm in this region.

For a long time, as you would all be aware, the route was not finalised, so that was a reason for various governments to put it off. But now that there has been agreement in relation to the route, the project can progress and when the opportunity arises we're keen to talk to New South Wales and Victorian Governments about making the project happen.

Question: You mentioned you had a meeting with the Victorian Minister this morning. How would you describe the talks? Is there some common ground there at least?

Warren Truss: Well, the talks were cordial. I made it clear that it would be an essential part of any new projects coming on the agenda that the $1.5 billion is returned in accordance with the terms of the Memorandum of Understanding in relation to the project.

The Memorandum of Understanding is not a whole stack of legal gobbledygook, it's a clear statement that if the project doesn't proceed, Victoria must return the money to the Federal Government. Now, once we've got that money back, then there'll be funding available to talk about other projects in the state.

Now, the state have got some ideas and I indicated a willingness to talk to Victoria about those ideas and try and bring projects online as quickly as possible. We're particularly interested in what you might term shovel-ready projects so that there is not a big gap in the construction business in Victoria.

Question: Daniel Andrews has apparently likened your dispute to a sandpit dispute between kids. How would you describe it?

Warren Truss: Well it's a pretty childish thing to do, I would suggest, when the Premier says he's not going to do what the government was committed to. It was bad enough that they tore up the contract—a legal contract at great cost to the Victorian Government, to now say to another tier of government that well we're not going to honour another contract. It really throws into doubt the credibility of the government.

Now I'm sure that common sense will prevail in due course. Those kinds of arguments are pretty childish and the sooner we get on with fixing the problem and start building the roads and the railway lines, the better it will be for Victoria and Australia.

Question: In your mind though, there's no question that East West Link isn't going to happen now?

Warren Truss: We have made a commitment in the Federal Budget this week that if any government in the future wants to build this project, that we support it, and there'll still be $3 billion of Commonwealth funding available to assist it. And that money has been provided in the Federal Budget as a contingent liability. So we still hope that one day this transformational project will be built and that Victorian motorists will get the benefit of using what will be a world-class transport project.

Question: If the Victorian Government wanted to spend money upgrading and increasing capacity on the regional rail network, would that be something that the Federal Government would be willing to look at?

Warren Truss: We certainly discussed this morning the prospect of upgrading the rail line to Mildura. Some commitments have been made in relation to that rail line by the previous state government, and it seems that the new state government is of the mind to honour those commitments.

So that's a project that was discussed. It's not a part of the ARTC network, where the Commonwealth traditionally puts its rail money, but I've been very open with the Victorian Government and expressed a willingness to think outside the square because we want to create jobs in Victoria, we want to ensure that the infrastructure projects that are necessary in this state will be available when required.

Question: [Indistinct] for the Victorian Agriculture Minister's [indistinct] Federal Government support for the horticulture sector, saying its support has been slow and not going far enough. [Indistinct].

Warren Truss: Well, I assume he wasn't listening to the Budget on Tuesday night where there were very substantial commitments made to the small business sector in relation to tax concessions…something like $5 billion was provided to small business across Australia, all small businesses will get a tax cut. In addition to that they will be able to claim depreciation in one year on all their purchases under $20,000 each.

That's a very, very substantial move of assistance to that sector. The horticultural sector is also heavily dependent upon irrigation; the tax concessions that we announced in relation to irrigation work on Budget night will be enormously beneficial to the horticulture sector. So this has been a Budget that delivers a lot of good news for farmers.

In addition to that, we will shortly be releasing the Agriculture White Paper, which has a range of additional measures that will support the farming sector, including horticulture. And I think that any statements critical of this Government's role in horticulture reflect the lack of understanding of what we've already done, but also a very short memory. Because when Labor was in government in Federal Parliament for six years, they did nothing for agriculture. Indeed, the comment was made on Budget night that Joe Hockey mentioned farmers more often in the Budget speech than had happened in the past six years. We are interested in agriculture, and we are doing practical things to help.

Question: You comfortable with Barnaby Joyce's handling of the touchy issue of Johnny Depp's dogs?

Warren Truss: Well, unfortunately for Johnny Depp the quarantine rules apply to all visitors to this country. We prize, as a nation, our disease-free status. And some of the animal diseases that can be carried by dogs, that we don't have in this country, would destroy the pets of thousands of Australian families if they were to be introduced to this nation. So, we do work hard to protect our disease-free status, and I'm afraid the rules apply to famous people as well as they do to ordinary tourists.

Thank you very much.