Minister Catherine King radio interview, ABC Melbourne
RAF EPSTEIN: The Federal Government also had a look at all of, or practically all of their infrastructure commitments. The review has just come in. They basically asked a series of experts what was good and what was bad.
Catherine King has all of their work in her office for her to consider. She is the Infrastructure Minister, she is also the MP for Ballarat, and one of the senior Victorian ALP figures. Catherine King, good morning.
CATHERINE KING: It’s lovely to be with you this morning, Raf.
RAF EPSTEIN: Did those experts back the Airport Rail Link? Did they say you should back it or cancel it?
CATHERINE KING: Well, in terms of the review and what we’ve released yesterday is the executive summary of that review. We haven’t released the details about every single individual project, but what we have also done is released the Government’s response to that review, and Airport Rail has been one of the projects that we have decided to continue the Commonwealth’s investment on.
RAF EPSTEIN: I did say yesterday I’d been told that the experts didn’t back it, they wanted to cancel it. Do you want to try and clear that up?
CATHERINE KING: I think there’s lots of speculation, and I’m not going to enter into any of that. We entered into the review and states and territories provided Cabinet‑in‑Confidence information to us as part of that review, so we’re not talking about individual projects in terms of the review outcomes other than the Government’s response.
RAF EPSTEIN: Did the experts back an above‑ground station?
CATHERINE KING: They didn’t make any commentary about the route in terms of that. Certainly, this has been an ongoing issue that both the Victorian and Commonwealth governments have had to grapple with as to how the station, or where the station will be. We’re obviously reliant on Melbourne Airport to bring forward a planning application for that. So there’s a fair bit of work for us to do in partnership with Melbourne Airport and the Victorian Government to try and resolve that issue.
RAF EPSTEIN: So just to be clear, the experts didn’t have a view on above‑ground or below‑ground?
CATHERINE KING: No, they wouldn’t have been – nor would they be expected to. That wasn’t what they were asked to do.
RAF EPSTEIN: And the airport wants a billion dollars–
CATHERINE KING: But they–
RAF EPSTEIN: Sorry.
CATHERINE KING: Sure. Sorry, but what they did say, and I’d say that in the public domain, is that it’s an important project for Victoria.
RAF EPSTEIN: The airport wants a billion dollars in compensation. Is that roughly how much they want?
CATHERINE KING: I don’t know. We’ve not been involved in discussions with the airport, and I’m not sure where that report has come from today.
RAF EPSTEIN: Okay. It’s very clear the Victorian Government want you to, I don’t know if it’s called encouragement, or knock heads together, let me play what the Premier Jacinta Allan said yesterday, basically that you, the Federal Government, need to step in when they’re talking to the airport. Here she is.
JACINTA ALLAN: The answer to that question does lie in how we move into this next stage of the project delivery where we need to use the Commonwealth powers and the airport’s cooperation to be able to get the negotiations concluded, and to be able to re‑set the delivery date.
[End of Excerpt]
RAF EPSTEIN: Will you use your powers to reinforce that negotiation?
CATHERINE KING: So, what we will do is get an independent negotiator to negotiate with the airport, we’ll join with the Victorian Government to do that. I am the Planning Minister, I’m both the landlord for the airport, so it’s a federally leased airport, and I am also the Planning Minister, and so I can’t pre‑judge a planning application that the airport might bring forward.
But what I can do, as the Commonwealth, is bring an independent negotiator to the table to try and resolve this issue, because if we can’t resolve this issue, then it is difficult – you know, you can’t have an Airport Rail without a station at the airport.
So we’ve got to resolve it, and that’s been, you know, this issue’s been going on for a long time, Jacinta and I have had a lot of conversations about it, I think we’re both frustrated by it, and we’ve got to get it resolved, but it’s, you know, and I don’t want to put a timeframe on that, because that then puts pressure in terms of the negotiations. But that’s what we’ll do.
But that’s why the project’s been delayed, is we just can’t get this, you know, we’re reliant – Melbourne Airport has to put the planning application in, I can’t force them to, I want to try and–
RAF EPSTEIN: You can initiate a planning process though, can’t you?
CATHERINE KING: No, no, I can’t.
RAF EPSTEIN: I was told you can.
CATHERINE KING: No, not under the Airports Act, no. No, as far as I’ve been advised. So, if someone else has some other advice, then that’s great, but I don’t think I have the same powers as the Victorian Planning Minister to do that under the Airports Act, as far as I’ve been advised.
RAF EPSTEIN: And you mentioned an independent negotiator. Do you know when they will first meet with reps from the airport and reps from [indistinct].
CATHERINE KING: No, we haven’t, no, we haven’t appointed anyone yet, but that’s the – so I haven’t done that, like obviously the first stage for us to do was to confirm that the Commonwealth contribution was remaining and that we need to work together to try and get a resolution, and this is something that, you know, as I said, the Premier and I have had numerous discussions about; it’s a project we’re both really committed to but also frustrated by.
RAF EPSTEIN: I want to come to the Suburban Rail Loop soon, but just in principle, I mentioned at the beginning, if someone comes and – if a government takes my house, I get compensation. In principle, does the airport have a right to compensation with an above‑ground station because it’s land they wouldn’t be able to otherwise use, and then maybe they lose parking revenue?
CATHERINE KING: Well, that’s a legal question, and I can’t really – it’s not really for me to provide legal advice about that. You know, obviously they have a lease with the Commonwealth, and we need to comply with the conditions of that lease. That’s the contractual arrangement they have with the Commonwealth.
RAF EPSTEIN: Catherine King is the Infrastructure Minister, she’s also the decision maker, as she said, when it comes to any planning decision at the airport.
Minister, the Suburban Rail Loop, which has been the subject of a few different elections here, different state elections, but your experts also had a look at that. They apparently repeated what the Victorian Auditor‑General said, not such a great business case, overstating the benefits, didn’t ask maybe if we spent that $35 billion on other things. Did the experts give that one the thumbs up?
CATHERINE KING: So, I saw that report in The Age today. The Independent Strategic Review did not look at the Commonwealth’s contribution to Suburban Rail Loop, that was not included in the review, and I am not sure where that report came from this morning.
But what I can say is that the Commonwealth has contributed $2.2 billion to Suburban Rail East, those early works, as a capped contribution. This is a really important long‑term project for the State of Victoria.
It is, if you look at over in the West, and I’ve said this repeatedly, if you look at METRONET over in Western Australia, what they have deliberately done is build a rail line around old, you know, old industrial precincts that is now becoming suburban areas, and so it is actually not just a rail project, it’s actually about getting more housing into where there is public transport modes.
And really, that’s what Suburban Rail is about, it accords absolutely with the Commonwealth’s desire to get more homes built, because we know we’ve got incredible pressure on rents, incredible pressure on people trying to get access to the housing market; we’ve got to, you know, increase supply, and really Suburban Rail Loop is part of the long‑term vision for doing that, building housing, building new business and commercial centres around the existing transports and linking them together so that people move around the city in a different way.
It’s a long‑term project. We’ve put money into that first bit. We haven’t made any decisions about putting any money into it further, I know that Victorians would like us to, and we’ll continue to have discussions with them about that, but the review did not look at the Commonwealth’s contribution to the Suburban Rail Loop.
It did look at the, you know, it did highlight that there might be a cost pressure with knowing that the Victorian Government was asking us for some further money, but that is the only commentary that they have made about the Suburban Rail Loop. I don’t know where that report came from today.
RAF EPSTEIN: Okay. That’s interesting. But you have said quite a few times about rail projects, I guess, that there are other significant benefits like housing that we need to consider. Is that you also saying that something like Suburban Rail Loop doesn’t actually necessarily need to go through the sort of standard cost benefit analysis, because the benefits of housing are impossible to calculate; is that what you’re saying?
CATHERINE KING: No. What it means, so again, you know, part of the role of what we’re trying to do with the infrastructure pipeline overall is to really look at, you know, when we do cost benefit analysis, ensuring that we’re taking that full broad economic cost, so whether it is pursuing government, you know, obviously government priority of getting more housing into the market.
Infrastructure Australia’s been undertaking significant reform at the moment about really turning itself back into the Commonwealth expert adviser on infrastructure.
RAF EPSTEIN: Okay.
CATHERINE KING: So, I will rely on its advice, obviously I still am the decision maker, and it’s working its way through getting a consistent, you know, a much more consistent look at how it does cost benefit analysis across the country.
RAF EPSTEIN: Does that mean no more money for Suburban Rail unless Infrastructure Australia says yes?
CATHERINE KING: What it means is that the Victorian Government needs to work, as it is doing, with Infrastructure Australia, to ensure that it has all of the information it can, so when it provides advice to the Government for a request for further money, I can take that into full consideration. That’s what it needs to do.
RAF EPSTEIN: Does it sometimes feel like you’re wandering around inside an episode of Utopia?
CATHERINE KING: I did see the ABC had their showcase up here this week, and Rob Sitch was up here, and my staff were desperately trying to make me get a photo with him, but I just thought I’d be supplying him with way too much material, so no. Sometimes it does, but no, there’s no photo with Rob and I.
RAF EPSTEIN: And really important question, I was wondering about that, I wondered about that, but we still don’t have the money we need as a city for Airport Rail. You will need to give more money; the State Government will need to give more money. Is it ever going to happen? Like will Airport Rail to Tullamarine ever happen?
CATHERINE KING: Well, I really want it to happen. I mean I’ve been – and I’m a Victorian – we’ve talked about this for – I don’t know how long we’ve been talking about this, someone–
RAF EPSTEIN: Since the 60s.
CATHERINE KING: Since the 60s. I was going to say, well since the years – the decade I was born in then. We’re the only airport in the country that doesn’t have that heavy rail passenger link to it, and I think that’s, you know, if you look at Brisbane, Perth’s just done an amazing, again as part of METRONET, really big opening of that as well.
So, I think it’s a really important piece of infrastructure for Victoria and the Victorian State Government does as well. We’ve got this issue at the moment where we’ve got to get this planning right, and then once we’ve got, you know, that absolute planning right, we know where it’s going to end.
There’s obviously some works happening around the line at the moment, and that’s important to keep going. But really, we’ve got to get this piece right, and then we’ll get a better handle on the costs of that, and then we’ve got to work out then, you know, what co‑investment we might make in relation to that.
But it’s part of the problem that we’ve seen with infrastructure, is that we go out and say, “Oh, we’re going to spend $X billion dollars on a particular project” often not really knowing exactly what the costs are going to be, and of course, those costs substantially escalate. As a Commonwealth Government we don’t have very much control over that, that’s the states, the tenderers, they do the contracting, and we’re sort of then footing the bill at the end of that.
RAF EPSTEIN: Yes.
CATHERINE KING: And really what we’re trying to do is get a much better handle in partnership with the states on that pipeline. You know there’s going to be a bit of push‑back, you can see that, you know, it’s happening across the country a bit, and that’s fine, but we’re just trying to get a much better handle, so we’re getting better value for taxpayer money, and I know that the states and territories want to do the same.
RAF EPSTEIN: 1300 222 774. I’ll get your calls in a moment. Can we afford to build both Airport Rail and the Suburban Rail Loop, or can we afford not to build them?
Before you go, Catherine King, the freeway to Ballarat from Melbourne is the major road between Melbourne and Adelaide. It’s the worst freeway Melbourne’s got. Is that – have you got any money for the freeway to Ballarat, the Western Freeway? Is there going to be federal help with that?
CATHERINE KING: Yeah. So what we’ve done, as people would be aware, and you know, I’m well and truly aware, I travel on this road frequently, obviously there is maintenance money that’s always ongoing that’s there for the freeway, and so, you know, there’s been significant weather events, it’s really suffered, but the really big issue is we’ve got lots of new people living, particularly between that Melton or Bacchus Marsh really to Caroline Springs, there’s a lot of new housing, a lot of new development through there.
RAF EPSTEIN: Yes.
CATHERINE KING: And the planning, I think, really hasn’t kept up with that population growth. There’s been a lot of land release, great to have so many people moving in. So at the election, we committed $10 million, the Victorian Government matched that $10 million–
RAF EPSTEIN: That’s nothing.
CATHERINE KING: –we’re doing a – sorry – we’re doing a proper business case to actually say what will resolve this issue, you know, everyone says, you know, build extra lanes. Well, if you build extra lanes and then they’ve got nowhere to go, that causes further problems. You need to build more interchanges, like what do we need to do.
That business case is currently underway and then the Victorian Government, once we’ve got a copy, you know, we’ve got an understanding of that business case, an understanding of what it is we need to do – you know, there’s lots of ideas out there, but we need the engineers to really give us that information, plus how much it would cost, then we’ll – the Victorian Government will come to us with an ask about that, but that’s what we want to do.
The previous government, you know, frankly, the previous government went, “Oh, let’s put $50 million, you know, into doing something”, didn’t know what, didn’t explain it. Four years later, none of it’s been spent.
RAF EPSTEIN: Okay.
CATHERINE KING: We’ve actually got to do the hard work to plan this properly, to look at it and try and fix it. But first we’ve got to know, you know, what to do and how much to cost, and the Victorians and are working closely together on that.
RAF EPSTEIN: Thank you for your time.
CATHERINE KING: Good to be with you, Raf.
RAF EPSTEIN: Catherine King is the Infrastructure Minister, the MP for Ballarat. That freeway’s a shocker.