Transcript - ABC Far North Queensland with Charlie McKillop

CHARLIE MCKILLOP: It is ABC Far North you’re tuned to at 18 minutes to 8, and at last a critical link of one of the biggest and possibly most complex highway redevelopments ever witnessed in the far north has been completed, and commuters on that stretch between Edmonton and Gordonvale can finally get used to travelling at the speed limit again. The Bruce Highway Cairns Southern Access Corridor, it’s been a long time coming – more than a decade in the making. And now the end is in sight for that half-a-billion-dollar project. But to the north of the city, I know there are still concerns about the congestion that faces commuters daily and the absence of any alternative route linking Cairns to the Atherton Tablelands and the food bowl that it is.

To talk about these priorities for Far North Queensland and others, the Federal Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government no less, Catherine King is with you on ABC Far North. Good morning, Minister.

CATHERINE KING: Good morning.

CHARLIE MCKILLOP: We are quite familiar with this well-worn migratory pattern from Canberra to Far North Queensland at this time of the year. But I tell you what, you have really jagged it in the weather.

CATHERINE KING: So I hear. I landed and everyone tells me it’s been raining for a month apparently I was told. It is pretty wet underfoot, but you’ll see – we’ve obviously – the Labor Party has got its national conference in Brisbane, so I think you’re going to see I think most of the cabinet is actually in Queensland for pretty much all of this week. We try and spend as much time as we can on the ground, and so that’s what I thought I’ll come up, start my day, start my week in Cairns and then make my way down.

CHARLIE MCKILLOP: And you’re coming at a good time because there is certainly something to spruik with this southern access corridor nearing completion, opening to motorists on Friday. But you’ll get a close look at the Menmuny overpass today, and in the process you’ll be going past the Gordonvale sugar mill, which is in full steam on account of those good weather conditions. So hopefully that can keep going. But this has been a long time coming.

CATHERINE KING: Yeah, it’s a big project. Infrastructure projects – you know, I wish you could just blink your eye and they’d be built. They take a long time. They take a long time to plan, to design, get the funding together and then to build. They do take a long time. So the Bruce Highway is incredibly important. We know how important it is to keep investing in it, to keep upgrading it. And this particular stage, again – I can’t even remember when it was announced. I think the then Prime Minister had a bit to say about it at one point in time. But here we are finally actually there. And I want to thank everyone. I know these projects are disruptive. It would have been disruptive for people having to get to work, get their kids to school, but it’s nearly done. And I’m going to have a look at particularly the overpass being commissioned today. And that will be opened, as you just said, on Friday, which will be great for people. Hopefully you get a bit of a chance to be the first person across it – who knows.

CHARLIE MCKILLOP: It’s come with its challenges. The E2G started out with forced resumption of land along that corridor, and I guess for all residents that live in that part of our city, getting to work and around the place has been like crossing a battlefield for the past couple of years now. Do you get used to being the minister for chaos and disruption?

CATHERINE KING: Well, I get to – I get to [indistinct] quietly, so, you know, I don’t actually – know, we invest them. It’s state governments that do all the procurement. So I could fob it off, but, no, look, they just are. And you know, I think that it does say, you know, we have to plan. When we plan new areas we’ve got to plan for the infrastructure as well. And we’ve not been very good at that I think both from a resilience point of view – we’re trying to do better work so we don’t build on flood plains would be a really good start. But actually starting to think about the infrastructure before. We tend to really get ahead of ourselves and develop, and I think, you know, we’re the product of our own success in the sense that people want to live here. The growth has happened, you’ve got more people coming in, but just infrastructure never seems to be able to keep up and we are always playing catch-up.

So I think as we plan new suburbs, plan new housing – and you’ll hear the Prime Minister will have a bit to say about the commitment obviously we’ve made to get a million homes in, but we also know trying to help with the infrastructure around that is actually really critically important. So, you know, that’s really what you see with projects right the way across the country. We’re trying to improve the roads, existing roads. Often – you know, some which were originally built for horse and cart really some of them. So it’s pretty challenging. But it’s great to see that it’s been finished. And, again, I thank people for their patience but also, you know, how great is it that these workers who’ve been on it get to see this amazing piece of infrastructure open and built that they’ve been part of

CHARLIE MCKILLOP: Invoking the thought of a horse and cart gives me a perfect segue to talk about the Kuranda Range Road, Minister.

CATHERINE KING: Yeah.

CHARLIE MCKILLOP: You’ve led with the chin there because there are a lot of listeners who are coming down the Kuranda Range Road as we speak. Now the Albanese Government was elected last year with the promise of $110 million to improve the safety of the road. That was subsequently matched by the State Government. So we’ve got $220 million to improve the safety of a road that many believe fundamentally just cannot meet the growth of not only Cairns but the Atherton Tablelands. So what is the planning happening now to try and overcome that?

CATHERINE KING: Well, the first – I mean the first thing is obviously we’ve got the commitment on the table for – what is it - $220 million all up to look at trying to, you know, widen where we can, which is not much. Like, it’s a really difficult, as you know, engineering area. Like, it’s quite difficult to improve there. So that’s in planning at the moment, and the state government will come to us with that plan and say, ‘This is what we’re willing to do. Can you release the money for this project?’ So that’s underway.

In terms of alternates, I’ve heard lots of different things. I mean, people have talked about a tunnel. I mean, they’re billions and billions of dollars: like, the minute you start to talk about that let alone trying to go through such an environmentally sensitive area as the Kuranda Range Road –

CHARLIE MCKILLOP: Well, that might be the case for the investment because we are in such an environmentally sensitive area.

CATHERINE KING: So, I mean, really at the end of the day that comes down to the work of state governments around where they need to ask for federal investment. And obviously we’re always open to those alternates and those routes. You know, there’s not unlimited money for things and we do have to look at – you know, they have to stack up from a cost-benefit point of view. So we’re always happy to talk to the Queensland government about it. But at the moment we’ve got the $220 million on the table to look at safety and productivity.

But I think, you know, the thought of billions of dollars going into a tunnel, I just don’t want to, you know, say that that’s something that people should hang their hats on. I think that’s a really challenging project, and I’m not convinced the cost benefit would stack up on that particular project to do that. You’d have to think of some alternates. But, really, it’s working with the State Government to come up with what that plan might be and then coming to us to ask for investment.

CHARLIE MCKILLOP: Minister Catherine King. Rob from Clifton Beach, one of the suburbs along our northern beaches that all link up with the Western Arterial Road and rely on it to get into the city along with the Captain Cook Highway, which is slated for redevelopment, now Rob is saying, look, this is great news for – great job for the south of the city, what about the north side? When will work on the long-promised duplication of the Western Arterial Road start?

CATHERINE KING: Well, we’re having a look at that project at the moment. As you’d be aware, we’ve undertaken an infrastructure review because what I’ve inherited is basically a $120 billion pipeline that has massive problems with it. And we’re trying to look at what you’ve seen the previous government do. They made big fanfare announcements. I think there was an announcement in the 2021 budget about this project, I think about $200 million or so – I can’t remember the figure exactly. I don’t think that’s going to be enough to do the project. I’m pretty sure that it’s not. So we have to work with the Queensland State Government to see whether, you know, we can – what we can do in terms of that project. So that’s currently under review, and we’ll have some announcements to make about that in the coming future.

But it’s part of the challenge that we’ve got, is we’ve got an infrastructure pipeline where pollies like me, we're pretty good at standing up and going, “Here’s a press release, look what we’re doing in an election year.” Trying to then actually go out and deliver these projects, often they they’re underfunded, is a really significant problem. And I’ve got an infrastructure investment pipeline that is full of projects just like that.

CHARLIE MCKILLOP: I want to talk to you about another pipeline – given your portfolio responsibility for regional development. One of the first things you did as a new federal minister was to restructure the way that regional funding programs are delivered. The

only problem was that that created a disruption for those projects – and I think we had about 30 of them in the Far North Queensland region that were already in the pipeline for Building Better Regions. As a result of that restructure you invited them to – they thought they were at the final hurdle of getting approved and you’ve invited them to re-apply. Can you tell us where the newly restructured funding program is at and whether our community groups – how many have actually signed up to go through that torturous path again?

CATHERINE KING: So we got elected on a platform to clean up the rorts that were there by the previous government and, frankly, they were absolutely shocking. The Building Better Regions Fund was a classic example of that where the Audit Office looked at that program and basically said the previous ministers had, you know, made decisions in secret, had made decisions based on guidelines that people didn’t know about, they had, you know, guidelines that said, ‘Oh, we could consider other matters,’ and then under ‘Other matters’ were other matters was another dot point that you could consider. So basically they could have funded anything, largely skewed towards National and Liberal Party seats as well. So, you know, the audit report is worth reading.

So what we said is we’ll finish the – we won’t proceed with round 6 of the Building Better Regions Fund. There were about 800 applications, so I think the chances of those 30 all getting actually through were pretty small to be blunt – 800 applications that had not been assessed when we got to government. No-one had looked them at all. So our decision was to not proceed with round 6 but to establish a new program, the Growing Regions Program. That program has two stages – expression of interest first so you don’t have to spend all of that money that people were spending under the Building Better Regions Fund. Councils like mine in a decade did not receive – you know, received I think one project under that in a decade. So they were putting in application after application. So the idea is expression of interest first.

That’s closed. They’ll be assessed. I don’t see those. They’re assessed by a multi-party panel, so we’ve actually put people from political parties – the Liberal Party, National Party, independents and Labor are all doing that assessment of expressions of interest. They’ll then say who should be invited to apply and that will go forward – those will then go forward to full application. And we’ll see how they go.

But it’s a really competitive process and I think – and a really transparent process this time around. This is what we got elected to do to make sure that there was fairer and equitable funding for regions rather than sort of some of the rorting that had happened previously.

So if they’ve put an expression of interest in I won’t know about it, shouldn’t know about because I’ll see the final recommendations for funding from my department someway down the track.

CHARLIE MCKILLOP: Minister Catherine King, we look forward to having you back on ABC Far North to announce some of the successful projects through that process.

CATHERINE KING: Well, I don’t want to – I can’t pre-empt anything.
CHARLIE MCKILLOP: No.

CATHERINE KING: That’s exactly the problem from before.

CHARLIE MCKILLOP: I’m being assumptive here.

CATHERINE KING: But I’m sure you should be. You know, of course you want to champion your own area.

CHARLIE MCKILLOP: A region with a growing infrastructure needs like our own, I can only imagine that we will be prevalently featured in that successful applicant list. Catherine King, have a great day. Perhaps the first to be able to drive over the newly commissioned Menmuny overpass on the E2G highway redevelopment south of Cairns. It’s been great to be able to have the minister. I’ve actually selected a special song for her road trip, and for yours, if you happen to be on the road from Far North Queensland’s own road trippers. Some new music and a typically Far North Queensland anthem from the Road Trippers – it’s called the –