Transcript - Interview, ABC Afternoon Briefing with Matthew Doran

MATTHEW DORAN: Well, high speed rail has long been discussed and for just as long a period of time been the subject of derision or at least satire here in Australia. But the Federal Government wants it to become a reality and is on the hunt for experts to steer its new High Speed Rail Authority. The Infrastructure Minister Catherine King joined us earlier from Ballarat. Catherine King, welcome to Afternoon Briefing. First of all, you're looking for people to try to steer this high-speed rail vision that the Albanese government has. What do they need to bring to the table?

CATHERINE KING: Well, thank you very much for your interest. What they need to bring to the table is an expertise in rail infrastructure. They need to be able to be people who have got a proven track record of delivering projects. This is a really complex project for the Commonwealth, delivering on our promise to start the process of high-speed rail in this country, particularly looking at that Newcastle to Sydney corridor as the first viable option for high speed rail. They'll need to be able to be good, obviously, in terms of project management, but really also understand the complexities of financing, land acquisition planning and environmental approvals as well. We've gone out to the market to look at who's available for the board and for the chair. The chair in particular will need to steer the organisation, make decisions about appointing the CEO of the organisation as well. So, we've gone out today to really start that process. It's a merits-based process and as I said, we've gone out to the market to see who's around, both within the country and also if there are people internationally who are interested in being part of this, we're open to having them on the board as well.

MATTHEW DORAN: So, Sydney to Newcastle is the priority or the first step in this grand plan, but we're talking about this a couple of decades into the future. What are you envisaging for high speed rail in Australia?

CATHERINE KING: Well, the corridor really, it's Melbourne to Brisbane along the Eastern Seaboard, is really what we're looking at. And as well, not only it's not just about building high speed rail. If you do that, you're going to need to look at patterns of settlement, what opportunities there are for new towns and new cities along that corridor. So, there's that big capacity to have a vision about what the future of the Australian Eastern Seaboard looks like. But as I said, the first really big step has to be that Sydney to Newcastle.

MATTHEW DORAN: How likely is it that we will actually see high speed rail delivered in Australia? It seems to be something that has been discussed for many, many years. It's the subject of many, many comedic sketches, including on this very network over the years. Looking at the viability and the big picture thinking, when it comes to high speed rail, is it ever actually going to be achieved?

CATHERINE KING: Well, I'm really determined that we will make a start. If we don't start, then we're not going to get anywhere. That's the first thing. So, we've already put legislation through the Parliament that establishes the High Speed Rail Authority. We're now taking the next steps by going to market. So, we're really looking at how rail and high-speed rail actually adds to the capacity of this country to get to net zero. So, an important part of that.

MATTHEW DORAN: You do also wear not only the hat of Infrastructure Minister, but also Transport Minister. We've seen this week quite a significant turnaround in the profits for Qantas, the airline. Are you worried that Qantas is turning a profit at a time when air travel, post-pandemic, is still incredibly expensive? Is it turning a profit by limiting capacity on its services?

CATHERINE KING: Well, I think aviation is an incredibly complex business. I think it is unbelievably fantastic to see the demand to come back and come back so strongly. I think it is even stronger than pre-pandemic and so that's great to see. What I would say, I know it's not just Qantas but Virgin and as well, trying to stand a workforce backup has been challenging for them.

But what I would say is that I think it is really important. I think the customer experience, particularly, to be blunt, on Qantas, has been fairly poor. I think even the CEO would recognise that they've had some real challenges in terms of the timeliness of their service, plus also the customer experience, and I'm hearing that loud and clear. You only have to be on Twitter for a few minutes as Aviation Minister to see that, and so I think that's important that feedback is given very clearly to Qantas.

There is an expectation to improve that, but also prices are going to need to come down. I think that whilst the demand is there, I think people are paying an exorbitant amount, frankly, for some of the airfares that are happening both domestically and internationally. And my expectation is that as we see the demand continue to be there and we see hopefully more services starting to be put into the market, more seats into the market that eases, and I'll be keeping a close eye on that. We've launched just recently, there hasn't been a really good look at this industry again since the Prime Minister was the aviation minister. We've got an Aviation White Paper to really look at the viability of aviation in Australia, as well as regional air services and a raft of other things in particular. I'm going to be to look at whether there does need to be a much more customer guarantee in terms of the sort of services people are receiving from the airlines. But it's great to see the demand back, it's great to see viability, but I think many people would have some expectation that some of the profits that these companies are making are returned and returned in customer service and in cheaper airfares. And I think people are making that loudly and clearly to me, and I'm pretty sure Qantas has heard that message as well.

MATTHEW DORAN: One last question, very briefly, because we are running out of time. We saw a visit this week from the AFL Chief Executive, Gillon McLachlan, to Tasmania, continuing to talk about the prospect of Tasmania picking up an AFL licence. The Tasmanian Government has made an approach to the Federal Government for millions of dollars to help with a stadium project that seems contingent - or the AFL has made contingent on - Tasmania getting a licence. Your Ministerial colleague, the Sports Minister, Anika Wells, has said that she doesn't understand why demanding hundreds of millions of dollars be spent on a stadium is a condition of getting that licence. Do you share that view?

CATHERINE KING: Look, I've got before me, obviously, a proposal from the Tasmanian Government to build a stadium. I've spoken at length with their Premier as well as the AFL. What I'm interested in is Macquarie Point is an incredible asset for Tasmania. It has got you know - we've already put $50 million as part of the Hobart City deal into remediation of that site to look at master planning for that site. I want to see an AFL team for Tasmania. I think that will be an incredible opportunity both for the AFL and for Tasmania, and you know, it's a sport that I love, it's part of my heritage as a Victorian and we want to see that taken nationally. Everybody should have an AFL team.

But in terms of Mac Point, I'm looking at the proposal from the Tasmanians and I'll reiterate what the Prime Minister said yesterday - I am not just interested in funding a stadium, I'm looking about urban redevelopment. I've seen some fantastic projects. Tottenham Hotspur, for example, in the UK, there's a fantastic project happening in Queens where they're building stadiums, but they're also building social and affordable housing, commercial and retail spaces, cultural awareness and cultural heritage spaces as well, other recreational opportunities. So, I want to work with the Tasmanians and the AFL to actually look at the urban renewal of Mac Point, and that is the lens through which I'll be looking at the request they've put to us as we lead into the upcoming May budget. If there are partners in the AFL and the Tasmanian Government who want to do that, then we are open to that proposal.

MATTHEW DORAN: Well, Catherine King, many people south of the Barassi Line very interested to see what you decide in that instance. Thanks for joining us in Afternoon Briefing.

CATHERINE KING: Really great to be with you. Thanks, Matt.