Transcript - radio interview - ABC Pilbara, Mornings with Eddie Williams

EDDIE WILLIAMS (HOST): Catherine King is the Federal Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government. Minister, good morning.


EDDIE WILLIAMS: It's not the first time that supply challenges have come up in this region, whether that's because of flooding locally or over east, or the effects of COVID. What are the lessons for government from all of this?

CATHERINE KING: Well, I think it's just how important the resilience of our freight network is. Investing in that freight network, we put over $1.5 billion during the election campaign and now in government into improving some of the freight roads. We've got a lot of work to still do on rail, but frankly, we've had about a decade to reflect on these issues. We've had said it in the parliament this week that we've had a lot of focus on rorting of things like urban congestion funds, and 83 per cent of which went to Liberal and National Party seats. And that's an opportunity lost for money going to freight routes. So we've got a lot of work to do, but we've got a significant problem, obviously, in Western Australia at the moment, both with the Great Northern Highway, which is in the Fitzroy Road Crossing being completely broken. I was up there only about two weeks ago having a look at it myself with Rita Saffioti and WA Main Roads to work through what we're going to do together to try and resolve that. But you can see the huge impact it has when these routes fail and that's what we're seeing at the moment.

EDDIE WILLIAMS: And one sealed road in, one sealed road out is the reality for towns and communities in the Kimberly. Does there need to be better long-term planning so communities aren't having to wait days for fresh food to arrive, as we've seen this week?

CATHERINE KING: Well, I think there's a couple of things and obviously there's the immediate relief that we need to provide to people. So that's why you've got the government moving pretty quickly to get the Australian Defence Force with aerial support in, to get fresh food back in and medical supplies back into those communities as quickly as we can. I think there's also, as you said, barge support being put in as well, but there is the issue of long-term planning. It's very clear, certainly with Fitzroy Crossing that we've got to build resilience into whatever. There's absolutely no point of building back to the 1970s single lane bridge that's sitting there at Fitzroy Crossing. It's obviously going to need a dual lane bridge. It's going to need to take into account that the river has now widened and that's going to take some time to get through. The design work is underway for that now and our expectation is that that's going to take time. So, as an interim measure, there will be a causeway for the dry season that freight will be able to use, and that's again in planning at the moment. But of course, that we're still dealing with flood affected rivers. So it is taking time while we work our way through that.

EDDIE WILLIAMS: Appreciating all that, there are concerns from locals, from transport companies that are having to wait till late next year for the new Fitzroy River Bridge is too long to wait and that communities are vulnerable until that bridge is complete. Is there any way the Federal Government can help to speed up this project?

CATHERINE KING: These things take a long time. They take time to build. They take time to plan, and they take time to build. This is pretty quick in my experience, compared to if you're just building in normal circumstances, this is pretty quick. But we are talking about a very long and very high bridge. It is a complex engineering feat. It's not something that's just simply replacing it. So what you'll see is the barge service I think that's- WA Main Roads is on the ground. They're doing work right now. The barge service should be up and running soon. There is work to look at causeway for when the dry season is back, in the rivers dry to be able to get big freight trucks across the road next to where the bridge is. There's talk about looking at the 1930s causeway that is there at the moment that often locals use, but has been closed since the 1930s, about actually making that safer. And that will certainly help for the dry. But really, this bridge is just going to take time to build because it's a long and very high bridge. And we're not talking about the bridge that's the current 1970s bridge. We're talking about something that's a bit bigger and a bit more sophisticated than what's there currently.

EDDIE WILLIAMS: Could or should the ADF be involved in such a critical and urgent infrastructure project like this?

CATHERINE KING: Well, really, at the moment, their job at the moment is to help with immediate relief and that's the role that the ADF has played. Really, the WA Main Roads are on the ground there. We think the solutions of the barge service, the causeway for the dry, and really getting on with the WA Government has already appointed the contract to the partners to actually do the design work. Another contract will obviously have to be let for the build itself. All that detailed costing work and engineering work is being done at the moment to get that design right. So I think that's the time frame it's going to take to actually replace this. And I think, really, that's the pathway we've got with the two options in terms of the causeway for when the river is dry.

EDDIE WILLIAMS: Speaking with the Federal Infrastructure and Transport Minister Catherine King. Your Opposition counterpart, Bridget McKenzie, has called for an urgent exemption to allow international ships to transport food into the East Kimberley to deal with these shortages. At the moment, is that something the government has or would consider?

CATHERINE KING: If asked we'd certainly consider whether there's an exemption needed to issue a licence to an international ship to do that. But this is the problem we've got, that I find it pretty bizarre that we don't have Australian ships actually running along our coast being able to actually be called on to actually do that. And that's because we've had a decade of the Liberal National Party basically driving Australian ships away from this country and we don't have that many flag vessels. It's why we're establishing a strategic fleet for exactly these tasks and for these purposes to be able to call on in times of emergency.

And we're working our way through the detail of doing that. But I don't have a request before me at the moment to issue licences to international ships and I'll leave it to the WA Government to work through, which they're doing. In terms of the barge service that's already providing fresh fruit and vegetables.

EDDIE WILLIAMS: You talk about making the freight network more resilient. Longer term sealing the Tanami Road, is something that could create a more resilient route into the Kimberly. How far away is that project from becoming a reality?

CATHERINE KING: Well, again, a project I've visited, it's on its way, the Northern Territory side. Again, our government committed money to do that with the Western Australian Government and again, that work will just continue rolling. It's happening at a pace on the Northern Territory side of the border and the WA side got funding allocated to it. Again, these big projects, particularly when areas are flood affected, do just take time to do. But the sealing the Tanami, has been something and I'm very proud as a government we've committed to actually getting that done and that progress for that work. It'll continue to keep rolling out.

EDDIE WILLIAMS: Will we see it this decade?

CATHERINE KING: Well that's certainly my hope. That's certainly my hope. That's why we've committed money to do it. We know it's important, but the work that this is, again, just the opportunity cost that happens when you've got governments that are not focussed on these freight and supply routes, that are too busy using infrastructure investment to win elections, rather than actually look at what do you need to do to fix freight and supply routes. And unfortunately, that's what we've had for the last decade and we're now trying to retrofit and go back and have a look at how we can actually resolve some of these things. And that's why I was very proud to commit extra funding to funding to the Tanami, extra funding to the Stuart Highway as well, really working with the Northern Territory and Western Australian Governments about how we can try and secure these supply routes well and truly into the future.

EDDIE WILLIAMS: Where will the workers come from for all these projects?

CATHERINE KING: Yeah, well, that's a very good question. As you know, right the way across the country, we do have significant labour shortages, not just in construction, but everywhere. And also we have to accommodate workers along the way, I was really proud to meet with the Northern Territory was the South Australian Company, but also part of the Northern Territory company that's building and resealing the Tanami. They're doing amazing work and they've managed to continue that project and continue to get workers and attract workers in. But it's a challenge for infrastructure projects right the way across the country.

EDDIE WILLIAMS: Minister, I appreciate your time this morning.

CATHERINE KING: No problem at all.

EDDIE WILLIAMS: Catherine King, the Federal Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government.