Inland Rail Conference, Toowoomba

Mark Coulton: Look, thank you Philip and Danny for your introduction, and it’s certainly great to be here. The room’s full of dignitaries. It’s dangerous starting to recognise people, but I’d certainly like to recognise my former boss and the chair of the ARTC, Warren Truss; Dr John McVeigh, the local Member and my colleague in Canberra at the moment; my former colleague, Ian Macfarlane. Catherine King, the Opposition spokesperson is speaking. I’m not sure if she’s here yet, but if you’re here Catherine, I acknowledge your presence as well. I’m actually representing the Deputy Prime Minister this morning. He’s a little unwell, and so I’m here on his behalf.

Incredibly excited to be here. One of the reasons I stepped off a tractor 12 years ago and went to Canberra was because of my belief in Inland Rail. I mentioned it in my very first speech to Parliament in February 2008 and it’s been a long road. But to be here today with so many enthusiastic delegates-some people have just realised the potential, and I look around and I see some of the people who were there right at the beginning when I was mayor of Gwydir going to an Inland Rail Conference at Parkes, hosted by Parkes Shire Council, and I think from memory that’s probably about 13 or 14 years ago. So, it’s great to be here today.

But I am representing Michael so I should behave and stay on script. I’d like to start today by acknowledging the wonderful contribution by Mr John Fullerton. John has recently announced his retirement and I want to join- I have no doubt that everyone in the room is wishing you, John, a long and happy and fulfilling retirement as the ARTC Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director.

John has seen many changes across the industry and he’s led change for the better. His stamp will always be on the work of the Australian Rail Track Corporation. It’s a measure of the man that he’s given advance notice so that the ARTC board can begin the appointment and transition process in a way that will ensure John has a most worthy successor. So thank you, John, for your immense contribution to rail over many, many years.

Ladies and gentlemen, at the turn of the 20th century, agreement to build a transcontinental rail crossing was pivotal to the federation of Australian states.

A century on, the initiative of the Howard-Fischer Coalition Government to build the Alice Springs to Darwin rail line was likewise a massive nation-building project. Today, we stand ready to, if you like, complete the trifecta of nation-building rail through the visionary Inland Rail. As I’ve often described it, it’s a 1,700-kilometre corridor of commerce that will open up crucial, new efficiencies on the domestic market and for our vital export trade. If you’re looking for an investment that’s hard to go past, $2.62 benefit for every dollar invested in this massive project. This forum is a superb opportunity to hear from industry, Government and Australia’s leading researchers in economics, freight and logistics, about the challenges and overwhelming opportunities of Inland Rail.

Each year, our freight and logistic networks deliver billions of tonnes of goods across Australia. It is a big number and sometimes we get so caught up talking about the big numbers that we forget what this actually means for everyday Australians. We tend to overlook the trucks, trains, planes and ships across our freight and supply chain networks, underpin our national productivity, competitiveness and way of life. With anything from fuel to food to essential medicines, we need our roads, rail, air and sea working together, so we can take the next century head on with a resilient, sustainable and efficient freight network equipped to meet the challenges of a mobile population.

Australia’s population is growing and more people means an increased demand. Our population will reach around 30 million people around a decade from now, with the urban freight task, let alone, set to increase by 60 per cent in 20 years. A good example of domestic market demand is that Melbourne alone needs 15,000 tonnes of food delivered to that city every day. The freight effort required to service our growing population will significantly test the capacity of our freight and supply chain networks. Inland Rail is a centrepiece of our future freight network but we can’t escape the fact that Inland Rail is part of a broader network that must work together as an integrated, whole through targeted, innovative and sustainable investment. It is the national network that will continue to fund our cities and bring prosperity to our regions. And we need to have national plans and national agreements to deliver fast, efficient and cost-competitive services.

Let me paint the bigger picture. Building on the inquiry into the national freight and supply chain priorities released in 2018, Australian Governments have endorsed a national freight and supply chain strategy and action plan at this month’s COAG Transport and Infrastructure Council Meeting.

The strategy and action plan brings together a long-term, 20-year vision of Australia’s freight and supply chain networks committing to a national action in four critical areas: smarter targeted investment, improved supply chain efficiency, better planning, coordination and regulation, and better freight location and performance starter. For the first time, we have a national approach to Australia’s freight and supply chains that will- that has been agreed by all levels of government and developed hand-in-hand with industry. But this is not a set and forget approach. The strategies governance arrangements provide a mechanism to ratchet up action and ambition from all governments and industry over time in order to lift the performance of the freight system.

In April this year, the Australian Government made a head start on the action plan by committing $8.5 million in the Federal Budget to develop a design of a National Freight Data Hub and to pilot supply chain data exchange processes. Industry has called for better freight data, and we are delivering. We know that better data informs better decisions, so by improving the availability and ways we can share freight data, we can improve freight operations, make better investment decisions and monitor and evaluate freight performance.

The Government’s commitment to the National Freight Data Hub includes $5.2 million to settle the design of a National Freight Data Hub, including arrangements for data collection, protection, dissemination and hosting. And $3.3 million for the establishment of a freight data exchange pilot to allow industry to access freight data in real time and a survey of road usage for freight purposes. We want you to have the tools and infrastructure you need to maximize opportunities here in Australia and across international borders.

Our domestic market is of great importance, but Australia is an export nation. Our Government has moved quickly to deliver free trade agreements with markets like Korea, Japan, Indonesia and China – not to mention becoming the signatory of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

We were the sixth signatory to the TPP and it was the sixth signatory that brought the agreement into force. The TPP-11 is a combined market with a gross domestic product each year of more than $13 trillion. And it was a great privilege for me to be in Tokyo in January at the first ministerial meeting of the TPP-11 countries, and opportunities in places like Mexico, Canada, not to mention, improved access to countries we already have free trade agreements with.

Here in Australia, our export-orientated farm production sector is worth $60 billion. We want to go bigger and we want to go better. The National Farmers’ Federation has a vision of $100 billion by 2030 and our government wants to see this happen. We believe that enterprising Australians should be able to be in the best possible position to think big and go bold. For our farmers, manufacturers, and resource sector, it means delivering the infrastructure to move their products and produce to hungry, domestic and global markets quickly, efficiently and at a cost competitive price.

Together with the new FTAs, in the last Budget, we added $23 billion to the infrastructure spend over 10 years to a new record of $100 billion in investment. So far, we’ve made commitments to more than 900 major infrastructure projects, as well as tens of thousands of smaller projects across every local government area in Australia, supporting 50,000 direct and indirect jobs. 260 of these major projects are under construction or development, supporting our economy. More than 280 have already been completed, delivering real improvements. Analysis suggest around 225 million passenger hours and 55 million freight and business hours have been saved and approximately 1800 road accidents avoided.

Our government knows that without trucks and truck drivers, Australia stops. But where we can sensibly shift some of the growth in heavy vehicle movements to other transport options, such as long haul rail, well then we should. Congestion is the enemy of productivity, and I believe that with Inland Rail, the largest of the country’s major projects underway, we are investing in the productivity of our people, our communities and industries. The Government has committed up to $9.3 billion to deliver Inland Rail as a centrepiece of our $100 billion investment pipeline.

For me, growing up in the bush, the sight of trains laden with local produce heading for the city was a daily occurrence. But investment in country lines dried up, as did rails used by local producers, and as an aside, we used to get our mail and fresh bread delivered six days a week to our property. Some are thinking the Inland Rail is going to do that. I can rest assured now we’re not doing roadside deliveries of mail.

Thanks to our government’s investment in Inland Rail, a national freight rail network will not only be revived but connected to all mainland state capital cities and major ports, providing a consistent track standard across the network.

To put this into context, Sir Henry Parkes was calling for a national rail gauge 130 years ago because he understood then what is true today: connecting north and south, east and west, and city and the bush, is vital to the future of this nation. That’s why I’m so pleased to see that the theme for this year’s conference is Connecting Regions, Building Australia.

Connectivity is at the heart of this government’s commitment to Inland Rail, which is why the theme and location of this event is so fitting. Here in Toowoomba, we have a city, that like many cities and towns in Australia, has a long and rich history as a rail town. Many regional cities and towns can trace their expansion and development of their communities to the advent of rail in the regions. The first rail line in Queensland was the Southern and Western Line which connected pioneering farmers in the Toowoomba region with the fast growing Brisbane markets. Once again, it has come back to connecting industry and communities to opportunities by building the infrastructure like the Inland Rail that will, in turn, build this nation.

Our regions are the heart of our resources and agricultural production. It’s the grain, dairy, minerals and food produce from our regions that Australian manufacturers turn into high quality products to feed and fuel our nation. Our government wants to ensure that regional communities know that their efforts, their hopes, and ambitions will not be ignored, particularly as they face the challenges that they do now.

Almost every day, I come face to face with farmers whose lives have been ravaged by drought. Travelling through regional Australia, I see firsthand the devastation that this has caused in our local towns and communities. And as someone who represents half the landmass of New South Wales, I can tell you there’s not one square inch of my electorate that is not in very, very dire states at the moment, and driving up to the dams this morning, I can see Dr McVeigh here in the same boat, here in Southern Queensland.

We can’t make it rain. Of course we can’t. But we can build the infrastructure. The Inland Rail, infrastructure like the Emu Swamp Dam right here in the Granite Belt, and the National Water Grid that can make life a little easier until the rains return, as they inevitably will.

Rolling out Inland Rail in our regions will provide opportunities to inland communities – the likes we haven’t seen in decades – to make the most of their natural assets and turn them into real and tangible benefits that will grow regional towns and build resilient local economies. This is true nation building. But for Inland Rail to deliver these benefits, it must achieve the less than 24-hour service offering. Achieving this will increase Australia’s GDP by $16 billion. That’s a massive economic gain. This will require building a track that is fast, straight and as flat as possible. Stretching 1,700 kilometres, it’s inevitable Inland Rail will touch on people’s land. Much of this land has social value, economic value, and even cultural heritage. And we don’t take this lightly, which is why the alignment has been based on multiple studies and analysis.

I’m confident that we have the right study corridor for this project, but it does not mean that we can ignore the concerns from communities and land owners about how they were consulted about Inland Rail route selections. There’s nothing truer than in my electorate, where we have a 300 kilometre greenfield section, and it’s a very difficult process for the landholders involved.

Now, I want to acknowledge Australian Rail Track Corporation and particularly Richard Wankmuller, CEO of Inland Rail, for the hard work and commitment, Richard, that you have done in community engagement since you came on board. We have really seen a shift in the connection between your organisation and affected landholders under your influence.

The time is now for Government, industry and community to work together to build a stronger, more resilient and more prosperous nation, and we cannot do that if we don’t own our mistakes and learn from our mistakes. We must reflect on how we’ve engaged with the community in the past and commit to work harder and do better to ensure our ongoing engagement is built on mutual respect and understanding.

Of course, I’m very well aware that Inland Rail will cross some of Australia’s most diverse country – hills, valleys, black soil and granite – some of it right here in south east Queensland. All of the engineering is challenging but we are very conscious that decisions about floodplain crossings raises legitimate concerns about the flooding impacts that it might have.

I know that our farmers understand their own land better than anyone else. They have to. Their livelihoods depend upon it. And at the same time, it’s why Inland Rail is so vital that we share the sector’s vision for growth, which will rely deeply on having the right infrastructure in place. And make no mistake, we will work with landholders to continue learning about their land, about the machinery and dams and movement of stock that they know so well as the back of their hands to provide certainty that we do care, we are listening, and we will do our best to minimise the disruption of their businesses.

That is why we’re working to ensure that communities have access to the highest level of public safety assurance available. Right now, we are exploring the options to give local community certainty that all national and international best practice is being complied with along the entire rail alignment. And I hope to make an announcement about this in the coming weeks.

We know that if communities are on board with Inland Rail, they will be better placed to take advantage of the transformational opportunities that it will deliver. The connections between regional communities and Inland Rail, whether directly on the Inland Rail alignment or connected through existing regional roads and rail, are essential to ensuring that the benefits of this project is shared right across the regions. In the 2019–20 Federal Budget, our Government committed $44 million over the next two years to assess the best way to connect inland communities to Inland Rail. We want to ensure that interfaces, the sidings, the loops, the connecting tracks, the silos and handling facilities, are improved and better connected. I’m really pleased that those conversations have really stepped up in recent months.

Over coming months, the Department will engage state and local governments, community, track operators and supply chain managers, to test ideas and identify industry preferences for similar projects to be considered under the program. I encourage all of you in this room to take advantage of this opportunity to engage with the Government about this program in your region. It’s critical that we get this right so that we can ensure that Government, industry and regional communities are making strategic decisions about where we need to enhance the capacity of the existing infrastructure.

In March this year, the Deputy Prime Minister announced the results of a pilot study conducted by the CSIRO that showed a modal shift to Inland Rail would deliver average cost savings of $76 per tonne for horticulture and post processed food. This means $70 million in savings each year for those two supply chains alone.

Industry right across the country are voicing their interest in understanding more about the impact Inland Rail will have on our regional supply chain networks. That’s why we brought industry and community to the table early when we stepped out the first phase of the study between Narromine in New South Wales and Seymour in Victoria, held industry and community workshops in regional New South Wales towns through mid to late July. We want to make sure we’re identifying supply chains like grains, cotton, minerals to build a robust evidence base so that farmers, regional manufacturers and industry can identify and plan for the roll out of Inland Rail. Every town and every region is different and supply chains will have different results, but a clean and an objective analysis from the CSIRO will help producers and rail customers prepare for this project. The result of the CSIRO study will build on an already compelling evidence base for our Government’s commitment to Inland Rail. We need to look no further than where we are today in Southern Queensland for an example of how Inland Rail can unleash the potential of our regions.

South East Queensland is a region with endless opportunities for future growth. That is why our Government committed in February this year to a South East Queensland City Deal. We want to make sure that the future growth for South East Queensland means the region gets better, not just bigger. For South East Queensland to tap into its true potential, we need to be investing in targeted infrastructure – Inland Rail at its heart – that will get products and produce moving and keep the economy growing and connect our most productive farming regions to our broader freight network. And while farmers will benefit, and rightly so that they should, shifting from road to rail needs to be supported by first class intermodal infrastructure – infrastructure that will deliver more jobs and more opportunities for additional investment.

Our Government is already planning for a new intermodal facility at Ebenezer just down the range here from Toowoomba. We’ll work with the Queensland Government to develop a business case to explore opportunities for industry investment through the development of a logistics and distribution hub, delivering sustainable, long term jobs and opportunities for the region. The business case will be completed in 2021, and the new facility targeted to open in time for the first Inland Rail train in the mid-2020s. These types of opportunities for our regions have the capacity to transform the lives of entire communities.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are on the threshold of history. People have been talking about building an inland rail for over a century now. But now, together, we’re getting on and we are delivering it.

May I leave you with a quote from the then Treasurer, Sir John Forrest, after the Trans-Australian Railway was completed on 17 October 1917, because I truly believe that by building Inland Rail and connecting north and south, city and the bush, we are building a stronger case for a more resilient Australia. And Sir John Forrest back in 1917 said: today, east and west are indissolubly joined together by bands of steel and the result must be increased prosperity and happiness for the Australian people. Ladies and gentlemen, together we’re working to make great Australia even greater. Thank you.