ABC Riverina interview with Victor Petrovic

SALLY BRYANT, HOST: Now, we have been hearing ongoing concerns from landholders and communities affected by TransGrid power lines upgrades in the region, and with the current energy crisis, the pressure is on to get those lines built. Kristy McBain is the Minister for Regional Development, Local Government and Territories of Australia, and she says that TransGrid lines need to be upgraded to the standard required when Snowy 2.0 comes online; but, she says, community engagement from TransGrid has fallen short of ideal.

KRISTY MCBAIN, MINISTER: I think the communication was key and our community had just finished defending their properties during the Black Summer bushfire, to receive letters in the mail telling them that their property might be taken up with a new set of transmission lines, so probably timing was really poor, but the way in which it was communicated was equally as poor, and it has been our community fighting to make sure that they have been adequately communicated with and consulted with along the path when that should have been the priority of TransGrid early on.

VICTOR PETROVIC: How important do you think projects like HumeLink are to connect renewable energy projects and, therefore, meet emissions reductions targets?

KRISTY MCBAIN: We know to meet our emissions reduction target that there are going to be renewable energy projects that spring up across the country and that might necessarily mean additional transmission lines. But this isn’t bare or barren country where communities aren’t already living; this is country that is occupied, that is prime agricultural land, where we have communities of interest already in place. So, there is some work to do by many companies in this process to properly consult with communities, to properly remunerate these landowners and to make sure that they are working with community to understand what the best line is going to be and how that will have an impact on our community long term. So, I think there is still a long way to go in terms of making sure that that work is undertaken.

VICTOR PETROVIC: And how do we balance those competing concerns in your view? Obviously, there is the importance of the infrastructure, as you spoke about, but there’s also the rights of landholders, some of whom are supposedly effectively losing the facility of their land. So, how do we balance those things, in your view, with something like HumeLink?

KRISTY MCBAIN: I think it’s really important to actually take a locally‑led approach where we are involving communities in the discussion from day one, but genuinely consulting them. Of course, there are going to be competing priorities, but nothing that’s insurmountable when you have parties that are willing to work with each other. We need to make sure that in the process that where communities are going to be impacted, where local landholders are going to be impacted, that they are going to be appropriately compensated for that, which is why Dr Joe McGirr and I have co‑signed a letter asking for a review of the RIT‑T process to be undertaken as soon as possible, and making sure that it deals with the HumeLink project at the start of this review rather than the review coming on the back of this.

VICTOR PETROVIC: One other thing Dr Joe McGirr is pushing for is an overhaul of the legislation, specifically the Just Terms Act, to review the compensation amounts that are available to landholders. Is that something that the Government’s considering?

KRISTY MCBAIN: It has been an issue that’s long been spoken about. The Just Terms Act currently sits with the state, but there needs to be some acknowledgment that it needs to be fit for purpose going forward. It is something that I think that all levels of government should be having a look at and making their voices known on behalf of the constituencies that they represent, and at this point in time I don’t think that the Just Terms Act does justice for those people who potentially will have part of their land acquired for a process like this.

VICTOR PETROVIC: At a federal level, obviously the Government is quite interested in getting these projects off the ground especially with the current energy crisis. Is there a role for the Federal Government to play, do you think, in helping landholders to, I guess, get their fair compensation, or even keep their land?

KRISTY MCBAIN: Yes. We, in regards to specifically to the HumeLink project, brought a couple of interest groups, Dr Joe McGirr and myself, met with Chris Bowen in the last couple of weeks to talk specifically about this project and about things that could and should be done differently. Following on from that project, the TransGrid and local community representatives met with the Energy Commissioner to discuss some ways forward. So, there is a role for the Federal Government to play in regards to how these projects roll out, and I think Minister Bowen has been leading the charge on that, and he, at his request, the Energy Commissioner came and met with TransGrid and the community group to see there were any points they could move forward on. But it definitely requires, I think, the buy‑in of both company and community to make sure that we’re all working to the same end and that is as little impact on our amenities as possible.

VICTOR PETROVIC: And one of the things the community has been pushing for is to try and get the transmission lines for HumeLink to be put underground. Last week, TransGrid released its report into whether or not they would do that, and their response to it was that it was too expensive and it would take too long so they would not be doing that, which some community members have been quite upset about. Do you think TransGrid has made the right call there?

KRISTY MCBAIN: Obviously, with an independent study done by TransGrid, and there were members of the community on that review group – I have yet to read the report in its entirety – but I think that there is some concern over cost and then some concern over the topography of the land on which this project would sit, but I would be interested to understand more in depth the reasoning behind that.

VICTOR PETROVIC: And since the release of that report, TransGrid has refused multiple requests to talk to us and the community about this decision and why it’s been made, and that kind of thing. Do you think it’s appropriate for TransGrid to refuse to provide its thinking in light of opposition to the project to someone like the media?

KRISTY MCBAIN: I think that’s a matter for TransGrid, and they will have to provide their reasons on why they don’t think they need to provide any further commentary on it. What I would say from a community perspective is that our community would definitely expect the company to engage with them, not only on the undergrounding study, but on the entire project.

SALLY BRYANT: That’s the Minister Regional Development, Kristy McBain, speaking there with our reporter, Victor Petrovic.