Interview with Kristy Reading, ABC Central West

Kristy Reading: The Federal Government has announced $2 million worth of funding to identify upgrades and work needed along the Newell Highway. The money will be used for a study by the Newell Highway Taskforce, which will identify what work is needed along the road. Half a billion dollars in state funding has already been committed to help build more overtaking lanes.

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Michael McCormack, joins us now. Good morning, Minister.

Michael McCormack: Good morning.

Kristy Reading: What will this $2 million do exactly?

Michael McCormack: It will certainly look at how we prevent what happened in 2016 when, of course, the flooding closed the Newell between Forbes and West Wyalong between Forbes Shire and Bland Shire. It had a huge impact on producers, on trucking companies, indeed on the entire nation. The direct gross cost from a national perspective was estimated at more than $112 million.

Now, of course the road was closed for some weeks. We can't stop floods and indeed we can't stop droughts unfortunately. But we need to have a look at how we can best manage in situations like that, and hydrology studies and indeed, having a look at the entire corridor of the Newell Highway to see how we can upgrade the highway to make it best fit the huge freight task that it does. It’s something that is a priority for the Federal Government.

Kristy Reading: So, what else do you see as priorities for the Newell? Bypasses, town bypasses, part of that?

Michael McCormack: I think everything is going to be on the table and that's why we're spending $2 million to get the taskforce to look at what will place the Newell Highway as a road for the future. It's certainly been a tremendous corridor of commerce for many decades, but we want to see how it’s best placed to serve the needs of the nation in the future.

Kristy Reading: Will federal funding be forthcoming once this strategy is complete? Once those priorities have been identified?

Michael McCormack: I always work with Melinda Pavey, the Roads Minister in New South Wales, to see what we can do and how we can do it as far as federal and state combined funding is concerned.

To best serve her needs, our needs, more importantly, the needs of the nation. As I say, this is a pivotal road. This is a road that creates and generates so much of our freight task. Logistically, it is a highway which takes the cargo, the goods, from—not just our local shires in and around the Riverina, in and around the Central West to North Western New South Wales—but indeed, it carries the freight task of the nation.

Kristy Reading: So, how will this $2 million strategy differ from other works, other planning works, other studies that have been done in the past?

Michael McCormack: We've had the study into the road closures. We've had the study into the flood from 2016. What we want to do is add on to that. What we want to do is make sure that we identify the best key components as to how we can improve this road. Identify what we can do as far as upgrading it, whether it's passing lanes, whether it's ring-roads. No matter what it is, we want to make sure that we have it on the table so that we can make an informed decision.

And that could then well fit in with our Budget announcement of $3.5 billion for Roads of Strategic Importance. That's our federal bucket of money, but of course, there's a $75 billion spend on infrastructure.

Working in with the State Government to see what we can do. Now, I know that the Mayor of Forbes, Graeme Miller, and Ken Keith, the Mayor of Parkes, and Tony Lord at Bland Shire at West Wyalong—they are all absolutely committed to making sure that we have the best-possible outcome from these deliberations, from this study. And I'm sure the taskforce will get on and do the job, give us the report then we can act from there.

Kristy Reading: Of course, as I mentioned before, the money, the $2 million will be used for a study by the Newell Highway Taskforce. How does this study, how does this strategy work alongside the Inland Rail project?

Michael McCormack: It fits in with it hand-in-glove. I mean, we're investing $9.3 billion into the Inland Rail. And we know we need the Newell and the Inland Rail to complement one another. That's why we're out building these sorts of nation-building projects. That's why we want the freight task to be the best logistically it can be, and that's why we're investing billions of dollars into it.

Kristy Reading: Okay. When do you anticipate this strategy, the work around it will get underway?

Michael McCormack: As soon as possible. And I know the taskforce has already done a body of work in this regard. They’ll add on to that with getting advice from key stakeholders—that could be farmers and small businesses, right up to engineers and analysts and logistical experts—so they're going to take advice from everyone but they're going to produce a report that we will then act upon.

The Newell Highway is one of the key roads in our nation and we want to make sure that it is fit for purpose and the very best road it can be to meet the needs of future freight tasks going forward.

Kristy Reading: What's your message been to the Newell Highway Taskforce to this point? What's your message to them now that you've announced this funding?

Michael McCormack: Get on with it. Get it back to me. And also that they need to know—and they do know—that the Federal Government places a huge importance on their work. We've got every faith that they're going to produce a really good report to make sure that we know full well where the money needs to be best spent.

Kristy Reading: We're talking to Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Michael McCormack this morning.

Minister, if I can ask you a band of Federal Coalition MPs are pushing for environmental water to be sold to Murray River irrigators to help manage the drought. Nationals’ MP Andrew Broad says wetlands in the Murray River region are looking healthier than ever and he wants a one-off sale of environmental water to irrigators to help finish off winter crops and also to help produce fodder that can make its way onto the market. Is that something that you support?

Michael McCormack: It's happened before and what we need to do is put everything on the table. I've had discussions with Andrew Broad about this very thing and we need to really put everything on board.

The drought is biting hard, it really is. And I've always said that whenever you have a drought such as this, or whenever you have a disaster such as this, which really affects not just the environment but also our farmers, the environment bounces back quickest. It takes a good shower of rain and the bird life returns, the plant life returns, the vegetation’s up and off.

The farmers, they don't bounce back so quickly and readily. And we need to consider absolutely everything that we can do. Whether that's getting the desalination plant at Adelaide up and cranking it up and see what we can do in that regard. Everything is on the table, every consideration the Federal Government is looking at very, very seriously to see what we can do to best manage what is the worst drought since the 1960s.

Kristy Reading: So you don't think this one-off sale of environmental water is a bad idea by any stretch?

Michael McCormack: No, I don’t.

Kristy Reading: Okay. Alright. Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Infrastructure and Transport Michael McCormack, thank you for your time this morning.

Michael McCormack: Thanks, Kristy. Any time at all.

Kristy Reading: Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack there.