Transcript - North East Rail Line Upgrade press conference

STEPH RYAN

Good morning, everyone. It's absolutely wonderful to welcome the Deputy Prime Minister to our region today for this very, very significant milestone. I'm incredibly grateful to the Federal Government and the Federal Nationals for seeing the need here. I've been pushing for this upgrade since I was elected back in November 2014 to get some serious action on the line here and the Federal Nationals listened to that. We've got the Deputy Prime Minister here to mark a very major milestone in the completion of these track upgrade works. This is a huge investment in our region and we will finally deliver a much better and more reliable train service for our region. We have been crying out for this for a very, very long time and I'm just delighted to be here today to mark this major milestone.

The second piece in this puzzle has always been the need for new rolling stock on our line. We have very old trains that continue to break down day after day after day. Basic things that don't work. Toilets that don't work, doors that get stuck, trains that get cancelled, trains that don't run on time. It's now incumbent upon Jacinta Allan and the Victorian Labor Government to deliver new rolling stock for this line. Jacinta Allan, Daniel Andrews, Jaclyn Symes, they've all been on the record time and time again saying that when the track upgrade is complete they will have new trains ready to go straight away.

So today, I'm calling on them to deliver on that commitment. We want to see the rolling stock on this line replaced in full and that should be done immediately because we know that they started the design work for those trains more than three years ago. They've had all the time in the world to actually get the design done and the trains built and let's be frank about it, they've got to build a standard gauged train. Those trains run all the over the world. It's not like it's something that is difficult to do. So I would now urge the Victorian Government to deliver on its commitment to completely replace the rolling stock on our line so that finally our part of the world can have a train service that is reliable, efficient and will get us where we need to go and I think that is going to deliver incredible opportunity for our region. So, I just wanted to say to the Federal Government, thank you. Thank you for believing in us, thank you for being willing to invest in the potential of our region.

HELEN HAINES

Good morning, everyone and I welcome the Deputy Prime Minister here today visiting our region and visiting this very important North East Rail Line, or the NERL, as we know it. I live just down the road from here and together with the community that I represent here in Indi, we have been calling for decades for an upgrade to the North East Rail Line for reliable, high-quality trains that take us not only to our medical appointments in Melbourne, but to our small towns along the way. Something for our students to be able to get to university and back, for our students to get to TAFE and back, for everyday people to go shopping and for visitors to come through the region with their bicycles, with their wallets packed with money ready to spend in North East Victoria. My predecessor, Cathy McGowan, in 2013, absolutely upped the ante on the North East Rail Line and was able to deliver this significant work in collaboration with the Federal Government. Made it an issue because it remains an issue for the people of this region. So I congratulate the Federal Government in investing in the North East Rail Line. I'm delighted. It's fantastic today to look at the works, to look at the ballast, to look at the concrete slabs, to look at the bridges, to look at the level crossings and to know that local people have played a part all the way along with this. We just met Ashley Day today and Ashley's company, the one who supplies the ballast, he's the one that employs 100 local people to deliver that ballast to the railway line and it's that ballast, of course, that completes the sinkhole, the mud-hole problems that have caused that rickety train ride that we've all experienced for decades. So, I'm absolutely thrilled that this project is being delivered not only on time but in fact, ahead of time and that's brilliant for all of us who use the railway line. So thank you to the ARTC, thank you to the independent contractors here. The amount of money that this brings into a local economy is huge and that has impacts on jobs and the welfare of everyone in the region. So that's great.

Steph's calling on the State Government to deliver these new train sets and I'm with her on that. We need these new train sets delivered as soon as this railway line is completed and tested. So I'm on a unity ticket with you, Steph, wherever you are, there. But, likewise, this has been a massive investment in maintenance. So I'm calling on the Federal Government and the State Government to come to the table now and commit to the ongoing maintenance of the North East Rail Line so we never are in the situation again where we have dodgy trains, poor lines, unsafe experiences and unreliable services. So that's my call today.

BRIDGET McKENZIE

Well, I too grew up down the road and my first experience of this particular train line – I wasn't heading to university, I wasn't heading to Melbourne to a doctor's appointment. I was going to the Rattle and Hum U2 concert in 1988. The timetable hasn't changed and I can tell you neither has the rolling stock. So the National Party's local Member from Euroa but importantly the State Coalition's Shadow Minister and Deputy Leader of the National Party, Steph Ryan has been a lioness on standing up for this region, our communities and making sure that the State Government is held to account to make sure those of us that live, work and enjoy the North East of Victoria have a train service that is comparable to the people that live in Geelong, Ballarat, Bendigo because it's not good enough that for too long we have been second-class citizens.

So, it's fantastic to be a part of a Federal Government that in coming to Government in 2013, National Party Ministers for Infrastructure have consistently sought to invest in upgrading this line so that we get the services we want and it's fantastic that not only we're doing that today, but that along the way, Ashley, 173 local businesses who employ locals right here from Lima South to Wodonga are able to build their businesses, even through COVID, see that growth and development in their businesses, as a result of this local investment by the Federal Government and I think that's one of the exciting spin-offs. Not only are we going to have a great service but we've been able to keep locals employed right here in our regions in sustainable, rewarding careers.

So thank you Deputy Prime Minister, great to have you here. I know you're very, very passionate about this project and making sure that it is delivered on time and on budget so that we, in regional Victoria, actually are the beneficiaries. Thanks, DPM.

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Thank you, Senator Bridget McKenzie. U2, hey? Well, it is a beautiful day so we're not going to let it slip away and we indeed haven't. We have delivered and this is what the Nationals in Government do. This is Nationals in Government delivering for regional Victorians, for regional Australians and why shouldn't regional Victorians and anybody who travels on this track – why shouldn't they have the very best Rail Line on which to do it and that's what we have delivered in conjunction with the Australian Rail Track Corporation, in conjunction with companies such as Ashley Day's ballast company, LS Quarries. More than half a million tonnes of ballast and that is so important that we actually procure through local companies, that we actually get local jobs happening on these projects and that's what he is happened here. You just heard Bridget McKenzie talking about the 173 companies. We know that those 173 companies have indeed been able to procure $70 million worth of product and work through this project, through the North East Rail Line. $235 million commitment by the Federal Liberal and Nationals covered. That's delivery. That's getting on with the job. That's getting on with it during a global pandemic. Work has continued and I commend, as Bridget McKenzie has, the advocacy, the campaigning that Steph Ryan has done, the hardworking Member for Euroa. She has never let up on this. I tell you what, Steph rings my phone often, weekly, making sure that I know that regional Victoria has to get that delivery because we've got a State here, we've got a Government here that sometimes just don't get things done as fast as we would like. There's commitment through the Murray Basin freight rail, for instance, which we've had to now back up and rescue to the tune of $200.2 million. We'd already put $240 million on the table but unfortunately it wasn't able to be delivered when we would have liked. But the Federal Government is backing these projects up and whether it's a road project where we put 80 per cent towards a regional infrastructure project as far as roads are concerned, whether it's rail, we're getting on with the job as Nationals in Government do. And this is a very, very beautiful day today, as U2 would say. It's a great day because we're seeing what can be done when we've got advocates such as Steph Ryan, when we've got campaigners such as Bridget McKenzie and we've got companies like LS Quarries getting on with it job.

What we've seen here too, is we've seen 90 or so bridges being built, concrete bridges, not big bridges by any stretch of the imagination but necessary to make the rail track safe. To bring it up to Victorian Class 2 standard. And what the train drivers were having to do was to actually put self-imposed restrictions on the speed with which they were travelling on this track. Well, no longer. They will be able to provide a smoother, safer journey for those commuters who use the North East Rail Line. Now this is going to open up opportunities for regional Victoria. Open up opportunities that weren't considered before. And Victoria is a great place to visit. Indeed, it's a great place to come and live and we've seen, through the global pandemic, Sydneysiders and Melburnians see the future out in regional New South Wales and Victoria and flock there in numbers and live there in numbers because that's what COVID has taught us that indeed, regional Australia is the safest place not just in Australia, but indeed in the whole world in which to live. We've done everything we've been asked to do, we've followed the best medical advice, we've followed the health experts and we've kept our regional communities largely COVID free. And as the vaccine rolls out, the good times are going to resume, there's plenty of jobs out in regional Australia. The Regional Australia Institute which this week launched its Move to More campaign, 54,000 jobs right now in regional Australia, in regional New South Wales, indeed in regional Victoria. 54,000 jobs just waiting for people to come and fill them.

BRIDGET McKENZIE

Can I ask a question? One of the questions I had as a previous infrastructure [inaudible] and I got in the engine, I think, at Benalla and we travelled along here and it was like this, it was terrifying. Is that – what we've done here today, has that investment fixed that problem?

ED WALKER

Yes, it has. Extremely proud of the work that we've done on the North East Rail Line and one of the benefits of that is to our customers and the communities of North East Victoria. So we've seen speed restrictions removed from the North East line. We've seen trains running at 90 per cent reliability and we're getting really great feedback from both passengers, from our freight customers as well as our train drivers around the improvement on the North East Rail Line. So that's a great outcome for the community and also for ARTC that have been able to deliver this work through what was a really challenging year last year. One other thing I just would like to add is of those 173 businesses that we've partnered with in regional Victoria, a lot of them are businesses such as caravan parks that have been able to remain open as a consequence of this project. Some of the hospitality venues, the pubs, the hotels have all been, you know, the stimulus from this project has a real impact on those communities and ARTC has been really proud to partner with so many local companies in the delivery of the North East Rail Line and it's part of our commitment to the North East with infrastructure works that we carry out on this region. Thank you.

JOURNALIST

Just a quick question. With regard to the lines actually completed now, so does that mean in terms of all the other signalling issues and those sort of things, is everything resolved now? Is it purely just the track or is absolutely everything resolved and we're now waiting on the State Government to deliver the carriages?    

ED WALKER

So the track upgrade is completed. There is a little bit more work to be done around some of the signalling, so we're removing what they call the line wire, which is the copper wire that you see up here that unfortunately gets stolen from time to time which causes reliability issues. So there's a good example of where we've buried that line wire just behind you, that work is continuing to be completed in the next six months but the track work has been completed and the benefit of the ride quality has been realised.

MICHAEL McCORMACK

To add to that answer, with the Advanced Train Management System that we've just launched in Adelaide, using Australian ingenuity, Australian technology and Australian know-how, that is actually going to help the freight network that the ARTC runs on and what it's going to be able to do is going to have trains able to back up much closer than we were ever able to do. So whether it's freight, indeed the passenger rail lines that we've invested in heavily too, we're getting on with the job of building better rail facilities for regional Australia in particular.

JOURNALIST

Deputy Prime Minister, I understand the Government in December allocated $5.5 billion to the ARTC as part of the Inland Rail project. How much of that is actually earmarked for the Indi electorate?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, there's 13 sections to Inland Rail and so there's a lot of engineering and design works going on for North East Victoria and indeed, we will provide the amount of money that it requires to build the Inland Rail, $14.5 billion. It is one of the biggest projects that we've got on the go at the moment in Australia. And, you know why? Because it's worth it. We want to make sure that that product, that best food and fibre from regional Australia can be delivered to port within 24 hours. That's never been possible. They've been talking about Inland Rail since the 1890s. You know what? The Nationals are in Government, we're getting on and we're building it, we're doing it.

JOURNALIST

Do you have a figure in mind or how much can we actually say is actually going to be –

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, you can't because it's still very much in the design phase and so for me to commit dollars to it, I've then got to be held to account to it because what we're doing is we've got to make sure we've got the right amount of money available to build a best possible Inland Rail. That's what we've done the whole way through. Now, of course, we were talking about Inland Rail being a $9.1 billion commitment because that was done on the desktop analysis and of course, as the engineering and design work became then the final design work, the actual preferred route was settled on many of the places, we realised that we were going to require more grade separations, more bridges, more ballast, indeed, from fine companies such as LS Quarries and of course, then, therefore, we've made sure that we've got the right amount of money in the budget process for this nation building piece of transformation infrastructure.

JOURNALIST

We have spoken to a few Euroa and Benalla residents who are concerned though, at the design and they're concerned about safety and noise. Can you commit today that you will consult them and that you will have an open and transparent process in actually addressing some of those concerns?        

MICHAEL McCORMACK

I'll commit today that I will speak to them today, there you go. I'm speaking to them this afternoon.

JOURNALIST

Fantastic.

MICHAEL McCORMACK

How about that for delivery? You asked, I delivered, this afternoon, in a matter of hours. As long as it takes me to drive from here to Benalla.

JOURNALIST

Ms McKenzie, can I ask you a couple of questions?

BRIDGET McKENZIE

Of course.

JOURNALIST

So first of all, though, I mean can we talk about – I know you've alluded to it earlier but just how essential this has been during the pandemic when we saw so many job losses, industries hit hard?               

BRIDGET McKENZIE

Absolutely and I think those of us that live out here also felt the secondary impacts of border closures, too. So not only where we getting the usual travel patterns out of Melbourne and from New South Wales, but with the border closures and what happened through the pandemic in Melbourne itself, we saw really that connectivity cease. So to be able to have rewarding, well-paid careers here locally throughout that period of time, I think was essential, to make sure small businesses weren't having to solely rely on the Government's support through JobKeeper to keep their employees on the books and going and spending money in our local communities. I think it was just essential. So I was just saying it was like a really great unintended consequence, shall we say, of the pandemic, meaning that connectivity ceased, which meant we could actually get the work done in record time, which I think is fantastic.

JOURNALIST

And if I can just take it to another subject on behalf of my colleague, if that's okay.

BRIDGET McKENZIE

Of course.

JOURNALIST

We did have the report handed down yesterday, you're probably aware of this.

BRIDGET McKENZIE

Yes, I was in the Senate at the time.

JOURNALIST

Could you talk to me about just your response to those findings?

BRIDGET McKENZIE

Yes, absolutely. I put a 6,000-word comprehensive submission in, I also appeared before the inquiry. Incredibly proud of the program. It was a $30 million program that had over 2,000 applicants and over 1,900 eligible clubs right around the country for a $30 million program. So on the back of that need I lobbied the Prime Minister for more money. We got $100 million and we were able to fund 648 local clubs and as I've said numerous times, I would have loved to have funded every single eligible project because I know what it's like to be a volunteer of a local sporting club and to be on the sausage sizzle at Bunnings on a Saturday so you can actually build the change rooms that your club needs. So it was a great program, very, very proud of it and its delivered necessary infrastructure to so many clubs around the country. Now the Senate inquiry has been handed down and obviously those who aren't in the Labor Party or the Greens, those Senators who were involved in that program have put forward a minority report, which obviously makes some sensible findings.

JOURNALIST

Just really quickly, do you think it's likely that those clubs who did this will get the funds?

BRIDGET McKENZIE

Look, I said it on the public record, we had a $30 million program that was oversubscribed to the tune of 13 times. So we had 13 times more applications than we could fund. I tripled the funding. I would have loved to have funded every single eligible project. I've said that on the public record numerous times. I stand by my public comments.

JOURNALIST

Do you think they will get the funding?

BRIDGET McKENZIE

That's a matter for Government.

MICHAEL McCORMACK

And just to add to that. We've just closed applications for the Building Better Regions Fund. Now there's $200 million to that fund. $100 million of which is going to be dedicated to tourism because tourism has been so hard hit by COVID. It was already reeling from the effects of drought and bushfires and in some areas flooding. Now I know that $200 million is going to be probably $1.2 billion worth of applications and it's pretty easy for the media to then go to those five applicants from an electorate which missed out rather than going to the one applicant which got it and then for the five applicants to say "Well, what about me?" It is so hard when you are dealing out money and funding to these very much oversubscribed programs. But that is why the Nationals in Government are committed to funding regional Australia, to funding better facilities, to funding whether it's sports infrastructure, whether it's better roads, better rail but so often these programs are very much oversubscribed. Six to one, you just heard Senator McKenzie say 13 to one in the case of the sports grants program. Now we'll always, of course, look to fund better ovals, better swimming pools. We just opened the Wangaratta Aquatic Centre. That wouldn't have happened but for the Coalition in Government. That wouldn't have happened – yes, there was funding from a wonderful local swimming club, they put $100,000 towards it and the local council and State Government. I acknowledge their contributions, too, but it does take a Coalition Government to support regional communities. We will go on doing that and we will proudly do it. We live in these regions, we want these regions to be the best they can be so that people from the metropolitan areas can come and move in.

BRIDGET McKENZIE

I've just got something else to add. So when we talk about the sports grants program, you see a lot of hype and a lot of rhetoric from those that want to politicise this situation. The fact of the matter is every single one of those 648 clubs that received funding under this program was eligible under the guidelines. There was no straying from the publicly released guidelines. Similarly, those guidelines gave the Minister the discretion to take advice from Sport Australia and then exercise discretion. That was publicly known by everybody that put in because the guidelines were written that way. That ministerial discretion was exercised that saw more clubs benefit than would have if that discretion hadn't been available, the money distributed to more Labor Party seats than if that discretion hadn't have been exercised and the funding was actually distributed to more regional Australian clubs than if that discretion hadn't been exercised. So it's a little known fact but it is an actual fact and I would encourage everybody to read my submission and Phil Gaetjens's submission as well because the facts are important. Whilst everyone gets rhetorical and emotional about these things, the facts are important. More country clubs got funding, more Labor seats were funded because the Minister exercised the discretion which was publicly written into the guidelines.

JOURNALIST

Senate McKenzie, a question. The report found that there was overwhelming evidence the program was used to gain political advantage.

BRIDGET McKENZIE

That's not actually a quote from the ANAO report.

JOURNALIST

And nine out of 10 electorates that received the most funding were identified as marginal or targeted electorates, yet you say you're proud of it?

BRIDGET McKENZIE

Absolutely proud of it because if I haven't exercised that discretion, more Coalition seats would have received funding than Labor Party seats and less rural and regional clubs would have received funding. This was not a program that didn't give the Minister discretion. The Minister had the discretion and that was publicly and widely known, clearly stated in the publicly released guidelines for applications. And as Phil Gaetjens said, the actual funding went to more seats, was more widely spread than had only the recommendations from Sport Australia been applied. That's the actual facts.

JOURNALIST

Do you think discretion was used fairly then?

BRIDGET McKENZIE

Well the numbers show that it was because more Labor seats got funded and more rural and regional Australian seats got funded because of the discretion because as Minister, I didn't want the funding going to certain sports and what the ANAO report actually also highlights is it was a conflict of interest within Sport Australia itself that saw Tennis Australia receive undue advantage through that whole process in terms of getting their applications in, etc. because it's one of the staff members they had on staff at the time. So I encourage you to read the whole report. I'd also encourage you to read my 6,000-word submission. I'm very proud of the program because it did distribute the funding more fairly and more widely to much needed community clubs.

HELEN HAINES

If I may just make a comment. I think it's incredibly important to take the politics out of funding, out of grants. Good people in good faith put in applications for a whole range of Commonwealth grants, whether it be sporting grants, whether it be building better region grants, whether it be local volunteer grants. The thing that's so important here is transparency, honesty and decency and what I've been fighting for from the moment I stepped into the Federal Parliament is a Federal Integrity Commission, a robust Federal Integrity Commission. Whereby something like an ANAO report could go straight to an independent commissioner and be sorted out in a way that is fair and honest and transparent. So I make that call continually to government. We've been waiting now for two years from the Attorney-General to deliver our Federal Integrity Commission. We haven't seen one. I put an honest and fair-handed [inaudible] to the Australian Integrity Commission Bill 2020. It's there. I call on the Government to debate it. I call on the Government to get real about integrity, transparency, decency and honesty in government so we can take all these politics out of it and have a body that can do the job that right now we simply do not have.

ASHLEY DAY

I just want to not forget why we're here today and why we're standing here and what the work's been done on this railway line from a safety point of view and what the Government's done in regional Victoria and supporting the jobs and what's important up here because it has been tough for a lot of businesses in regional Victoria, as well as the rest of Australia. Let's not forget the importance and the outcome of today and why we're actually here.        

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well said. Thank you very much.   

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