Transcript - Hells Gates Dam press conference

JOE CAREY

My name's Joe Carey, I'm the Director of TEL and the Project Leader of Hells Gate Dam which Tell is undertaking. Look, thank you for all being here today. Firstly, I'd like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Gudjala and Gugu Badhun peoples for their cooperation and their time with this project.

Look, welcome to the very top of what would be Queensland's largest dam, we're located near the spot, right here in North Queensland approximately 130 kilometres from Charters Towers. And if ever there was a time to advocate for infrastructure to capture water, it's right now while it's raining. Look, we wouldn't be standing here today if it wasn't for the support of the Federal Government. Firstly, Townsville Enterprise to carry out the Hells Gates Dam feasibility study and then the business case which we're currently undertaking. I welcome the Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack here today, as well as Michelle Landry and Scott Buchholz.

Just as a refresher, I'd like to throw some pretty incredible stats at you. Right here where we're standing, in fact where the dam would be standing had we been able to get up there today and the helicopters been able to get us there, we're talking about a 2.1 gigalitre water facility and water capacity dam, four times the size of Sydney Harbour, opening up 50,000 hectares of prime agricultural land, 12,000 construction jobs and 4,000 agricultural jobs. The project is now over the half way mark, with the geotech drilling complete and is tracking on budget and schedule for the delivery of the business case in April next year.

As well as bringing the Deputy Prime Minister here today to show him in the flesh just how extensive the scheme is, we're also pleased to brief the DPM on the potential pumped hydro storage scheme project which can be built beside the dam and is independent of the dam. The pumped hydro project will have a capacity of 800 megawatts and is intended to integrate in the national electricity grid to secure reliable power for North Queensland. So to secure a water supply, new agricultural land, low-cost energy, what's not to like about the Hells Gates project? On that note I'm pleased to hand over to the Deputy Prime Minister for further questions and any comments.

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Thank you very much Joe, and it's great to be here with you, it's great to be here with the Townsville Enterprise Limited, SMEC, KPMG who are doing the business case, and most importantly perhaps Michelle Landry and Scott Buchholz. Ministers who know full well how if we develop Queensland then Queensland is going to back our nation as it always does.

I always say when regional Queensland is strong, so too is our nation. And there never has been a better time to build water infrastructure than right now. Big Rocks, Hells Gates, they're words that have lived long in the imagination when it comes to talking about water infrastructure. Well, we are turning that into a reality. We've got the business case, we've put $54 million down towards the preliminary works, business case. Well, we want to turn that $54 million, with the help of the Queensland Government, into something quite special. I come from southern New South Wales and not far from my electorate, it actually used to be in the heart of electorate, is Coleambally Irrigation Area. Now Coleambally Irrigation Area was a purpose-built irrigation scheme constructed in the 1950s. It took advantage of that post World War II era when we got things done. It took advantage of those migrants who came here and willingly turned what was considered land that some others didn't want to develop into something that is now the Garden of Eden. It is 79,000 hectares and what we're talking about here is something roughly the size of that. Not only that, it's going to grow agriculture to the tune of around $1 billion, but who knows, that's over and above what they're already doing here. Now of course, it is cattle country. We want to turn it more than just cattle country. We want to turn it into pumpkin country, cotton country, watermelon country. You add a nail here, you'll grow a crowbar. That's the type of soil we've got.

The business case, it's going on at the moment and we're looking forward to getting the preliminary works from that around mid-year. Looking forward to getting the more detailed business case at the start of next year and looking forward to working with the Queensland Government to getting work begun. Big Rocks is so important. So is Hells Gates. This is going to transform this area. That is why I've come up here. I've come up here at the request of Scott Buchholz and Michelle Landry who understand that if you add water you grow agriculture.

David Littleproud, our Agriculture Minister, continually talks about getting agriculture to be the $100 billion enterprise that it can and should and must and will be by the year 2030. We're only going to do that if we add water infrastructure. We're only going to do that if we build projects such as Big Rocks, if we build projects such as Hells Gates. This is what it's all about, $3.5 billion in the National Water Infrastructure Development Fund. I'm glad Richard McLoughlin from the North Queensland Water Infrastructure Authority is here today. He's played such an important part in the North Queensland component of the National Water Grid, of the National Water Grid Authority that I established in October 2019. To make sure that we get the business cases, to make sure that we turn those plans which are just part of the imagination into a reality. That's why I'm here today. It's a bit of a shame that we can't take that chopper ride over and see and get that aerial view of what is really one of Australia's most exciting infrastructure projects.

We've got a lot on the go at the moment. $100 billion of infrastructure right across the nation. It’s supporting about $110 billion of infrastructure which is supporting 100,000 jobs and we want to make sure that whether it's agriculture, whatever sector it is, resources. We heard about the energy prospects that pumped hydro could and will develop as part of this overall mix. So, I'm pretty excited to be here, as you can probably imagine. I know Scott Buchholz and Michelle Landry are as well. This is an area where it can only develop and go forward. 85 per cent or thereabouts of the water infrastructure is in the bottom half of Australia and yet 85 per cent of the water that can be stored and harnessed and harvested and used falls in the top end of the country. So, we need to get the balance right. That's what we're doing as part of the $3.5 billion National Water Infrastructure Development Fund. Another $2 billion added in the budget last year – last October. And as we get out of COVID, we build back better, recover from that, we're going to have to build these sorts of water infrastructure projects, build more roads, build more rail, create more work, create more opportunities and build a better Australia. That's what it's all about.

JOURNALIST

In terms of how high it's built above sea level, the Katter’s are saying it needs to be built at least 400 metres and apparently the proposed plan is only 390. What do you say to that?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, we're working through all those at the moment. That's why we do a business case, that's why we do the geotechnics, that's why we get the world’s experts and engineers in to see what we can do. Because when we do build it, and we will, we want to make sure that it's at the right capacity to enhance that agriculture. No point building something if you're not going to build it the way it needs to be to get the maximising of the full potential that it can be. So, that's why when we put down on the table $176.1 million for Rookwood, and then there was all argy bargy about how high the wall would be or would not be and you know, there was people who went back to the table and said, "We can't do this, we can't do that".

Well I don't want to hear bureaucrats telling us that we can't do things. I want that can do attitude. Like Michelle Landry's got. I want to see why we can do something and I want to make sure that we can get the sort of possibilities that we will achieve through these water infrastructure initiatives. That's what I'm all about. Happy to work with the Katter’s, happy to work with anybody to build a water infrastructure that Australia needs and North Queensland has been demanding and deserving for many, many years.

JOURNALIST

What's your response to producers who say this project's been spoken about for years, even some decades, you know, we keep doing business cases and talking about it, what about actual action?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

I say thanks for your patience. Thanks for your patience. I spoke ad infinitum in my maiden speech in October 2010 about the need to build more water infrastructure. Well, now I've got the capacity to be able do it. When I took over as the Infrastructure Minister in February 2018, we had a $50 billion infrastructure bucket of funds – it's now $110 billion. So you can see my commitment. You can see the Liberal Nationals Federal Government's commitment to building water infrastructure. Scott Morrison wants me to do the job. He's tasked me to do the job. We're getting on and doing the job. I know how important this is for Scott Buchholz who comes from southern Queensland, albeit, but he's got a passion for Queensland like no other, as has Michelle Landry. They want to get on with the job. They know full well, just like David Littleproud does, that you add that water, you harness that water and then you can use it when it is dry. When the rain falls, as it is now – it's cost us our helicopter ride – but when the rain falls, we need to store it and we need to use it for when it is dry.

JOURNALIST

I guess what will it mean for the agriculture industry in terms of exports and stuff like that? Will we be able to increase our exports?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, if you add 50,000 hectares of arable agricultural land to what you already have, that can only enhance your export opportunities, your markets. They will be limitless. And you can grow just about anything here in Queensland. In this part of the world you add water you can grow anything. You know, whether it's cotton, whether it's watermelons, pumpkins. You name it, you can grow it and you'll have permanent plantings as well. This potential is limitless and we want to make sure that as a country we continue to grow our export markets. We already grow enough food to feed 25 million people here in Australia and 50 million others elsewhere in the world. So we grow three times as much food as we need so therefore, we export it. And we've got great export opportunities. We've just sent our first shipment of grain over to Mexico. I know Dan Tehan at the moment is in the UK talking up opportunities there with UK coming out of the European Union through Brexit. We want to make sure that we get more trade opportunities there. We're in constant talks with India. One in four jobs in regional Australia is reliant on trade. So we need to grow our trade because trade equals jobs and more trade equals more jobs.

JOURNALIST

With the April 2022 timeline for the end of the business case, when do you then expect works to actually start?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Hopefully May 2022, but look I'm being a little bit ambitious. Look, we'll talk through those – I'm getting some nervous twitches over here – look, we want to get on with the job. We're serious about building water infrastructure, we are deadly serious about it and we want to make sure that those business cases, they stack up. We've got the money on the table. I'll go back to Cabinet if need be and talk up getting even more money, but we can't do it without the say so of states. So tomorrow I'm meeting Glenn Butcher. I've spoken to him on a number of occasions. We're working with him good faith, as I did Dr Anthony Lynham, the previous Minister responsible for water infrastructure here in Queensland. But I want the Queensland Government, I need the Queensland Government to be serious too. They've been elected, they've been re-elected for another four years and they need to also stump up not just the cash but the commitment. We need them to be serious about building water infrastructure. We need them to come on the journey with us. It's not political this, it's about making sure that these communities can be their best selves. It's about realising the potential that has been here for decades that we now need to fulfil. We can do it. We've got the passion, the desire, the commitment, the application and the determination. We need the Queensland Government to share that same vision with us. So I'm meeting with Glenn Butcher. Happy to work with him in good faith. I'm happy to work with any ministers from any governments of any political persuasion right across the country to build water infrastructure, to build better roads, to build rail. That's what I'm about and that's why when everybody felt as though they needed more toilet paper when they needed to go to the loo than they otherwise would have because of COVID, and there was a rush on supermarket shelves, we were able to put in place that National Freight Code within hours. Not within days. Not within weeks. Scott Buchholz's worked with me solidly, as you'd expect him to and – Scott, didn't we – we set that up within hours because Scott and I had a good relationship with ministers of all political persuasion right across the country. Well we want the same commitment here in Queensland. That's why I'm meeting with Glenn Butcher tomorrow and I'm going to be happy to work with him to build the water infrastructure that Queensland needs.

JOURNALIST

This is the second time we've spoken to you about Big Rocks Weir and the Hells Gates Dam projects, I think it was Charters Towers last time. Why do you have such an investment in this project? What do you see in it personally?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

I said in my inaugural speech in October 2010 that I wanted Australia to grow agriculture that I wanted to build water infrastructure. Just because I'm from southern New South Wales doesn't mean to say I don't have that national interest in heart – in focus. We need to have the sort of vision that Bradfield had back in the 30s and 40s.Yes, I appreciate that some of what he said back then wasn't even possible then, and probably certainly isn't going to be possible now, but elements of it are and we need to grow as a nation. We need to be able to grow more food. And not only just for our domestic supplies but for other nations as well. And not only for simply to grow our markets but as a humanitarian thing as well.

Our world is going to need to grow more food to feed the hungry global population and that's the right thing to do, it's the proper thing to do. Our farmers, well they are the best in the world. Soils is a big part of everything I've always stood and represented in Parliament. I want to have better soils. I want to make sure that we have that water infrastructure. It's a passion of mine. We've got the capacity to be able to do it now. I've convinced Cabinet to put another $2 billion into the bucket for water infrastructure money. We've now got $3.5 billion. That's probably just a drop in the ocean when it comes to the money that we will need. But we start these projects off, whether it's the Emu Swamp Dam, whether it's Big Rocks, certainly Rookwood, looking forward to going there tomorrow. We start these projects off, we get shovels in the ground, we get excavators on site and that is going to be the catalyst for something that is going to be quite exciting. I used to go to chambers of commerce meetings in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane and I used to talk about water infrastructure just as passionately as I am now and you'd just get blank stares. You'd get people staring off into space. That was ten years ago. I tell you what, the last couple of droughts have really shown city people and their waters needs to and they are high on their agendas as well, that we need more water infrastructure in Australia. Well, you go there now to those chambers of commerce meetings in metropolitan cities, and you get enthusiastic nods. You get rounds of applause when you finish speaking because Australians know we need water infrastructure, I need State Governments to get on the same page with the Federal Government and just get on and build.

JOURNALIST

How much cash do you need from the State Government and are you expecting that they'll commit to that funding before the business case is finished?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, we see how much that is required. Of course, we've put on the table $54 million, but that's only just lightly scratching the surface. This is going to require serious money and of course the business case will detail those sorts of costings and that's why I'm looking forward to receiving not only the preliminary business case but then of course, the more detailed costings. That why we've got the best people in the business working on that business case, doing sample drillings and doing all the geotech and engineering stuff that they need to do to form that view of how much we'll need, and then we'll go from there. We've got sort of rough estimates at the moment but, you know, it's something we need to do. People can look at all those big infrastructure project that is we as a nation have done in the past, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Snowy Hydro Scheme, which was an irrigation scheme to begin with, but all the other things that we've done and we've done very well as a nation. But if you put a cost benefit analysis over those before they started you would have probably had the naysayers saying, "Well it's not worth it, we'll leave it to a few decades down the track". Well time is now. Let's get on. Let's stop the talk, let’s get on and do it.

JOURNALIST

Will you be putting a rough estimate to Glenn Butcher tomorrow when you speak to him or you just don't have that yet?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

No, no, I'm going to have a good discussion. And like I say I know he's committed. I'm going to work in good faith with Glenn. I know from the discussions that we've had on the phone he seems a very pragmatic and practical fellow, so I'm looking forward to the meeting and looking forward to working with him in a good, cordial, collaborative and cooperative association to build things, not just for our Government's sake, it's not about politics, it actually is about community, it's about markets, it's about jobs, it's creating opportunities, it's building wealth. That's what it's all about and that's what we'll be doing.

JOURNALIST

Just on a couple of different topics. How concerned are you about flights coming in from India now that the cases there are sort of skyrocketing?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

I'm not concerned about flights coming into India because those people will be quarantined, but what I am alarmed about is the fact that yesterday in India, as I understand, there were 256,000 community transmission cases of COVID. But anybody who comes into this country will go into mandatory quarantining. They'll do that for a fortnight. I'm amazed that we've got a fortnight's quarantining here in Australia but other countries, even in the OECD, are doing quarantining in three and five days. We're doing it in a fortnight. It's taking a fortnight. So, we're using that best medical advice, as we've done the whole way through, taken the best possible medical advice from Professor Paul Kelly, of course the Chief Medical Officer, from the Secretary to the Department of Health, Paul Kelly’s predecessor Brendan Murphy. We've taken their advice the whole way through and that's why we're not getting community transmission cases in Australia. Yes, there are cases of course in quarantine, but if there are going to be any cases they're coming on inbound flights and we're dealing with them at the quarantine level to make sure that when they get out of the quarantine that they're safe to go about in the community.

JOURNALIST

Just on the Government's decision to scrap the belt and road and some other projects.

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well done, Marise Payne.

JOURNALIST

China has issued a statement saying it's a provocative move and it's a sign that Australia isn't trying to improve relations. What's your response to that?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

It's the right move. The Commonwealth has the jurisdictional power – if we are going to have infrastructure projects and relationships with other countries then we'll do it at a Commonwealth level. We're not going to do it at a state level. Victoria is not its own entity. It operates through the Commonwealth process. That was always the understanding – that was always the case. That's how the Federation was established in 1901 and that's how it should remain. That's why the Foreign Affairs Minister moved quickly to make sure that she did what she did. She did it in the right and proper way and the Commonwealth Government will be taking responsibility for Foreign Affairs, as we always have, as we always should and it's not up to the States and that's why the move was made.

JOURNALIST

Not even one little inkling of concern?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Not one little inkling of concern about what?

JOURNALIST

About scrapping the belts and road projects?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

No, Marise Payne acted accordingly and appropriately and she did the right thing in our national interests. It's all about the national interests. We've got to think about Australia. We're here doing things on the banks of the mighty Burdekin in the national interest. Not in any other country's interest, it's in our interest. Any foreign investment in Australia, it'll be done in the national interest. That's why I was proud to be part of government when we actually did get back into power in 2013 that the trigger for a Foreign Investment Review Board decision at that time was $252 million and under Labor they wanted to put it north of a billion dollars. Well we made so that it's $55 million for an agribusiness and $15 million for accumulated farmland. And it still has to go through the Foreign Investment Review Board because Liberals and Nationals do things in the national interest. We don't do it in the interests of another country. We do it in the national interest. That's the Liberal and Nationals way and I'm proud to say that I'm part of that government that has that view.

JOURNALIST

In terms of North Queensland's interests then it's now been 262 days since the Member for Herbert guaranteed $195 million for North Queensland. Now that was originally meant to be spent on the Haughton River upgrade, the pipeline to the upgrades there. Can we expect to see that funding any time soon from the Federal Government?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, absolutely. The Member for Herbert, Phillip Thompson, is an outstanding contributor to North Queensland. Not only that, when he actually goes to Canberra, he speaks up loudly and passionately about what's good for Townsville, what's good for his electorate, which is much more than I can say Cathy O'Toole ever did. He's actually getting in there and he's having a crack and he's having a go and I know that today he's with Darren Chester, the Veterans' Affairs Minister, they're talking about the Royal Commission into veterans' suicide. A veteran himself, a former proudly serving officer and military personnel himself, he understands how much this is going to make a difference for our veterans leading up to Anzac Day. I know that this is something which is very close to his heart and the welfare of veterans, his fellow veterans, is very important to Phillip. And as a former Young Australian of the Year I know he'll always do what's right for Townsville, do what's right for Herbert and do what's right for the people he serves. That's why they sent Phillip Thompson to Canberra, and he will certainly and I speak with him every week about the infrastructure needs of his electorate and as I am with all members of the Coalition, indeed all members, all 150 of my colleagues in the House of Representatives, we talk about infrastructure. I'm happy to build infrastructure wherever it might be, whether they're Liberal National Party electorates, whether they're Liberal electorates, National Party electorates, independent, Bob Katter, Labor, even my good friend Adam Bandt down in Melbourne. I'm happy to build infrastructure wherever the case might be because that's what Australia needs. So whether we're busting through congestion or building the Inland Rail, building Western Sydney's first airport, Sydney's second airport at Badgerys Creek, whether we're, you know, whatever we're doing anywhere in the nation, we're getting on, we're doing it. $110 billion worth of it and it's supporting 100,000 jobs. That's far in advance of what Labor ever offered when it was in power. Anthony Albanese talked a big game when it came to infrastructure, but I tell you what, didn't build too much and when Labor starts talking about the resources industry, again, talks a big game, doesn't do too much. Doesn't really support those blue-collar jobs or the white-collar jobs in the resources sector, but rest assured Michelle Landry will. Rest assured Scott Buchholz will. And rest assured I do too. Thank you very much.

JOURNALIST

Can we chat to like a couple of experts on the project? What's your name?

GRAEME POLLOCK

Graeme Pollock, Marketing Director at SMEC.

JOURNALIST

Tell us about some of the preliminary investigations you guys have been doing at the site?

GRAEME POLLOCK

From September to December last year we did some geotechnical drilling both at the dam wall and the three weir sites, which involved four drill rigs for about three months. So that was completed in December and we're analysing the results of that now. We're also undertaking environmental inspections. We've got an aquatic team out this week, thankfully it's raining so there's water in the river for them to test and sample. So that's the main field works. Then there's been a whole lot of cultural heritage surveys as well which have looked at mainly around where the dam and weir sites are going to be as well as the inundation area of the prospective reservoir.

JOURNALIST

And that geotechnical drilling, can you just break that down for me?

GRAEME POLLOCK

Basically, what it involves is a series of drill rigs that take core samples out of the rock under the ground down to about 160 metres in some cases. And then that's analysed visually and then analysed in lab tests to determine what type of rock it is, how strong it is and that then determines how the footing on the dam wall works.

JOURNALIST

What have you found so far? Does it all look to be okay?

GRAEME POLLOCK

There's lots of rock there. Yes, what you do with geotechnical drilling is try and confirm what you think you already know. So there's a lot of geological information in the market and where the dam walls want to go are where natural fractures in rock are so that's what creates the river and the embankments. So what we're looking for is how deep are those fractures, where is the rock solid, what sort of foundation we can put on top of that and how much grouting we need to do in the cracks. Have we found what we thought we were going to find? Yes, pretty much. But our analysis isn't finished and then there's a whole interpretation piece about how that turns into a dam design.

JOURNALIST

And the environmental impact study, you think there won't be any issues there?

GRAEME POLLOCK

It's country Queensland, there's stuff here. You know, we just need to confirm what it is. In a business case you're not necessarily looking to make judgments, you're trying to create outcomes. Those outcomes determine what animal species are here, what plant species are here, how many of them are endangered or unique to the area and how we can potentially cater for their needs.

JOURNALIST

Cool. Are you excited about the project?

GRAEME POLLOCK

It's only been, you know, 80 years in the making so far. I'm in my early 50s, I hope one day that I get to stand on the wall before I retire. But, you know, give it a few more years, we might be bringing the boat out here instead of running around the harbour.

JOURNALIST

I suppose also in terms of costings do you have any idea on if that will blow out of proportion or anything or it's too early?

GRAEME POLLOCK

It's not a small project. It's a multibillion-dollar project. We've done some estimates during the previous feasibility study that were in the billions. It will still be in the billions, it's not going to drop below that. But again it depends on in some cases what sort of geotechnical results determine the dam, but the majority of the cost is in distribution infrastructure around the farming land. They're not unexpected costs that are coming back in.

JOURNALIST

Anything else that, I don't know, I should know?

GRAEME POLLOCK

No, I'm happy with that. Anyone else –

JOURNALIST

Let me just quickly go to my notes because there were some stats you were saying. Just about this being Queensland's largest dam and opening up the 50,000 hectares and I think the 16,000 jobs in total, can you give us that break down again, is that all right? I think it was on your notes.

JOE CAREY

The size of the dam is 2.1 gigalitres and during construction, I was just looking – so it's 50,000 hectares, looking at about 12,000 construction jobs during the construction process and about 4,000 agricultural jobs as part of the process.

JOURNALIST

Brilliant. I suppose what are the producers around the area saying to TEL, because I'm assuming you guys interact with them quite a bit throughout this whole process, Big Rocks and Hells Gates?

JOE CAREY

Yes, look, initially the Big Rocks project the producers were very excited. It's a much smaller scheme, but very excited and very supportive. With the Hells Gates scheme obviously, we're still a long way from, you know, finalising the business case and the input has been such that, you know, they're supportive of the scheme and supportive of the advancement of agriculture in the area.

JOURNALIST

Where is Big Rocks Weir at, because the final business case was finished? I can't really remember where it's at.

JOE CAREY

Townsville has completed the business case and handed that over to Charters Towers Regional Council and they're now the proponent working with State Government in relation to delivering the construction of that site.

JOURNALIST

Do you know where that's at?

JOE CAREY

I believe they're still in the process of finalising some matters in relation to some drilling and delivering that case at the moment.

JOURNALIST

Thank you.

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