ABC Ballarat interview with Nicole Chvastek

Nicole Chvastek: Nicole Chvastek, looking forward to your company through until 6 o'clock. Well the Prime Minister and the Minister for Population and Urban Infrastructure have been in Geelong today spruiking the Commonwealth's proposed $2 billion in funding for a fast rail link to Victoria's biggest regional city.

The Federal Government has promised to deliver the funding if it's matched by the State Government. But Victoria's Public Transport Minister Jacinta Allan says $2 billion is woefully inadequate.

Jacinta Allan: We're always happy to talk to the Federal Government about funding Victorian infrastructure but unfortunately this latest proposal on the eve of an election from the Prime Minister is woefully underfunded. It just proves again how little, the Federal Government knows or cares about Victoria.

Nicole Chvastek: That is Jacinta Allan who we will speak to in a few minutes but first Alan Tudge is the Minister for Population and Urban Infrastructure. Alan Tudge good afternoon.

Alan Tudge: Gday Nicole and a proud Victorian.

Nicole Chvastek: That's great to hear. Alan Tudge, Jacinta Allan says that the money that you have promised is woefully inadequate and she has dismissed it as a thought bubble.

Alan Tudge: We've been working on this for many, many months now. Indeed one of the reasons which we've decided upon the fast rail link from Geelong to Melbourne as being the first cab off the rank is because the State Government has been looking into this one as well. And they've put $50 million on the table to do the detailed viability assessments.

Now our estimates of the costs is about $4 billion and that's been estimated by our experts in the Infrastructure Department in Canberra.

Nicole Chvastek: Well they say it'll cost $2 billion just to remove all of the level crossings and that this is, this is a program which is worth between $10 and $15 billion and $2 billion isn't going to cut it.

Alan Tudge: So our estimates are that we'd be able to deliver fast rail which would enable a person to get from Geelong to Melbourne in 30 minutes for about $4 billion. Now that being said-

Nicole Chvastek: [Interrupts] it's not going to happen though is it Minister? I mean that's just pie in the sky.

Alan Tudge: I completely disagree with you. People said that about the airport rail link as well, but we put $5 billion on the table in last year's budget. And it's from there-

Nicole Chvastek: [Interrupts] This is a $15 billion project and you're offering $2 billion.

Alan Tudge: So as I said, the experts from the Infrastructure Department have estimated it would cost about $4 billion and we're putting $2 billion to get it going. And as the Prime Minister said today, if through the business case assessment process, which is occurring presently, if the costs come in a little bit higher than that then obviously we'd be open to looking into that question.

But we need to get it going. And unless you've put serious dollars on the table people don't think that you're serious about getting the job done and that's what we're doing here with $2 billion on the table.

Nicole Chvastek: But people- people don't- people don't think you're serious about getting the job done. These, these fast rail plans are always rolled out just prior to a federal election and they always come to nothing.

And now this announcement that you've made today provides for a fraction of what is actually needed to build this thing.

Alan Tudge: Well I've been down in Geelong today and there's certainly great excitement from people in Geelong about the possibility of this. So I disagree with your assessment there.

And we've done the work, the State Government has got $50 million to do the detailed assessments, the design, the viability, the business case right now. And now we're putting $2 billion in the budget—so it's money locked in, not a promise—in the budget in order to get the project going.

Now we did that last year in terms of the airport rail, we put $5 billion in the budget and forced the hand of the State Government to also come to the table and now we've got a rock solid commitment to get the airport rail done. Now that should have been done decades ago but now we're getting started on it and equally it will be the same with the Geelong fast rail.

Nicole Chvastek: Sure, well you'll be able to get rid of the level crossings with $2 billion, you just won't be able to build the actual rail link itself?

Alan Tudge: Well again I'm not sure why you make these assertions. The estimates which I have of $2- of $4 billion in total cost are from expert infrastructure people in our Department in Canberra who do these costings…

Nicole Chvastek: [Interrupts] My assertions come from the Minister for Public Transport.

Alan Tudge: …who do these things on a regular basis. And they've suggested that to do the duplication of the section from Sunshine to Wyndham [Vale] is going to cost about $2 billion and the upgrade of the rest of the line would also cost about $2 billion.

But we find out of course the full costings by going through this business case process which the State Government is funding presently.

Nicole Chvastek: I'm speaking to Alan Tudge who is the Minister for Population and Urban Infrastructure. Alan Tudge isn't the reality that this is just a sop to the voters in Corangamite?

The reason that you're doing this on the eve of an election campaign is because this is an infrastructure project which will benefit the constituents in a seat that you are going to lose in eight weeks time.

Alan Tudge: Again I just don't accept your assertion there. And we've been working on this for six months and it's actually a core part of our population policy. And we've been outlining elements of our population policy this week and our…

Nicole Chvastek: [Interrupts] Well where's the fast rail to Sheppard to Traralgon and to Wodonga?

Alan Tudge: And our- and if I can finish—you put quite an aggressive assertion to me and so let me explain. So we've been working on population policy and we've been announcing significant policy this week, and the policy is designed to take some of the pressure off the big capital cities like Melbourne and Sydney whilst supporting the regional areas that want to grow faster or need more people.

And indeed there are many areas such as Warrnambool in Victoria which is crying out for more workers; the businesses simply can't find people to do the jobs. And so the policies which we've been announcing first of all they encourage and incent [sic] more individuals to go to places like Warrnambool. And then second when you put things like fast rail in place it enables people to live in a place like Geelong and commute into Melbourne should they choose to do so.

So it also supports that overall agenda of decentralising from the city centre.

Nicole Chvastek: So it's just a coincidence that it happens to be beneficial to the Liberal Party in its most marginal seat in Australia?

Alan Tudge: Well I think that…Victoria in some respects is the most obvious State in terms of having a number of regional cities surrounding the big capital of Melbourne, and in the medium to longer term we would like to see fast rail to each of those regional capitals. And by doing that you really support the growth, the economic prospects of those regional capitals as well as the population growth of those areas too.

And the Geelong route is the most advanced from the point of view of the State Government, they've put money on the table in relation to that as I was saying before. And so it's a priority of theirs. And obviously we'd like to work closely with them, hand in glove, just as we are doing with airport rail in order to get this one built as quickly as possible.

Nicole Chvastek: So it's just a coincidence that this will benefit Sarah Henderson and the seat of Corangamite which is your most marginal?

Alan Tudge: Well Nicole you've got to…you've got to work with the State Governments on these as well and as I said…

Nicole Chvastek: [Interrupts] But the State Government said you didn't tell them about this until last night?

Alan Tudge: …and as I said, the single biggest project which we have going on in Victoria at the moment is a $5 billion commitment to the airport rail. Now that goes through Labor heartland. So that's our single biggest commitment and we just announced the joint agreement on that with the Premier just last week or the week before.

So that was what we announced just a couple of weeks ago— the airport rail link. Now this rail link, as I said, is amongst the top priorities for the State Government.  I mean we know that because they've got $50 million committed to it and they don't put $50 million towards something that they're not serious about. And we have to be able to work cooperatively with them in order to be able to get this built.

Nicole Chvastek: How is it working cooperatively with them when you didn't tell them about this announcement until last night?

Alan Tudge: Again, the Prime Minister has had discussions with the Premier in relation to this previously. We know it's a priority of the State Government for reasons which I've explained and now we're announcing our commitments today of $2 billion to really kick start this project.

Now it had the effect—let me just finish—in relation to the airport rail when we put significant dollars on the table it had the effect of getting the commitment to make it happen. Right? And now we're going to get that airport rail finally. As I said, it should have happened decades ago. We are doing the same thing here… $2 billion on the table.

Nicole Chvastek: [Talks over] How are you- How are you  going, the Geelong-  How are you going to make the Geelong fast rail happen? Will you be duplicating the tracks? How are you going to make this happen?

Because the Minister Jacinta Allan say's if the Federal Government were fair dinkum about helping deliver fast rail to Geelong they would immediately fund their share of the Waurn Ponds duplication project and get on board with plans to build new tracks from Southern Cross Station to Wyndham Vale. What's the actual physical plan to building this rail link?

Alan Tudge: So there are three elements to it. There is the section from Southern Cross station to Sunshine and that is in essence being built as part of the Airport Rail Link. Now, then the next section is from Sunshine to Wyndham Vale and that's what would require duplication of the tracks so that there's a dedicated line. And then from Wyndham Vale all the way through to Geelong we use the existing track but you'd have to upgrade it to better signalling, you'd have to straighten out some of the track in places, potentially upgrade some of the stations.

So the major money is already…the money is already committed through the airport rail for that first section—Southern Cross to Sunshine. For the second section would cost, our estimates are $2 billion to do the duplications. And then there's the upgrading from Wyndham Vale to Geelong which is a further $2 billion and that's how…

Nicole Chvastek: [Talks over] And would it stop at stations along the way?

Alan Tudge: …and that's how we get to the $4 billion figure plus of course the additional money which will be going towards the Southern Cross to Sunshine route which is already paid for out of the Melbourne Airport Rail Link.  

Nicole Chvastek: Would this service stop- would this service stop at stations along the way?

Alan Tudge: It possibly would, I mean this will be determined through the business case process as well. I think this is…

Nicole Chvastek: Well how do you how can you get from Melbourne to Geelong if you're stopping at stations along the way in 32 minutes?

Alan Tudge: Well it means that you have to have the average speed of 160 kilometres per hour, that's an average. Now the train goes…

Nicole Chvastek: [interrupts] Sarah Henderson said this morning it would be an express service?

Alan Tudge: Again, if I could finish Nicole. So the basic math is it needs to be 160 kilometres per hour on average in order to do it in 30 minutes. Then in some places if you're going 200 kilometres per hour for a significant section it means you can stop, and then keep going again, and still do it on average at 160 kilometres per hour. So therefore it gets to it in 30 minutes.

Nicole Chvastek: [Talks over] Minister you can't- you can't get to Geelong in 30 minutes on a train which is stopping at stations along the way.

Alan Tudge: With due respect Nicole, it is 80 kilometres long—the track from the city to Geelong. If the average is 160 kilometres per hour you get there in 30 minutes. That's just the basic maths.

Now these trains can go faster than that. And so it may be that you have some stops along the way at key places like say Sunshine and Wyndham Vale or Tarneit, but there will likely also to be express trains as well. But again that, that detailed work is determined through the business case assessment which is currently underway.

Nicole Chvastek: Minister where's the fast rail to Ballarat? There's no mention of Ballarat in this plan. Where's the fast rail to Traralgon, to Wodonga? Where is the rest of the infrastructure for Victoria which feels pretty much left behind when it comes to infrastructure spending Australia wide?

Alan Tudge: So there's a couple of points there. So you've asked me about other fast rail to some of those other regional centres around Melbourne and we would certainly like to see those completed over the medium term.

What we announced today was in fact not just the fact that this is the first cab off the rank in being built, the Geelong to Melbourne, but also a number of further Business Cases in other areas such as the fast rail to Wodonga. Such as fast…

Nicole Chvastek: [Talks over] How many?

Alan Tudge: Let me finish.

Nicole Chvastek: Sure.

Alan Tudge: Such as fast rail to Traralgon.

Nicole Chvastek: How many more Business Cases do you need to understand that we need fast rail links to these regional capitals?

Alan Tudge: So in each… in every single case before you… before you are able to invest all of the money and know the exact cost you need to do the Business Case work. These aren't things…

Nicole Chvastek: [Talks over] but there have been reviews been done since the dawn of time.

Alan Tudge: Nicole, let… just let me finish. Nicole, just let me finish at least one question without being interrupted. So in every single major project like this you have to do the detailed design work, the engineering work, the cost benefit analysis, et cetera.

Now that costs money and does take a bit of time before you know exactly what the financing model is going to be, how much public money would be required, and those types of questions answered. So that's the type of work that has to be done in every single major project.

So we're getting that work done on the Traralgon line and on Wodonga line and that then informs that decision making into the future so that we first off get the construction going on Melbourne to Geelong, then we get the planning work done and those other lines so we can assess what makes sense to be built next, with the medium and longer term vision that we have to have these fast rail corridors to all of these regional centres around, around Melbourne in order to be able to properly manage our population growth.

And that goes hand in glove, as I was saying earlier, with the slowdown in the migration rates, with encouraging more people to go to some of the regions that are looking for more people and to fill the jobs which are available.

Nicole Chvastek: On the outside, the optics are that this is another plan for a fast rail that, that is not going to get off the ground. There have been multiple plans for fast rail since the dawn of time. You've put up one to Geelong, you've offered $2 billion, the State Government says that's not going to cut it—this is a $15 billion project.

And you said that we're going to investigate the possibility once again of fast rail to other regionals. With respect Minister that's the mantra that regional Australia has been hearing for the last 20 years.

Alan Tudge: And again you're making a lot of assertions in that before putting the question to me. This is real budgeted money to get the Geelong fast rail going. Just as it was last year when we put $5 billion of real budgeted money to get the airport rail link going.

And we expect a similar outcome—that is that we'll be able to work with State Government to actually get it built. And then at the same time there's never been the detailed business case assessment down to Traralgon, with all due respect. And this will do the detailed business case assessment of that line to assess where it can be in the priority list and how viable that is. We'll also do that to, to Wodonga.

In relation to Ballarat, which you asking me about earlier, that work is also being undertaken by the State Government presently in, in conjunction with examining the Geelong route. So this work is being done. That we've got to get it going at least in one location and that's why we've put $2 billion on the table to get it going first from Melbourne to Geelong.

Nicole Chvastek: Why do you get it going weeks out- for eight weeks out from the federal election? This is, this is an imperative that regional Victoria has needed for decades.

Alan Tudge: We've, we've been investing in in many different rail lines across Victoria since we came to Governmen… We've had that Government before us

Nicole Chvastek: [Talks over] I'm talking about fast rail.

Alan Tudge: We've been developing this plan and we've announced it today. I mean last year

Nicole Chvastek: [Interrupts] On the eve of the federal election?

Alan Tudge: And again, I know you've put this to me several times now Nicole, but let me therefore repeat back to you. Last year for example our single biggest commitments which we announced a year and a half before the election was $5 billion for the airport rail.

So because we're in a stronger financial position in the budget now we're able to do more infrastructure projects. Now you can't spend significant sums of money on infrastructure unless you've got a healthy budget position. And as you know and as your listeners know we're now back in surplus as of this year's budget, and the last time we had a budget surplus was when Peter Costello was delivering one.

So it's taken a long time to do all the hard work to get back into a budget surplus, to continue to grow the economy which therefore means we've got the money to do some of these big city and nation shaping infrastructure projects…

Nicole Chvastek: [Talks over] But where in

Alan Tudge: Like the airport rail, like this Geelong fast rail.

Nicole Chvastek: But we're in- we're in far deeper debt than we were when you came into office Minister. When, when Joe Hockey was telling us we had a budget emergency.

Alan Tudge: Well, and I can tell you this year we get back to surplus. We inherited a massive budget deficit from the Labour party and…

Nicole Chvastek: [Interrupts] And you've doubled the debt?

Alan Tudge: But, but Nicole until you get back to surplus, by definition the debt levels continue to increase because the deficit obviously contributes to the debt level. That's why we've been so determined year on year to keep expenditure under control and to continue to grow the economy, so that this year, 11 years after the last budget surplus, we will be back in budget surplus.

And we've had Labor and the Greens fight tooth and nail against us on many of the measures we have put through the Parliament to try to make cost savings to get back into this position—tooth and nail. But we have got there. The economy is still growing strongly which means we're in a much stronger financial position now. And when you are, when you are in a stronger financial position it means you can invest in these larger scale infrastructure projects like this one.

You can put record amounts of money into hospitals and list far more drugs on the PBS, which we have been doing. We can invest more in defence which was at anaemic levels of expenditure before we came to office. So these are the types of things which a strong economy relies upon, and that's what we have been focused on, and that's where we are.

Nicole Chvastek: Minister thank you for giving me your time.

Alan Tudge: Thanks very much Nicole.

Nicole Chvastek: Alan Tudge is the Minister for Population and Urban Infrastructure. He is also the Member for Aston in Victoria.