Sky News Live interview with Tom Connell

Tom Connell: Minister, let's talk about your portfolio. More announcements today from the $1 billion Urban Congestion Fund. How are you deciding which projects get the go ahead? Is there a cost benefit analysis comparison?

Alan Tudge: In essence, we take information from a number of sources.

Our department does some modelling itself in terms of working out where congestion hotspots are. We have advocacy from the local Members of Parliament and other community leaders, and of course the states and territories were consulted in terms of what their priorities were as well.

And so today, we announced $253 million worth of congestion-busting projects. Eight projects, very precise locations where they're going, to really address some of the bugbears which face people on a daily basis.

And this is what people in the suburbs understand acutely is that, yes you've got to fix the major infrastructure such as the freeways and the rail, but often it takes you just as long to get to that train station or onto the freeway as it does actually travelling on it because of a particular intersection.

So we're fixing up those particular intersections very surgically to make that travel commute time shorter.

Tom Connell: Look, it seems to make sense and everyone that's lived in the suburbs in particular, they all know, you know, don't go near this road and this road at 4 o'clock. You won't get out of that.

Alan Tudge: Yeah, exactly.

Tom Connell: Where do you sit, though, on the theory of induced demand? The example being if you build more roads, you will get more cars on them.

Alan Tudge: So we're not just investing in roads but we're massively investing in rail as well. And of course we've got a broader population plan which aims to take the pressure off those big cities and further develop the regional centres and the smaller cities.

So all of these things actually work together. On the rail front in, say, my hometown of Melbourne where I am presently, I mean, our single biggest commitment here in Victoria is actually to the airport rail.

It should have been built decades ago but we put $5 billion on the table to get it underway. We've also got rail commitments to connect Australia's largest university campus finally to the rail network and also out to Baxter as well down the Frankston line.

So serious commitments there, car parking as well at railway stations, as well as obviously you have to continue to invest in road infrastructure too.

Tom Connell: You've got the announcement as well recently of fast rail between Melbourne and Geelong. At the announcement, you were saying it could start being built within 18 months. But do you know what the cost is actually going to be and therefore whether it is viable?

Alan Tudge: Yes, so our experts in the infrastructure department in Canberra have estimated that the cost would be about $4 billion dollars. Two billion would go towards duplicating the rail link between Sunshine and Wyndham Vale, and a further $2 billion towards upgrading the rest of the line and additional traffic signalling in the rest.

Of course on top of that, we'll be leveraging the investment which is being made into the airport rail link, and that will go from the city centre to Sunshine and then out to the airport. That rail link between the city centre and Sunshine is actually quite expensive, but that's being covered by the investment in the airport rail.

We then leverage that for the rest of the rail link out to Geelong, and by the time it's finished, a person will be able to get in on the train in Geelong and be at Southern Cross Station in 30 minutes, 32 minutes, and therefore be able to do that commute daily.

Tom Connell: Because the Vic government talks about this project being maybe $10 billion. If it's significantly more than $4 billion, does it make it viable and also worth the cost? Because it's obviously a zero sum game when you're out there deciding what to tip money into?

Alan Tudge: Yeah so- and they haven't been clear in terms of outlining how they get to that figure of 10 billion. As I said the link between Southern Cross station and Sunshine—which is part of the airport rail link—that link itself will cost $5 to $6 billion, that element of it. So if you add that …

Tom Connell: But you count that's basically the difference of the two figures?

Alan Tudge: Yeah. Correct. That's what I understand. As I said, the state government hasn't been clear but that's an expensive part of it because it'll involve tunnelling right into the CBD.

Tom Connell: Well, you better talk to them, to the state government then, to say where you get to $10 billion. If that price tag's a lot more than four, you might have to reconsider the project?

Alan Tudge: Well, we've already got the money set aside for Melb- from Southern Cross to Sunshine then out to the airport. $5 billion dollars from us, five billion from the state and there'll be some private investment as well, so it's a huge commitment.

As I said, then in terms of the rest of the line out to Geelong, our experts who do these types of costings regularly have estimated it would cost $4 billion, of which we're putting 2 billion on the table.

Now we know this is a priority for the states, they've said it themselves. They've actually got $50 million doing that detailed business case work. If it comes out a little bit more expensive, of course we'll be open to looking at that. We want to get this built, and want to get it started as soon as possible to make it easier for people to commute from Geelong.

Tom Connell: One project higher on the Infrastructure Australia priority list compared to Melbourne-Geelong—which is on that list—is the high speed rail link between Brisbane and Melbourne. It has a timeframe that's shorter as well of zero to five years. Is the government actively considering at least reserving the corridor in the upcoming budget for that?

Alan Tudge: Well corridor reservation has to be done by state governments. What we've outlined in our fast rail plan is that we would like to see progressively over the next 20 years a number of the orbital regional centres surrounding the big three capitals of Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane connected to fast rail.

And we're doing that for a purpose and that is to support a decentralization agenda outside of those three big capitals, because our analysis shows that those three big capitals are getting 75 per cent of all of the population growth in this country and they're bursting at the seams at the moment.

So this goes hand-in-glove, this fast rail plan of ours with our migration settings to help grow the other parts of the country faster and just ease the pressure slightly in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane …

Tom Connell: [Talks over] And I do want to get to the migration settings in a moment, but just on that corridor, you say the states but the federal government can help with money and can step in and say hey this is something we want to build and that's why you should bother reserving the corridor.

I mean, it would be crazy to reserve a corridor if a government didn't want to actually link the rail up there. Are you seriously looking at whether or not you help fund that and coordinate the corridor as Infrastructure Australia says?

Alan Tudge: So we've outlined our fast rail plan Tom, as I've indicated just then, and it is fast rail for a purpose, and that is to support the decentralisation agenda.

Now if the state government wants to reserve that corridor as well, good luck to them but our agenda is out of Brisbane, for example, to get on with doing the business cases for Brisbane to the Sunshine Coast and Brisbane to the Gold Coast, as well as out to Toowoomba, because you can imagine you get those three fast rails done it will actually take that pressure off Brisbane. Same in here in Melbourne but we're not …

Tom Connell: [Talks over] I can understand that, but if you want to get the fast rail done, even- you know, this is a future project. No one thinks this is going to be up and running in a few years but it will be a hell of a lot cheaper if the corridor was actually reserved. You're saying it's up to the states. You've got- you're not looking at that at all at the moment?

Alan Tudge: Well only the states can actually reserve the corridor. I mean they have responsibility for the Crown land.

Tom Connell: [Talks over] But you can help with money.

Alan Tudge: That would have to be their priority. We've outlined our plan as a- and it's as I said, it's got a particular objective in mind.

We're starting with the first one with serious money on the table for Geelong, and then we're progressively want to be able to do these fast rail corridors to other regional capitals surrounding the big cities. That is the important thing to do. It supports our population plan.

Tom Connell: Okay. You mentioned the population plan. Now we've finally got this immigration number released last week, so have the figure of 160,000, a new cap, not the target. I got the message there. What's the government aiming for in terms of the population of Australia in say 2030 or 2050?

Alan Tudge: Oh, we haven't set a number there and the key thing, Tom, is that you need to have managed growth and that's what our plan is about because you can have a city of a million people which is heavily congested, but likewise you can have a city of, say, five million people which is planned well which actually- where the traffic moves quite well and remains very liveable.

So the question is the how well you manage the growth, rather than necessarily the destination which you get to. And that's what our plan is about. It's recognising that we've got exceptionally fast growth in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane and the infrastructure hasn't kept up.

And so take the population pressures off those three, support the population growth elsewhere, then build the infrastructure rapidly including pinch points and fast rail, then further have a population planning mechanism with the states so you can better manage the growth into the future including migration settings at a much more local level.

Tom Connell: Do you not need, though, because a lot of infrastructure decisions have to happen a long time before, we need to basically know how the various cities are going to be built many years in advance. Don't you then need a number you're working towards as well, as to how many people will be there using that infrastructure?

Alan Tudge: I think you have to have a considered view, city by city and region by region, and that's where our population planning framework comes into place, which is being developed with the states and territories.

And it's also where our centre for the population which we're creating will come into play as well. We need to be able to work with the states and territories on this because while we've got the major population growth lever being the migration rate, they've got the primary responsibility for the infrastructure and service delivery, the housing approvals and the like, and those things need to be completely aligned and they haven't always been.

So almost part three of our plan is to develop this better population planning mechanisms with the states and territories. It means they get a greater say, for example, over the migration rate into their states and into their regions but also us being more closely at the table in terms of infrastructure development, so you'll get exactly what you're talking about, Tom. You can get the infrastructure built, ideally ahead of the population growth. You get the housing approvals in pace with the population growth, rather than …

Tom Connell: [Talks over] And I get that, but if you're getting the sort of a plan for infrastructure and housing and you're putting specific plans out there, you'd need a number wouldn't you? I mean, is there a reluctance to put a number on our population for any reason?

Alan Tudge: As I said, the question is how you manage the growth in every part of Australia rather than necessarily what Australia might be in 10, 20, or 30 years' time and the settings will be adjusted over the years as well.

And I think we're now putting in place the pieces to manage our growth in a much better way, so that we don't end up with the situation where we've got very rapid growth without the infrastructure keeping pace in big capital cities, or likewise where we end up with the situation where you've got jobs that can't be filled by people in parts of regional Australia which we presently have. So that's what our plan is about.

Tom Connell: Minister Alan Tudge, now unofficially known as the congestion buster, we'll see how your job goes. Thank you.

Alan Tudge: Thanks very much Tom.