The case for Inland Rail. Why we can’t have a line with no start or end point.
Rarely do governments that are increasingly risk adverse and operating in complex political environments make the case for nationally significant projects, that have the capacity to transform an economy and the businesses as usual approach.
When they do, they often botch it. The big bureaucracy, creating separate bodies and developing an at-arm’s-length implementation authority, to insulate government of risk – legally, economic and of course political. This enables a back door to making the big decisions, enabling a side step of the big issues and results in kowtowing to geographic and sectorial interests.
We end up in a place where Minister’s, Governments and these independent authorities are hog tied – they are frozen in indecision, scared to progress work and worry about keeping their jobs, as opposed to deliver the big ideas to help our economic future.
Australia can no longer afford to be a nation scared to make the decisions. In an age of rapidly declining productivity, high inflation, rising costs and population growth. We no longer have the benefit of time or of hindsight – we must start making tough decisions to deliver on the big ideas of the last century.
For too long now this country has contemplated the big ideas. The Bradfield Scheme, Fast Rail, Intermodal terminals and the Asia-Australia Powerlink.
These projects, in various ways and for various sectors could play a critical role in sustaining our growing population, being an export power and growing our economy. Securing water, moving people, shifting freight and delivering a reliable, affordable energy supply.
Other projects have been progressed – after decades of talk, reviews, policy papers, business cases and so on. Western Sydney Airport and Snowy Hydro 2.0 both of which took serious political willpower, investment, risk taking and compromise. Now this is not a defence of the sense of perfection of those projects, they have not been delivered without elements of botchery.
As has been the case, another mega project, talked about for longer than I have been on this Earth and subject to the same butchery – like it or not.
Australia cannot afford for Inland Rail to continue to be subject to the uncertainty, delays and botchery of big bureaucracy. It’s time has come, it is now or never and we need to get it done.
Labors review has just been another exercise in the risk adverse, quasi decision making, deferral of responsibility that Australian taxpayers, the infrastructure sector and global firms have come to expect from Government. The reports recommendations do not provide a path forward. It proposes a new intermodal end point at Ebenezer, near Ipswich, located near RAAF Amberley, wedged in a Koala habitat corridor, near burgeoning residential development with access to a single carriageway – the Cunningham Highway, notorious for road crashes and congestion. Labor’s review continues to perpetuate the perennial question of start and end points and leaves us with a line that begins somewhere and ends nowhere. This leaves open the question of intermodals and on the Queensland leg – creates more uncertainty for landholders, investors, local government and the freight and logistics sector.
Even the script writers of the ABC’s Utopia could not come up with a situation where, the report provides a recommendation, predicated on the outcome of a business case that has not happened, leaving open the option that the business case does not stack up and reverting to the original option.
After years of further delays, lost investment, lost productivity, more cost to the taxpayer and a few promotional media releases that pretend someone, somewhere is doing something.
The complete and utter refusal by the government to do anything to enhance the Inland Rail project or to ensure it is delivered, is in stark contrast to the picture the Prime Minister Painted in March 2022, where he said, “The fifth pillar of Labor’s platform for growth is one that is close to my heart: infrastructure,” and “Anyone who knows me, knows I am an infrastructure nerd.”
The Government’s own advice shows that freight volumes are projected to grow by over 35 per cent between to 2040. Urban freight volumes are forecast to increase by nearly 60 per cent to 2040 – combined with growing population and 500,000 new arrivals into our already congested suburbs.
While productivity remains in freefall, having fallen by 6.6 per cent in 15 months there remains no plan to address this critical aspect of the economy.
In freight transport the nations productivity has plateaued impacting our competitiveness in key export markets such as agriculture and minerals moving between the growing regions to port.
In a period of high inflation and bottoming productivity, the government should make it a priority to drive productivity – start in freight. Get on with delivering a project that is underway.
The National Freight and Supply Chain Strategy points out that improving productivity by 1 per cent in the freight sector could generate $8-20 billion in savings to the national economy.
While Treasurer Chalmers and Minister King make the claim that infrastructure spending is fuelling inflation, Labor has added $188 billion to spending, including new programs such as $250,000 grants for school upgrades – further fueling inflation. There’s no productivity benchmark or long term economic benefit.
Inland Rail is an important nation building project that will transform the way we move freight in Australia.
Here is a pre-Christmas gift for the government, brought to you by the people of Toowoomba. Our region is well-placed to be the ‘freight and logistics hub’ of SEQ. The plans are in place, there is an interim end point, there is a path to move freight from Melbourne to Brisbane and it means building Inland Rail across the border into Toowoomba. Here is the kicker, save $ 9 billion.
If the government is serious about addressing the environmental, economic and engineering concerns of the Inland Rail, it would support this proposal. Pausing in Toowoomba, freight can be distributed to the port or across Queensland via existing road and freight rail networks.
It is time to get on with delivering Inland Rail, recognising the benefits of this significant project, seeing the productivity gains and easing the cost of doing business, achieving an economic return on our investment so far.
Make a decision, be brave, bold and decisive. Let’s get it done in the national interest, no more reviews, and deferrals.