Freight Rail, Passenger Rail

Election fallout: 6 key takeaways for rail

The Liberal-National Coalition looks set to secure a majority government following Saturday’s shock federal election result. Here’s some of what it means for the rail sector.

 

1. Queenslanders want the Adani mine and rail project to go ahead

Queensland was the state where the Coalition staged its historic election victory on Saturday evening. There it made Labor pay for, among other things, its conflicted position on the controversial Carmichael coal mine and rail project proposed by Indian energy giant Adani.

After Labor leader Bill Shorten campaigned hard in the Sunshine State, the ALP hoped to swing a number of seats its way. But the dial instead turned in the opposite direction: No Coalition seats were lost, and Labor actually lost two seats – the urban Townsville seat of Herbert, and Longman, between Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast.

Despite a Labor State Government, Labor is left with just six of the thirty federal seats in Queensland – and that’s only if it holds onto Lilley, where with 77.8 per cent of the vote counted, a 5.1 per cent swing towards the Coalition leaves Labor’s Anika Wells clinging to a slim margin.

Labor never specifically said it would prevent the Adani project from going ahead – Bill Shorten said he didn’t plan to block it, and Anthony Albanese resisted the loud ‘Stop Adani’ movement in his inner-Sydney electorate – but the party’s environmental agenda wouldn’t allow direct support for a new coal mine.

Coal Council of Australia CEO Greg Evans said Labor was clearly opposed to coal, and this was a clear contributor to the election result.

“Anti-coal policies concerning Adani, the suggestion of ‘transitioning’ of coal workers elsewhere and resisting coal-fired power generation have damaged the Labor Party, and as they reset their policy platform, they need to reverse their anti-coal positions,” he said.

“Suggestions that coal workers are second class citizens has rightly been viewed as insulting.”

Cathy O’Toole, the Labor candidate who lost her seat of Herbert, said the party’s Adani stance had created some difficulties in the lead-up to the vote.

“The reality is we are in a difficult and transitional time across a range of areas and energy and industry is one,” O’Toole was quoted by The Australian this week.

“We have to have harmony in that space and we have to understand we need to transition and I would have thought Townsville, of all communities, would have understood putting all your eggs in one basket is not a wise move.”

The Carmichael project, which played an equally complex and pivotal role in Queensland’s state election in 2017, has been trimmed down from initial plans for 60 million tonnes of annual production and a dedicated, 388-kilometre standard gauge rail line to export facilities at Abbot Point. It is now a more modest, scalable proposal, which would build a 200-kilometre narrow-gauge connection to Aurizon’s existing rail network.

Carmichael will likely be a major factor again at Queensland’s next state election in 2020.

“There is policy tension between the environmental Left and the industrial Left of the party,” a senior Labor strategist reportedly told AFR. “It’s having a real impact on the policy agenda and the program of the state government.”

 

2. Queensland will pay for Cross River Rail, and voters don’t seem to mind

Queenslanders’ rejection of Labor confirmed their State Government will have to foot the full bill for the Cross River Rail project.

Bill Shorten in January committed $2.24 billion in Federal funding for the $5.4 billion project, which will deliver a new underground rail connection through Brisbane’s CBD, alleviating congestion across the South East Queensland network.

In contrast, the Coalition has no interest in helping build the rail link.

After Infrastructure Australia in 2017 rejected the latest business case for Cross River Rail, the Coalition, then led by Malcolm Turnbull, said it would not provide funding. A bemused Annastacia Palaszczuk – Queensland’s premier – immediately committed to fund the project entirely from state coffers.

After Labor won the state election later that year, the party again urged the Coalition to reconsider its refusal to fund the project. But Coalition ministers, again and again, have reiterated the state will be left to go it alone on Cross River Rail.

If all of the above set the stage for a referendum on Cross River Rail for Brisbane voters over the weekend, the results weren’t a good look for Labor’s project.

Brisbane area seats Bowman, Petrie, Dickson, Bonner, and Forde were all retained by the Coalition with significant swings in its favour. Moreton, Oxley, and Rankin were retained by Labor but also saw swings towards the Coalition. The aforementioned north-Brisbane seat of Lilley remains in doubt, currently held by Labor despite a swing towards the Coalition.

There was a slight swing towards Labor in the seat of Brisbane itself, but nowhere near enough to unseat incumbent LNP member Trevor Evans, and the story was similar in Ryan, which the Coalition holds by a major margin despite a modest swing to Labor.

Labor did manage to build its lead in the inner-Brisbane seat of Griffith.

 

3. Victoria will also have to go it alone, but voters do care

Victoria’s Labor premier Daniel Andrews will no doubt be disappointed in the election result, not just for his federal colleagues, but for what it means for a pair of his pet rail projects.

Andrews’ acrimonious relationship with the Federal Coalition began just days after he was first elected premier in 2015. Following through on a key campaign promise, he immediately cancelled the East West Link toll road project and tried to redirect federal funding to his preferred Metro Tunnel rail project.

The Coalition has flat out refused to allow the East West funding to be reallocated, and has refused to commit any separate funding to the Metro Tunnel.

A week before Saturday’s vote, Prime Minister Scott Morrison reiterated the Coalition’s position, promising to supply $4 billion for the East West Link if the Andrews Government came on board.

Bill Shorten, meanwhile, promised $2 billion to support the Metro Tunnel, which is already deep into the delivery phase.

Additionally, Labor had promised to provide $10 billion for Andrews’ more substantial rail vision, the Suburban Rail Loop, which would create a ring of rail around Melbourne, connecting Cheltenham in the southeast to Werribee in the northwest, via Melbourne Airport in the north.

On Sunday morning, however, Andrews woke up to the same challenge he has faced every morning of his career as premier: Liberal National control of Federal money, and a vast gap between the infrastructure policy of his government, and that of the Commonwealth.

Speaking with ABC Radio on Sunday, Andrews again rejected the idea of accepting federal funding for the East West Link.

“This thing doesn’t stack up, it’s never stacked up,” Andrews said. “The money they’re offering is nowhere near enough to get it done.”

Despite the Coalition’s stunning victory over the weekend, the Labor Party gained ground in Victoria, with swings in its favour across most seats, and victory in the newly redistributed seats of Corangamite and Dunkley.

 

4. An inquiry into Inland Rail is unlikely

Labor’s infrastructure spokesperson Anthony Albanese before the election committed to an inquiry into the Coalition’s financing decision and the Australian Rail Track Corporation’s route selection process for the Inland Rail project.

In a joint conference with NSW Farmers in April, Albanese said Labor supported the Inland Rail project as a whole, but that a number of issues meant an inquiry was needed to renew public confidence in the project.

The inquiry, unlikely to go ahead under the Coalition, would have reviewed claims by NSW Farmers that its members were being ‘shut out’ of the route alignment process, particularly in Central and North West NSW.

“At every turn, the Coalition Government has refused to conduct an inquiry, preferring to press ahead in the face of deepening community opposition to the project,” NSW Farmers president James Jackson said in April.

Albanese is likely to continue his campaign against the Coalition’s execution of the project in opposition – with a particular focus on its financing.

Albanese has been highly critical of the Coalition’s decision to move Inland Rail’s funding off Budget, meaning the project will need to make a return on investment.

“The CEO of the Australian Rail Track Corporation delivering this project, John Fullerton, conceded to us in Senate estimates that [Inland Rail] wouldn’t produce a return,” Albanese told 2GB host Alan Jones before the election.

“So what [the Coalition] are doing is counting the Australian Rail Track Corporation’s balance sheet as a whole, in order to defend this equity injection into the project.”

Albanese suggested finance minister Mathias Cormann opposed the equity injection model, “but Barnaby Joyce just pushed on through because he wanted a big announcement”.

“This was part of the payoff when Malcolm Turnbull took over, that the National Party would get a couple of things out of it. And this is what Barnaby Joyce wanted. But you’ve got to get it right. This is appalling. The Government has botched this from day one … It is very clear that the Government has failed to consult properly. It is very clear that there are real issues with the route going through prime agricultural land [and] the locals aren’t being listened to.”

 

5. The Coalition’s ‘fast rail’ program will go ahead

Labor’s dreams for European-style high speed rail between Brisbane and Melbourne via Sydney and Canberra are on hold for at least another three years, with the Coalition’s proposed program of faster rail connections standing in its place.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison in March made a $2 billion commitment to deliver 160km/h rail journeys between Melbourne and Geelong, part of a 20-year fast rail plan.

The plan will include the creation of a National Fast Rail Agency, with $40 million in seed funding to investigate five more corridors for potential investment for faster rail.

The Federal Budget in April identified Sydney-Wollongong, Sydney-Parkes, Melbourne-Albury-Wodonga, Melbourne-Traralgon and Brisbane-Gold Coast as the first five corridors under the program.

Morrison’s plan for faster rail – in the 160-200km/h range – stands in contrast to Labor’s desires for a European style line connecting Australia’s east coast capitals at speeds of more than 300km/h.

A week before the election Labor promised $1 billion to secure the corridor for high speed rail between Sydney and Brisbane, as a way to start off the full project between Brisbane and Melbourne.

 

6. Canberra Light Rail’s second stage could face delays

The ACT’s Labor Government is yet another which has been at odds with the Federal Coalition over infrastructure. Planning for the second stage of Canberra’s light rail network, between Civic and Woden, means a detailed approvals process with the federal government, as the planned route crosses through federal land near Parliament House.

ACT chief minister Andrew Barr on Monday said he was unsure how long it would take to get the green light for the next stage of light rail, given the election result.

“It’s going to set back the timeframe, there’s no doubting that,” he said. “Had the election result gone differently on Saturday I was hoping to sit down this week with an incoming Labor infrastructure minister and an incoming Labor territories minister to get on with fast-tracking that project.”

Visiting the opening ceremony of the first stage of Canberra Light Rail in March, Bill Shorten promised $200 million for the second stage of the project if Labor won the election.

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