Labor has criticised the Turnbull Government’s decision to send a portion of its $20 million fast rail business case funding to a company run by former Nationals candidate Nick Cleary.
Labor senator Murray Watt probed a senate estimates hearing in Canberra on May 21, asking if senior officials at the Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities were aware Cleary, chairman of Consolidated Land and Rail Australia (CLARA), was a discharged bankrupt, a former Nationals vice-chairman in New South Wales, and was once preselected by the party to run in the federal seat of Throsby.
CLARA has for some time pitched a plan to build a high speed rail link between Melbourne and Sydney, fuelled by from eight cities to be developed along the route.
It was announced recently CLARA would receive a portion of the $20 million the Turnbull Government has set aside for fast rail projects around the country, to develop a business case for the first stage of its proposed line, between Melbourne and Shepparton.
But the Turnbull Government’s program is predicated on finding private sector partners who are willing to match it for business case funding, and the revelation CLARA has just $422,000 of capital in its books led Watts to needle Department officials on Monday.
One official, according to The Australian, said CLARA’s proposal was “a very high-quality proposal,” but said, “We didn’t go through a detailed assessment of the company’s history” before announcing the funding.
Due diligence is to take place during contractual negotiations, the official reportedly told the hearing.
Labor’s shadow transport minister Anthony Albanese told SKY News on Monday that while he is a “huge fan” of high speed rail, the news about CLARA was troubling.
“CLARA doesn’t have, it would appear, the money to back up the joint funding that is required,” Albanese said. “The idea was matching funding … [CLARA] don’t have all the land options in place for the corridor that is being picked to Shepparton, and indeed there’s a lot of speculation around Shepparton that some of this corridor is on a flood plain … [that] could be problematic.”
The former deputy PM went on to criticise the CLARA plan in general.
“This is Utopia after a very long night,” he said.
“The idea of eight cities in inland Australia where there are currently none? What people who have looked at this proposal in local government have come back with almost universally is saying: ‘Hang on a tick here, why don’t you do something about building up Albury-Wodonga or Canberra for that matter or Goulburn? And have the train go through…’.”
Albanese said it was disappointing the ambitious CLARA proposal had been chosen over other options.
“The bids included pretty sensible propositions for the Sydney-to-Canberra route, for example, that didn’t rely upon whole new cities being built,” he said. “[The CLARA plan] relies upon that. It relies upon the [land] options being there, it relies upon whole new planning mechanisms – by and large, in Australia, given how long we have seen European settlement, there is a reason why cities that have thrived and have grown are located where they are.”