Dr HAINES (Indi) (12:24): Over the last few months, I’ve been visiting communities affected by the government’s Better Rail project. Better Rail aims to allow taller and heavier double-stack trains to run from Melbourne to Brisbane. In the north-east, this means we’ll need to upgrade the line to accommodate these bigger trains. This affects four towns in particular: Wangaratta, Glenrowan, Benalla and Euroa. In my extensive consultation with these four communities, two things have become clear.
First, each town is anxious that the upgrades must deliver outcomes that create connectivity, allow small businesses to thrive, are accessible and respect the heritage of these communities. Secondly, there is a very strong feeling that the ARTC has not been fully transparent and consultative. I’ve been told that questions are going unanswered, staff turnover is high and decision-making is unclear. In Euroa, when I visited in January, 80 people turned out to express concern about the proposed Anderson Street bridge rebuild. When the bridge was built in the sixties, it created a huge physical divide, splitting the town in two. House prices on one side have never recovered. Small businesses feel cut off from the rest of town. There is a real fear that the bigger, taller, more imposing bridge proposed will further exacerbate this divide.
In Benalla too, people fear the government is repeating mistakes of the past. In 1975, against the wishes of the Benalla community, the government demolished the Benalla station tower, building the Mackellar Street overpass that then cut the station off from the town down Carrier Street. In 2019, the Benalla Ensign wrote:
The decision to demolish the former refreshment rooms and tower, which were constructed in 1889 is an excellent example of how bad planning and short-sighted decision making can have a negative effect on a town for decades.
That one questionable decision made in 1974 is still affecting Benalla Today.
Instead of a historical, almost 130-year-old train station, we have a car park.
Instead of a local entrepreneur or business person operating a museum or tea-room in the building we have a car park.
Instead of a view across the north-east to snow capped peaks, we have a car park.
The memory of a terrible decision imposed by a distant government that refused to listen to local concerns is very much alive in towns like Benalla and Euroa. We cannot repeat the mistakes of the 1960s and seventies, yet so far the ARTC insists that it is constrained by a lack of funds. But this excuse doesn’t add up. Inland rail was originally costed at $4.4 billion in 2010. In 2015 it was bumped up to $9.9 billion, and just two months ago the government announced the cost had blown out by another $5.5 billion. But, as far as we know, not a cent of this was earmarked to do a proper job in the north-east upgrades. When I asked the Deputy Prime Minister on Tuesday in question time, ‘How much of this increase would be spent in these towns to deliver outcomes that meet community expectations?’ he did not answer that question. The ARTC is also refusing to disclose their budget to complete each upgrade in Indi and insisting that good design outcomes for our communities are out of budget.
People in Indi are entitled to ask why government can find $5.5 billion for the ARTC and yet they can’t find a few million to make sure the station and bridge upgrades in towns like Benalla, Euroa and Glenrowan are done properly. In its ambitions to claim a nation-building project, the government should not trample on the aspirations of the local communities in everyday places like Wangaratta, Benalla, Euroa and Glenrowan.
I’m looking forward to the Deputy Prime Minister visiting these towns, as indeed he will in March. Then he’ll hear from the community itself about its concerns and ambitions, and I sincerely encourage him to listen and take action. I’m calling on the ARTC to do better in engaging with our communities. Tell us how much has been budgeted for each location. Be up-front about your plans. Publish the results of the community engagement so we all know what’s being said. I’ve met with the ARTC and raised this directly with them, but now I feel it’s time to escalate these concerns as I’m doing here today in parliament. We are not unreasonable people. We know the ARTC can’t deliver everything that everybody wants, but what everyone rightly expects is transparency and a genuine commitment to delivering a good outcome for our towns. Work with us; don’t do things to us.