Independent Federal Member for Indi Helen Haines has called on the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development Barnaby Joyce to visit the towns of Glenrowan, Euroa, Benalla and Wangaratta to hear from local communities concerned about the lack of proper consultation on the Better Rail project.

A Senate Inquiry has handed down a report slamming the management of Better Rail, recommending an overhaul in the way the Australian Rail Track Corporation engages with and consults with local communities.

Dr Haines has written to Mr Joyce warning him the project risks losing the trust of local communities completely due to the lack of meaningful consultation.

“I am deeply concerned that the nation-building vision for the Better Rail will not materialise if the ARTC continues failing to meaningfully consult with our communities, and the legitimate concerns about connectivity, heritage, small business activity and accessibility are not addressed,” Dr Haines said in the letter.

“There is a high level of mistrust and anxiety in my community about the process of community engagement. I am getting direct feedback from my communities that contradict the public information and direct messages I receive from ARTC.”

Dr Haines wrote to Mr Joyce after continuing to receive many calls of concern from residents in the affected towns, and after the 211-page Senate Inquiry report found major deficiencies in the way the ARTC has engaged with local communities and stakeholders.

The Senate report stated community representatives in Euroa resigned from the ARTC working group “because they were deeply troubled by the fact that they were not being consulted appropriately or properly”.

In the report, EuroaConnect said ARTC had “misrepresented its engagement activities” and Better Rail Benalla said ARTC’s approach was to “claim community consultation but only deliver generalities” with information provided lacking specific details.

The Senate committee recommended ARTC improve consultation with local governments through regional forums aimed at generating support for Better Rail and establish a broader consultation and engagement framework to address community concerns. It also recommended independent reviews of stakeholder engagement and consultation measures every two years.

“The Senate report backs up what I am hearing in the communities of Benalla, Glenrowan and Euroa about the deficiencies in the consultation by the ARTC,” Dr Haines said.

“Despite my frequent meetings with ARTC urging them to improve their consultation processes, I am not confident that this is happening to the extent that my communities can trust in the plans being forward.

“The community groups in each of the towns affected by the Better Rail project have sensible and well researched proposals that will enable the objectives of the Better Rail as well as improve the accessibility and amenity of their respective rail precincts.”

The former Minister for Infrastructure Michael McCormack visited Benalla and Euroa in March at Dr Haines’ invitation to inspect the Better Rail upgrades. Michael McCormack was replaced by Barnaby Joyce in a leadership spill in June.

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