Compulsory land acquisitions likely for inland rail

COMPULSORY land acquisitions are a real possibility during construction of the $10 billion Melbourne to Brisbane inland rail line, says Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce.

Mr Joyce was quizzed about the possibility of government land grabs - like the one he fought against over defence land acquisitions in Queensland earlier this year - following the budget’s revelation this week of $8.4b to help fund the inland rail line.

Mr Joyce said the project was “vital” infrastructure and he was “only too proud” of the government’s investment.

But when pressed about compulsory land acquisitions, and whether he could guarantee it wouldn’t happen when building the rail line, with construction due to start this year, he said ”we never rule out”.

“With any piece of major infrastructure there’s always the possibility of compulsory acquisitions, definitely,” he said.

But in promoting the $8.4b budget outcome as a major achievement by the Nationals, Mr Joyce said previous discussion was not about alignment of the rail line but whether “we were going to build it”.

“No one thought we would – no one thought we had the ticker, or the drive or the capacity to get the money for this and now we’ve done it,” he said.

“I’m happy that now we’re having an argument in areas about alignment because that just goes to show you how real this is – that it is going to be built.”

Mr Joyce said ongoing discussions would occur about where the rail line would eventually be laid, especially in NSW, on brownfield sites.

The rail line will involve reconfiguring 1200 kilometres of existing tracks and building about 500kms of new line, mostly in Queensland and NSW.

“There are corridors where the rail is long gone but we can revitalise this,” Mr Joyce said.

“We now need the NSW government - and I’m sure they will because we’ve had discussions with them - to be part of the process of the environmental approvals to get through the Pilliga, to make sure that the lease plan is right, so we can get the brown field sights up and running again and to make sure that the constitutionality of issues in regards to the compulsory acquisition of land in certain areas, is also progressed.

“We want to get this program moving as quickly as possible.

“In areas where there’s conjecture – like Queensland – I will continue our discussions with those people to make sure that we facilitate the finalisation of the rail in the best possible approach and see if we can mitigate any of the concerns they have.”

National Farmers Federation president Fiona Simson says government must heed the hard lessons of failed community consultation from the early days of Coal Seam Gas (CSG) mining, during the inland rail’s construction.

Following the budget announcement, Ms Simson said the federal government needed to work very carefully and sensitively with land holders and make sure their consultation process was “genuine and sound”.

“It’s never just about funding - money is always part of the conversation but it’s not the sole conversation and it can’t be the sole conversation,” she said.

“It really needs to be about genuine consultation and genuine discussions and genuine planning and careful planning about the best routes and options for the inland rail project, if it goes through existing farmland.”

Mr Joyce said the $8.4b delivered in the 2017-18 budget would allow intermodal access and standard gauge rail to run trains from Melbourne through to Brisbane, creating a “corridor of commerce”.

He said it would also create economic opportunity for people in Albury Wodonga, Dubbo, Narrabri, Moree, Goondiwindi and Toowoomba.

“I don’t shy away from that for one second,” he said.

“The capacity to move bulk commodities by rail to multiple ports to build for a vision for our nation that once we’ve built the inland rail we can start looking at the next step of Gladstone to Toowoomba for the movement of bulk commodities to that port.

“We have a plan for the future and that plan involves capital investment.”

The budget move on the inland rail will see $8.4b in equity provided to the Australian Rail Track Corporation.

Mr Joyce said he knew private investors who were “only too willing to be part of the inland rail”.

“Why? Because they can see it running through our major agricultural precincts and our major mineral precincts and people want to be part of that,” he said.

“I think it’s an incredibly good investment and it’s something we’ve fought for for years and I think I put it in my maiden speech, when I was in the Senate and I don’t resign for one second that this is a massive investment but vitally needed for our nation.

“Domestic and overseas investors can see the potential of the inland rail.

“I think in the past inland rail has been stymied somewhat by other people who have had a vested interest in it not being built.

“It was nothing to do with the commercial principles of the inland rail and it was very much to do with the commercial principles they were protecting, in their assets.

“I want this to be an asset of the Australian people but (overseas investor interest) just goes to show you the strength of interest in this.”