Monday, 25 May 2020 Sydney

Labor inland rail inquiry gives regional voters 'a clear difference', farmers say::

Anthony Albanese promises independent inquiry into the $10bn Melbourne-to-Brisbane rail project’s route and financing

The New South Wales Farmers Association has slammed the Nationals for ignoring landholder concerns about the government’s $10bn inland rail project, saying Labor’s proposed inquiry now gives regional Australians “a clear difference between the major parties” in next month’s election.

The shadow infrastructure minister, Anthony Albanese, announced on Tuesday that Labor would set up an independent inquiry into the Melbourne-to-Brisbane freight rail project, which is designed to form the “backbone” of Australia’s freight rail network when operational in 2025.

But the project has come under significant scrutiny in recent months following complaints by local landholders affected by the route, who have been frustrated by what they say is an abject failure to consult, give transparency around decision-making, or adequately plan or cost the route.

The government’s preferred route was announced in 2010, following a vast study considering more than 50,000 options. But a section running through Queensland’s Darling Downs region was changed in 2017, infuriating farmers and landowners who suddenly found their properties would be affected.

Labor’s proposed inquiry would examine the route selection process and financing arrangements.

“This is appalling. The government has botched this from day one,” Albanese told 2GB on Tuesday.

“It is very clear the government has failed to consult properly. It’s very clear that there are real issues with the route going through prime agricultural land, that the locals aren’t being listened to.”

The decision was welcomed by affected landholders in Queensland and by the NSW Farmers Association. The association’s president, James Jackson, said the Nationals were yet to properly respond to the concerns of landholders.

“NSW Farmers has been calling for the Australian Government to commission an independent, open and transparent inquiry into inland rail for more than year,” Jackson said in a statement. “At every turn, the CoalitionGovernment has refused to conduct an inquiry, preferring to press ahead in the face of deepening community opposition to the project.

“Labor’s announcement today provides regional communities affected by the inland rail with a real choice.”

Kev Loveday is a farmer who owns two bits of land on the Condamine in Queensland. One of those will be affected by the rail line’s current route. Loveday said the project’s costings did not make sense, and that its promised economic benefits were difficult to believe.

“It won’t be of economic benefit to the [Darling] Downs. We are just merely in the way between northern NSW and Toowoomba. So we’re in the firing line,” he told Guardian Australia.

“We’ve been fed all this propaganda to make us believe that we really need this thing, when in fact there will be no tangible benefits at all, and a lot of social distress about it, and environmental impacts too.”

Tim Durre, a local landholder in Gowrie, Queensland, will have his property cut in two by the rail line. Durre said the route will leave one section of his property nearly inaccessible.

He said landholders had received no genuine consultation on the decision and said decision-making around the route was shrouded in secrecy.

“There are people here who are trying to sell at the moment, just to survive,” he told Guardian Australia. “They can’t sell because they’re in the way of this project.”

The 1,700km project includes upgrades to 1,100km of existing track and is expected to start operating in 2024-25. Labor, if elected, said it would recruit an “eminent Australian” to lead its inquiry, who would get access to Infrastructure Australia and other departments, including Finance and Treasury.

“We need to get it right and at the moment very clearly we are not getting it right,” Albanese said.

The Australian Logistics Council says the inquiry must not delay construction on the project.

“By 2030, we will need to move more than 32 million tonnes of freight along Australia’s east coast,” the council’s chief executive, Kirk Coningham, said in a statement.

“We must find ways to do that which are safe, and which don’t add to road congestion and other existing bottlenecks in the freight network.”