Debate resumed from an earlier hour.
Ms LEE RHIANNON [3.37 p.m.]: Prior to lunch I detailed how Labor members of Parliament are not standing up for New South Wales rail services in the face of Minister Costa's rundown and wind-back position on rail services. Mr Neville Newell, the Labor member for Tweed, is one member of Parliament we could have expected to take a stand to protect CountryLink. After all, it is the Casino to Murwillumbah line, which runs largely through his electorate, that the Government plans to close on 17 May. But Mr Newell has not made one comment about this closure in the Legislative Assembly. Even when that House debated a motion on CountryLink rail services on 6 May, not a word was uttered by Mr Newell. He did not contribute to the debate.
While we welcome the Coalition parties' awakening as to the importance of rural rail services, we need to remember that it was the Liberals and The Nationals in the 1980s and early 1990s that axed rural rail services while Bob Carr's Opposition at that time protested. So despite the angry words of the Opposition today against the Government's plans for CountryLink, we still cannot be confident that rail services would fare any better under a Coalition government. Questioned recently about his plans for the future of country rail services, Mr Gallacher, the Opposition spokesperson on transport, did not instil in us any hope that the Coalition would change its own wind-back rail policy if elected to government.
The Armidale Express reported that in response to the question about what the Coalition would do if the Government removed the Armidale train, Mr Gallacher stated:
The problem I have is that we do not see a State election for another three and a half years. I can give you a commitment today but if in two years or 12 months time this railway station is closed down and we're looking at a cafe and the railway lines are in such a deplorable condition because of maintenance neglect over the next three and a half years, then where do I go from there?
Those comments are not surprising as the policy of the Coalition parties when in office are indistinguishable from Labor's present policy. The last time the Conservatives occupied the Treasury benches they closed 22 lines, and their arguments for why they took such heartless action has a ring of similarity to the comments of the current transport Minister, Mr Costa.
In response to a number of constituents Wal Murray, a former Deputy Premier, stated:
Thank you for your letter … concerning your dissatisfaction with the Government's changes to rail services. I believe that the changes which we have made to the State's rail services must be viewed within the context of the State Rail Authority's huge operating losses … During our term in office, we have had to make a number of hard decisions such as cutting rail services in order to combat the massive $46 billion debt …
That certainly sounds familiar. Last week when the House was debating the Australian Rail Track Corporation legislation, the Treasurer boasted that this year the Government will put another $300 million into passenger rail services on top of the $2.5 billion that had been made available for capital works. The Minister for Transport Services interjected that the Government provides $1.6 billion in subsidies for rail. The people of New South Wales have a right to expect money to be spent on public services. Funding is needed to maintain and upgrade rail services across New South Wales but it is not happening to the degree that the public has the right to expect. Much of this money is being spent on CityRail services. As I outlined in another debate, the Parry report found that CityRail services are subsidised at 20¢ per passenger kilometre travelled while country rail services receive only a 14¢ subsidy.
If this Labor Government had honoured its own public transport policy outlined in Action for Public Transport 2010, there would not be this inequity. When the document was released in 1998 the Government promised $210 million for rural rail services. Six years later most of the Government's promises on road funding have been honoured but the promises to maintain and upgrade rail services are languishing. Rural New South Wales urgently needs more money to be spent on its rail services. We should remember that significant maintenance is necessary because for decades successive governments, both Labor and Coalition, cut corners.
Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to see first-hand a number of rail branch lines that are in a state of considerable disrepair. On the Greenethorpe line I saw warped track running over splintered and broken sleepers. Local farmers, who depend on this line to move their grain, told me that the train on that line travels at a maximum of 10 kilometres per hour because a faster speed would be unsafe. Also, trains on some branch lines only run of an evening because accidents are more likely during the day, when the tracks have been heated by the sun and are likely to buckle. Closure of the Greenethorpe branch line will impact on local employment.
The Shamrock Hotel, which is run by Gil and Irene Carroll, employs six people. The peak period for the hotel is December, when dozens of contractors stay there for the duration of the harvest season. Gil believes that the hotel will not be viable if the Government abandons the railway, which will have a flow-on effect for the small township of Greenethorpe and surrounding areas. The Minister may dismiss community concerns as mere collateral damage on his journey to prove that his cost-cutting efforts demonstrate his prowess to be Treasurer, but closure of the line will have a real and unnecessary adverse effect. The Minister should fulfil his obligations by providing rail services for all people in New South Wales.
Our ancestors had the foresight to build the rail system in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and we have no right to dismantle this essential public service. This generation has a responsibility to maintain and expand this asset, but it is a job for the Government. Greenethorpe is only one of 15 branch lines that the Government seems hell-bent on running down. On behalf of the Greens I congratulate the New South Wales Farmers Association and the many communities across western New South Wales that are fighting to save their branch lines. They understand what the Government refuses to acknowledge: the removal of rail services from communities will damage greatly their social fabric, economy and environment. It is unacceptable and it is unnecessary.
Even if freight rail operations are not fully commercially viable, they keep trucks off our roads, and that is a very good thing. Grain on rail means fewer trucks on our roads, and that results in less noise and air pollution, fewer road accidents, less deterioration in road quality and fewer greenhouse gas emissions. The Greens argue that although there may be short-term savings—
The Hon. Duncan Gay: There are not even short-term savings.
Ms LEE RHIANNON: Thank you, I accept that interjection. When one considers the overall economics, the only way to go is to keep grain on rail. Many country communities have expressed concern about the potential for more accidents when thousands of giant B-doubles trundle down narrow country roads. If the Government's madness becomes a reality and the branch line closes, trucks will be forced to carry grain 100 kilometres from Greenethorpe to Stockinbingal. If B-doubles travel along that road, they will encounter eight school buses.
The Hon. Duncan Gay: B-doubles only travel on dedicated roads with council approval. If you are going to speak on this subject, you should get your facts right!
Ms LEE RHIANNON: I accept the interjection. However, this information has come directly from the community and from what I saw of the narrow roads. The Nationals need to become involved in this campaign because it is already happening.
The Hon. Duncan Gay: We were there long before the Greens were.
Ms LEE RHIANNON: And you need to stay there and not desert the people.
The Hon. Duncan Gay: You want to close down the industries that supply these trains.
Ms LEE RHIANNON: I acknowledge the interjection from The Nationals member and I will demonstrate that he is wrong. Any B-doubles travelling along that road will encounter eight school buses. Two Greenethorpe school buses carry 28 children in total; the Grenfell school bus carries 16 children; the Milvale school bus carries 27 children; the Wallendbeen school bus carries 13 children, the Wombat school bus carries 17 children, the Greenethorpe to Young school bus carries 29 children; and the Stockinbingal school bus carries 14 children. It will be extremely dangerous if B-doubles were to travel along those routes. It was certainly the most worrying aspect of my trip to western New South Wales. Parents and farmers expressed considerable concern about school buses travelling along narrow roads that will be used by B-doubles—and the number will skyrocket if grain is forced off rail.
In an average year 40,000 tonnes of grain will have to be carted by road from Greenethorpe to Stockinbingal, with a total of 1,126 B-double legal loads. In a high yielding year school buses will have to combat 2,428 B-doubles because potentially 85,000 tonnes of grain will be transported by road. The bottom line is that 144 schoolchildren face the risk of being 2,428 times more likely to be involved in a life-threatening accident with a B-double on this single carriageway, which is suitable for light traffic only. Obviously, Greenethorpe is just one example. The problem will escalate in the north of the State, where isolation is a greater factor and schoolchildren travel greater distances. I thank the community of Greenethorpe for supplying me with that data.
It is tragic that because the Government has allowed the rail system to become rundown, communities focus more on retaining existing lines. That is natural because rural people value their rail services, rail workers and unions. The Greens are working tirelessly to prevent the Government from allowing existing rail services to further erode. We must strive also to restore those rail lines that have been discontinued. The Tumut to Cootamundra line is one of many lines that should be reopened. It was closed in 1982 when a bridge was washed out, but it should now be restored. I accept that there will be a cost involved in that restoration. I understand from Chris Adams, General Manager, Tumut Shire Council, that it will cost approximately $40 million to bring the line up to the appropriate standard.
The community and local businesses need that rail line. I understand that stage two of the Visy mill will not go ahead until this line is built. The Visy mill is supported widely by the community and is seen as providing a great opportunity for job expansion in that area.
The Hon. Michael Costa: Do you support the plantations down there?
Ms LEE RHIANNON: Yes. First, I accept the interjection by the Minister. Our concern is that the Government intends to privatise the plantations. At the moment the Government is hell-bent on doing that. This is yet another matter about which the Minister should come clean.
The Hon. Michael Costa: So you are supporting the softwood plantations?
Ms LEE RHIANNON: No, I did not say softwood plantations. There is a difference.
The Hon. Michael Costa: How will the Visy mill work without the softwood plantations?
Ms LEE RHIANNON: There is a difference. The softwood plantations—
The DEPUTY-PRESIDENT (The Hon. Patricia Forsythe): Order! It may be better for the member if she were to ignore the interjections.
Ms LEE RHIANNON: The softwood plantations are there and clearly the wood needs to be dealt with. It is time the Minister honoured the commitment of his predecessor, Carl Scully. In 1998 the former Minister said:
We are currently investigating the feasibility of reopening disused rail lines in rural New South Wales.
Let us hope the Minister participates in the debate and comments on the commitments given by his predecessor, Mr Scully. It will be interesting to hear what the Minister has to say. Under this Labor Government we are witnessing the massive dismantling of a vital public service. Public rail services are vital to the social, economic and environmental wellbeing of this State. However, Minister Costa, the rail vandal, is intent on changing CountryLink into a coach-based service. Time and again in this House the Minister berates us with his argument that the service must be cost effective. That is simply a smokescreen for his intent to reduce the rail budget by pushing commuters onto coaches and therefore saving his department maintenance costs.
The Minister has put forward 17 May as the final date for the Casino to Murwillumbah line. That is disgraceful. If the service was properly resourced, patronage would rise and car use in the area would fall. The Greens believe that when it comes to public services, such as a comprehensive rail network, the needs of communities come before the need to make a profit. We need investment and long-term planning in New South Wales rail services, not the arrogance of a Minister obsessed with saving money so that he can demonstrate his prowess as a financial manager. Perhaps the Minister's actions impress the Treasurer and the Premier but he is certainly selling the people of New South Wales short. I commend the motion to the House and look forward to debate on it.
The Hon. MICHAEL COSTA (Minister for Transport Services, Minister for the Hunter, and Minister Assisting the Minister for Natural Resources (Forests)) [3.52 p.m.]: I oppose the motion , but not because there are not some reasonable comments in some sections of it. Indeed, it would be impossible for any member to disagree with some of the comments, including the comment that viable CountryLink services provide a vital public service. The Government recognises that that is the case.
The Hon. Catherine Cusack: That is the Broken Hill service, is it?
The Hon. MICHAEL COSTA: I will come to the record of the National party and the Liberal party in terms of country rail lines—
The Hon. Catherine Cusack: Are you referring to the Broken Hill line?
The Hon. MICHAEL COSTA: Will the Hon. Catherine Cusack stop interjecting? She will have an opportunity to speak in the debate, and we will not interject. This motion is a waste of time. The Treasurer has indicated that he wishes to introduce a major bill because he needs to fund the health services, transport services and disability services that the people of New South Wales want. As I said, there are many comments in the motion that honourable members could not disagree with. However, as usual, the Greens have convoluted, with a clear ideology and economic nonsense, a number of arguments that may have some sense. That is the problem with this motion. The Government wants to adopt a set of strategies that leads to the maximum protection of CountryLink services. That is why we took the opportunity during the inquiry into CountryLink to look at precisely how to make the services sustainable. A finding of that inquiry was that we currently spend in the order of $30 million in ticketing costs and reservation overheads to receive revenue of $45 million.
The Hon. Catherine Cusack: That is mismanagement. Fix it!
The Hon. MICHAEL COSTA: Obviously the Hon. Catherine Cusack knows nothing about very few topics. If she continues to interject, this will take longer than necessary. I ask the honourable member not to interject until I have finished. She will have an opportunity to contribute to the debate. The fact is that we undertook an inquiry, which clearly showed the practices put in place by the Coalition Government, such as private booking agents receiving fees for tickets that have absolutely no revenue attached. That was a clear case of mismanagement. I acknowledge the interjection by the Hon. Catherine Cusack. That practice was put in place by the Coalition Government.
Mr Ian Cohen: So you are better at it than the other mob, is that your only argument?.
The Hon. MICHAEL COSTA: I certainly hope that we are better than the other mob at managing the State's economy. I would want to be better than the other mob at managing the State's economy.
The Hon. Catherine Cusack: So you are going to cut the services.
The Hon. MICHAEL COSTA: Once again the Hon. Catherine Cusack has not even used the short time she has been here to get a grip—
The Hon. Catherine Cusack: You are so arrogant.
The Hon. MICHAEL COSTA: That is right, but I am more intelligent than you and more dedicated to doing the work that is required to understand what I am talking about. Unfortunately, the honourable member does not do the work. She does not realise that some of the measures she is talking about were introduced by the last Coalition Government, and we have had to correct them.
The Hon. Melinda Pavey: You've had nine years to fix them.
The Hon. MICHAEL COSTA: No, I have not had nine years. Let me go through the argument, then members opposite will have an opportunity to respond.
The Hon. Melinda Pavey: Qantas uses parliamentary booking agents.
The Hon. MICHAEL COSTA: Yes, but they do not give away free tickets.
The Hon. Melinda Pavey: We do?
The Hon. MICHAEL COSTA: Yes, to your staff.
The Hon. Catherine Cusack: You have been doing that for nine years.
The Hon. Rick Colless: What do you think frequent flyer points are? They are free tickets.
The Hon. MICHAEL COSTA: I am glad the Hon. Rick Colless is not running the economy. They are built into the price of the fares.
The DEPUTY-PRESIDENT (The Hon. Patricia Forsythe): Order! The Minister would do well to ignore the interjections.
The Hon. MICHAEL COSTA: What a joke! I hope members opposite never get their hands on government with that philosophy. The State would go broke even quicker than if the Greens got hold of it. The Government conducted an inquiry that clearly showed that there were significant problems with the operations of CountryLink in terms of costs and with declining patronage and declining revenues relating to that patronage. The Greens have a killer fact, as usual. The fact is that on three or four occasions they have quoted a reference in the Parry report to a 14¢ a kilometre subsidy in relation to CountryLink and a 20¢ per kilometre subsidy in relation to CityRail. That killer fact is supposed to destroy the Government's arguments in relation to these services.
The Hon. Rick Colless: What about the $3 million a year?
The Hon. MICHAEL COSTA: Can I finish this point? That is the Greens' killer fact—14¢ versus 20¢. However, the Greens do not quote the next paragraph of the Parry report, which clearly states:
Whether this level of subsidy is justified depends on the value of avoided external costs other than social costs that are met by targeted concessions. These avoided external costs are likely to be lower for CountryLink services than for CityRail services as the latter resulted in much higher levels of unavoidable road congestion.
Let us put that argument to bed. It is put to bed in the very document that the Greens distorted to make their normal populist, grandstanding political point. Ms Lee Rhiannon should acknowledge that she distorted the document. I was flabbergasted to hear that the Greens support the Visy paper mill. They are complete hypocrites. They want to support every cause—
The Hon. Melinda Pavey: Peter Garrett helped open it.
The Hon. MICHAEL COSTA: That is right.
The Hon. Rick Colless: Will he stand for Labor at the next election?
The Hon. MICHAEL COSTA: No, I do not think so. He is standing for The Nationals, is he not? The Nationals are merging with the Greens, or they are heading that way. Certainly, it is the most breathtaking level of hypocrisy for Ms Lee Rhiannon to say, "We support the poor workers of Tumut. We want to open the railway line because Visy needs that railway line to survive and there are jobs in the country to be defended." Ms Lee Rhiannon's party is opposed to the input source of the mill that makes the mill viable. Indeed, she admitted that.
Ms Lee Rhiannon: Where?
The Hon. MICHAEL COSTA: The Greens are opposed to softwood plantations. They are absolutely opposed—
Ms Lee Rhiannon: Where?
The Hon. MICHAEL COSTA: Ms Lee Rhiannon just said it. The Greens are complete hypocrites. I do not want to spend a lot of time on the Government's record because it is on the public record.
The Hon. Rick Colless: What about the $3 million a day in the city?
The Hon. MICHAEL COSTA: That is right, we spend $3 million a day—
The Hon. Rick Colless: No, you lose $3 million a day.
The Hon. MICHAEL COSTA: So we should make a profit? You want to increase fares by roughly 600 per cent? I will put out a press release, as you would do, saying, "Nationals call for 600 per cent increase in CityRail fares." That is crazy. The essence of this motion is to increase expenditure. The Government is very proud of its record on public transport. Its spending has increased by more than 81 per cent since it has been in office. When this Government came into office public transport funding was $2.6 billion; it is now $4.6 billion. We recently announced in the mini-budget the most significant amount of capital expenditure on our rail system since the Second World War.
The Hon. Rick Colless: CityRail.
The Hon. MICHAEL COSTA: No, let me go through it. We announced expenditure of $1 billion for rail clearways and $1.5 billion for new rolling stock. Let us get over this nonsense that we are not spending on public transport. We certainly are spending on public transport.
The Hon. Melinda Pavey: How about in the bush?
Ms Lee Rhiannon: What about west of the divide?
The Hon. MICHAEL COSTA: So, the Greens are supporting jobs west of the divide—that is good to see—in the coal industry, forestry, agriculture, and the tourist industry. It is good to see the Greens supporting jobs west of the divide. I would like to know whom they talk to.
The Hon. Melinda Pavey: New South Wales Farmers.
The Hon. MICHAEL COSTA: I doubt they would talk to New South Wales Farmers.
The Hon. Jon Jenkins: They try to.
The Hon. MICHAEL COSTA: Do they? I thought it was the basket weavers in those little craft shops. They are the people more likely to be part of the Greens branches in those areas. That explains a lot. This motion is typical.
The Hon. Melinda Pavey: Country Labor is walking out of the Chamber. Its members are disgusted with you.
The Hon. MICHAEL COSTA: It will not be the first or the last time. This is typical of the Greens. It is another stunt. They find any issue around the place, be divisive, do not look at the factual arguments that underpin the proposition, and say anything that is popular, hoping to claw back that little vote to get them over the line in whatever election is perceived to be the target for their, in many ways, insensitive political strategies. The Greens have probably destroyed more rural jobs through the way they have carried on than any other group.
The Hon. Rick Colless: It is your legislation that has done that.
The Hon. MICHAEL COSTA: We will see about that. They have the hide to talk about country towns. The substantive issue in the motion will be examined by an upper House committee in another waste of public funds, but that seems to be the pattern of this upper House. It ought to be abolished. I am with the Treasurer on that. We should abolish this place, because it adds nothing to public discourse on important issues. It might make the streets safer by keeping some people off the streets, because they could be dangerous to the public of New South Wales with some of their crazy views, but it does nothing to enhance the political process. They hijack the House to debate or inquire into absurd little issues and in many cases spend more money on the process than the outcome will achieve. That is the function of the upper House. I will not be able to change it but I wish it could be changed.
We now have more levels of accountability around Government in New South Wales than ever. That does not include the silly committees that are hijacked by members with agendas that have nothing to do with the public process. In the estimates committees, rail bureaucrats were dragged down here time and again to answer silly questions when the information could have been obtained from the public record. With the Casino to Murwillumbah line, unfortunately the Commonwealth Government took what I think was a very imprudent decision not to overturn the Grants Commission's decision to take $376 million out of the State budget every year for five years. We would not have had a mini-budget if that had not happened. The Government was forced to look at its expenditure and, unfortunately, the Casino to Murwillumbah line is the only line—
The Hon. Catherine Cusack: Nobody believes that.
The Hon. MICHAEL COSTA: That is your agenda, to spin things for the Federal election. I am telling the House the facts. Every year for five years $376 million will be taken out of the State budget, so we had to review our expenditure. The beauty of what the Government has been able to achieve with the Casino to Murwillumbah line is that it will enhance public transport by adding additional services to towns that have not had services in the past. We have been able to do that in a more cost-effective way. It is unfortunate the Federal Government took the decision it, did but this is a consequence of that decision.
I find it staggering that the Opposition is prepared to support a process to look at the Casino to Murwillumbah line but will not support a process to look at the northern mail overnight service to Moree, Tamworth, Armidale and Tenterfield. Why does it not look at that service? Why not look at the western mail service to Dubbo or the North Coast overnight express to Grafton, and what about the Canberra-Monara express? What about the Orange to Lithgow day service? The Coalition cut many services. In 1990 it cancelled the Werris Creek to Moree diesel rail car train, the Gold Coast motor rail, the Grafton XPT, and the Canberra express diesel. To service after service the Coalition applied precisely the same logic that a government has to when it has to manage a budget. Fortunately the Greens do not have to manage a budget and, hopefully, never will. If they do I will have to leave the country.
Mr Ian Cohen: Where would you go?
The Hon. MICHAEL COSTA: I certainly would not stay here if the Greens ever got into government. Very quickly we would degenerate into a banana republic. There is nothing wrong with bananas, but when people think the Australian dollar grows the same way as bananas, on trees, we get into trouble. That is the trouble with the Greens—they think money grows on trees. They can make all sorts of promises to everybody without any fiscal responsibility. We are not going to follow that path.
The Hon. Rick Colless: Who wrote this rubbish for-you?
The Hon. MICHAEL COSTA: Nobody wrote it. Nobody needs to write it for me. It is a revelation compared to how you operate. Somebody has to write things for you. You ought to check on whom you have writing things for you because I think they are being fed on those bananas. The Government still has to manage in difficult economic circumstances. It has to make sure it provides services on the most cost-effective basis. The case for the Casino to Murwillumbah line closure is overwhelming: on average, 194 passengers travel between Casino and Murwillumbah, and then half of them get on a coach and travel to the Gold Coast. Therefore it is very hard to justify the expenditure of approximately $5 million and ongoing capital expenditure of $188 million. Today I met with a number of North Coast members, including Neville Newell. I take exception to what the Greens are saying but they can dream on, they will never win that seat.
The Hon. Rick Colless: What did Neville say?
The Hon. MICHAEL COSTA: I am not going to tell the Hon. Rick Colless the detail of what was said at that meeting, but I will say that one of the issues raised with me at that meeting was the future prospect of building a rail corridor between Casino and the Gold Coast. I said that was a very persuasive proposition.
The Hon. Catherine Cusack will get her chance to put her ill-informed, ignorant views in a moment. At the meeting they made great play of the need to keep this corridor open and preserve the connection. I logically asked what the local councils had done in their local environmental plans [LEPs] to preserve the corridor between Murwillumbah and Coolangatta. What had they done? Absolutely nothing.
The Hon. Catherine Cusack: There is a corridor there.
The Hon. MICHAEL COSTA: There is no corridor. I suggest the Hon. Catherine Cusack go back to local government where she is probably very well suited and do the planning that is required, because her interjections do not help. Nothing has been done in the planning stages. A feasibility study undertaken a number of years ago has been referred to, no work has been done on actual planning, such as LEPs by the local councils. I challenge those councils if they are serious about the long-term vision of a connection between Murwillumbah and Coolangatta or the Gold Coast, to put the required effort into the planning. In return, I will look at the transport corridor.
I do not say that these decisions are not difficult. Decisions are easy for people who have no prospect of being in government. I am not referring to the Coalition; they may eventually get there in 2027 when the Treasurer goes. I am talking about the Greens, who are making the loudest noise. It is easy to make judgments about spending money here and there, but unless they apply the banana strategy—that money grows on trees—it is hard to suggest where the money will come from. I like to look at the Greens web site. Probably many honourable members do not know, as I do, that they have a policy of imposing a capital gains tax on the family home. That is probably how they would pay for this rail line.
I will certainly make that point explicit. The only way they would pay for these policies is with the receipts from their capital gains tax on the family home. They should tell the people of Casino and Murwillumbah, "We will keep your train but we are going to tax your home. That is how we will pay for all of our policies. We will whack a massive capital gains tax on your family home." They do not talk about revenue in relation to expenditure. They are trying to fool everyone, which is what they constantly do. As to the real concerns of the community on the North Coast, I am open-minded about whether the corridor should be preserved. The Government has not lifted rail lines, as some people have claimed for political purposes.
Ms Lee Rhiannon: I saw them. They were disappearing.
The Hon. MICHAEL COSTA: I do not believe it. Ms Lee Rhiannon cannot even read the second paragraph in the report to put it in context, yet she claims she has seen something. I do not believe a word of it. I am happy to talk about the Greens' capital gains tax on the family home to pay for all of this. The Greens should put it to a referendum. They control Byron Bay council. They can tell the council to hold a referendum telling everyone in the council area that they will impose a capital gains tax on the family home. [Time expired.]
The Hon. JENNIFER GARDINER [4.13 p.m.]: On behalf of the Opposition I move the following minor amendment:
That the motion be amended by:
(1) inserting in paragraph 4 (b) "it" after "commitments", and
(2) deleting paragraph 4 (b) (ii).
It is always interesting to listen to the hysterical Minister for Transport Services. It was interesting to hear him refer to silly little inquiries into silly little issues. I do not know how he can describe the imminent closure of the Casino to Murwillumbah railway line as a silly little issue. That is not what the people on the North Coast of New south Wales think. His remarks and the Government's pathetic excuses demean the seriousness of the Government's decision. The more that people know abut what the Minister thinks of them, the better. Only a few days ago he attacked the population of the Southern Highlands. Now he says that the closure of the Casino to Murwillumbah line is an absurd little issue.
He objects to what he describes as silly questions being asked by members of the upper House about whether particular CountryLink services will be maintained. Earlier in the House we had a discussion on questions and answers at public budget estimates hearings about whether CountryLink services would be maintained. Assurances were given, but they have been broken. In the debate in the other House, the honourable member for Tweed claimed that the idea of closing the Casino to Murwillumbah railway line was a beat-up by The Nationals. Incidentally, I claim authorship of the "napping Neville" epithet.
Mr Ian Cohen: It is all over the North Coast.
The Hon. JENNIFER GARDINER: They caught on very well. He fell asleep during the Governor's Speech in this House. He was caught napping. Now the people on the far North Coast ask: Is Neville Newell the last sleeper on the North Coast line? That has been put on posters and displayed on the far North Coast of New South Wales. It is true that CountryLink rail services are a vital public service for the people of rural and regional New South Wales. Over many months I, and other members, have talked to people on railway stations such as Tamworth railway station and the little station at Walcha Road. I have talked to people who use the rail service to attend doctors' appointments and to visit their family further down the line. When I ask them what the alternative to the rail service is for them they say, with tears in their eyes, "There is no alternative for me." It is an incredibly vital service.
As all honourable members know, to transfer older people from the rail service onto buses is totally unsatisfactory. It is not appropriate public transport for people with a disability or limited mobility. The Nationals are fundamentally opposed to the closure of CountryLink services and branch lines. We are committed to the services as a public right for people in rural and regional New South Wales. We believe that the Premier and the Minister for Transport Services are unfairly targeting CountryLink services for the axe. The Carr Labor Government seems intent on ripping the guts out of CountryLink services, shutting down travel centres, closing rail lines, and raising fares, despite taxpayers subsidising CountryLink services to a far lesser extent than they subsidise CityRail services.
According to the Minister's own ministerial inquiry into sustainable transport in New South Wales, CountryLink collects 38 per cent of its revenue from fares and other revenue, and CityRail collects 23 per cent. If there is any argument based on sustainability, why does not Sydney Labor cut CityRail services, instead of having a disproportionate load falling on country services? The Treasurer announced in the mini-budget the axing of the service between Casino and Murwillumbah.
We again heard the Minister for Transport Services raving on about the closure being the result of Federal Government policies. I do not think anyone in New South Wales believes that line, and hopefully the Government will abandon it before too long. By contrast, the Sydney Labor Government announced an allocation of $2.5 billion for CityRail in the mini-budget, including $1.5 billion to buy 498 new air-conditioned carriages for CityRail's fleet. The news about country rail services got worse when a memorandum was leaked from the Rail Infrastructure Corporation indicating that the Government plans to close four major grain lines at Gwabegar, Willbriggie, Rankin Springs and Burcher. Of course, those closures are in addition to the closure of the Murwillumbah to Casino line. That exacerbates the suspicion that non-metropolitan areas are being unfairly targeted.
Evidence from farmers groups, the Australian Wheat Board, and others indicates that the closure of those branch lines will affect regional economies and push thousands more trucks onto country roads. It will also shift a greater burden to council ratepayers. While it is always good to have Greens support for country issues, we hope they will extend that support by not attacking the industries that sustain some of those lines, such as broadacre farming and timber production, which are vital to rural economies. They will not be viable if they do not have access to railways and the railways will not survive without those industries as customers.
The Nationals believe that the Sydney Labor Government treats country people as second-class citizens. This Government may well go down in history as the most Sydney-centric Government in the history of this State. The Government has under-resourced and under-valued country rail services in recent years. Damage to roads and road safety issues are self-evident. The Nationals believe that the Government has a duty to fund and maintain rural freight lines and rail infrastructure throughout the State. The Nationals will continue to fight any Government moves to cut CountryLink rail services, which are vital for country residents. Any attempt by the Government to demean the importance of those services will demonstrate Mr Costa's arrogant treatment of the people who use them. The Opposition will continue to fight the Carr Labor Government's moves to cut country rail services. Honourable members on this side of the House will play a constructive role in the debate and will continue to ask questions that might get up the Minister's nose but will serve our constituents in the way they expect to be served.
The Hon. PETER BREEN [4.25 p.m.]: I support the motion and I am grateful for the opportunity to express my concern that the Carr Government has allowed CountryLink's rail infrastructure to fall into disrepair. I will focus my remarks on the Casino to Murwillumbah line. New South Wales can expect to soon have third-world rail services at the rate this Government is going. As the Hon. Jenny Gardiner said, Sydney's population continues to grow at an alarming rate and the city continues to draw valuable resources away from country areas.
The Carr Government has a policy of allowing the State's regional population to remain as it is or to decline while it pours money and resources into Sydney. That approach is further polluting the Sydney basin, damaging the city's natural environment, and placing greater pressure and stress on its citizens. In the five years to 2001 the population of New South Wales declined by 66,500 people. Most of them went to Queensland looking for what we on the North Coast could offer if only the Government would stop undermining our local industries and infrastructure. Of course, capital works and development money is all going into Sydney at the expense of country New South Wales. The Government is marginalising country people by starving them of resources.
Instead of allowing the decline of CountryLink rail services to continue, the Government should be learning from history and recognising that in high-growth areas, such as the North Coast, the development of the rail infrastructure inevitably promotes industry and expands the population base. I am particularly interested in the 15 key branch lines identified by the New South Wales Farmers Association and referred to in the motion. The cost of upgrading those important arteries to rural New South Wales may be as little as 10 per cent of the cost of purchasing the 498 air-conditioned rail carriages for the Sydney network identified in the mini-budget. Starving rural New South Wales of essential infrastructure funding is tantamount to declaring war on the bush. That war is completely unnecessary. History has shown that expansion follows the development of rail services, and northern New South Wales, in particular, could offer wonderful opportunities for the Government if it were a bit more enterprising.
I was interested to hear Minister Costa suggest that a rail corridor from Murwillumbah to the Gold Coast was not out of the question. He attempted to shift the responsibility to local government, but that would be unfair because that sort of development needs to be initiated at the State level. He at least indicated that he was amenable to the idea, and that gives some hope to those of us who see the potential of the area. The Casino to Murwillumbah line is one of the branch lines identified for closure next week, despite a firm promise by the Government that it would allow the service to continue until the end of the year so that other options could be considered.
The Federal Government has committed $50,000 for a feasibility study that will be available in a few weeks. That money will have been wasted if the service has already been closed by the State Government. It is unfortunate that the feasibility study was not identified earlier. I understand that the funding has been earmarked for some time, but an apparent lack of communication between the State and Federal governments has lead to this detrimental situation for the people of the North Coast.
The Government is closing a rail line serving the fastest population growth area in the State outside Sydney. The local population growth rate is approximately three times the national average. The area attracts two million visitors each year and the Government wants to close the rail service. That is the kind of insanity one would expect to find in a diagnostic and statistical manual. The madness is not confined to the decision to close the Casino to Murwillumbah rail service. Just two weeks before the fateful decision, two trainloads of sleepers were delivered for planned upgrading and maintenance of the track. However, the upgrade and maintenance section of the State Rail Authority had not been informed by the slash-and-burn section that the line would not carry trains after 17 May. That is an extraordinary bureaucratic mix-up. I am not talking about a few sleepers. The two trains delivered 2,073 sleepers between Casino and Lismore, 2,460 sleepers between Lismore and Byron Bay, and 3,060 sleepers between Burringbar and Murwillumbah.
I understand from the Federal Minister for Social Services, Mr Larry Anthony, that the sleepers were date stamped in April. For one section of State Rail, the upgrade and maintenance section, to be operating to the extent of delivering sleepers to the line would suggest that, certainly up until the $376 million was taken out of the State budget, the Government had intended to carry out upgrade and maintenance work on the line. To suddenly close the line on the basis of that intervention by the Federal Government is unreasonable, particularly given the $1.1 billion additional surplus in the State budget, which has now been identified. Even at this stage, given that extra money which has now been identified, there is no reason why the Government could not revisit the situation and determine that the North Coast is one area in which the train service has enormous future potential for both business and the local community.
It would be appallingly short-sighted of the Government if it were to close the line. Once rail lines are closed it is very difficult to open them again. That is the critical point. One the problems is that there are many bridges between Casino and Murwillumbah. But if the Government were to maintain the bridges, even for the next 20 years, and allow the natural development in the area to continue, there would be a booming industry there as well as a booming trade for the train service, particularly if the line is eventually extended to the Gold Coast. It is short-sighted of the Government to exclude all these options.
The Minister said something about the upper House which I feel compelled to respond to. He said that the upper House is a waste of time and that if Michael Egan was not here it could be closed down. I am not aware of the connection with Michael Egan. The Minister also said, "They are silly committees with nothing to do with the public process." For people who are disaffected by government decisions, the public process is to come to this House. Any community group in New South Wales that is involved in an issue at a significant level would come to this House to articulate their concerns, either to members of the Opposition or crossbench members.
The Hon. Jennifer Gardiner: There's no point in going to the lower House member for Tweed, for example.
The Hon. PETER BREEN: The Hon. Jennifer Gardiner makes the important point that the lower House member for Tweed has not been actively involved in this issue; he is literally asleep on the job. Indeed, I like the description of him as "the last sleeper". In New South Wales, when the community is adversely affected by a government decision it has to come to the place where its concerns can be articulated, and that place is this House, in terms of both its committee structure and its general business. Committees have the power to summon witnesses and hear evidence about the issues to get to the truth about what is happening, to ensure that we are not entirely bamboozled by government spin. Through the committee system we have the opportunity to interview witnesses and find out what is really going on. I challenge Michael Costa to monitor the committee process. However, the committee that has been convened to inquire into this issue will be able to demonstrate the importance of the rail service from Casino to Murwillumbah.
Ultimately, I am sure the decision of the committee will cause the Government to look at the issue again. The Casino-Murwillumbah area is an important part of the State with a high growth rate that is three times the national average. It would be short-sighted of the Government if it were to close the rail service. I hope that as a result of what happens in this House this becomes the focal point for concerns about the area. I hope that the House will be able to demonstrate, through this motion and the committee process, that there is an important community need and that we, as representatives of the community, have an obligation to respond.
The Hon. JON JENKINS [4.34 p.m.]: Murwillumbah is the closest major town to where I live. Although I perceive the Greens to be mostly opportunistic and often hypocritical, it does not mean that everything they do is without some merit. I am very disappointed with the performance of my local member, Mr Neville Newell, on this and many other issues, not the least of which are local medical facilities, the Tugun bypass, and a host of other issues that have been neglected in that area. I attended the protest in Grafton, together with Mr Steve Cansdell, the honourable member for Clarence, and I was pleased to see the many people who turned up that day to protest the closure of the line. I was also pleased to attend, together with the Hon. Catherine Cusack and the Hon. Melinda Pavey, the protest train that left Murwillumbah. A protest was also held in Murwillumbah on 5 May. In all three of those community events Mr Newell was nowhere to be seen.
The Hon. Catherine Cusack: It's a shame for this Government.
The Hon. JON JENKINS: It is a shame, because it is Mr Newell's local community. Regardless of what flak he was going to cop, he should have been there to support his community. I am disappointed that he was not there. I wish to read onto the record a letter I wrote to Warren Polglase, the Mayor of Tweed, on 28 April. Headed "An open letter of support for the Murwillumbah rail link", it reads:
I cannot be at the Protest at Murwillumbah on Wednesday May 5 as Parliament is sitting.
My father is a returned veteran with some substantial disability and lives at Kingscliff. All of his immediate family live in Sydney. He cannot use the bus services nor can he even travel any great distance with me in a motor vehicle. He has used the trains as his main method of getting to Sydney. I know of other disabled people who also have no other alternative travel facility to Sydney: in particular those in wheelchairs will be severely affected.
However this is not just about my family rather it is about the further loss of another vital regional service:
Inadequate medical facilities
Inadequate major highways
and now no trains! This is just ripping the heart out of regional New South Wales!
I support the protests and would implore Mr Carr and Mr Costa to re-examine this issue and not to close the rail link.
The Minister for Transport Services referred to the falling patronage of the service. That falling patronage has been caused by reduced services.
The Hon. Catherine Cusack: It's not a falling patronage.
The Hon. JON JENKINS: I recall that it used to take about 11 hours to get to Sydney, and now the journey takes about 13 or 14 hours. The condition of the rail line, the bridges, and the line itself have degraded to the point where travelling times have been extended. In other words, the services have been reduced. I remind the Minister that the Queensland Government recently spent billions of dollars restoring rail services to the Gold Coast, which is only about 30 kilometres, as the crow flies, from Murwillumbah railway station. In this growth area perhaps we need more investment, rather than less investment. Finally, I remind the Minister that the removal of the service will place thousands of extra buses and vehicles on both the highway and the road to Casino, which are already dangerous. Heaven forbid that it should happen again, but the vision of terrible bus crashes on the highway around Grafton still haunt many local people. The cost of cutting the service could actually turn out to be greater than the cost of maintaining it.
The Hon. CATHERINE CUSACK [4.37 p.m.]: Firstly, I congratulate the Greens on moving the motion. In the Northern Rivers region all political parties, including the Greens, have been working in close co-operation. Hard and co-operative work was done on the protest train. Some of Ms Lee Rhiannon's comments demonstrated, however, that sometimes it is tough to work with the Greens.
Ms Lee Rhiannon: But you did close branch lines when you were in government.
The Hon. CATHERINE CUSACK: No, we did not. We altered the service to Sydney; we changed it to the XPT. It is not fair to compare the policies of the Carr Government with the policies of the Coalition Government. I believe the more significant point is the Government's dishonesty in dealing with this issue, and I absolutely deny that any Coalition government would behave in the way this Government has behaved on this issue. The general point I wish to make is that the cross-partisanship in our area has been remarkable; indeed, it is unprecedented. People like Sue Dakin of Country Labor have been very much involved, there is a real unity of purpose, and the North Coast community has bonded in a way that few people can remember having occurred in the past. I do not think even floods and famine have generated the sense of spirit that this issue has generated in the area. I will not deal with all the remarks of the Minister, but I remind members of his constant claim of low patronage of the service. The comment is enormously frustrating for people who know the service, as well as for the staff who every night load onto the train 100 or 200 passengers at just one railway station, Murwillumbah.
I emphasise that the branch line is not just Casino to Murwillumbah but passes through a number of stations, including those at Lismore, Byron Bay, Mullumbimby and Murwillumbah. All of those stations effectively will be closed by the loss of its only passenger service. For a population of over 400,000 in that region, this is their local rail service. I note that tomorrow three mayors representing that population will have the innovative opportunity of meeting the Minister for Transport. The Minister says there has been a $5 million loss. I question that figure, but hopefully the upper House inquiry will get to the bottom of that. However, notwithstanding the $5 million loss-if one assumes that is the correct figure-the train service carries 333,000 passengers a year. According to the passenger service timetable , the train leaves at 9:50 p.m., gets to Casino after midnight, and arrives in Sydney in the morning. The service picks up passengers along the branch line, but very few people—maybe five or six¯get on the train between Casino and Sydney in the early hours of the morning. Why should they not have that service?
This is our local service. Why should we not have access to a train service? The repeated statement that the service is underutilised is absolute rubbish. It is difficult to get on the train in peak hour as it is extensively used by backpackers travelling to Byron Bay. The area has a large retired population who want to keep in touch with their families in Sydney and elsewhere, and there are seachange people whose families in Sydney want to keep in touch with them. People have to travel to medical appointments and the like. The $5 million loss, spread across 333,000 passenger trips per year, works out at $35 per passenger. That figure can be compared with the $2,500 per capita subsidy that is about to be invested in Sydney's rail system.
I do not begrudge the need for a proper rail system in Sydney, but I ask why we, residents of the largest, strongest and fastest-growing region of the State, cannot have our rail service too? I totally reject statements about low passenger numbers and about per capita cost, and I cannot get my head around the Minister's constant claim that it is the least viable service. Compared with the Broken Hill service, which carries perhaps 7,000 passengers a year at a loss of $2 million, I would back a service carrying 333,000 passengers a year at a loss of $5 million. It just does not add up. I hope the inquiry will get to the bottom of it, because there is no other process, contrary to what the Minister said, whereby the community can get the information that it wants in order to understand and have confidence in the decision. That is why it is so important to have an upper House inquiry that can ask questions and expect answers.
The process everyone was relying on was the moratorium that was promised by the Government last December. Look at how unreliable that commitment proved to be. The upper House inquiry is an act of desperation by our community, and it has been very well supported and is very much looked forward to by the community. People are trying to get information and answers about why this has happened. Nobody believes this is just, and nobody believes the figures and the information that the Government is giving us are accurate. The Hon. Peter Breen referred to 8,000 steel sleepers that have been delivered up and down our line for long-awaited and much-needed maintenance. My understanding is that those sleepers are valued at approximately $40 each because they have been specially heat sealed. That $320,000 worth of equipment was delivered after the announcement was made to close the branch line, and it is now just lying around up and down the line. And that does not include the cost of the items that fit it all together, which I believe are referred to as "jewellery".
The maintenance crews who were on standby to lay those steel sleepers found that their work was cancelled, and they had to sit idly and do nothing. Their time was wasted, and the sleepers now lie around, rusting. A full steel bridge that was delivered for erection now lies in the grass of a paddock at Woodlawn. Added to the mind-boggling waste and mismanagement of CountryLink services is the sense of injustice that such mismanagement is a major cause of the closure of our branch line. Honourable members have referred to the protest train. I congratulate Sue Dakin, Thomas George, Don Page and Melinda Pavey, and also Jan Barham from the Greens, the Hon. Peter Breen, the Hon. Dr Arthur Chesterfield-Evans and numerous people from other parties who participated in riding on the protest train. It was quite an event, and I think it became a real focus for the community. Most of all I acknowledge the role of Russell Eldridge, the editor of the Northern Star. Russell is a very laid-back country bloke; he is intelligent but he is not aggressive in any way, and the way he feels about the treatment of our community I think is a pretty fair gauge for the Government. We have had disputes in the past about a number of issues—not to mention his reporting of the war in Iraq—but I can say that Russell is a very fair-minded man who feels that our community has been sold a dummy by the Government. I appreciate his commitment to our community and the role that he is playing to assist with all of this.
The thrust of my remarks and my complaint against the Government is that I believe the decision to close the branch line is a fraud by the Carr Government against our community at many levels. The first is the deceit of the Government in promising over a long period to save, retain and enhance the Murwillumbah service. This began in 1990 when, as Leader of the Opposition, the now Premier rode a protest train to Murwillumbah to support retention of the sleeper service. His shadow Minister, Mr Brian Langton, led a protest in Murwillumbah on that very issue. Labor did very well out of its campaign on North Coast rail services, reaping tens of thousands of extra votes for the upper House, but also during Federal campaigns for Richmond and Page and in the 1996 by-election for Clarence. Victory in that seat was a watershed event for Mr Carr and his Government, and a great deal of goodwill in the area has been built up as a result of numerous promises made to our community on the rail issue over many years. It is incomprehensible to me that any person with a shred of honour could, with that record, subsequently close altogether both freight and passenger rail services on that branch line.
The second fraud was perpetrated in December last year when the Government pledged there would be a 12-month moratorium on CountryLink service cuts. In my view, the breaking of this clear-cut commitment by the Government has stunned even the most hardened and cynical of constituents in the Northern Rivers. The sense of duplicity that people from the region feel is at the heart of the anger. It is the reason why all parties, including our local Labor Party members, have banded together to fight for our service in a way nobody can recall ever happening. The breach of promise by the Carr Government brings disgrace on our profession as parliamentarians, and it has damaged public confidence in the democratic process in a way I have not seen before.
Indeed, I stood on the platform last Saturday to farewell the Northern Rivers railway carriages, which were evicted from our branch line on the weekend. The owner, Mr Warren Judd, was told to move his train by Saturday or else he would have to get the carriages out with semitrailers. As I surveyed the departing carriages my sense of disbelief that the Government was breaking its moratorium commitment really sank in. I have been quite naive for the past few months because I could not believe that a breach of promise of this magnitude was going to be followed through. In more than 20 years of working in New South Wales politics I have never seen such cynicism and dishonour. I believe that the Government needs to think very carefully about this as it is on an altogether different level to what anybody has experienced before.
The biggest fraud¯the root cause of all of our country rail problems¯is in the rundown in maintenance of our rail infrastructure, so graphically recorded by the Premier in his diary. In that diary, which was published last year in Marilyn Dodkin's book Bob Carr: The Reluctant Leader, the Premier said that Carl Scully had complained to him that the rail system was being "sweated" of any maintenance funding to such an extent that our railways would "choke up in a multidimensional systems failure". I suppose that is what many people feel is happening today. As much as the Minister wants to go on and on about Commonwealth funding, I think everybody in New South Wales knows that the real heart of the problem is in this underfunding of maintenance. The Casino to Murwillumbah branch line is not quite in the disgraceful state that some members may have been conned into believing. The rail line between Casino and Lismore is fine. I am not able to understand why the Government is stopping the train at Casino and not stopping it at Lismore, given so many people from Lismore use it.
That is a mystery I will explore in the inquiry. The main problem is that a number of old, wooden bridges need to be replaced. That will be an expensive exercise, but other parts of the line are in outstanding condition. The line carries an XPT train, which is the equivalent of a jumbo jet landing at Sydney airport. The line is substantially of very high quality. I accept that it requires maintenance and it is heartbreaking to see steel sleepers and bridges lying in paddocks up and down the line, while maintenance crews drink tea instead of undertaking that work. However, it is not in a diabolical, irretrievable state, by any means.
On 24 August 2001 the Treasurer gave a commitment to the New South Wales Farmers Association that the sale of FreightCorp would assist the funding of a $6 billion upgrade for a four-year program of rail maintenance and new capital expenditure. Last year I asked the Treasurer a question—one that is being asked by all communities throughout New South Wales—about the proceeds from the sale of FreightCorp. I asked, "Where has the money gone?" The Treasurer gave me a partial answer and later told me that the Government received $804 million plus 18.9 per cent of National Rail in exchange for the sale of FreightCorp. In cash terms the Government received only $365 million in cash, after transaction costs had been taken into account and retiring $245 million of debt. That $365 million in cash is vastly different from $6 billion! The Treasurer said:
The proceeds of the sale of FreightCorp were to help the Government provide significant subsidies to the NSW rail sector—
I note that he is now talking about New South Wales, not country rail, which is a slight change in the language—
planned for the period 2001-02 to 2004-05 (the $6 billion plan). These included funding related to new capital investments and a range of operating subsidies including CSO's of $206 million a year to the Rail Infrastructure Corporation for the country rail network.
In summary $532 million was provided under the plan for the country network.
That was over a two-year period, way short of $6 billion. I am even unsure where the $532 million has gone. The only explanation is that the $6 billion commitment to infrastructure upgrades has been substituted for spending on community service obligations. "Six billion dollar plan" rhymes with Six Million Dollar Man, and it is just as fictional. I class this as a type of fraud, perpetrated on the community as justification for the sale of FreightCorp, which provided major revenue for the track. With respect to the sustainability of the track into the future, the Government's decision to sell FreightCorp has come home to roost against North Coast residents and that is extremely unjust
The final area of deception is the Country Labor rubbish that the people of New South Wales have had to put up with in recent years. It ranks with the Labor Listens campaigns, which Mr Carr ran in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. They, too, turned out to be a paddock full of bullfrogs. I feel genuinely sorry for Country Labor members in my region. Their sense of dismay and betrayal is even more acute and painful than that experienced by the rest of us—and that is pretty intense. Many have given a life of work, thought and support to the Labor Party. They have stood, proudly bearing Labor colours, and fought for the principles they believed Labor stood for. Not only have they been betrayed, the Minister's office has treated them like lepers and pests. They initiated the protest train and were told, in a most disgraceful way by the Minister's office, to cancel the train. That was a shocking way for the Government to treat its own party members and demonstrates its inability to understand the issue.
The Government's inability to treat it