Wednesday, 22 June 2022


Murray Basin rail project

Murray Basin rail project

Ms CUPPER (Mildura) (19:13): (6442) My adjournment matter is for the Minister for Ports and Freight, and the action I seek is for the minister to convene a ministerial task force to undertake an agriculture industry development plan for the Mallee. Right now stakeholders in our community are divided about the outcome of the Murray Basin rail project. This ill-fated project was announced and budgeted by the Napthine coalition government in 2014. It promised a five-stage upgrade of the network that included the standardisation of almost 1000 kilometres of track and a raft of benefits to our farmers. Several months later, in November 2014, the Napthine government was voted out and the Andrews government was voted in.

In 2019 the Andrews government backed in the project and the costing that was budgeted by Premier Napthine. In 2017 the federal coalition—I think under Turnbull—backed in the costing too, agreeing to match the $220 million state contribution to ensure the $440 million project would be completed in full. So three governments followed that costing advice, no doubt in good faith, but unfortunately it was bad advice as the Victorian Auditor-General identified the project was grossly undercosted. A more realistic figure would have been at least $2 billion. The upshot was a false promise to our community.

The rescoped project is now almost complete—some stakeholders are satisfied with the outcome; others are livid. Whether it should have been rescoped or whether the state government should have closed out the project are questions of legitimate debate, and I get that, but if we dwell on the wreckage of the Murray Basin rail project for too long, we risk missing new opportunities. We need a new deal for freight, we need all stakeholders to design it and we need to retain our vision for full standardisation, and we must identify and incorporate other incremental steps along the way because we do not want to miss the quick wins and the low-hanging fruit, according to certain industry operators. We need a forum that helps us to hear from all stakeholders in that methodical, transparent way. We need it to be convened by people with authority to make decisions. We need a forum that sets long-term visions and clear benchmarks, not just in relation to freight but also other key drivers and enablers of our ag industry, which are in the remit of the state government.

In my time as the member for Mildura the state government has delivered some significant and commendable wins for our ag industry. We have seen worker accommodation funded in Robinvale and Mildura, improvements to the Robinvale-Sea Lake Road, standardisation of the Mildura rail line, investments in the SuniTAFE SMART Farm, improvements to telecommunications infrastructure and important concessions on water reform, but it has not always been clear how certain projects were identified and prioritised. What we need is a coordinated, connected and integrated approach. Mallee farmers are exceptional. They farmed a desert. They are innovative, productive and near on indestructible. When they win, the state wins. I look forward to working with the minister on advancing this cause.