Queensland Premier Anna Bligh has rubbished claims the $8 billion cross-river rail project is a pipedream, hitting back at opposition predictions the unfunded plan to transform Brisbane’s transport network would never happen.
In an end-of-year interview with brisbanetimes.com.au, Ms Bligh described the flagship underground rail project as crucial while admitting she faced an uphill election battle next year.
Ms Bligh said she would ultimately accept the people’s judgment but vowed to fight to hold onto the role she still loved, placing jobs, education and environmental protection at the centre of her re-election pitch.
A conceptual image of the Albert Street station. Photo: Supplied
During the wide-ranging interview, coming a few days before she goes on Christmas leave, Ms Bligh:
|–||Insisted she was on track to achieve her 100,000 new jobs pledge despite the inclusion of part-time positions in her tally;|
|–||Argued Queensland’s debt levels were “very sustainable” contrary to opposition criticism;|
|–||Defended a ban on same-sex couples adopting by saying Queenslanders had still had “very conservative views”; and|
|–||Vowed to serve a full term as South Brisbane MP if Labor lost government, and nominated the introduction of the prep year as her proudest legacy.|
Ms Bligh named the $8 billion cross-river rail project as one of her top infrastructure priorities for southeast Queensland in coming years.
The project, which is yet to secure any federal funding and was delayed by two years following the floods, would involve an 18 kilometre north-south railway line, of which 10 kilometres would be in underground tunnels from Yeerongpilly on the southside to Victoria Park on the northside.
A conceptual image of the Woolloongabba station. Photo: Supplied
The project would feature four new underground train stations at Boggo Road, Woolloongabba, Albert Street and Roma Street, two new surface stations at Yeerongpilly and the RNA Exhibition Grounds, and upgrades to the Rocklea and Moorooka stations.
Liberal National Party leader Campbell Newman earlier this month dismissed the project as an “$8 billion unfunded fantasy” that would never happen, saying the public did not want their money wasted.
He argued cross-river capacity issues could be dealt with through other, cheaper measures in the medium term, such as running trains closer together and building new platforms at South Bank and South Brisbane stations.
Ms Bligh said the government was working with expert rail network engineers to find ways to deal with the interim capacity issues, expected to cause problems by 2016, but the cross-river rail project was “critical” to adequately deal with growing needs across the network.
“While it’s a crossing across the Brisbane River, it’s actually critical to passenger and freight movements across the network from Coolangatta through to Gympie, and that then affects every other part of the suburban network in the southeast,” she said.
“It is important, it is a huge project and it’s not one that’s going to happen overnight, but I believe it will happen. I believe it’s critical to the network, and it will also change the city, and for the better.”
Ms Bligh said interim measures to tackle the Merivale Rail Bridge CBD capacity issues would be no substitute for the cross-river rail project, now slated to be completed by 2020.
“There’s no doubt that rail capacity issues can and will be addressed [before the major project is completed],” she said.
“We can extend the life of the current rail network before it reaches capacity by some changes to how the network is utilised, but we are the fastest-growing part of Australia. To think that you can do all of that by some simple changes on the network without ultimately significantly expanding capacity is simply a fairy tale.”
The project is expected to undergo another assessment by federal government advisory body Infrastructure Australia this February, raising the possibility of an election eve funding deal.
But Ms Bligh would not directly comment on the prospect of securing federal funding, saying only that the government had worked hard to get the plans to the “shovel-ready” stage because projects that were not set to begin had no chance of clinching funds.
Tough job ahead
Published opinion polls show the Labor government is on track for a crushing defeat at the next election, but Ms Bligh said she would fight the “uphill battle” to persuade voters to stick with Labor.
She indicated she would go to the election “with big commitments around jobs, around education and around the protection of our environment”.
If so, it won’t be the first time jobs have been at the centre of an election campaign.
In March 2009, Ms Bligh promised jobs for “100,000 breadwinners in 100,000 Queensland homes” during her next term in office, but she has since been criticised by the LNP for including part-time jobs in her progress tally.
This week, Ms Bligh said about 95,000 jobs had been created, meaning the government was on track to meet the target by the end of March 2012.
She said job creation was supported by government decisions to maintain infrastructure spending, support the new liquefied natural gas industry, but the opposition last week said “only 51,300 full-time breadwinning jobs” had been created so far.
Asked why she didn’t make clear to voters that the 100,000 jobs promise would include positions of as little as an hour a week, Ms Bligh dismissed the criticism as “a bit of LNP propaganda”.
Ms Bligh said: “Does that 100,000 target include part-time jobs? Well yes it does, but you go and tell a two-parent working family that the second income earner is not a breadwinner.
“That’s the thinking of the 1950s not the 21st century.
“There are many families out there that are paying their mortgage, that are paying their school fees, because one or other of the parents has a job that is not 40 hours a week, and I’m not going to walk away from those people.”
Ms Bligh also sought to defend her government against another key plank of the LNP’s attack, the state’s rising debt levels.
The state is heading towards $85 billion debt in 2014/15 – an amount Treasurer Andrew Fraser said in June would mean $100 million a week in interest payments.
But Ms Bligh said the government had a big revenue base and the debt level was “very sustainable”, adding it would not be sustainable to walk away from infrastructure projects and jobs.
“When it comes to borrowings, we currently have repayment on our loans of around 9 per cent of our income,” she said.
“I can tell you anybody out there who’s paying a mortgage would love to have repayments on their loans of 9 per cent of their income.”
Asked whether there was a long-term plan to cut the debt, Ms Bligh said she was committed to returning the budget to surplus by 2015, which would then provide opportunities to further cut borrowings.
Ms Bligh insisted voters could trust her, despite no talk of asset sales or scrapping the fuel subsidy during the 2009 election campaign.
The Premier said she went to the last election in “extreme” economic conditions and she ultimately made the decisions she did to protect jobs.
It seems, however, Ms Bligh’s job is now at risk.
“I get up every day loving this job,” Ms Bligh said.
“If the people of Queensland decide next year or at any other time that they want someone else to do it then I will accept their decision. But right now as premier of Queensland I have a job to do.
“I would not have put myself forward at the last election if I didn’t believe I could do it at the tough times as well as the good times. And even on bad days this is still an incredible opportunity, an opportunity of a lifetime and I never forget that.”
Ms Bligh will go on annual leave with Queensland Health troubles still on her mind, following an alleged $16 million embezzlement case that exposed weaknesses in the department’s financial controls.
On Monday, Ms Bligh announced a drastic plan to dismantle Queensland Health, splitting it into two entities, one focused on frontline services such as hospitals and the other focused entirely on corporate activities such as payroll and information technology.
Ms Bligh told brisbanetimes.com.au the creation of two distinct health bodies would provide a chance to wipe the slate clean and “completely change the culture”, arguing the organisation was beyond repair in its current form and frontline workers were let down by corporate office.
As reported yesterday, Ms Bligh defended successive health ministers for failing to fix the “entrenched” problems within Queensland Health headquarters, implying they had been more preoccupied with fixing frontline services than tackling corporate office issues.
Same-sex couple rights
The government did have some successes during the final parliamentary week of the year.
Two weeks ago, the final parliamentary sitting was marked by the passage of the same-sex civil union laws championed by Mr Fraser, along with criticism over the LNP’s absence during the passage of three other bills the previous day.
When most Labor MPs joined with independent Peter Wellington to pass the law allowing same-sex civil unions, Ms Bligh said the government had an “unwavering commitment” to a fair go and equality for all Queenslanders.
However, Ms Bligh is not keen to pursue changes to the state’s adoption law which automatically disqualifies same-sex couples from being considered as adoptive parents, in contrast to foster care and surrogacy arrangements.
She said there was a difference between the state placing adopted children into a particular family and people in same-sex relationships deciding to have children themselves.
“The parents who give their children up to the state for adoption expect the state to find them the home that they believe is the best possible one,” Ms Bligh said.
“People I think in the community still have very conservative views about that.”
Reflecting on her time in government, Ms Bligh said the introduction of the prep year was the achievement she was most proud of, arguing it would leave the longest positive legacy for state.
She would not nominate a biggest mistake or regret, saying she was focused on the future.
Ms Bligh said if she was elected in South Brisbane but Labor did not win the state-wide poll, she would stay on as a local MP.
The election is due around February or March but could theoretically be held as late as June.