Suburban Rail Loop Bill 2021 Second Reading

16 Sep 2021

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I rise to speak on the Suburban Rail Loop Bill 2021. This is a bill that will establish the Suburban Rail Loop Authority as a statutory authority to plan and deliver both the Suburban Rail Loop—the tunnel and the trains and the stations and what have you—and the surrounding precincts for development, which is obviously very critical to this project. It gives the Minister for the Suburban Rail Loop and the government very significant planning powers when it comes to those precincts, and it also makes a number of changes to the Major Transport Projects Facilitation Act 2009 which will be in place for all major projects.

The Suburban Rail Loop, as everyone knows, is a massive train line, a massive tunnel, around the city due to be completed at some point around 2050 or what have you, costing between $50 billion and $100 billion—I think those are the estimates. The Greens certainly welcome significant investment in public transport and the aim of this project to create that polycentric city which is often talked about. This project certainly goes to this.

I will make a few points about the Suburban Rail Loop. Number one: the development of this project—this very, very expensive, very grand vision and project—must go alongside continuing, and in fact increasing, the investment within the current metropolitan train network. If this is going to be a train line that connects every other train line in the city or every major train line—and I take the note from, I think it was, the member for Sandringham that the Sandringham line should also be considered a major train line in the city—then no, we cannot ignore the existing network and the existing outdated, unreliable, ageing technology on those rail lines, because there is no point in having the big Suburban Rail Loop with its new automatic trains running at high frequency if the connecting trains are running every 20 minutes or half an hour during the day. That will add 40 minutes to your journey if you have to get on, if you are using one of the examples that the member for Burwood used. That is not going to get people on our trains, nor if there is overcrowding that is preventing people getting on the trains in the first place or if there is unreliability which means that people are not catching them. To get the best out of the Suburban Rail Loop the investment in our existing train lines is going to have to continue. This cannot be used as a reason or excuse to put off the significant investment that is still needed in our existing train network. I would estimate that there is probably about $50 billion-plus needed—probably similar to the initial stated cost of the Suburban Rail Loop—for upgrades that need to happen to the existing rail network over the next 10 years or so. This is for everything, including the high-capacity signalling across the entire network. Obviously it is being introduced on the Metro Tunnel. It does need to actually go across the entire network.

Melbourne Metro 2 again is a highly recommended project by a number of experts—Infrastructure Victoria, the City of Melbourne and a number of other advocates. Certainly this project cannot be delayed any longer. I know a lot of advocates have been pushing for it to start as soon as possible—for the planning to commence and for it to be completed by the end of the decade. That is a really critical project that will unlock capacity across the north and the west and feed into Fishermans Bend. That cannot be put off because of the Suburban Rail Loop. And of course you have got all the other sorts of electrifications and track duplications and more level crossing removals, which I am sure the government loves. They all need to continue. They go hand in hand—

Mr Pearson: Are you opposed to the level crossing removals?

Mr HIBBINS: What are you talking about? Are you even listening?

The ACTING SPEAKER (Ms Suleyman): Order! Member for Prahran, through the Chair.

Mr HIBBINS: Acting Speaker, I just ask that if the member for Essendon is going to interject, he actually listen to what I am saying in the first place. So that is going to have to continue. I was actually saying that they are going to make sure that the level crossing removals continue, which I am sure the government loves. I am actually saying that they should continue.

Mr Pearson: Do you love them like we love them? That’s the question.

Mr HIBBINS: I do not think I could; that is a high standard to set, if I could love them as much as you guys. Send me an invite to the ribbon cutting or something like that and maybe I will. But look, they go hand in hand; a world-class metro goes hand in hand with the Suburban Rail Loop. High-frequency public transport will be needed to ensure that the Suburban Rail Loop actually realises its full potential. That is absolutely critically important.

I think a number of members have come in here and pointed out other public transport projects that they would like to see also being built, and it is a reasonable ask, I think, for communities, for residents, now to say, ‘Look, if you can spend $50 billion to $100 billion on the giant tunnel, well then, those small, easy-to-fix transport issues like your local pedestrian crossing, your tram stop that’s inaccessible to parents with prams or people with a disability or those separated bike lanes that so many people need in the communities—they need to be fixed, and they should be fixed, and they can’t be just left unfixed whilst we’ve got billions of dollars being spent elsewhere’. There are hundreds of smaller projects; I am sure all members could point to them. I think it is fair for people to say, ‘Look, if you can build this giant $50 billion to $100 billion tunnel, well then, our smaller projects’ needs should be fixed as well’.

Now, the development of the Suburban Rail Loop was, let us face it, not ideal—suboptimal, if you could talk in transport bureaucracy. It was developed without the Department of Transport in secret in the absence of an overarching transport plan. It just happened to run through a few marginal seats or the next set of long seats to get, which of course the member for Burwood said obviously voters were very excited about at the next election, and I am sure there were probably a few focus groups involved too. But I would just point out that in developing a project like this—again, as the Victorian Auditor-General’s Office and the Victorian Auditor-General pointed out—in the absence of a plan, again there is the risk of not getting the full benefits of the project itself, the Suburban Rail Loop itself. It must be viewed in the context of an entire statewide plan rather than just an individual project to ensure the full benefits of the Suburban Rail Loop are realised.

It risks of course the big risks of cost blowouts and what have you, and I am concerned that the government now in managing those is looking to de-scope some other projects or not get the best outcome that is possible to save money. That is a concern. And I will point out as well that we also need to look at the bigger picture, the wider picture, of what we are actually trying to achieve here. Is it cutting carbon emissions? Is it mode share—reducing the share of cars on the road? Is it reducing pollution? On the one hand we have got the Suburban Rail Loop. Yes, the statement is it is going to take hundreds of thousands of cars off the road, but then just up the road the North East Link is putting 100 000 cars back on the road—more cars. So which is it: are we taking cars off the road or are we putting cars on the road? And that is where a clear, established transport plan for the state with clear aims of mode share, of emissions reduction, of pollution reduction comes into play to make sure of the benefits and that there is a clear vision and it is not simply individual projects or an individual project but in fact an entire holistic vision for the state meeting those targets.

Now, one of the main parts of this bill is the declaration of land and related precincts as the Suburban Rail Loop planning areas, and this means that areas around the station will be under the control of the Suburban Rail Loop Authority. And this provides for the then Minister for Planning or the Minister for the Suburban Rail Loop to be able to approve developments and what have you without the normal checks and balances of environmental assessment or planning laws, and of course this is of concern. Once an area is declared or proposed for development as a loop development area, it is all systems go and powers are handed to the planning minister and the Suburban Rail Loop minister. The authority will be exempt from normal notice and publication requirements that apply to the development of planning scheme amendments if it is deemed warranted or in the interests of Victoria or any part of Victoria to make such an exemption appropriate by the planning minister. And, as is already possible with major projects under the Major Transport Projects Facilitation Act 2009, these planning scheme amendments will not be subject to revocation by Parliament when they are tabled. Now, we are talking about very large areas of land across Melbourne that will be under the control of the minister without the need to go through thorough community engagement, local planning laws or environmental assessments, and this is of concern.

Certainly this is a significant project. The areas around the stations which are earmarked for developments are going to have significant and long-lasting effects on communities, and it is important that local planning laws and local communities are respected. There is no doubt that there is a trend now from this government to centralise planning authority to give themselves more powers over communities. We see it in this development facilitation program, which is happening under the cover of COVID, where the minister is calling in projects. We have got plans to reform the planning scheme to give the planning minister more power and to take away third-party rights for projects it has deemed of state significance. This is of concern, and it is certainly a trend of this government to centralise power when it comes to planning. I just point out to the government that if it wants more certainty, if it wants a more streamlined planning system, it should look at the planning system as a whole and move to one that is more prescriptive, a more mandated planning scheme that gives everyone confidence in terms of what can be developed where and the size and the scale rather than, quite frankly, the porous discretionary scheme that we have now, and not just exempt itself from local planning laws because it does not like them.

Another concern around this bill is the ability to compulsorily acquire land, including recreational land such as cultural, sporting and recreational or similar facilities, which are currently prohibited from acquisition. So there is a concern around the potential loss of valuable community green space. The bill also extends the application of the facilitation act to allow for the potential compulsory acquisition of land that is under native title, which is concerning. It also grants the loop project exemptions from protecting the Yarra River, just as other major projects are exempt. So it allows the project to function without the need to act consistently with any part of the Yarra strategic plan or the Yarra protection principles, which, again, undermines the work that is being done to protect the Yarra. This is, again, part of the pattern of the government wanting to bypass environmental laws and environmental protection when it comes to major projects.

There is in this bill expansion of the powers of the Major Transport Projects Facilitation Act for all projects. That is a range of measures, but the Major Transport Projects Facilitation Act itself is something that the Greens opposed at the time when it was introduced back in 2009. It basically meant that 11 bits of environmental and planning law were subsumed by a new piece of legislation that gave the Premier and the Minister for Planning essentially absolute power. I mean, let us just look at the acts that were subsumed by this, or taken out of the equation: the Coastal Management Act 1995, the Conservation, Forests and Lands Act 1987, the Environment Protection Act 1970, the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988, the Forests Act 1958, the Heritage Act 2017, the National Parks Act 1975, the Planning and Environment Act 1987, the Road Management Act 2004, the Water Act 1989 and the Wildlife Act 1975—and it is really telling that the government is now making changes to give itself more powers for major projects but it is not acting on the multiple independent recommendations that have occurred over the last decade to strengthen the environment effects laws for infrastructure.

We have some of the weakest environment effects laws in the country. They have been called a rubber stamp—a rubber stamp for destruction. They are not in there to protect the environment but actually just simply to facilitate development that could put the environment at risk. It does not necessarily mean stopping projects, although that should be the power of our environment effects laws. They should be strong laws to ensure that when we have infrastructure it is built in a way that does not significantly or negatively impact our environment. So, as recommended by parliamentary committees in this place and by the Auditor-General, we need stronger environment effects statements, environment effects laws, for major infrastructure. They need to be strengthened. They need to give, yes, powers to stop bad projects, but also when there are conditions put on projects, they need to be binding and with significant penalties for breaches. I think the best example is the North East Link. The EES made some recommendations, and the minister essentially ignored them, with a significant environmental impact upon that project. One would have thought that in embarking on the Big Build the government would have actually taken the time to improve those laws as recommended, as I have stated, many times over the past decade, but I think they have deliberately kept them weak whilst our urban nature dies a death by a thousand cuts.

So, look, we certainly support the Suburban Rail Loop. There is a real risk that it will not reach its full potential if it is developed in the absence of a statewide transport plan. It is critical that to reach its full potential the existing rail network investment continues and in fact increases. It cannot be used as an excuse not to invest in those other critical projects—the high-capacity signalling and the Melbourne Metro 2. In fact those projects are actually critical to making the Suburban Rail Loop work and reach its full potential. Victorians should rightly expect, if we can have the megaprojects like the Suburban Rail Loop, the North East Link, the West Gate Tunnel and the Melbourne Metro Tunnel, that those smaller scale neighbourhood improvements like the safer bike lines, like the accessible tram stops, like the safe pedestrian crossings, also should go ahead and should not be neglected any longer. Certainly I warn against the government’s further moves to concentrate planning authority and their moves to weaken environmental laws, and we will address those concerns further in the other place.

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