SUBJECTS: Road infrastructure in the Hunter.
AARON KEARNEY: If you have ever driven in the Hunter Valley, you will know there are few more pleasant driving experiences than the vast open expanses of the Hunter Expressway. If you do that you will also know that the joy evaporates at the other end of the Expressway when you are forced through the main streets of Singleton, Muswellbrook and Scone. There looked like there would be no relief from that experience any time soon when, just a few weeks ago, residents and commuters were told that the Muswellbrook Bypass would be significantly delayed. But then last week the NSW Deputy Premier and Nationals leader John Barilaro dropped a bombshell giving $266 million to have construction started by 2022. Work on the New England Highway bypass of Scone is already underway and there is a meeting tonight about the Scone bypass in about 46 minutes. They will be discussing plans for the bypass and Kelly Street at 6pm at the Scone council chambers tonight. But the worst traffic bottleneck of the lot and by far the most dangerous section as we have witnessed with multiple serious accidents in recent years is Singleton. When will that problem be solved? There have been lots of studies and lots of investigations and some considerable planning but will a road ever be built? It falls under the jurisdiction of the Member for Hunter Joel Fitzgibbon and he joins us now. Good afternoon, welcome.
JOEL FITZGIBBON, SHADOW MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES AND FORESTRY AND SHADOW MINISTER FOR RURAL AND REGIONAL AUSTRALIA: Great to be with you Aaron. Look I just have to say, I’m with Jill it will always be 1233 to me but hey, I’m an old bloke.
KEARNEY: Well it would probably be 2NC to you.
FITZGIBBON: Yeah that too.
KEARNEY: Your former friend, well I don’t know what your friendship status is, but your former parliamentary colleague Mark Latham referred to 702 to 2BL on this show last week so -
FITZGIBBON: Well let’s not go there.
KEARNEY: Let’s not go there, there are more pressing things to tackle. First thing first, was it as big a shock to you as it was to many other people that all of a sudden there was $266 million in state government money for the bypass of Muswellbrook?
FITZGIBBON: Well the big shock for me Aaron was when the Deputy Premier John Barilaro decided to announce that he wasn’t going to do the Muswellbrook bypass. That came as a very, very big surprise for me and-
KEARNEY: Which was about two weeks earlier right?
FITZGIBBON:About two weeks earlier and then suddenly he’s come up with the money. So that is welcome. In the more than 20 years I’ve been in this job I have had four big New England Highway projects to tackle. The first was the Belford bends deviation – that’s that four lane section between Branxton and Singleton which preceded the Hunter Expressway and of course the second was the big one- the Hunter Expressway. So tick, tick we have done both of those. The third was the Scone bypass and as you said it’s now under construction. It was in my electorate but now resides in the electorate of Barnaby Joyce. And the two big outstanding ones are the Muswellbrook bypass and I have been so frustrated over the course of the last eight years of the state government creeping towards that and then of course two weeks ago said they weren’t going to do it. But now they have agreed to fully fund it so tick, we can move on. The big outstanding one, the one you referred to most is the Singleton Bypass. The first thing I do even when I’m in Canberra in the morning – my alarm goes off a three minutes to six, I turn on not 1233 no the Newcastle Radio station on my iPhone and listen to the traffic report and of course every morning it starts at that big choke point just south of Singleton. This needs to be done and should have been done many years ago. When it is done it won’t only benefit Singleton residents and the business community it will assist every commuter trying to get through Singleton on a daily basis and of course a lot of that traffic is generated by the coal mining industry.
KEARNEY: Now a couple of things about that, the first thing is it just makes perfect sense doesn’t it if you have a big open expressway like the Hunter Expressway and then it ceases to be inevitably a smaller road is not going to cope with the volume of traffic. What level of planning are we at? If money came, could it start fast? Do we have a plan for a Singleton Bypass?
FITZGIBBON: Well we have a plan but we have an incomplete plan and not only has the NSW Government been slow coming to the party but they seem very, very reluctant to share information about the bypass with anyone but their friends on the inside so even I don’t know exactly where they are with the final studies and route planning etcetera but what I do know that it is very, very close and what we need to do is get it that extra bit onto what we call ‘shovel ready status’ so that we can force some Commonwealth and NSW funds into the project. This should have happened at least three years ago, maybe four years ago and I don’t know why they have had it on the go-slow but I know there are tens of thousands of motorists every week asking the same questions.
KEARNEY: Well you’ve led to the next question and that is whose responsibility is it to pay?
FITZGIBBON: Well these things always work like this – the state government, whether we are talking about NSW or elsewhere, determines its road priorities - and I have been driving them nuts for a long time. Then they fund all the planning and design work up to that shovel ready stage and then the state government usually puts a substantial amount of money in for construction and goes to the Commonwealth and says - look this is a national priority and we believe you should be paying for at least half of this - and very often the Commonwealth says yes, we are very happy to hand over that money. What’s been happening with Singleton is that I have been unable to hand over money because they haven’t finished the planning and they haven’t committed the money themselves so that is making it very difficult but I’m sick of waiting and tomorrow on behalf of Anthony Albanese and myself and I will accompanied by Mel Dagg our state candidate in the Upper Hunter, I will be announcing a way of overcoming this impasse and getting this project up and running.
KEARNEY: Are you prepared to elaborate any further on that?
FITZGIBBON: I can’t share all my secrets with you and your listeners this afternoon because that’s a matter for both me and Albanese and we will be doing that tomorrow but suffice to say we are sick of waiting. The Shorten team is sick of waiting and tomorrow I’ll be talking about a proposal to get this thing up and running.
KEARNEY: Would it be fair to say that any announcement tomorrow will be dependent on a Shorten Government at the next election? Not just a Joel Fitzgibbon in Cessnock?
FITZGIBBON: Well whoever wins the next federal election, Joel Fitzgibbon will continue the fight but my announcement tomorrow will indicate that it is far more likely to happen under a Shorten Labor Government than it is under a Morrison Government. I mean they have had six years to work with the Coalition Government in NSW and have not been able to produce a bulldozer on the site. Back when we were doing the Hunter Expressway, a Federal Labor Government worked with a State Labor government to finally produce the dollars needed to construct that freeway. We put in $1.45 billion and the State Labor Government put in about $250 million. We need that same sort of partnership again. We need a state government prepared to get on with it and we need a Federal Government prepared to put up its share of the funding.
KEARNEY: Here’s the problem, that announcement that came from the NSW Deputy Premier last week for the money to be spent at Muswellbrook was dependant on the re-election of a conservative government at state level.
FITZGIBBON: That is true but I think you’ll find that Michael Daley and Melanie Dagg our candidate in the Upper Hunter might be having something to say about that sometime soon as well.
KEARNEY: Sounds like it is a watch this space and we are sniffing around an area that there is considerable progress. We will look forward to hearing those announcements formally tomorrow. We appreciate you speaking with us this afternoon. Just before I let you go - it’s probably where the conversation should have started not finished - how important, given what is going on along the coastal highway, the Pacific Highway and the grand plans to run that, well essentially from the Gold Coast to Melbourne in the grand scheme of things. How important is this as an inland alternative?
FITZGIBBON: Very important and if we want to remain a corridor of commerce we want to be competitive with the Pacific Highway and of course all those with an interest in the Pacific Highway want us to take our share of the traffic and if the New England Highway route isn’t productive and isn’t efficient we are losing more and more traffic and therefore less and less people coming through our towns etcetera and we can’t have them slowing down through these major towns along the route we need to make it far more efficient than that and tomorrow we will make some announcements about how we go about doing so.
KEARNEY: We look forward to seeing the details revealed in the next 24 hours. Thank you for being with us this afternoon. The Member for Hunter Joel Fitzgibbon flagging there is going to be some serious movement on the third corner of the problem that is the Scone, Muswellbrook and Singleton bypass needs for the New England Highway. The Member for Hunter there Joel Fitzgibbon.