A split between the two most senior Nationals in federal cabinet is threatening to inflame tensions within the party over the federal government’s multibillion-dollar Melbourne to Brisbane inland rail project.
Several Nationals MPs are accusing Agriculture Minister David Littleproud of breaching cabinet solidarity, undermining both the massive project and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce by privately agitating against the current route.
Several Nationals MPs have accused David Littleproud, right, of undermining Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce by privately agitating against the current route.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
A five-page document arguing the case for changing the inland rail route through Queensland was circulated among several Queensland Coalition MPs about 10 days ago. It suggested the current freight route should be altered from the NSW border to Toowoomba, avoiding a floodplain and major agriculture producers in Mr Littleproud’s electorate.
The document, seen by this masthead, identified that just two of the 23 stakeholder groups would be against changing the route while 16 were against or would be adversely affected by the current route from North Star through Millmerran to Gowrie in the Darling Downs region.
Supporters of Mr Littleproud say he was not the author of the document and had only facilitated other Queensland Liberal-Nationals colleagues to reach a consensus position so they could lobby Mr Joyce internally to consider changing the route.
The federal government has twice commissioned an independent review into the alternate route through the region and been advised that it would further blow out the long-awaited project’s budget, construction time and ability to transport goods from Melbourne to Brisbane within 24 hours.
Tempers flared internally at the weekend following media reports that accused Mr Joyce of misleading community groups in a meeting earlier this month in Mr Littleproud’s electorate by creating the impression he would consider local objections to the 19-kilometre route across the Condamine floodplain.
That report followed the publication of a statement from Mr Joyce’s office in Queensland Country Life days earlier, which said the government had “settled” on the route.
On Saturday, The Australian published a text message exchange between Mr Littleproud and Mr Joyce, where the Queensland MP said: “The Millmerran guys you spoke to on Friday would have preferred you either told them on Friday this or told them before a public statement from you.”
Several Nationals figures, speaking on condition of anonymity, have long blamed Mr Littleproud for undermining former infrastructure ministers Darren Chester and Michael McCormack over the project, which when completed in 2026 will traverse 1700 kilometres between Melbourne and Brisbane through regional Australia.
Supporters of Mr Joyce are furious that details of the conversation were leaked to the media.
Mr Joyce told his colleagues in a virtual party room meeting on Monday that federal cabinet had endorsed the project several times, most recently in late 2020.
One senior Nationals MP said: “We have seen him [Mr Littleproud] do this time and time again. If he doesn’t support it, he should stand aside and publicly say so and not undermine the project from the blue carpet [ministerial wing].”
Mr Joyce was instrumental in securing more than $8 billion for the rail line in 2017 and both he and former leader Mr McCormack have spruiked it as a “nation-building project”.
When asked by The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald if he believed the current route had the support of the Nationals leadership team, Mr Joyce said: “Yes. All cabinet ministers support the current position.”
The government argues the contentious Condamine Crossing was developed by world-leading rail engineering experts and improved through community consultation. A review in 2017 found the current alignment provided the best outcome for the project in terms of 24-hour transit, service reliability, availability and cost competitiveness was far superior to alternative routes via Mount Tyson and Warwick.
Mr Littleproud told this masthead: “As a cabinet minister I accept the decisions of cabinet. It is a fundamental of our Westminster system of government. The process of decision making in cabinet is confidential.”
Queensland Nationals senator Susan McDonald, who has also lobbied to change the route internally, was part of a Senate inquiry that earlier this month issued a stinging assessment of the management of the project.
The 211-page report provided 26 recommendations to fix failures in consultation, technical modelling and route planning of the rail line connecting Brisbane to Melbourne. It also proposed looking at extending the rail to Gladstone, 500 kilometres north of Brisbane, and building a passenger line from Brisbane to Toowoomba.
The Morning Edition newsletter is our guide to the day’s most important and interesting stories, analysis and insights. Sign up here.
Most Viewed in Politics
From our partners
Source: Read Full Article