View from The Hill

Day 22: The Nationals like their trains – whoever is promoting them

Kevin Rudd is targeting regional voters, with a high speed rail plan. AAP/Dan Himbrechts

After Kevin Rudd reached today for a vintage big idea - the fast train - in his quest for voter bait, he quickly received a large tick from Tim Fischer, former deputy prime minister and Nationals leader.

Fischer, out of politics for years but with his finger still on the pulse, is a train buff from way back. He’s author of Trains Unlimited in the 21st Century, and a member of the High Speed Rail Advisory Group, whose report Rudd released with his promise of legislation to preserve a 1748 kilometre land corridor and $52 million to set up an authority for the project. It is to finalise track alignment and station locations, work with Infrastructure Australia to develop a business case, and refine cost estimates as well as identify opportunities for private sector involvement.

The fast train is like a mirage; it has been endlessly talked about but always recedes into the distance. The cost would be huge – some $114 billion.

But for Rudd, the attraction is obvious. It’s ambitious; it touches many electorates; it appeals to regional Australia. And in cash strapped times, today’s incremental promise is a steal at only $52 million.

The advisory group worked fast, knowing the caretaker period was bearing down. The report has proved a good fit with the government’s political imperatives.

Fischer points to other imperatives. “They needed to act urgently because of developments along Donnybrook Road [in Melbourne] just north east of Tullamarine. There is an urgent danger that subdivisions will stuff the entry of the rail north of Tullamarine” on its way to the centre of the city.

Attention turned to the opposition after the Rudd announcement. Tony Abbott says he wants to be a “infrastructure prime minister”. But today he dismissed the Labor initiative: “I’d much rather spend money now to get better outcomes tomorrow, rather than in 40 years’ time,” he said, listing various road projects the opposition was backing.

But Fischer said he was confident that Liberal Sharman Stone (Murray), National Michael McCormack (Riverina), Liberal John Alexander (Bennelong) and National Luke Hartsuyker (Cowper), whose electorates the rail would pass through (or perhaps near, in the case of Bennelong) “will see the huge decentralisation benefits and will ensure the Coalition agrees to the corridor preservation, which is all you can do at this stage.”

Indeed Nationals leader Warren Truss was already in the cart. “The Coalition will begin the work to preserve the corridor and establish an authority to manage the project”, he said. In reply to whether that meant the Coalition would match Labor’s $52 million commitment, he said it would “provide the resources necessary to undertake these tasks.”

McCormack said: “I could hardly criticise [Labor’s announcement] – it’s something I’ve been advocating and lobbying for”. He said he was concerned about the project’s cost and the way Labor would pay for it. “At least it does show long term vision – something politics needs. It would open regional areas and boost development.”

Rudd pulled out the train initiative not just to sell himself as a nation builder, but to draw an enormously long bow in his assault on Abbott’s paid parental scheme.

“If we were to build this entire 1750 kilometre high speed rail project from Brisbane to Melbourne by 2035, it would cost less than Mr Abbott’s unaffordable, unfair, paid parental leave scheme for the same period of time.

"What is more necessary for the nation’s future? A high speed rail network which links these vital cities along Australia’s east coast or an unaffordable, unfair paid parental leave scheme?”

Well, there’s a question!

It seems clear that Abbott’s PPL scheme has become lead in the saddle for the opposition. The latest Essential poll released today (which has Labor and opposition on 50-50 two-party vote, better for the ALP than Newspoll’s 47-53%) found 35% supported the government’s current PPL scheme, and only 24% preferred the Abbott plan; 28% liked neither.

(The poll suggests one reason why Labor has not has more success with its accusation the opposition will “cut, cut, cut”. People expect that whichever side is elected will cut: 61% thought it unlikely a Liberal government would be able to pay for its commitments without more cuts after the election, while 59% said the same about Labor.)

The Abbott PPL is particularly vulnerable because it has so many enemies within the Coalition, among the Nationals and “dry” Liberals.

Rudd jumped on answers by Malcolm Turnbull today to declare the Liberal party “split down the middle” over the policy.

When pushed in an interview, Turnbull said “it really is a choice and when people say it’s too much or it’s too generous it’s a reasonable objection…

"But it’s our policy, it’s a signature policy of Tony Abbott and it’s not just his idea. We are all committed to it… If people want to have a meaner and less generous paid parental leave, well that’s what the Labor party’s offering”.

Turnbull didn’t deviate from the policy but he did acknowledge the critics in a rather convincing manner.

Abbott is keeping the team glued together but every now and then some cracks show.