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High speed rail proposed by Malcolm Turnbull -

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SABRA LANE, PRESENTER: The date's not official yet, but the pre-election campaign softening up period is in full swing. And if polling day is July 2nd, we've got 82 days to go.

The latest election season favourite to be dusted off and pressed into service is a decades-old idea for a fast train system for the East Coast. That idea from the Government follows Labor's call last week for a royal commission into the banks.

Each side's accusing the other of feigning interest for political advantage - another sure sign that the campaign's almost with us.

Political reporter Tom Iggulden has more from Canberra.

RADIO COMPERE: Favourite band?

MALCOLM TURNBULL, PRIME MINISTER: I'm very sentimental about The Mentals. Sentimental as anything, perhaps.

ACTRESS: Every time we announce a very fast train, 95 of Australians are for it.

ACTOR: And the other five per cent?

ACTRESS: Who are they?

ACTOR: Engineers, economists, experts of transport ...

ACTRESS: Yeah, yeah, the lunatic fringe. Real people love it.

TOM IGGULDEN, REPORTER: There are fewer surer sign that the election train's preparing to leave the platform than this: the front page of national newspaper spruiking yet another plan to build a fast rail project for the East Coast. Malcolm Turnbull's dipping his toe in waters tested by prime ministers going back to Bob Hawke by publicly contemplating the politically popular but financially complicated fast train idea.

JOHN HOWARD, FORMER PRIME MINISTER: I rather liked the idea of a very fast train. I still do. But you can't justify spending $1 to $2 billion to subsidise a rail track between Sydney and Canberra.

TOM IGGULDEN: There's no firm plan from the current Prime Minister just yet, but his public ruminations about how such a big idea might be paid for is leading to speculation it could form part of the Government's bid for re-election. He calls it value capture, which works by tapping into rising land values created by a new train line to help raise the money to actually build it and the Prime Minister's a big fan.

MALCOLM TURNBULL: It can certainly contribute to financing a project. Look, as you know, we have a new cities and new approach to infrastructure. Obviously, there'll always be a big role for government to make grants, to make direct investments. But there's also the opportunity to capture some of the considerable value that is created in land by the construction of transport infrastructure. That's how railways were financed in the 19th Century, actually. It's not actually a radical new plan at all. It's actually a sensible old plan that's been forgotten.

TOM IGGULDEN: That stops a long way short of confirming the Government will take fast trains to the election. There are good reason for a gently, gently approach. Much has been promised over the decades. Construction consortia formed and disbanded without a single rail being laid, political reputations staked and lost on reports and inquiries that gather dust in the bowels of the Canberra bureaucracy.

Voters could be forgiven for cynicism and the Opposition's already made inroads by painting the Government as desperate for populist policies with no chance of success.

BILL SHORTEN, OPPOSITION LEADER: Yet again, this is a desperate Malcolm Turnbull clutching at straws to try and shake off the tag of being a do-nothing prime minister. But if the Liberals were so committed to high speed rail, why did they scrap some of the funding for a high speed rail authority which Labor previously point in place? Like, for Malcolm Turnbull, talk is cheap. It's actions that really matter.

TOM IGGULDEN: Last election, then Transport Minister Anthony Albanese presided other the announcement of Labor's latest plan to build a fast train. He says the Prime Minister's exotic-sounding funding plan isn't the breakthrough the train idea's been waiting for.

ANTHONY ALBANESE, OPP. TRANSPORT SPOKESMAN: Malcolm Turnbull is out there today on the front page of The Australian newspaper purporting to suggest that no he's in favour of high speed rail and that it can be done for free. That is a fantasy. You don't build a high speed rail line by putting a headline in the newspaper and by coming up with buzzwords like value capture.

JOHN ALEXANDER, LIBERAL MP: I think value capture has got the potential of being able to fund the entire project. And there are those things who think that way and there's those like Anthony Albanese who don't share this joyous view. But he's been wrong before, he'll be wrong again.

TOM IGGULDEN: Government backbencher John Alexanders' been heading a government inquiry into how value capture could help fund major infrastructure projects. The Sydney-based MP thinks it could be just the ticket for fast rail.

JOHN ALEXANDER: I think, strangely, we've come across a perfect storm of opportunity in that Sydney is the second most expensive real estate in the world and Melbourne is the fourth most expensive and the opportunity to release incredible amounts of land that have got very low cost that could be 20 or 30 minutes from the CBD gives that opportunity of enormous value uplift and therefore the opportunity of value capture to fund that infrastructure.

TOM IGGULDEN: While the Government plays with its trains, the Opposition's delved into a different corner of the political toy box and come up with another tried and true election trinket, engaging in a spot of bank bashing. Much like the fast rail idea, it's an issue that's been on the agenda for years. Only last year, Labor voted against a Greens call for a banking royal commission. Now the Opposition supports one. The only thing that's changed, says the Government, is the politically expediency of a looming election.

MALCOLM TURNBULL: What Bill Shorten is doing is grabbing at another attempt to distract, another attempt to have one of his thought bubbles to try to create a distraction from the very real need for an ASIC-like regulator in the construction sector, the Australian Business and Construction Commission.

TOM IGGULDEN: The beauty of the Opposition's call for a royal commission from a strategic point of view is that like fast trains, bank bashing is politically popular. A growing number of the Coalition's own ranks even think it's a good idea. One backbencher's even going so far as to say the Prime Minister's decision to rule one out is a captain's call.

Another Queensland backbencher, Bert van Manen, spent 27 years in the banking and finance industry before he went into Parliament. He's part of a current inquiry into the financial services industry and says public concern about banks' behaviour is justified and he questions the effectiveness of the corporate watchdog ASIC.

BERT VAN MANEN, LIBERAL MP: I think ASIC has the resources to deal with these issues, and historically, ASIC has had the resources to deal with issues in the financial services sector as well. The question is why they're not using those resources.

TOM IGGULDEN: Government hopes of a campaign fought on union corruption look to be fading by the day. The hardhats are on and the signals are highly visible. A new political season is coming and it's going to be long and bitter.

SABRA LANE: Tom Iggulden reporting there.