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Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee
Management of the Inland Rail project

LEYS, Ms Danica, Chief Executive Officer, Country Women's Association of New South Wales

Evidence was taken via teleconference—


CHAIR: Welcome. Would you like to make an opening statement?

Ms Leys : I would, thank you very much. I thank all the senators for having me to speak on this issue on behalf of CWA of New South Wales. We certainly appreciate the time that's been given to us to share our significant concerns about the execution of this project. More broadly, we thank those helping to bring this inquiry to fruition. As a little bit of background on this CWA, it's one of the country's largest rural based advocacy groups. It's been in continual existence for nearly 100 years. Most of you would be aware that it's a very highly respected organisation that continues to be a significant part of the fabric of rural, regional and remote communities. We advocate on a range of issues for our members. The issues that we advocate on are democratically voted on by our grassroots members and they are a true and accurate reflection of not just the organisation's concerns but the concerns of the community at large.

A bit like Adrian, today I'm not going to go over the detail of all the recommendations that we've put forward in our submission. We're very happy to take questions on any of those. However, I might touch on some more recent history that outlines how we came to be involved in this matter, as I think that's important to understand. The reasons for our recent involvement point further to the significant issues that we're going to be talking about this afternoon.

We do believe that the Inland Rail project has the potential to deliver great benefits to regional communities, and we're still hopeful that it can. We support the project, but there are too many uncertainties and unanswered questions for our support to be considered unequivocal. To be direct, we cannot support the way the project is currently being executed. When communities, landholders and other impacted individuals are repeatedly dismissed, ignored and patronised by both the project builders and those giving their political support to the project in the pursuit of big infrastructure, we cannot sit by and be silent.

As you've just heard from Adrian from New South Wales Farmers and also the Dubbo branch of New South Wales Farmers, landholders and communities alike have been raising their sensible, well-founded concerns about certain aspects of this project for years. The federal government and Inland Rail continually state the upside of the project, but they regularly have a defensive attitude to valid questions from the people who stand to be most affected. These people are often portrayed as anti-progressives, which they are not. They are ordinary citizens who are very supportive of the significant infrastructure investment in the regions and deserve more than a cursory acknowledgement of their concerns. In our submission and in our work we've been seeking more information about the route selection—in particular, areas impacting agricultural land and potential flooding risks—and more clarity on funding allocations. As I said, the project has enormous potential and represents a significant government spend. We believe it's important to take the time to get it right for future generations.

We became involved in advocacy on this issue in May 2019 when, at our state annual conference, CWA of New South Wales members moved an urgency motion that the CWA of New South Wales request the federal government to hold an independent inquiry into the greenfield routes of the inland rail and into the funding of the whole project. We know that we as an organisation have come forward on this matter later than many. However, that fact is a very strong illustration that the issues that groups like New South Wales Farmers have been working on for years remain unanswered. So, we've now joined with New South Wales Farmers, and we commend them for their sustained advocacy over those years on those matters. The fact that both organisations, who collectively and strongly cover farmer interests and community interests alike, have such strong views on this project demonstrates that there are serious issues, particularly in New South Wales.

As Adrian mentioned, we've now entered into a more formal partnership on the issue, and some of our recent work has involved engaging Peter Holt, a special counsel from Holding Redlich—you'll hear more from Peter later today—to formally request funding from Inland Rail for an independent review of the hydrological modelling relied upon when planning the alignment, particularly in the Narromine to Narrabri section. That issue around flooding and hydrology is seen as a significant one for many members. The committee has copies of that correspondence that has gone to Inland Rail and the deputy premier's office.

We're now focusing on the [inaudible] planning process that's commencing in New South Wales. The North Star to border EIS has been placed on exhibition and submissions received, and we expect the EIS for the Narromine to Narrabri section and the Stockinbingal to Illabo section to be placed on exhibition shortly. Landholders are having to spend significant amounts of time and money to properly interrogate and put forward their concerns on EIS documentation within a short space of time. If the EIS for North Star to the border is any indication, we expect other project areas to have totally inadequate EIS documentation on exhibition as well. For that reason, we have also formed a funding collective in conjunction with New South Wales Farmers whereby landholders have been asked to collectively contribute to a funding pool to help underwrite a range of expert reports which will address concerns in each project area once the EISs are placed on exhibition.

As mentioned, we expect that Narromine to Narrabri will be next, and that will require a lot of work and expense to ensure that the project is properly scrutinised. This collective funding model is something that we as an organisation have not done before, and it's something of an unprecedented step for New South Wales Farmers and CWA to join together in this way. But it has become necessary because of the amount of work and document fatigue. As Adrian mentioned in his introductory remarks, there's just so much coming at landholders that they've been asked to address in short spaces of time. We have nearly 50 landholders paid up and signed up at $1,000 each. That is paid up and signed up, not just signed to a campaign but actually paid into that campaign to be part of that collective agreement. Earlier comments from speakers, particularly some local councils today, that have sought to downplay the concerns of the communities as being held by a minority, are frankly [inaudible] and are contributing to the further community concerns that we, as the largest rural based advocacy group in New South Wales, know are alive and well.

As mentioned at the start of my address, I haven't gone over the specifics of the submission. I am very happy to take questions on our submission. On a final note, I'd like to comment on the need for further regionally focused hearings on the matter if that's possible. We do understand the challenges that COVID-19 is placing on many different processes at the moment, but we really feel that this issue is too important to have one hearing in the middle of harvest and expect that you have a fair and reasonable view across a cross-section of impacted communities. That said, we are still very grateful for the time that we have here today and for your attention on this matter. Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. It's sort of an apology. We wanted to get out there. There was a passion for the committee to get out there, and Adrienne was putting together a tour for us. I think it was going to take us a day and a bit or something like that. I'm committing that I'm not finishing this inquiry. There is just way too much, with too many questions not answered. We don't think that we could go to Millmerran, have an inquiry, do this and then think we've got a handle on the whole lot. We are so supportive of this project as a nation, but there are so many flaws that it would be criminal not to continue to consult. So I guarantee you that I will get out there, and I hope my colleagues can join me when we are allowed to travel between the states freely. You know we were coming, but, unfortunately, we can't just yet.

Ms Leys : We do. We were looking forward to that and we know that it's just not possible at the moment. We look forward to welcoming you and other senators at any time that you're able to come out.

CHAIR: I'm giving my guarantee that I certainly will come out, and I hope my colleagues can join me.

You tell me that 50 members paid $1,000 to advocate. That's not money that's just sitting out in the paddock in an old bickie tin that they didn't know what to do with; that's a serious commitment. That really is.

Ms Leys : It is. It's a serious commitment. We've asked them to show faith in us, as the two organisations involved in it, to contribute to this collective bucket. It is a serious commitment, and I think it is worth highlighting because it's more than just people signing up to a campaign or people getting involved. They're really putting their money where their mouth is to try to further this issue. They don't want to do that. We don't want to have to pull together a collective funding pool to have to do this work. We think that this work should be done and we think that Inland Rail, who often promises communities and individuals, 'Look, we'll pay for your reasonable legal expenses,' for instance—we know that that's not happening in practice, so we have to do this type of work to make sure the project is properly scrutinised. When you hear from others that there are only a minority of people concerned about the project, our experience and certainly now the numbers we have signed up and paid to this collective prove otherwise.

CHAIR: That's really shone a light on that for me, because I did say earlier on that I'm trying to sort the wheat from the chaff. Is it just a noisy minority or is this really seriously a major concern? Getting mixed messages does alarm me. I've always had the opinion that you can't go wrong if you're talking to the man or woman who's got their hands on the tractor; they'll tell you exactly what they're thinking whether you want to hear it or not. That's a great way to operate. Truckies are exactly the same. One thing I do want to raise with you is recommendation 7 of your submission:

The committee should request any and all documentation including any economic modelling done that supports the assertion that the Inland Rail would provide large benefits to regional communities along the route should be provided.

I'm happy to let you know that we're going to go gown that hole.

Ms Leys : Great.

CHAIR: I know Senator Malcolm Roberts came to see me last week in Canberra, and he's very keen to hear from the likes of KPM, Ernst & Young and PwC. So we're going to call them to a public hearing too. We want to know where all the modelling is too, because, as we say, I haven't found anyone who opposes Inland Rail. I've found that every single person that we've spoken to is so supportive of an inland rail route or an inland rail project. And it just makes sense; we cannot expect that all this freight is going to be carried by road. And, not only that, it will open up benefits to our east coast hinterland, or whatever the term is we use. West of the Great divide—is that what it is? It's exciting. On that note, I've now got to say goodbye to you so I can say hello to you in about 20 seconds, Ms Leys. What was that great movie where they kept playing that song and when he wakes up it's the same day?

Ms Leys : Oh, Groundhog Day.

CHAIR: We're going to have a Groundhog Day moment now. Thank you very much, Ms Leys. Before I call our next witnesses, Senator Hanson and Senator Rennick, please jump in if you've got any questions, because I'll sit there and hog the time all day, and that's not fair on my colleagues.

Senator HANSON: Thank you, Chair.