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Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories
Stage 2 of the Australian Capital Territory light rail project

FORBES, Ms Susan, Director, Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities

TAYLOR, Mrs Marie, Executive Director, Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities

WILKS, Mr Stephen, Policy Officer, Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities

ZIELKE, Ms Judith, Deputy Secretary, Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities


CHAIR: I now welcome representatives from the Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities to give evidence today. Although the committee doesn't require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and, therefore, has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. The evidence given today will be recorded by Hansard and attracts parliamentary privilege. I now invite you to make a brief opening statement before we proceed to discussion.

Ms Zielke : We won't hold you up.

CHAIR: Thank you for your submission. It was most interesting. Could you just elaborate further on the department's interactions already in relation to the project stage 2, particularly in relation to the selection of the route options?

Ms Zielke : I suppose it's still very early days in relation to that. That was raised by the ACT government in the previous arrangement. In our submission we focused on what our role is in supporting the minister at the time that there is a decision for him, if there is a decision for him, and parliament to take. In trying to lay out what that process is, we've also explained the differences between ourselves, the NCA and other factors that might come into play, such as Infrastructure Australia if the Commonwealth was to provide financial assistance in relation to projects over $100 million in that regard. From our point of view, it's still very early days in relation to the project, so very initial conversations are all we have been engaged in at this stage.

CHAIR: That's fine. For me, your submission was so thorough in relation to outlining the role that you play in the approvals process that I actually don't have very many questions for you. That's why I went over time with our last witness. But in relation to the actual jurisdiction issues, do you believe that they are well understood by the ACT government—or not?

Ms Zielke : I think this process actually supports each of the various players in making sure that they understand what the key steps are, having worked those through. That being said, this isn't a process that is gone through every day; hence the purpose of the work that you're doing. I think this supports us in making sure that we all have a good understanding in that regard.

Mrs Taylor : If I could just add to that: we, the department, have had some conversations with the National Capital Authority but the NCA has led early conversations with the ACT government about the project thus far. We, as the Commonwealth government, haven't had conversations with the ACT government about the project.

Ms BRODTMANN: When do you envisage that you'll start engaging with the ACT government?

Ms Zielke : I think you'll find that that will occur when we have more information to be able to have that conversation in relation to it. I think the point you were making earlier is that, obviously, the NCA's consideration and them being at a stage where they're ready to bring that forward for further consideration is critical in that regard. Don't get me wrong: that doesn't mean that we don't pay attention. The team continues to make sure that we're well aware. The light rail project is not the only project where we engage with our colleagues in the ACT government; it's not as though that's the only time we would engage anyway. For us to be able to engage, assessment of a business case is the stage where we would largely become more engaged in relation to those day-to-day conversations.

CHAIR: You said 'assessment of a business case'—within the approvals that relate to our jurisdiction, not the project as a whole?

Ms Zielke : There are a number of considerations for the Commonwealth. There are the approval arrangements in relation to the project. If the Commonwealth government was asked to provide funding for the project and it was over $100 million dollars—

CHAIR: And it decided to—

Ms Zielke : there would need to be an assessment process before the Commonwealth would then consider whether it would actually invest in that project as well. I'm just conscious that there are two activities that occur in that.

CHAIR: Do you get the planning approvals in place before you look at the funding or do you get the funding approvals in place before you get the works approvals?

Ms Zielke : The business case is generally provided before planning approvals are given. I think that's a bit misleading, because it's not necessarily one before the other. A lot of the activities that are undertaken in infrastructure investment are happening in parallel or one will slightly hold up the other, depending on what's happening in that regard.

Mrs Taylor : I would add that that's a matter for the proponent of the project, with the ACT government. If the ACT government thought, in terms of its business case, it required or wanted to seek Commonwealth government assistance, that's when it would put forward a business case, as Ms Zielke has said. The Commonwealth has got a policy where, for any proposed contributions over $100 million, we seek an assessment of the business case from Infrastructure Australia. I think that would be up to the ACT government to initiate.

CHAIR: So, before the final approval for the planning design and works approvals are given, the Commonwealth would want to be assured that the project is fully funded. Are you saying that we wouldn't go through and approve a project that doesn't have its funding secured, as a hypothetical project?

Ms Zielke : Normally, support for a project would be given before you've necessarily got everything in line. But, again, that's not necessarily a simple question. As negotiations proceed through a project, there would be various steps where those decisions would be taken.

Ms BRODTMANN: What elements of the project do you approve—the entire project?

Ms Zielke : No, we don't approve the project. The Commonwealth will take a decision as to whether it actually wants to provide funding for the project.

Ms BRODTMANN: You'd spoken before about a two-step approval process. The first was approving the project, and the second was funding if it was over $100 million.

Ms Zielke : Sorry, I was trying to indicate that there are two parts of this that the Commonwealth will engage in. I'm talking about the minister and the department, as opposed to NCA.


Ms Zielke : Obviously, there's the parliamentary process where the minister would bring the proposal forward for consideration. That is part of the process to give approvals, ultimately, to the ACT government for the project. If the ACT government were to seek support from the Commonwealth government for funding, that is a separate activity.

Ms BRODTMANN: Okay. So, in that first phase of the approval process—the minister bringing it to the parliament for approval—what role does your department play?

Ms Zielke : We support the minister in actually bringing that forward to parliament for consideration.

Mrs Taylor : If I could point to the map, it's largely a role for the NCA, to be honest. Until the project gets through EPBC consideration and the NCA's processes, the NCA then—

Ms BRODTMANN: Which map?

Mrs Taylor : It's part of the NCA submission. Really, it's a question my colleagues from the NCA would be best placed to answer. But, effectively, when you get to the point where the NCA say to the minister for territories that it has planning approval—and if the project affects the Parliamentary Zone—then as the minister responsible he has to bring forward the works proposal to both houses of parliament. At that point we as the department would provide some support for and advice to the minister in doing that for the parliament. The minister and, indeed, this committee could then, obviously, undertake another inquiry at that point.

CHAIR: If we work on the basis that there's to be no application or desire for federal funding for this project, which I think is the best scenario to base our discussions on, the approvals come through from the NCA through you, and you manage that through the department.

Mrs Taylor : Through the ministry.

CHAIR: Through the ministry. As part of those approvals, do you make an assessment in relation to the ACT government's financing of this project? Is that a consideration for you at all?

Mrs Taylor : Again, planning approval is undertaken by the National Capital Authority. In terms of the word 'approval', I think the process under which that take place is probably a question best directed to the NCA. In terms of the financial viability of the project and the ACT government, whether or not it chooses to approach the Commonwealth and seek funding is a separate question from the planning approval.

CHAIR: So all the processes here can be gone through without consideration of the funding of the project? Consideration of the funding of the project is separate.

Mrs Taylor : Yes, that's right. It's a separate process.

CHAIR: I just wanted to be clear about that—that you do not have to make financial assessments in relation to whether the funding's there and whether it's viable; you're simply looking at those particular issues in relation to planning approvals because of the geographical jurisdiction.

Ms Zielke : Yes.

CHAIR: Anything more?


CHAIR: Thank you. That has helped. We appreciate your time today. If you've been asked to provide any additional information, please do so by Friday, 6 July. You'll be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence, and you'll have the opportunity to request any corrections to transcription errors. Thank you.