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Everyone wants to fix the Bruce - but some not quite as urgently as others

Decision 2020

Anyone who still believes there are prizes in this election campaign more coveted than the seats based around the regional centres dotting Queensland’s coast has not been paying attention to the frantic policy auction going on over the Bruce Highway.

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The proof of that came this week when, after weeks of rubbishing the LNP’s promise to “four-lane” the Bruce, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk felt the need to travel up to Townsville and declare a returned Labor government would get to work on building an alternative inland route.

It was an admission that rival Deb Frecklington’s pledge four-lane had gained traction in those north Queensland marginal seats that will make all the difference in deciding who gets to sit in the big office at 1 William St after October 31.

It was also a reminder of the last time Palaszczuk had a lot to say about the Bruce Highway.

Way back in the middle of the 2017 state election campaign, she promised to take the “politics” out of the road’s future by appointing a Bruce Highway Trust to make funding decisions

It turns out it has taken nearly three years – 17 July 2020 – for the Trust’s advisory council to hold its first meeting. Its second meeting is scheduled for November, after this election.
How’s that for urgency?

The Bruce is the spine on which the regional Queensland economy relies to stand up day after day. Whenever it grows creaky or gets bent out of shape (as it does with just about every flood event in the state), the towns and cities along its length wear the pain for weeks and months afterwards.

Promising to make it a four-lane road right up to Cairns is the type of pledge that cuts through the general cynicism with which voters regard election pledges and generates a rare commodity in politics – hope.

That is why the Bruce has featured so heavily in previous election campaigns, with both the LNP and Labor arguing over which of them has the better plan to fix it.

Outside of election campaigns, not so much. Save for turning the road into a bridge from Rockhampton to Cairns, it remains vulnerable to the elements and is very expensive to maintain in its current state, let alone fund big improvements to its resilience and productivity.

The existing upgrade program for the Bruce began in 2013 and actually consists of more than 70 smaller safety improvement projects, partial widenings and studies into future works up and down its length. It’s been a piecemeal approach that is always influenced by the political whims of the Federal Government as it actually provides the lion’s share of upgrade funding.

The difference in this campaign is that, while past promises to fix the road have tended to focus on those sections that pass through marginal electorates, the LNP kicked off by talking the big game, a 15-year upgrade.

LNP leader Frecklington was clever in building on the advantages the promise gave her, embarking on a roadshow up the coast to spruik its benefits and grabbing favourable headlines along the way.

Her Facebook page is awash with images of her in hard hats and orange hi-vis vests, sometimes at the wheel of really big trucks, other times just standing at the side of the highway listing its problems to the camera.

Cassowary Coast Mayor Mark Nolan told The Cairns Post: “I’m very excited about this announcement … it’d be a boost to our farming sector and the wider economy”.

“Flooding prevention would help us as a lot of produce can gets stuck for weeks.”

The Federal Government gave Frecklington a boost by making sure regional Queensland media knew its 2020 Budget included a commitment of $20 million to working up the strategy to deliver the upgrade.

It all had the effect of putting Frecklington’s Labor opponents off-kilter. In weeks that followed her pledge, Labor was unable to find an effective way to counter its potency.

Hence the Premier’s announcement this week. Building an inland road freight route as an alternative to the Bruce may be good policy but there’s precious little detail on whose pockets are going to be turned out to fund it.

Indeed, after attacking the LNP’s “four-lane” plan as a sham because it carried no guarantee of federal funding, Labor itself was at a loss to explain how Canberra would be attracted to the idea of paying for the upgrade of state highways at the expense of the Bruce, a national freight route.

Given that Labor has been in power in Queensland for all but six of the past 30 years, its record on improving the Bruce Highway deserves more scrutiny.
As do its promises.

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