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LNP comes out swinging on Cross River Rail and finally gets back in the fight

Politics

The Palaszczuk Government is on the back foot — if not on the rails — in Parliament over potential cost blow-outs with the Brisbane Cross River Rail project as the opposition finally gains some traction, writes Peter McCutcheon.

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At last, the LNP Opposition has launched a sustained, coordinated parliamentary attack on the Palaszczuk Government.

Side-tracked by months of internal party disputes and bamboozled by the unpredictability of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Opposition has found it difficult to gain traction.

The last time the LNP focused on a single issue to test the nerve of Labor in Parliament was in mid-June, with a barrage of questions over the economic damage caused by the Government’s refusal to open the state borders when COVID-19 appeared to be under control.

That line of attack has not aged well.

Leaked Cross River Rail documents

Yesterday, Opposition Leader Deb Frecklington went much closer to getting under Labor’s collective skin with revelations about possible cost blow-outs for the $5.4 billion Brisbane Cross River Rail project.

While the project itself has undoubted merits, it does touch on two of Labor’s perceived weaknesses — its standing in regional Queensland and the influence of its controversial former treasurer, Jackie Trad.

The Opposition had obtained leaked documents showing serious technical problems with the location of the Boggo Road railway station, and the potential for this to cause project delays costing up to $2 million a day.

Trad — formerly responsible for the project — was asked by the Cross River Rail Delivery Authority in March last year to consider recommending moving the station and renaming it “New Dutton Park”.

“There are expected to be cost benefits,” the briefing note explained.

Cabinet eventually decided to stick with the original plan, and in late June last year awarded the tunnel and station building contract to the Pulse Consortium.

The builder was forced to suspend work around the Boggo Road Station area in February because of problems with the track alignment and other technical issues.

Pulse has submitted a revised plan to get around the problem and remains in dispute with the authority over compensation for the additional time and cost.

“The delivery authority views these matters as highly contentious and expects robust commercial dialogue to continue,” an April 20 briefing note to State Development Minister Kate Jones explained.

There is no official estimate of how much this will end up costing.

The Opposition quoted an anonymous “whistleblower” as saying it could be as high as $1 billion — the Government said it could be as low as zero, although the documents imply it will be somewhat higher, with a reference to achieving “a negotiating best for project outcome [sic]”.

Trading blows in question time

Frecklington led the parliamentary attack in Question Time yesterday, claiming the Government had ignored expert advice and wasted taxpayers’ money.

Government ministers argued the suggested alternative site for the station would have been too inconvenient for many commuters, and any additional costs would be absorbed into the existing budget.

That could be quite an ambitious call, given Ms Jones conceded a solution to the technical problems had yet to be found, although she said work was at an “advanced stage”.

The subsequent argy-bargy in question time was a sign the Opposition had succeeded in putting government ministers under pressure, and that the election was less than 12 weeks away.

Speaker after speaker for Labor steered the debate back to more comfortable ground – COVID-19 and the closure of Queensland’s borders.

“They [the Opposition] called on us to open the borders not once, not twice but 64 times,” Health Minister Steven Miles said.

He has used that line before, and unless the Opposition do their own fact checking, Miles is likely to use it again before October 31.

But it was the exchange between the leaders of the two major parties that revealed the growing intensity of the political debate.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk told Parliament mockingly: “Only a few days ago they [the LNP] took down their petition calling for the border to be opened.”

“Clueless,” was Frecklington’s interjection.

“You’re embarrassing,” was the Premier’s reply.

It was only at the Speaker’s prompting that Palaszczuk apologised.

– ABC / state political correspondent Peter McCutcheon

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