Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce is yet to release $530 million in Commonwealth funding for the Gippsland rail line upgrade.
Mr Joyce replaced Gippsland MP Darren Chester as federal transport and infrastructure minister in December’s ministerial reshuffle, prompting complaints from the Victorian government about the Gippsland MP being dumped from the portfolio.
The federal rail funding – totalling $1.42 billion for rail upgrades across regional Victoria – was supposed to be released in December, the state government says, but talks have since been put on hold after Mr Joyce moved into the portfolio.
The upgrade is expected to create about 400 jobs and include the duplication of sections of the rail throughout the Latrobe Valley and additional platforms at Morwell and Traralgon.
A letter obtained by The Express last week revealed Victorian Transport Minister Jacinta Allan requested a meeting with her federal counterpart, Mr Joyce, on December 22 to discuss the pending handover of the money.
The Express understands a meeting is yet to take place.
Member for Eastern Victoria Harriet Shing said she “had no doubt” if Mr Chester was still a federal cabinet member Victoria would have “achieved further progress” towards receiving money for the “shovel-ready project”.
“It remains for the leader of the Nationals, Barnaby Joyce, to demonstrate that he can make sure that the Coalition delivers on at least one of its obligations to Victoria and that we don’t fall even further behind as a state when it comes to Commonwealth infrastructure,” Ms Shing told The Express on Friday.
“The bottom line is we are ready to proceed with this project and all we need is for the Commonwealth Coalition to make good on its word.”
But despite state government concerns, Federal Member for Gippsland Darren Chester said yesterday he was “confident every cent promised under the Victorian regional rail package” would be paid.
When The Express contacted Gippsland V/Line Users Group convenor Natalie Thorne for comment, Ms Thorne said she was “under the impression” Victoria had already received federal funding for the upgrade.
“I think people expected the money to be available and that the project would have already commenced by now,” Ms Thorne said on Sunday.
“We all thought they were doing the initial planning and getting things underway … we expected something to be happening by now, not both governments arguing over if or when we’ll be getting the money.
“It’s been nine months since the announcement by [the] state government so basically nothing has happened in that time and that’s really disappointing.”
In July, the federal government agreed to provide the bulk of the funding for the project after the Victorian government announced the $1.45 billion statewide upgrade from funds it said it was owed from the commonwealth through the sale of the Port of Melbourne.
“We all know that despite out significant population growth and contributions to commonwealth coffers, Victoria receives far less money than New South Wales and Queensland and the Coalition needs to step up and make sure that debts to Victoria are paid,” Ms Shing said.
“This is not as some Coalition members claimed a ‘Santa’s wish list’ – it is sorely needed infrastructure from a region which the Coalition has done very little to support despite holding seats on the ground.”
However Mr Chester, who was a key figure in securing the $1.42 billion in federal funding for Victoria, said it was important to “take the time to get it right the first time”.
“While the state government claimed the projects were ‘shovel ready’, that wasn’t the case and the detailed project proposals were delayed for several months,” Mr Chester said.
“We have an obligation to get value for money for taxpayers’ dollars and I would rather both levels of government take the time to get it right the first time.”
“Despite the state government’s claims, these projects are not shovel-ready and to date, the projects have not met long-established criteria for the release of Commonwealth funding.”