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A wealthy Queensland family lobbied high-ranking government officials to reroute Australia’s multibillion-dollar inland rail project past their privately owned airport, documents reveal.
The government originally announced its preferred route for the $10bn Brisbane-to-Melbourne freight rail line in 2010, following an exhaustive investigation that chose from more than 50,000 options.
But significant changes were announced last year to a section running through Queensland’s Darling Downs region, a decision that has infuriated farmers and landowners who suddenly found themselves in the railway’s path.
The new route diverted the line past the recently built Wellcamp airport, near Toowoomba, which carries a single weekly freight flight to Hong Kong, and some domestic passenger and freight services.
The airport is owned by the Wagners, a prominent Queensland family whose business empire helped them climb to 14th on the BRW rich families list in 2015.
Documents obtained under freedom of information laws reveal the Wagners mounted a significant lobbying effort the year before the decision was announced.
An email trail shows John Wagner wrote directly to the then secretary of the infrastructure department Mike Mrdak in late July 2016, with a short pitch in favour of diverting the rail line.
“Hi Mike. How are things going in your world?” it began.
“[Name redacted] thought it would take about 3 weeks to relook at a diversion via Wellcamp if he was given the go ahead to have a look at it,” he said. “We would welcome the opportunity to come down and talk to you and Minister [Darren] Chester at a time that was convenient.”
Mrdak replied on the same day, saying “we would be very pleased to discuss”.
About a week later, on 7 August, another member of the Wagner family, Denis Wagner, wrote to the infrastructure department secretary, saying: “I caught up with [named redacted] and [name redacted] last Friday to discuss the alignment for the rail.
“I think we are all clear that our interest is to have the alignment run past the Wellcamp airport, regardless which route is ultimately accepted as the best route overall.”
He ended his email by asking: “Is there anything further we can do to assist with progressing the investigation of a route past the Wellcamp airport?”
About a month later, the department wrote to Chester, the then transport minister, asking him to sign off on a new study investigating diverting the inland rail past the Wagners’ airport.
Internal briefing papers dated August 2016 reveal the Wagners also offered to help the government pay for the new study, and build a new freight facility “to be opened when the line was completed”.
“The Wellcamp owners have informally raised the possibility of a contribution to the study,” the department’s internal briefings say. “We do not support this as it would lose the report’s independence; however, we should stay open to seeking a contribution to any capital costs should a change in the alignment be realised.”
Paul and Karen Clapham at their farm in the Darling Downs region.
The Wagners did not end up paying for the study, nor did they make capital contributions.
An independent study was eventually approved to consider four options, including the route past Wellcamp.
Guardian Australia is not suggesting the Wagners acted illegally or improperly in any way, or that their lobbying was the sole reason for diverting the rail line. Other parties were also lobbying for the route to be diverted to the airport, including before the Wagners’ emails.
The infrastructure department said any suggestion that outside influence shaped the decision was “false”, and that the chosen route was the fastest of the four options considered in the independent study, and the cheapest of all but the original 2010 base case.
“The inference that there was any outside influence on the selection of the preferred study corridor for the Yelarbon to Gowrie inland rail section is false,” a spokesperson said.
“The decision to review the study corridor was based on a number of factors including the recent development of the Toowoomba industrial precinct and stakeholder and community feedback from local, state and federal representatives.”
Denis Wagner said his family was far from the only private interest lobbying on the route of the inland rail, and that the original 2010 alignment was always intended to be subject to change.
“We did, as did several other parties, lobby the Federal Government when the decision was made to progress the project,” Wagner told Guardian Australia. “We asked them to consider what we thought to be an important aspect of the future use of Inland Rail, which was the interface between the rail and the Wellcamp airport. Whilst at that time there was a single scheduled freight flight per week, it is our view the number of flights will significantly increase in future.”
Guardian Australia has reported extensively on fundamental flaws in Australia’s lobbying rules, which keep some attempts to influence government hidden from public view. The Wagners’ lobbying, and that of other parties, was not visible because the family approached the government directly, rather than engaging registered lobbyists to act on their behalf.
This article first appeared on www.theguardian.com
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