THE HERALD'S OPINION: State must accept that questions remain over Revitalising Newcastle

EVENTS on Thursday show the state government is winning the big points when it comes to the revitalisation of the Newcastle business district. 

If the government’s plans produce the intended effect, then we will all, as a community, be grateful for the effort. In the meantime, though, the jury is still out on how the city will fare when light rail comes to dominate much of the city’s main street. 

In this regard, Newcastle Lord Mayor Nuatali is doing exactly what is expected of her as civic leader in pressing Transport Minister Andrew Constance over a promised study into expansion of the light rail.

On one hand, Mr Constance’s answer  – that the government would use the expertise of its public transport operator, Keolis Downer, in looking at an expansion – is commonsense enough.

On the other hand, the government committed to the study when it cut a deal with the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party to expedite the truncation of the city’s heavy rail line. If it was fair dinkum about the study – and more importantly, about funding, over time, an expansion of the system – then there would be no need to slap down the lord mayor when she asks a reasonable question about the study’s progress.

After all, it was Mr Constance who was asking people on Thursday to “think of the bigger picture” when it comes to the traffic chaos and retail trading downturn that will accompany the light rail construction program. It is all right for Mr Constance to say retailers would “thrive” once the revitalisation project was finished. The costs to businesses in Hunter Street and Scott Street are not to be sneezed at.

Neither are the costs facing the high-profile protest group Save Our Rail, which is facing a potential legal bill of between $800,000 and $1 million after an application to the High Court of Australia – appealing a decision against it in the NSW Court of Appeal – was rejected with costs.

Not everyone agreed with Save Our Rail but its members were exercising their democratic right in challenging the state on an important issue of public policy. Trying to force the group to pay such a bill would show a callous disregard for the importance of debate in our democracy.

The Coalition government might dislike Save Our Rail. But it should do the honourable thing, and not pursue the costs it says it has incurred in getting what it wanted: the truncation of the Newcastle rail line.

ISSUE: 38,520.

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