A CABINET document that shows the government rejected advice from Transport for NSW about the best light rail route in Newcastle was found in former Liberal MP Tim Owen’s office, it has been revealed.
It raises questions about how the city’s former backbencher came into possession of the confidential information – and why Labor did not tell the public sooner of the discovery made after it won the city’s byelection.
Labor MP Tim Crakanthorp, who inherited Mr Owen’s Hunter Street office, said on Tuesday that he had found the copy of the cabinet minute ‘‘late last year in the back of a filing cabinet’’ after he had given evidence to a November hearing for a parliamentary inquiry into the government’s planning decisions.
He referred it to the office of the opposition leader.
During a visit to the region on Tuesday, Premier Mike Baird was forced to defend the selected light rail route as one chosen with the city’s revitalisation needs in mind, and labelled as ‘‘conspiracies’’ claims the route was selected to favour the interests of developers.
Fairfax Media reported on Tuesday that Transport for NSW advised the cabinet infrastructure committee in December 2013 that its preferred light rail route was along the corridor for the heavy rail line that was to be ripped up as part of a Newcastle revitalisation plan.
But in May 2014, following consultation with government property developer UrbanGrowth NSW, the state announced the new line would use only part of the corridor in the West End before diverting along Hunter Street.
This is despite Transport for NSW’s advice to cabinet that running light rail down Hunter Street, as advocated by local developers, would mean a slower service, disruption of traffic and higher construction and heavy rail corridor remediation costs.
The cost of the Hunter Street route may also be as much as $94 million more than Transport for NSW’s preferred option, the documents suggest.
It emerged on Tuesday that the confidential cabinet documents were found in Mr Owen’s electorate office by Labor after it won the October 25 byelection sparked by Mr Owen’s resignation from Parliament.
He quit in August after lying to the Independent Commission Against Corruption about taking $10,000 cash before the 2011 election from developer and former lord mayor Jeff McCloy.
Mr McCloy is overseas but told the Newcastle Herald the light rail option chosen by the state was not his preference.
‘‘I have always been of the opinion that the light rail should have gone all the way down Hunter Street [from Wickham],’’ Mr McCloy said.
‘‘It seemed commonsense to me to put it where the shops are and where people actually want to go.
‘‘Obviously, I didn’t have much influence because the government went ahead with a different solution. They’re the facts of it.’’
Labor’s transport spokeswoman, Penny Sharpe, said there were ‘‘serious questions why a backbencher, Tim Owen, had access to these cabinet documents’’.
‘‘Who else had access to these documents and was there collusion with developers to ensure that the transport advice was ignored?’’ she asked.
The document has now been referred to the parliamentary inquiry.
Inquiry deputy chairman David Shoebridge said how Mr Owen came to have the material and whether he had any influence in the final decision about the light rail route ‘‘are questions that immediately arise’’.
But he also said it was ‘‘hard to understand’’ why Labor had not handed over the ‘‘critical’’ document earlier, labelling the apparent delay a ‘‘failure of government and a failure of opposition’’.
‘‘This demolishes the argument for terminating the rail line on Boxing Day,’’ Mr Shoebridge said.
‘‘Why on earth would anyone sit on it for months?’’
Mr Crakanthorp said he had campaigned on the issue before becoming an MP and then in Parliament.
‘‘Ultimately, the only way to stop the ripping up of the rail line is to vote the Liberals out in March, which is why we have made this information public,’’ he said.
Christian Democratic Party MP the Reverend Fred Nile, chair of the upper house inquiry into the Newcastle planning process, said he was ‘‘pretty angry’’ and questioned the government’s plans for the corridor.
‘‘There could be high-rise towers put on it as it’s the only land not affected by mining subsidence,’’ he said.
John Robertson quit as Labor leader days before Christmas.
Mr Robertson’s replacement, Luke Foley, was elected in January.