THE NSW Opposition has used the parliament’s annual budget estimates committee to question Berejiklian government ministers on the Newcastle light rail, the restrictions on container trade in the Port of Newcastle and the death of two former Stockton Centre residents soon after they were moved into a group home.
Although Transport Minister Andrew Constance did not accept criticism of aspects of the light rail put to him by Labor and the Greens, he did say his department was making progress “on what will need to be an extension to the west” of the Newcastle CBD.
“The question we have been asking internally is: what is the best way to do that?” Mr Constance said.
“There has been some commissioning of consulting work in relation to the number of routes and the best way to build it before we inform the strategic business case.”
He was “hopeful” the department could provide the committee with “that strategic business case development work” by the end of the year.
Asked about the Port of Newcastle contract, Treasurer Dominic Perrottet told Labor’s Adam Searle he was being “hypothetical” when he talked about possibility an Australian Competition and Consumer Commission investigation would find it breached federal competition law.
“We do not believe—and at the time, obviously the Government did not believe and still does not believe—that the provisions within that contract are anti-competitive,” Mr Perrottet said.
On the Stockton group home deaths, Labor’s Courtney Houssos clashed repeatedly with Disability Services Minister Ray Williams, as she tried to get Mr Williams to “accept responsibility for two profoundly disabled, extremely vulnerable residents who died as a result of your government's inaction?”
Eventually, the head of Family and Community Services, Michael Coutts-Trotter, said: “We accept and acknowledge the significant problems that were identified in the transition of these two people —identified both by our internal review and confirmed by the Ombudsman's review.”
Full estimates committee transcripts questioning:
Budget estimates are traditionally used by oppositions to quiz ministers and their senior staff, who are expected to be sufficiently briefed to answer a wide range of portfolio matters.
Appearing before the committee last Friday, Mr Constance said: “Anybody who has visited Newcastle lately will see what has transpired into an incredible project. The civil work on light rail will be completed in the next month or so.”
The government clearly wants the light rail operating before next year’s election on March 23.
On Friday Mr Constance said: “We will have trains being tested and then commissioned for revenue service in the first quarter of next year (which ends on March 31).
On the call to compensate retailers for the light rail construction disruption, Mr Constance said that unlike the Sydney CBD project, the Newcastle work had been “phenomenal in its delivery” and he expected businesses there to “thrive” once it was completed.
“They have not experienced the extensive delays that the CBD in Sydney has, and that is the reason why we have taken that decision (not to compensate),” Mr Constance said.
He praised Revitalising Newcastle chief Michael Cassell and denied there had been any “mass closure of businesses” as a result of the government’s program of works.
“That said, I am also conscious of those small businesses that are affected, and that is why we have again continued to invest in the activation of precincts,” Mr Constance said.
He played down the extent of Novocastrian involvement in a class action begun by Sydney CBD traders, saying: “The project is not late. I am not convinced that anyone from Newcastle has joined the class action. You are implying that businesses in Newcastle have joined the class action.
“I have not seen any evidence of that.
“In fact, the Newcastle businesses are now seeing barriers pulled away, the city breathing, and soon they will see passenger rail services supporting their city. I think also it is fair to say that if we have seen over 30 businesses open in Newcastle, that is a success story.”
Container trade restrictions
On the Port of Newcastle, Treasurer Dominic Perrottet summarised the government’s position on a potential ACCC finding against it by saying: “I will make this point, that contract obviously was entered into by the government and the operator. They understood the issues at the time and what the arrangements were to be.”
Mr Perrottet also pointed to the government’s ports strategy that has Port Kembla as the next container port after Botany, saying: “The state has an obligation wider than the port operators into the investment in infrastructure that is ancillary to, but connected to those ports to get freight moving.”
Asked by Labor’s Adam Searle whose signatures were on the port commitment deed that set out the details of Newcastle’s container restrictions, Mr Perrottet said it was before his time as treasurer.
When Mr Searle asked Mr Perrottet to apologise to the people of Newcastle for the restrictions, Mr Perrottet unsurprisingly declined, saying “the decisions we have made have benefited the people of Newcastle greatly”.
“In fact, as a result of that Port of Newcastle transaction, we have been able to do the following: $100 million for the Hunter Infrastructure & Investment Fund; $18 million for the John Hunter Neonatal Intensive Care Unit; $24 million for the redevelopment of Muswellbrook Hospital; $150 million committed in reserve to build the Newcastle Inner City Bypass Link between Rankin Park and Jesmond,” Mr Perrottet said.
He added the light rail to the investment list and said the biggest threat to Newcastle was the ALP for “wanting to shut down the coal industry”.
Stockton group home deaths
With the NSW Ombudsman having handed down a four-yearly report into the deaths of people with disability in residential care, Labor had been keen to questions minister Ray Williams, who they have repeatedly criticised as not being on top of his brief.
Whenever Mr Williams tried to have his departmental head, Michael Coutts-Trotter, provide detail on the Stockton situation, Labor’s Courtney Houssos and Peter Primrose, objected.
This exchange, with Labor’s Greg Donnelly as chair, is typical of Wednesday’s hearing.
CHAIR: The question that was put to you was very specific.
WILLIAMS: And I have answered it.
HOUSSOS: No, you have not.
CHAIR: That is your answer?
WILLIAMS: Absolutely, and I stand by that answer. But I am more than happy, as I said, to hand over to my secretary —
CHAIR: Minister, the question was directed to you.
WILLIAMS: — to provide a bit more detail in relation to those specific cases.
HOUSSOS: This is not question time in the Legislative Assembly. This is budget estimates and you are expected to answer the questions that you are asked.
WILLIAMS: And I have done that for you.
HOUSSOS: The question I am asking you is: Will you accept responsibility for two profoundly disabled, extremely vulnerable residents who died as a result of your Government's inaction?
WILLIAMS: And I will come back once again, Mr Chairman, in case the member did not hear my answer. We all have a role to play –
All up, the exchange covered seven pages of Hansard, before Mr Coutts-Trotter was finally heard when he said the department accepted and acknowledged the “significant problems” identified in the ombudsman’s report.