The Newcastle Herald is extending an invitation to Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Transport Minister Andrew Constance to return to Newcastle to answer the questions they avoided at last week's infamous light rail media conference.
Both have been criticised heavily on mainstream and social media for their reactions to questions from the Herald about whether the government's $700 million urban transformation project has been a success and why they have not released a business case for light rail extensions, as they committed to do four years ago.
Ms Berejiklian described the line of questioning as "operation normal" for the Herald.
Mr Constance said the newspaper had an "obligation" to be positive about the city, having told the Herald in 2016 to "stop being so negative".
Both avoided questions over the plight of business people in the central business district who have reported a significant drop in foot traffic and revenue in the past 18 months. They pointed instead to the city's "revitalisation".
The following is a transcript of the exchange:
Reporter: "You committed four years ago to release a business case for the extensions, and we still haven't seen it."
Mr Constance: "Well, ah, sorry, which media outlet are you from?"
Reporter: "Newcastle Herald."
Ms Berejiklian: "Yeah, that's normal for them. That's just operation normal, yeah, yeah."
Reporter: "Yeah, we ask questions. That's right."
Mr Constance: "Look, we always said, and I gave the commitment when the upper house voted to allow us to remove the heavy rail, that we'd do the strategic business case, and that's what we're doing. Look, you know, I just hope you have a little bit of a positive outlook on today because it's a wonderful outcome for the city, and, you know, it's great news for everyone."
Reporter: "You talk about a positive outcome, but as we rode the tram today the streets were virtually empty, and you keep talking about revitalisation, and that's not the message we're getting from business people in the town. What do you say to them?"
INCONVENIENT QUESTIONS: Watch the Trump-like response from @GladysB & @AndrewConstance as a @newcastleherald journalist asks legitimate questions about Light Rail. The Herald is simply doing its job - journalism. @HeathHarro@LisaMAllan@mhparris#nswpol#journalism#democracypic.twitter.com/DpIvOR25Uc— David Threlfo (@David_Threlfo) February 18, 2019
Ms Berejiklian: "Have you spoken to the Hunter Business Chamber?"
Reporter: "I have. I've spoken to the business chamber. I've walked up and down the street and I've spoken to just about every shopkeeper."
Mr Constance: "Mate, let me say this to you, since we've taken the heavy rail up there's been $3 billion of private sector investment into this city … the fact that there is thousands of new apartments into this city and everyone across the state, even in Bega, is talking about what's happening in Newcastle. You've got a city to be proud of, and, you know what, I think there's an obligation on the part of the Herald to be very positive about this town, because it is a wonderful, wonderful place."
A video montage of the exchange, compiled by NBN cameraman Dave Threlfo, has been viewed more than 150,000 times on Twitter and featured in national media reports.
The Herald approached Ms Berejiklian's office on Friday for a one-on-one interview, but a spokesman said: "We will decline this opportunity."
The Herald would like to invite the Premier and Mr Constance to come back to the Hunter between now and the March 23 election to respond clearly to questions about key issues facing the region.
It is a long list.
They could start by addressing a NSW Auditor-General's report late last year which found the $368 million light rail project was not justified by the desired outcomes of the renewal project and had been announced without a business case or community consultation.
@GladysB @AndrewConstance When I asked why Newcastle’s ‘revitalised’ main street was largely empty the day you launched the tram, this is the video I took (10am). @newcastleherald @Peter_Fitz @HeathHarro @LisaMAllan pic.twitter.com/wCgXHLQKEv— Michael Parris (@mhparris) February 21, 2019
This is what the business chamber's chief executive, Bob Hawes, the Coalition government's Hunter Development Corporation general manager from 2011 to 2016, said in December about the Audit Office report: “In regard to light rail, the experiences of business operators in Newcastle shows there are improvements to be made in the way these projects are implemented and stakeholders consulted.
"While some level of disruption will always be expected, the impact on businesses and their ability to continue trading through the construction period needs to be a higher priority in the planning process.”
This is the entire response the Herald received at the time from a Revitalising Newcastle spokesman: "Revitalising Newcastle welcomes the Auditor-General’s report and findings. The findings demonstrate that consultation, governance and probity have been in line with best practice in recent years.
"Ten years ago Newcastle sent the NSW government a message: ‘fix our city’. The government listened, and in the years since the heavy rail was truncated at Wickham, billions of dollars in private investment have flowed into the city - a vote of confidence in Newcastle’s future.
"Light rail is an integral part of the Revitalising Newcastle program, leaving a positive legacy for Novocastrians by attracting investment, bringing people to the city, and creating new jobs. These are far-reaching benefits that will continue well into the future.
"The results of the NSW government’s investment of more than $650 million in Newcastle are today on show for all to see, with the city centre opened to the waterfront, new public spaces on old heavy rail corridor, and Australia’s first wire-free light rail being put through its paces."
We will decline this opportunity.Premier's office response to a follow-up interview with the Herald
Mr Hawes told the Herald three weeks ago that the business case for extending the light rail into the suburbs was "certainly overdue".
After the Premier and Mr Constance address the lack of planning or consultation for the tram, they could move on to explaining why the government has not released a business case for the Broadmeadow sports and entertainment precinct, 19 months after Sports Minister Stuart Ayres launched a draft plan and "three-month" consultation period.
They could address why work has not started on the Muswellbrook bypass, four years after the government committed to what was then a $68 million project, and why the community should trust their latest pledge to start the now $266 million road by 2022.
They could explain if their recent commitment to a $270 million upgrade to Nelson Bay Road is worth more than former premier Mike Baird's as yet unfulfilled promise in 2015 to “invest $70 million in full duplication from Stockton Bridge to Anna Bay”.
They could explain why the government entered into an agreement to privatise the state's ports which prevents Newcastle from developing a potentially lucrative container terminal. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has started Federal Court proceedings over that deal.
They could let the Hunter know whether they plan to fund Newcastle Airport's $147 million expansion, another project with the potential to help drive the region's economy.
The long-awaited M1 Motorway extension to Raymond Terrace, the long-overdue inner-city bypass around John Hunter Hospital, faster trains to Sydney … all have featured on business chamber and Committee for the Hunter wish lists in recent weeks.
As business chamber president Hennie du Plooy said on February 12: “Some have stalled due to lack of funding or feasibility studies; some have yet to advance past the concept stage. In all cases, we will be asking candidates to confirm their commitment to seeing these regionally significant projects implemented.”
No one in the Hunter expects all these projects to be funded immediately or the region's challenges to be conquered overnight, but they do expect leaders to listen and take them seriously.
The Herald also looks forward to Opposition Leader Michael Daley visiting and outlining Labor's position on these issues.
The government has initiated some key Hunter projects, notably the $450 million Maitland Hospital.
Ms Berejilklian could finish a return trip to the Hunter by explaining to the community why Mr Constance wore a dark blue tie bearing a white elephant to last week's light rail launch.