Matthew Guy pledges to shelve $34.5bn rail project to invest in healthcare

Victoria’s opposition has pledged to shelve the $34.5bn first stage of Suburban Rail Loop, described as the biggest transport project in the state’s history, if elected in November and reinvest that money in the health system.

State Coalition leader Matthew Guy made the announcement he would halt work on the first 26km of the project 101 days before voters go to the polls, setting the stage for another election turned referendum on infrastructure.

“This November, Victorians face a clear choice. A choice between immediately rebuilding Victoria’s broken health system, or a train line in 13 years’ time,” he said in a statement.

“As premier, my first priority will be to fix the health crisis.

“Our plan is about returning confidence for Victorians. Confidence that an ambulance will arrive, an emergency call will be answered and critical healthcare will be available when needed.”

SRL East is the first stage of the 90km underground railway line, and will run between Cheltenham and Box Hill, with an end-to-end trip taking just 22 minutes.

Construction began in June and is due to be completed by 2035 at a cost of $34.5bn.

The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, committed $2.2bn to the project during the federal election campaign.

The Victorian government is seeking another $9.3bn in federal funds and at least $10bn from the private sector for the project.

It has already committed $12bn over four years to improving the state’s health system, including $2.9bn worth of new infrastructure and $1.5bn to help reduce the elective surgery waiting list, which is approaching 90,000 patients.

Guy told reporters the project he would not be tearing up $2.3bn worth of early works contracts already signed on the project. Instead, he said it would be shelved until the state “can afford it”.

“We won’t rip up those contracts. We certainly wouldn’t do that,” he said.

“[The Suburban Rail Loop is] a nice to have project, what is a must have is fixing the health system. I’m focused on must haves.”

The Andrews government announced the project in August 2018, just months out from the state election, and went on to win in a landslide, with an above-average swing to Labor in electorates set to benefit from the loop. Three of the eight seats Labor picked up at the election – Box Hill, Burwood and Mount Waverley – had new stations promised.

The 2014 election was also centred around infrastructure policy, dubbed a “referendum on the East West Link” by then prime minister Tony Abbott.

The premier at the time, Denis Napthine, had vowed to build the underground tunnel to connect Melbourne’s Eastern Freeway to CityLink while then-opposition leader Daniel Andrews promised to cancel the contract, describing it as “not worth the paper it’s written on”.

Guy described the suburban rail loop project as the “most expensive, yet least scrutinised project in Australia’s history”, noting Infrastructure Australia – the advisory body which helps the federal government decide how best to use taxpayer money – is yet to assess it.

He said “every single cent” of funding would be redirected into “fixing our health system.”

This includes building five new major hospitals in Melton, Mildura, West Gippsland, Wodonga and a dedicated new Infectious Diseases Response Centre, upgrades to Rosebud, Sandringham and St Arnaud hospitals and halving Victoria’s elective surgery waitlist within four years.

Earlier this week, the Coalition announced it would make public transport free for health workers.

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