Call for MLC to resign over Tier 3

Rueben Hale and Brad ThompsonThe West Australian
Wheatbelt growers Grant Tuckwell, Gary Repacholi, John Ashley, Barry Wilkins, Jim West, Tom Henderer and Julian Wills inspect one of the many Tier 3 lines and left in a state of disrepair after the State Government relaxed Brookfield Rail's maintenenace obligations in a secret variation to the originlal lease agreement.
Camera IconWheatbelt growers Grant Tuckwell, Gary Repacholi, John Ashley, Barry Wilkins, Jim West, Tom Henderer and Julian Wills inspect one of the many Tier 3 lines and left in a state of disrepair after the State Government relaxed Brookfield Rail's maintenenace obligations in a secret variation to the originlal lease agreement. Credit: The West Australian

Agricultural Region MLC Jim Chown has been urged to resign after being accused of misleading Parliament over the State's rail network.

Key conditions underpinning the lease arrangements for the rail lines that once provided farm to port access to grain growers were changed three times despite claims in Parliament to the contrary by Mr Chown, who is the Transport Minister's Parliamentary secretary.

_Countryman _can reveal that secret lease documents between the State Government and Brookfield Rail, released last week by a Parliamentary committee, show that the lease was changed three times between 2008 and 2013, which is at odds with Mr Chown's claim to Parliament in October 2013 that there had been no changes to the 2000 Principal Lease agreement since 2008.

The State Government leased the entire State freight rail network in 2000 to WestNet Narrow Gauge Rail (now Brookfield Rail).

A 2010 variation to the lease creates the potential for the Government to make millions of dollars on access fees paid by farmers if Brookfield Rail returned a profit on selected grain freight lines.

Farmers were not told of the deal between Brookfield and the Public Transport Authority, which is responsible for managing the rail network lease.

It was negotiated in secret as part of a package of measures which paved the way for Brookfield to close 500km of lines known as Tier 3 earlier this year in a move rural communities warned would create trucking hell on country roads.

The impact of the closures for growers in Tier 3 areas has meant thousands of extra truck movements on crumbling Wheatbelt roads and increased freight costs to transport their grain.

Under the deal, the Government-run Public Transport Authority is entitled to 15 per cent of profits Brookfield makes on the Tier 1 and Tier 2 lines used to cart grain aftermaintenance work, which is largely funded by the Commonwealth.

The arrangement kicked in on June 30 and is scheduled to run for the next nine years, according to the documents exposed last week.

Since officially taking over the lease in 2008, Brookfield has received $187.9 million of Federal and State funding to upgrade Tier 1 and 2 lines and has received more than $200 million from growers in access fees.

During this time, it has also closed 740km of grain track, placed more than 700 speed and weight restrictions on the remainder of the network and continues to seek a significant increase in grower access fees.

WAFarmers president Dale Park said if it was proven that Mr Chown had deliberately misled Parliament, he should resign.

"Parliament is the authority of the land, and therefore if Mr Chown cannot give adequate reasons why his answer to Parliament on changes to the lease are incorrect, he should resign because he has misled that authority," he said.

The Wheatbelt Railway Retention Alliance, long-time campaigners for the preservation of grain on rail, said Mr Chown had let down his Wheatbelt constituents if he failed to explain his reason to Parliament.

"Mr Chown, representing the Minister for Transport, has a responsible and senior role in Government and is a Member for the Agriculture Region," WRRA president Greg Richards said. "It is a disgrace and totally unacceptable if it turns out that he has misled Parliament on an issue which impacts greatly on the region he is elected to represent.

"The alliance, representing the interest of growers in the Wheatbelt, will have no alternative but to demand his resignation if he has misled Parliament."

The State Opposition has called for a full independent inquiry over the State Government's knowledge of the secret variations to the lease.

"The Parliament was clearly misled back in October 2013," shadow transport minister Ken Travers said.

"In light of Mr Chown's keen interest in the grain freight rail network issue, I would be very surprised if he was not aware of the variations to the lease, being the assistant to the Transport Minister."

Kondinin grower Gary Repacholi said it was obvious the Government had done a deal with Brookfield that meant growers were going to pick up the tab for the rail when the 2010 Strategic Grain Network report was released.

"We wondered where our access fees were going to, and now we know 15 per cent of them were going back to the State Government under a secret deal," Mr Repacholi said.

"If it is found the Jim Chown deliberately misled Parliament, it could mean it is just the tip of the iceberg in exposing corruption in the Government over this issue and should resign if the allegations are true."

Mr Chown was not contactable for comment.

Brookfield and CBH are locked in a dispute over the future of the Tier 3 lines and fees for a long-term access deal on Tier 1 and 2 lines.

The Government has repeatedly said the long-running row was a commercial matter for Brookfield and CBH. It has never acknowledged the PTA's financial interest in the rail access deal.

_Changes to lease since 2008 _

·July 9, 2010: Variation to narrow gauge lease in the Project Agreement for Capital Works

·October 13, 2011: Tier 3 grain lines re-opening requirements for the 2011/12 grain harvest letter agreement

·May 30, 2013: Variation to Project Agreement for Capital Works

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