The Federal Government has poured cold water on reports Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull plans to announce a high speed rail network along the nation's east coast, as the Opposition accuses the PM of "clutching at straws" to avoid being labeled a "do-nothing" leader.
The Australian reported on Monday Turnbull is preparing a new funding approach for nation-building projects, including a plan to develop high-speed rail links on Australia’s east coast aimed at boosting regional centres and easing congestion in capital cities.
The report said the government would prioritise a rail line to Badgerys Creek in Sydney's west, and it wants it followed with links to regional centres such as Goulburn, as well as another from Melbourne to Shepparton -- the first links of a longer-term fast train network that would eventually run from Melbourne to Brisbane.
But Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister for Cities, Angus Taylor, on Monday afternoon appeared to shoot down the idea following the morning's speculation.
"In reference to media speculation surrounding a high speed rail connection from Melbourne to Brisbane, there is no commitment from the Federal Government to fund this project as it stands," he said in a statement.
"The only way that major projects can be progressed is through transforming the ways proposals are planned, financed and delivered.
"There is a parliamentary committee looking at high speed rail, chaired by John Alexander, and the government looks forward to receiving its report in due course."
The Australian earlier quoted Taylor as saying more investment in cities and “in connections between our cities” were needed, but financial constraints meant new and innovative approaches were needed.
“There’s many projects that could fit this model, whether it is rail to Badgerys Creek, whether it’s the Melbourne Metro, or whether indeed it is high speed rail between regional cities and the capitals — they are all projects where we are interested in looking at innovative approaches to financing,” Taylor told The Australian.
Opposition leader Bill Shorten said reports of the plan showed Turnbull was "desperate".
"This is a desperate Malcolm Turnbull clutching at straws to try and shake off the tag of being a do nothing Prime Minister," opposition leader Bill Shorten told reporters on Monday.
"If the Liberals were so committed to high-speed rail, why did they scrap some of the funding for a high-speed rail authority which Labor previously put in place.
"Talk is cheap. It’s actions that really matter. And when it comes to everything from climate change to banks, Mr Turnbull talks a great talk, but he just doesn’t walk a great walk."
High speed rail has been on the public agenda for decades, but so too has the the very high cost of construction.
Labor Infrastructure Spokesman Anthony Albanese said a report released three years ago showed the need for 82km of tunnels, 67km of which would be in Sydney, and projected there would be a $2.15 benefit to the economy for every dollar invested between Sydney and Melbourne.
The previous government also committed $50 million towards an advisory board to work with state and territory governments to move the project forward.
"Malcolm Turnbull is relying upon people having the memory of a goldfish," Albanese told the ABC.
"He comes up with ideas that are old, that have been progressed, that indeed his Government and Tony Abbott's government have wound back and stopped the advance of and then pretends that somehow this is some new whiz-bang initiative. It's not."
He said he would re-introduce a bill to establish a High Speed Rail Authority Parliament resumes next week.
"It can’t just happen with a front page splash once every year," Albanese said.
"You actually need a structure that will work to do the planning work to preserve the corridor across the jurisdictions and that’s why the High Speed Rail Authority was recommended."
Greens MP Adam Bandt dubbed the proposal "the train that only runs in election years".
The idea -- and its timing -- has been ridiculed on Twitter, with people comparing the plan to an episode of the ABC comedy Utopia, a satirical piss-take on how decisions are made in Canberra.