Queensland Treasurer Tim Nicholls.
Queensland Treasurer Tim Nicholls. Dave Hunt

Queensland treasurer has a simple message

HONESTY and openness - it is a rare quality in a politician these days.

However, the man tasked with informing communities across the state about the Queensland Government's choices in a bid to pay down the state's debt constraints has both.

He has arguably one of the toughest jobs in government given the bad taste still lingering in the mouth of Queenslanders surrounding the botched asset sales agenda under the former Labor government.

The message from Queensland Treasurer Tim Nicholls is simple.

The state must reduce the $80 billion debt it inherited from the former government to about $55 billion in order to provide the infrastructure and services communities across the state are crying out for.

To do so, Queenslanders have three options.

Either support an increase in fees, taxes and charges, see a reduction in essential services or allow the government to explore selling some assets.

Mr Nicholls, in a rare shift away from historical political decision-making where a decision was usually made and ratified in the corridors of power in Brisbane, has embarked on a statewide roadshow outlining the government's plan to reduce the debt.

His gruelling schedule, which has already seen him rack up thousands of kilometres, has taken him to the far reaches of the state and he has no plans in stopping any time soon.

And it has not been easy.

Earlier this year Mr Nicholls underwent knee surgery which, while on the mend, has at times given him grief - especially when standing for long periods of time, walking extensively or even getting in-and-out of a car.

APN Newsdesk was afforded complete access this week to the Treasurer and his team as they completed the latest series of community forums in Toowoomba, Emerald and Longreach.

Despite claims from the Opposition and unions that the forums are closed-door, invite-only meetings where he controls the invite list, nothing could be further from the truth.

While the forums are invitation only, attendees come from wide range of backgrounds including local government, community organisations, charities, industry leaders, health professionals, educators and small business owners.

One thing that stood out was each region and each town had their own set of vastly different issues and problems facing their respective communities.

Be it a new road, a new dam, water security, tourism, flood mitigation, new aquatic centre, school upgrade or simply a bigger piece of the funding pie.

The two-hour long forums are by no means a waste of time and by no means an easy ride for the Treasurer and his small team.

Attendees come prepared to listen, ask questions and hold open discussion surrounding the state's future direction.

They come armed with unvetted questions they want answered and issues they want to discuss.

Mr Nicholls and his team endeavour to answer to the best of their ability.

In the three meetings APN Newsdesk attended, Mr Nicholls seemed approachable, relaxed, articulate and most importantly, for him anyway, believable.

The forums were nothing like the "lecturer tour" as his detractors claimed - if anything it was the complete opposite.

Mr Nicholls, during a meeting in Emerald where the room was certainly not filled with members of the "Tim Nicholls fan club," articulately outlined the government's position.

"We face many challenges. We have reined in government spending, but we still have this massive debt hanging over our heads," he said.

"It makes it increasingly difficult to provide projects and services for Queenslanders with this debt hanging over our heads.

"You can stand on the brakes for a little while, but eventually you have to start investing for the future.

"It is about building the infrastructure for the future generations of Queenslanders."

Mr Nicholls said the government had identified five state-owned assets it would consider offloading.

They included the leases of the Gladstone and Townsville ports, the sale of coal-powered power generators CS Energy and Stanwell Corporation as well as the possible sale of the Mt Isa to Townsville freight line.

However, he reaffirmed the government's position it would not do so unless it felt Queenslanders wanted it.

"Regions want to know what they will get in return if they support the sale of assets," he said.

"There is a balancing act we have to juggle surrounding paying down the debt and reinvesting in communities.

"That is one reason why I am travelling to as many communities as possible, to see what their needs are.

"One of the best things about what I am doing is I come away from these forums with an abundance of information, including issues that I may not have been aware of previously."

Earlier this year, in a speech to business leaders, Mr Nicholls outlined what the government could do if it did not have to pay out $4 billion in interest payments on the debt each year.

"As a single project, in one year, we could make the Bruce Highway dual carriageway between Brisbane and Rockhampton," he said.

"We could build two projects the size of the $1.7 billion Toowoomba Range bypass.

"Or we could fund 20 new top of the range primary schools, 1000 extra teachers, 1000 new hospital beds, 500 cochlear implants and still have almost $2 billion left to put into improving other services."

Mr Nicholls said it was not all doom and gloom for the state, but it was a conversation that must be had.

On the flip-side, he said the one thing he enjoyed the most about being tasked with delivering the government's message was being able "to get away from George Street" and get out and meet people across regional Queensland.

"What I learn when I visit the regions is the magnificent diversity of Queensland, the resilience of the people and the passion for the place they live in," he said.

"These are all great things and it restores your faith in people.

"You speak to real people and I get a great buzz out of it."

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