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Friday, 7 November 2014

‘Infrastructure PM’ Abbott is taking credit for Labor-launched projects

‘Infrastructure PM’ Abbott is taking credit for Labor-launched projects

‘Infrastructure PM’ Abbott is taking credit for Labor-launched projects







Contributing editor
Canberra
Tony Abbott claimed that he wanted to “build the infrastructure of the 21st century”, but
Tony Abbott claimed that he
wanted to “build the infrastructure of the 21st century”, but he has
started to narrow that rhetoric down to roads.

Source: News Corp Australia

Illustration: Eric Lobbecke
Illustration: Eric Lobbecke
Source: TheAustralian



TRUTH in politics certainly has suffered in recent years. Ahead of
the 2010 election, Labor promised there wouldn’t be a carbon tax — and
notwithstanding semantic debates as to what it delivered, trust in the
government was broken as a consequence.




Ahead of last year’s unlosable election, Tony Abbott made
unnecessary commitments not to cut health, education or ABC funding —
and again, notwithstanding semantics over whether he has cut the size of
increased spending budgeted for, or the spending envelope, voters no
longer trust the Prime Minister.


This will continue to play about between now and the next election.

These
debates over trust can be twisted in whichever direction partisan
opponents favour. The most substantive example of constructing a false
narrative to mislead voters is the “infrastructure prime minister”
mantra the ­Coalition seeks to embed in our thoughts about the Abbott
­government.





It suggests Labor neglected infrastructure funding during its six
years in power and the Coalition is seeking to restore (or at least
begin) a focus on this important area of government policy.


Nothing could be further from the truth.

In
opposition, at his campaign launch, Abbott said: “I hope to be an
infrastructure prime minister who puts bulldozers on the ground and
cranes into our skies.”


That has been followed up with a national
tour, replete with hard hats and banners, claiming credit for schemes
that were already under way or already legislated for by Labor.


Opposition
infrastructure spokesman Anthony Albanese has labelled it a “magical
infrastructure re-announcement tour”. He is right, notwithstanding the
obvious political rhetoric.


These are the facts. When Labor came
to power Australia was 20th in the OECD for infrastructure spending as a
per­centage of gross domestic product. When Labor lost office we were
first.


Although this statistic includes public and private
funding, the shift in focus to infrastructure during Labor’s time in
office is equally undeniable when it comes to public only spending. In
2007 it was $132 a person; when Labor lost it was $225. For all the good
that can be said about the Howard years, investment in infrastructure
wasn’t a highlight.


We can argue about whether the shift was
funded by debt or even whether it was well spent. But Abbott cannot
claim to have re-prioritised infrastructure, because he has not.


And
given the realities of debt-fuelled spending on infrastructure in the
Abbott years to come, a political attack that Labor didn’t have the
money to pay for infra­structure is equally applicable to the Coalition
in the here and now.


Abbott wants to be known as an infrastructure
PM who is pumping more money into productivity-enhancing areas,
notwithstanding the use of debt. But there is no new money, none at all.
The best that can be said is that there have been some funding
adjustments — taking money out of public transport investments and
putting it into further road spending — but the total spend at best
equals what Labor tipped in.


Being generous, the Coalition has matched Labor’s interest in funding infrastructure.

The
day before the Coalition’s first budget, Albanese’s office handed
journalists a list of $50 billion worth of infrastructure projects
already under way or fiscally accounted for from Labor’s time in office.
I remember it.


On the day of the budget the Coalition —
presumably unaware of this — handed out its own nearly identical list,
claiming a “record $50bn” investment by Australia’s new infrastructure
PM.


It was a blatant attempt to deceive, with the aim of garnering positive media coverage.

It
isn’t always wise for a newly minted opposition to leave ex-ministers
in the portfolios they previously occupied. It can leave the opposition
appearing stale, suggesting renewal isn’t under way. But Bill Shorten’s
decision to leave Albanese in infrastructure — one of the few ministers
this paper editorially recognised as a strong performer during the life
cycle of the Rudd-Gillard governments — helps hold the Coalition to
account for its attempt to mislead the public on infrastructure
investments. Even if Albanese perhaps still has one eye on the Labor
leadership.


If the infrastructure debate turns to which form of
spending is more appropriate — because, after all, it’s not necessarily
how much is spent that matters but how well it is spent — doing so
­reveals a government seeking political advantage via its announcements
over and above sound planning. Labor failed when it came to ordering a
cost-benefit analysis for the rollout of the National Broadband Network,
and Abbott is failing now as his ministers cast the independent body
Infrastructure Australia aside.


IA is entirely independent of
government, makes recommendations based on policy and research outcomes,
and does not factor into its recommendations political considerations
such as the marginality of seats being serviced by potential projects
(or the need to help out state colleagues in the lead-up to elections).


In
opposition, the Coalition pledged to retain this body, ­reappoint its
chairman Rod ­Eddington (hardly a Labor stooge), and guarantee that
projects costing more than $100 million go through the IA cost-benefit
analysis.


In government, it has sought to bypass IA, hasn’t
reappointed Eddington and won’t commit to cost-benefit assessments until
after political decisions have been made. We have seen this in the
announcements made concerning the East West Link in Melbourne, and
WestConnex in Sydney. In fact on more than one occasion the government
has proceeded with projects IA specifically concluded wouldn’t see a
return on investment for taxpayers.


Abbott claimed that he wanted
to “build the infrastructure of the 21st century”, but he has started to
narrow that rhetoric down to roads.


While the funding envelope
for infrastructure hasn’t been extended, there has been a shift in
priorities. Without independent analysis. It is highly debatable whether
expensive tollways servicing drive-in and drive-out workforces in outer
suburbs is the best way to plan for the future. But claiming to do so
gives the government short-term political capital around “addressing
congestion”. This simplifies a complex planning debate.


More
likely infrastructure enhancements that localise jobs, or urban
consolidation that brings workers closer to existing jobs, need
commonwealth attention. Perhaps this is something the government will
include in its response to the federation white paper.


The problem
with the Coalition’s focus on roads is that to pay for it public
transport funding has been gutted. Cancelled infrastructure projects of
this kind include Brisbane’s Cross River Rail development, and the
Melbourne Metro has been adjusted so it no longer goes through the CBD
(how ridiculous is that).


If we are going to seek urban design
that expands outer suburbs from which workers commute, every major city
in the world shows us that efficient and reliable public transport is
the way to go. It’s cheaper for commuters, faster and more sustainable.
Abbott wrote in his book Battlelines that Australians don’t have a
culture of using public transport. To a certain extent that is true (at
least from a narrow Sydney perspective), but only in so far as we don’t
like using poor services. Who does? Build it and they will come.


Public
transport investment at state level will suffer too because of the
withdrawal of commonwealth attention. When the Feds tie funding for
roads to state government partnerships, it fiscally discourages states
(already suffering from vertical fiscal imbalance) from funding such
investments themselves.


Credit where credit is due: the government
is proceeding with the building of a second airport for Sydney, and its
willingness to invest in new dams after more than 20 years of neglect
is admirable.


But the constant, scripted and inflated rhetoric that Abbott is an infrastructure PM just isn’t supported by the facts.

Peter van Onselen is a professor at the University of Western Australia.

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