Victorian Premier Dennis Napthine announces a “plan” to spend $20 million upgrading Junction Oval at St Kilda to accommodate the AFL team named after the suburb, even though it hasn’t played or trained there for decades. The plan appears not to have been checked with the local council or the AFL, and would apparently need another $37 million in infrastructure funding from the Abbott government. At first glance it looks to be a complete waste of money with few if any redeeming features.
The Melbourne East West Link tunnel is a vastly more expensive but equally dubious project in cost-benefit terms that Napthine has rammed through despite very widespread opposition, including from the ALP which has said it won’t build it under any circumstances if elected.
The Baird government in New South Wales is pressing ahead with grandiose motorway schemes which almost certainly wouldn’t pass any rational cost-benefit analysis, and the ACT government is also apparently proceeding with plans to build a 12 km light rail line which most definitely doesn’t pass any rational cost-benefit analysis.
Meanwhile, in the Northern Territory, the Giles CLP government is apparently about to announce a plan to sell the government-owned Territory Insurance Office, partly in order to qualify for infrastructure funding from the Abbott government, and partly to get out from under a huge potential contingent liability because TIO is apparently unable to reinsure risks for providing insurance cover for properties built in cyclone surge zone or on floodplains (many of which should never have been approved for development and construction in the first place).[1. I should emphasise that I actually agree with the (probable) decision to sell TIO. But the policy and evaluative framework behind it, both at federal and NT levels, is almost completely absent. It’s no way to run government.]
What do these planning/infrastructure fiascoes in various states and territories have in common? Answer: – Tony Abbott the Infrastructure Prime Minister. Of course, the Infrastructure PM label is a false flag anyway, because as far as one can tell the Coalition government hasn’t committed any more funding to infrastructure projects than did its predecessor. What it has done is to create an incentive for State and Territory governments to flog off existing publicly-owned enterprises and assets, seemingly without any form of evaluation as to whether a sale actually makes sense, in order to qualify for federal infrastructure funding that also appears to be granted without any meaningful cost-benefit assessment of the projects on which the federal money is to be spent. To the extent that there is any rationale behind the Commonwealth’s encouragement to sell existing state-owned businesses and assets, it appears to go no further than a universal blockheaded ideological “private good public bad” slogan. The objective of encouraging State and Territory governments with federal subsidies to use sale proceeds of public enterprises to fund new “core” infrastructure appears to be little more than an open invitation to the Premiers and Chief Ministers to indulge in massive and wasteful electoral boondoggles.
I wonder why no one in the mainstream media has noticed these patterns, and why no one is discussing them? They say we get the governments that we deserve, but surely we don’t deserve as bad as this. The Rudd and Gillard governments were a very long way from perfect, but at least they established a rigorous independent body called Infrastructure Australia to evaluate both the Commonwealth’s own projects and state and territory projects partly funded by the Commonwealth. Rudd/Gillard conspicuously and unforgivably sidestepped IA evaluation when implementing the National Broadband Network, but in general terms IA provided a critically important accountability/transparency mechanism in areas involving huge expenditures of public money.
Infrastructure Australia has been almost completely sidelined by the Abbott government, a decision that has attracted almost no public attention. Except from Peter Van Onselen, that is:
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.
We are currently witnessing waste of public money on a gargantuan scale with little or no public scrutiny or discussion. And all this from a Federal Coalition government elected on a platform of cutting waste! It is truly bizarre.