JOHN AUSTEN. Infrastructure summit – reported highlights

Is there such a thing as bad or wasteful infrastructure or is it like motherhood, all noble and good?

The Australian Financial Review’s national infrastructure summit was held in swanky Sydney surrounds last week. Being unable to attend, the following is drawn from AFR and other public reports about proceedings.

The lead-up featured the usual call from a senior business figure, this time Mr Tony Shepherd AO, for more infrastructure spending in urban areas and of course more and more on roads!

It was nice support for the summit’s city related theme, and dovetailed with both Coalition and Labor ambitions of more Commonwealth infrastructure spending.

The summit heard from leading supporters of infrastructure. The agenda and line-up also included representatives from the ‘social sector’ and several outstanding overseas rail executives. This brings credit to AFR Editor Michael Stutchbury and his team.

Presentations covered a range of matters interesting to infrastructure buffs. Refreshingly they included a few dissonant calls for more community involvement and not just special interests.

Hot topics included: congestion; new technologies like driverless cars; how to get more money to build things for our benefit of course. Questioning of presenters was polite.

Reports were silent on the most critical road issue: pricing to identify which roads to invest in. Without it we will continue to waste billions in funding more and more roads.

More striking were reports signalling some industry and government leaders’ misunderstanding, even incomprehension, of simple strategic issues. Examples were; ‘30 minute cities’; motorways as ‘rational’ responses to congestion; acceptance of political decision making, except when a pet project might be stopped as a result of a community ‘referendum’ and high speed rail only as a substitute for airline travel.

Among the more entertaining reports were observations by former Minister the Hon. Anthony Albanese, MP, about Westconnex in Sydney. Like him we can only hope to one day learn the location of entry/exit ramps for this under-construction $17billion road.

Another highlight was Federal Major Projects Minister, the Hon Paul Fletcher, MP, taking aim at ‘activists and Greens’ for alleged attempts to ‘disrupt’ projects. He referred to Perth’s Freight Link as recommended by experts. One could wonder how Senators might appreciate this given their recent Committee report which, after slamming the project, unanimously recommended withdrawal of Commonwealth funding. The soon to be elected Senate and with the power of Parliament over infrastructure tied grants could make the Perth Freight Link worth followingup.

However, two issues need to be raised now, before the federal election.

First, Professor Gary Bowditch from Sydney University claimed the highest national infrastructure priority is reform of the federation and how it approaches infrastructure. It is hard to disagree with him. Perhaps the sentiment is better expressed as: ‘ we need to reform the way in which the federation currently operates’. They key must surely be for the Commonwealth to have a proper transport plan rather than being content to pick and choose between state projects some of which are driven by doubtful analysis and powerful interest groups.

The need for change is demonstrated by federal elections becoming a battleground for state infrastructure responsibilities. Hopefully the (to be) published papers and presentations from the summit will show strong arguments contesting a fundamental debate that didn’t get reported from the summit.

Second, AFR headlines had projects stranded because policies are in ‘chaos’. Again there was no apparent challenge to this proposition. One inference was that: there are no national policies. While largely wrong, it is true that advisers and decision makers at times overlook the policies they feel to be inconvenient.

Worse are other possible inferences eg: summiteers accepting that the purpose of policies is to try to make their pet projects work, projets sans politique.

Some of the busiest and brightest in the infrastructure industry and government attended the summit. Were they too busy to notice the claim of a risky, back-to-front approach in which pet projects are not subject to rigorous analysis? Whatever the case, the ‘chaos’ headline and non-response by summiteers suggests that we need better analysis before very expensive and permanent decisions are made.

In reality infrastructure challenges and the people in charge of solving them are not so different from problems and solvers in other endeavours. Readers of Pearls and Irritations can draw parallels with other fields where, alongside great efforts and good works, some search for reasons to justify knee-jerk reactions and bad decisions is essential. Pearls and Irritation’s authors have documented examples in other areas determining economic and social opportunity, health, education and especially migration ‘policy’. A great deal of effort is given to hiding, or inventing excuses for, what is done in our name.

Should those who remain afar, say schoolchildren at Liverpool library, expect better from infrastructure ‘experts’ and ‘authorities’? They should but they are likely to be disappointed.

Perhaps they should resign themselves to accepting that maybe, like the rich, the real difference between infrastructure and the ruck is: it has more money.

By organising and reporting the infrastructure summit the AFR has done us all a service, in ways it might not have fully expected.

At last some academics are now claiming there is no infrastructure deficit at all! Despite that serious doubt, and likely chronic overspending on roads, we are all to be subjected to an expensive advertising campaign before July 2 for more federal funding for transport and roads in particular.

Australia would benefit from a more pointed discussion about infrastructure than reported from the summit. For example the impact on community must be a priority ahead of bankers and constructors. We already have too many advisory disasters undermining community confidence; the East-West Link fiasco and Freight Link debacle were just two. Now, ongoing mysteries about even larger projects, Westconnex and Sydney metro, are creating community disquiet despite a ‘steely determination’ of government to deliver them. What about discussing the quality of advice that leads to such results?

Business summits like this usually include networking drinks. Future infrastructure summiteers might benefit from a round of pre-cocktail prayers asking for guidance not to keep making the same mistakes year after year.

The AFR wrap-up claimed the only thing doing more harm with voters is not building infrastructure at all. Let’s check on that a decade from now. Twenty dollars, saying otherwise, is on the table.

John Austen is a happily retired, Sydney western suburbs dweller. He was Director of Economic Policy for Infrastructure Australia from its inception in 2008 until his retirement in 2014.

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