JOHN AUSTEN. Immigration and infrastructure.

Mar 23, 2018

While immigration – and a big Australia – is presented as the cause of infrastructure woe the real culprit is policy failure: deficient planning, bad structural arrangements and absence of road congestion pricing.  

A wave of media reports and broadcasts – from talkback radio to 4 Corners – is warning that ‘high levels’ of immigration threaten our lifestyles.

Much of the monologue of woe is overblown. One line is: migrant enhanced population is choking Sydney which, in 30 years, will have a population of up to 8 million. Yet this would be near a million less than in cities often offered for comparison – London or New York City – in an area 10 to 15 times larger. Few mention Tokyo or Shanghai – whose populations currently exceed all of Australia – the latter in an area half the size of Sydney.

A former Liberal Prime Minister and a former Labor Premier – both from eastern suburbs areas of Sydney – are prominent in stirring the population pot. The latter, of ‘Sydney is full’ (circa 2000 and near a million people fewer than today) fame, recently focused on the small area of Sydney’s eastern suburbs to raise possibilities of rationing access to walking trails and fences and turnstiles at beaches.

Those complaining about Sydney surfside traffic might recall the Carr Government in 1999 kyboshing a rail line to Bondi Beach – welcomed by eastern suburbanites fearing an onslaught of ‘westies’ from the other side of the flanellete curtain. Migrants weren’t the problem for ‘locals’ – it was Australians who lived ‘somewhere else’.

More considered contributions, such as by Ross Gittins, query some motives and economic benefits of migration at current levels. Gittins echoed a common view that migration is causing transport problems.

John Menadue pointed to the large positive contribution made by migrants to our way of life. He suggests concerns about population and infrastructure relate to planning failures.

Luke Fraser claimed policy is more of a problem of infrastructure failure than migration; noting some countries with high migration worry much less about infrastructure.

Irrespective of other aspects of migration debates, Mr Menadue and Mr Fraser are right about transport infrastructure policy and planning.

Here is an indicative list of problems in transport policy likely to contribute to feelings that the big cities are too crowded:

  • No national plan; attempts at planning have been resisted by State Governments and Canberra’s bureaucracy;
  • Disgraceful sub-national planning characterised by a road fetish. Examples include: new motorways pointing towards CBDs, under-scoping roads needed for trucks, arrangements to preclude public transport options – or competition – against favoured roads;
  • Traffic calming – redirecting traffic from local to main roads and slowing main roads and worse driving indicated by recent increases in the rate of road trauma per unit of travel e.g. mobile phone use in traffic;
  • Misguided structural reform. Examples include: attempts to split urban railways; privatisation extending well beyond mature markets as a way to raise short-term cash; piecemeal development of toll road networks; corporatisation without appropriate regulatory and service procurement arrangements;
  • Mismanagement of infrastructure renewal/expansion. Ensuing problems range from maintenance deficits to installation of inappropriate capacity e.g. trains too wide for tunnels;
  • Some big projects that reduce the current and future potential capacity of transport systems e.g., Sydney Metro impedes the operation and hamstrings the development of the Sydney Trains commuter system especially in Western Sydney;
  • Failure to apply economic principles – notably charging/pricing and rational investment – to infrastructure. Instead, there is sleight of hand spending under systems obscuring accountability.

These matters help explain the ‘paradox’ of increases in congestion while there have been small increases in aggregate (capital city) road use, frequent over-estimation of road demand and enormous increases in road spending.

Other policies exacerbate the effects of these factors. These include policies that boost the centre of big cities by retarding prospects of second-tier cities – like Newcastle, Geelong, and Townsville – and nodes like in Western Sydney.

The NSW’s Government’s anti-competitive restriction preventing Newcastle from having a container terminal is the most blatant recent case. There are plenty of others.

Since colonial days State Governments have been notoriously beholden to capital city business interests; for example, railway routes and breaks of gauge/track were established to funnel trade towards capital city ports and away from alternative centres.

While federation was intended to reduce this introversion, the Commonwealth is not operating as an adequate counter-balance. A signature policy – ‘city deals’ – which might have been hoped to spread development is looking superficial; a way of gaining political kudos for potentially ultra-vires funding like for football grounds.

The ‘city deal’ concept has been extended to Western Sydney where its key transport decisions are very suspect. They will be discussed in a later post; for now it is worth noting the big NSW Government projects, $40bn or so – Northconnex, WestConnex, Sydney Metro etc. – serve the east of the metropolitan area. As does the $2.5bn knock-down/rebuild stadium policy. The projects reinforce the dominance of the CBD and could well increase congestion – even without population growth – in the eastern parts of the city.

The recent announcement of Commonwealth support for a NSW study of ‘faster rail’ between Newcastle and Sydney is an example of the Commonwealth lazily supporting whatever a State says. Instead of its 2-hour travel time target to the CBD, it should be examining a 1-hour trip target to a major node in the metropolitan area – like Hornsby or Chatswood.

Given the above, I am sceptical about simplistic infrastructure-population arguments. Especially when presented as reasons to cut migration or cross-subsidise mega-projects near – or leading to – CBDs.

John Austen is a happily retired former official living in western Sydney. He was Director of Economic Policy for Infrastructure Australia from its inception in 2008 until his retirement in 2014. More details will be at

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