The new Infrastructure Australia chair said the organisation is open to ideas and seeks priorities from the public. Sitting in the public gallery I suggest three priorities: (1) revisit some of its advice; (2) set out the Commonwealth’s role; and (3) become more independent. The aim is to improve its reputation as a Commonwealth adviser.
1. Revisit advice – Some advice published by Infrastructure Australia this year is dubious. It suffered from internal contradictions, poor research and woefully inadequate explanations. Examples include: public transport franchising; corridor protection; project evaluations such as Westconnex and the Maldon-Dombarton rail line. Infrastructure Australia should revisit such advice. It should look carefully at what general advice – not specific to projects – it gives.
2. Commonwealth role – There is a fundamental gap in Infrastructure Australia’s advice on the Commonwealth’s role. The critical matter is for it to understand and say what the Commonwealth – the Government and Parliament – should do. It has not done so despite fundamental changes in understandings of the lawful role of the Government and Parliament since 2014. Until it does it risks being a cat’s-paw for mendacious mendicants including some States. This negates its usefulness.
3. Independence – Former Minister, the Hon. Warren Truss, had an odd view: Infrastructure Australia only needs to be independent of the Commonwealth Government. Infrastructure Australia needs to be independent, and be seen to be independent, of those who benefit from decisions on its advice. It needs to be independent of project proponents, lobby groups/infrastructure industry associations and State governments. There are doubts about whether this is the case. For example, it is reliant on project proponents for information and fact checking despite several cases of being given false or misleading information.
For the future
In dealing with these priorities, Infrastructure Australia needs to look to the future and avoid problems for itself caused by others.
Notwithstanding the silence from some conservative commentators who once harped on about the need for Infrastructure Australia to be ‘transparent’ – during the previous Labor administration – openness and independence are more important than ever for infrastructure policy and projects in Australia.
The types of problems outlined above can be avoided if Infrastructure Australia becomes and insists on more transparency. It should act more like a statutory authority than the corporate form it was mistakenly given in 2013-14.
Its office, via the chief executive, should publish draft reports – on all policy issues and on all projects – inviting public comment. This will enable factual mistakes to be corrected and ensure the reports are of a substance fitting to the issues under discussion.
Some projects are of such importance that Infrastructure Australia should hold public hearings and take evidence prior to making a draft report. Westconnex is an example. Such a process would reduce proponent incentives to mislead Infrastructure Australia; and avoid invocation of the Commonwealth Criminal Code.
This also would signal an intention to inquire into projects where proponents go around its back and lobby Parliamentarians and officials.
The board, via the chair, should consider comments on drafts and publish its views as a final piece of advice. Among other things this will remove the current ambiguity about the purpose of and responsibility for Infrastructure Australia’s publications.
By far the most important infrastructure project in Australia at present is the Sydney Metro. John Menadue is undoubtedly right in calling for a public inquiry into this; Infrastructure Australia should use that opportunity to explain its view.
John Austen was head of economic policy at Infrastructure Australia until 2014. He is now a happily-retired Sydney western suburbs dweller. More details are at his website The Jade Beagle.