JOHN AUSTEN. The Premier and privatisation; selling silverware for transport tupperware?

Jan 29, 2017

Commentators on Premier Baird’s years focussed on short term matters such as money from privatisations or inconvenience caused by infrastructure building. The most important question, the merit of infrastructure built with sale proceeds, may take years to answer. NSW will be lucky if it ends up with transport infrastructure of lasting value from the sale of the state’s silverware.  

The Hon. Mike Baird MP recently resigned as NSW Premier after holding office for less than three years. Commentators were quick to offer views on his performance. Some argued his leadership heralded a new dawn for NSW due to privatisations, restoring the economy, repairing the budget, making difficult decisions. They could add erasing bad memories of Labor rule which ended in 2011.

Others were less complimentary, arguing the economic circumstances were lucky, the budget fix ephemeral and that his government’s aversion to consultation offended many in the community.

Mr Baird and his Treasurer, (former Transport Minister and now Premier) the Hon. Gladys Berejiklian MP, argued that privatisation allows enormous transport projects like Westconnex, light rail and Sydney metro. In my view, they should be judged on the effect of those projects rather than their willingness to raise or spend public funds. The strategic problems of the projects suggests that the definitive judgement, while years off, is unlikely to be kind.

Westconnex, initially suggested as a way to gentrify Parramatta Road, now reflects old ideas about big roads. It has morphed into a combination of: completion of the M4 into the city and duplication of the M5. Many people are upset at Westconnex’s incursions into private and public properties and parks, and the loss of trees. While important, these underplay the big issue: new motorways should not ‘point to’ big city CBDs. Westconnex breaches this principle. Here is a further problem: because the critical issues of road charging and congestion pricing have not progressed we do not know what major road projects, if any, are really needed in inner Sydney.

A basic problem with the approach to light rail is that it conflicts with other transport plans. Light rail in parts of Sydney’s eastern suburbs and Parramatta seemed sensible until the government talked about a Parramatta metro which would probably follow a similar route and do a better job. The light rail line along George St will conflict with increased traffic in the CBD from Westconnex.

In posts such as and I raised questions regarding Sydney ‘metro’ rail. The range and effects of strategic problems it will create, including ‘break of gauge’ and the possible hamstringing of the existing extensive network – with impacts even on Badgerys Creek Airport – warrant an inquiry by the Commonwealth Parliament.

Without better public explanations from the state government, I can have little confidence in its claims about these projects. Perhaps all will be well; perhaps it won’t. The public doesn’t know, and possibly the government doesn’t either.

The state government’s explanations for restricting operations at Newcastle port need to be much better and more open than those already provided. There, in early responses to questions about whether the privatisation deals capped container movements, (then) Treasurer Berejiklian was said to be ‘very careful’ to say ‘there was no legislated container cap’ (my emphasis). However, the sale documents had cap and penalty/compensation arrangements disadvantaging Newcastle.[i]

While Mr Baird had the best intentions, his transport legacy – supported by funds from privatisations – is questionable. One prospect is that NSW will not get lasting value from the sale of the state’s silverware and much more will need to be spent to fix new problems.

His successor, Premier Berejiklian, faces a harder row to hoe.

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.

[i] The Hon. Adam Searle, MLC at p.24 of

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