JOHN Menadue. It is scandalous how infrastructure spending escapes proper scrutiny

Sep 8, 2017

The gathering infrastructure mess in Australia requires open public inquiries, starting with the Sydney Metro.  

In the series, Fairness, Opportunity and Security, posted on this blog in May 2015, Michael Keating and Luke Fraser said

‘Australia is racking up very substantial debts to finance unreformed infrastructure.  Many investments appear uneconomic and will therefore lower national productivity, …  It is scandalous that this investment escapes proper scrutiny, while at the same time the proponents are calling for cuts in other government programs, including education and training programs that would actually increase productivity and participation.

Australia needs key infrastructure investments but there is a lack of  rigor in identifying and assessing them.  A great deal of public money is involved but much of it is being wasted by bad policies and dubious projects across Australia; some of which will seriously disadvantage communities.

A lack of rigor is not the only problem.  There is unacceptable secrecy surrounding many projects; secrecy which undermines democratic accountability, erodes community trust and leaves everyone open to being misled and blindsided.

 This week in this blog Luke Fraser drew attention to yet another case of poison in the infrastructure well; hidden flaws in the hasty State government privatization of the very well-run Newcastle Port.

One flaw led to the Federal Court supporting ACCC port price controls.  The judiciary – not the government – is mitigating constraints on Australia’s trade that arise from defective NSW policies.  Luke Fraser added that despite Canberra having responsibility to progress Constitutional objectives for ports as gateways, the Federal Infrastructure Department was nowhere to be seen before, during or after the privatization of Newcastle Port.

Worst of all, the future of Newcastle is in jeopardy because of a secret NSW Government arrangement to nobble its port; an arrangement that is anti-competitive and prevents the port from pursuing many options.  Again not a peep from Canberra or the cozy infrastructure club.

Yet by far the biggest and most consequential infrastructure questions in Australia surround the NSW Metro ‘plan’.  Reasons for an open public enquiry into the Metro are not hard to find.

  • It is Australia’s most significant transport investment since WWII with a disclosed expenditure of at least $20 billion
  • In introducing a break of ‘dimensional gauge’ it contradicts Australia’s post federation rail principles and and reverses Bradfield’s plan for Sydney transport as well as the State Government’s own statements made in 2011. The width of the track is the same but the height and width of the tunnels are different.The smaller Metro tunnels will not accomodate the larger CityRail trains.
  • It risks the operation of Sydney’s existing rail network by cannibalizing some critical lines
  • Its engineering may unnecessarily yet permanently undermine the future of the City rail network and therefore the prospects for the vast number of people who rely on Sydney trains
  • It jeopardises any development of the existing rail network, and indeed Sydney itself, if it has alienated the future CBD-harbour corridor needed for Sydney’s commuter trains
  • It is negating some – possibly all – sensible rail options for Badgerys Creek airport and western Sydney
  • Facts and proper reasons for these monumental decisions are unavailable; propaganda and speculations are competing in the void.

In 2010 – well before the State Government adopted its peculiar brand of ‘Metro’ – a high profile expert inquiry warned of the potential risk to Sydney of such plans.  It called for full transparency about facts and reasons.  Despite this, and the Sydney Morning Herald raising similar concerns again in 2012, the risks have been steadfastly ignored.

In six brief pages Infrastructure Australia’s recent ‘positive evaluation’ of Metro failed to even recognize major issues.

It is troubling for other reasons as well including it considered only half the Metro scheme, made significant factual errors, described capital costs as ‘pending’ and virtually said that NSW had not properly considered options. It was published in obvious haste.

Clearly we have not heard the last word on the Sydney Metro.  Facts will eventually come out.  It would be better for the future of infrastructure investment in Australia, and for Sydney, if this was sooner rather than later.

An open public enquiry led by a person independent of the NSW Government is needed to provide the public with information about Metro. This is needed for proper democratic accountability.

It would be a first step on what is becoming an increasingly long road to bring common sense into the way we affect everyday lives by spending vast amounts of money on infrastructure in Australia without proper debate and accountability.

Are all the states being treated fairly by Infrastructure Australia?

We need to make sure that politicians with short tenures do not inadvertently poison the infrastructure well.


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