Feb 25, 2014

Public transport is the low-hanging fruit – Opinion – Crikey

Guest writer Anthony Albanese says Melbourne Metro, Brisbane Cross-River Rail, Perth Airport rail link and Adelaide’s Tonsley Park public transport project all warrant funding from the Commonwealth

 

In the never-ending search for the productivity gains that drive jobs growth, public transport is low-hanging fruit.

Traffic congestion is a hand brake on productivity. Ease congestion and you can secure stronger productivity growth. That means jobs.

It’s up to governments – all governments – to fight for the productivity gains that can be secured from delivering integrated transport systems utilising efficient roads, railway lines, ferry services and light rail systems.

Those integrated systems take account of moving both freight and people.

This isn’t rocket science.

But it is somehow lost on Tony Abbott, who is planning to strip billions of dollars out of the Commonwealth Budget which had been earmarked by Labor for public transport projects.

Mr Abbott insists that states build railways and that the commonwealth should “stick to its knitting’’ and spend only on roads.

As a result, major public transport projects are falling over like dominoes across the country.

The Melbourne Metro, Brisbane’s Cross-River Rail project, Adelaide’s Tonsley Park public transport project and the Perth Airport link all received budget allocations from the previous Labor Government.

But Mr Abbott has already indicated he will cut the funding because of his ideological distaste for investing in rail.

This will hurt commuters – whether they drive or use existing public transport – and it will have even more serious consequences for productivity growth.

The consequences of Mr Abbott’s attitude are playing themselves out right now as state governments scramble for ways to improve their public transport systems without the benefit of commonwealth investment.

In Brisbane, Premier Campbell Newman has designed a second-rate alternative to the Cross-River Rail project – one that cannot begin to deliver the same level of benefits as the original plan.

In Melbourne, Premier Denis Napthine, a one-time supporter of the Metro, is now looking for cheaper, alternative routes even as he and Treasurer Joe Hockey are promoting infrastructure investment as a way to create new jobs for displaced car workers.

In Perth, Treasurer Troy Buswell, facing heavy pressure on his own budget, said recently that he could not fund public transport projects without commonwealth assistance.

There is a common feature about all of these projects which Mr Abbott has refused to fund: They would all boost the economic productivity of their respective cities.

In recent days, as Mr Hockey chaired a meeting of G20 finance ministers and central bankers in Sydney, he argued strongly for infrastructure investment as a means of driving global growth.

He’s right. But even as he champions infrastructure investment, he is framing a Budget that withdraws infrastructure investment in the very area where productivity gains are easy pickings – public transport in cities.

In their quest for budget savings, Mr Hockey and Mr Abbott are selling out long-term economic growth in favour of what they see as the political gain in cutting any spending associated with the previous Labor Government.

But the public transport projects were funded in a Labor budget that was also designed to return to surplus in the same length of time that Mr Abbott says he will deliver a surplus.

Mr Abbott’s position says more about his lack of vision than his fiscal rectitude.

In his heart, Tony Abbott does not like public transport. In his book Battlelines, he wrote that it was:

  • … generally slow, expensive, not especially reliable … a hideous drain on the public purse.
  • …there just aren’t enough people wanting to go from a particular place to a particular destination at a particular time to justify any vehicle larger than a car, and cars need roads.

Mr Abbott also wrote that many people:

  • “underestimate the sense of mastery that many people gain from their car. The humblest person is a king in his own car…. For people whose lives otherwise run largely at the beck and call of others, that’s no small freedom.

The humblest person might be king or queen in his or her own car, but this regal vibe will fade in the face of worsening traffic congestion.

Coalition governments have never favoured public transport.

Neither does the Coalition see a role for itself in providing national leadership in urban policy.

Efficient cities can drive gains in economic productivity and job creation. Conversely, inefficient cities can be a drag on economic and productivity growth.

But Mr Abbott has no urban policy.

Upon taking office, he abolished the Major Cities Unit, which was responsible for working with the states to develop integrated policies for urban growth that covered public transport, town planning, employment and sustainability.

This highlights the basic flaw in Mr Abbott’s approach to public transport and cities policy: he doesn’t understand that these issues are not just about amenity, but also about economic development.

And for a man who claims the economy is his main concern, that’s a very unsophisticated and self-defeating approach”.

 

Contact Anthony

(02) 9564 3588 Electorate Office

Email: A.Albanese.MP@aph.gov.au

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