Feb 18, 2014

Big-talking Hockey raids infrastructure budget

Labor applauds Joe Hockey’s attempts to prod NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell into spending up to $1 billion in already-allocated commonwealth infrastructure funding.

But if Mr Hockey wants to be taken seriously, he should explain why he is planning to rip billions of dollars in fully-funded infrastructure spending from the existing Commonwealth Budget.

Despite Mr Hockey’s claimed enthusiasm for infrastructure investment, the Abbott Government is planning to withdraw existing budget allocations for major projects including the Melbourne Metro, Brisbane’s Cross-River Rail project and Adelaide’s Tonsley Park public transport upgrade.

It has already slashed $150 million in existing, properly awarded community infrastructure grants – one for each council in the nation – that were designed to generate economic activity and create jobs.

Mr Hockey is right to say Mr O’Farrell has failed to utilise up to $1 billion in commonwealth allocations for major NSW transport projects like upgrading the Pacific Highway.

But Mr Hockey can’t have it both ways. He is raiding the existing Commonwealth Budget’s infrastructure allocations in his search for cuts and any cost.

Mr Hockey’s idea of leadership on infrastructure is to demand that other governments and the business sector do the heavy lifting while he rips money out of his own Budget that was to have been spent on the same kind of investment he demands from others.

Properly targeted spending on roads, railways, ports and other infrastructure lifts the nation’s capacity, driving productivity gains that deliver jobs.

Labor also welcomes news that Mr Hockey will meet business figures on Friday to discuss ways to expedite private investment in infrastructure.

But he should open that meeting by explaining why he is legislating to politicise the now-independent Infrastructure Australia, which Labor created in 2008 to advise the government on the nation’s infrastructure priorities.

Legislation before the Senate would allow the government to control Infrastructure Australia’s research agenda and order it not to conduct research into certain classes of infrastructure.

It would also allow the government to prevent the publication of IA’s advice – a clear attempt to empower itself to hide advice that does not meet with its political objectives.