IT has only taken three months in government, but already Tony Abbott is re-animating the tired old intergovernmental blame game – this time over public transport.
Politicians who lack the vision to lead the community on big issues like public transport often hide their inaction by blaming other levels of government when anyone complains.
Former Prime Minister John Howard was a grand master of the blame game.
Mr Howard withdrew health and education funding and pointed his finger at state governments when anyone dared to ask about the inadequacy of health and education services.
Now, so soon after being elected, Tony Abbott and his team are feverishly laying the groundwork for a new round of the blame game to conceal their absurd refusal to invest in urban public transport.
As one of the most urbanized nations on earth, Australia has an economic interest in ensuring our cities have 21st century urban rail transport to reduce traffic congestion.
Less cars on the road means productivity and jobs growth because it allows for the more efficient movement of goods and services and encourages greater urban population density.
But Mr Abbott, in an extraordinary abdication of responsibility, says public transport is the concern of state governments while the Commonwealth should “stick to its knitting’’ and build more roads.
Labor believes this position is small-minded. We seek office to deliver positive change, not just to occupy office.
We also believe that when it comes to big issues central to national productivity, the national government should provide leadership, not go to ground and look for scapegoats to conceal its inaction.
That’s why the previous Labor Government allocated funding for vital public transport projects including the Melbourne Metro, Brisbane’s Cross River Rail Link, the Perth Airport link and early work on a light rail system for Perth.
While such projects could have eliminated traffic congestion and turbo-charged economic growth in our cities, Mr Abbott has refused to honour the funding commitments.
And in recent weeks it has become clear that Mr Abbott’s political strategy in the face of criticism of his position will be to blame states.
In a Senate Estimates Committee hearing in November, Assistant Treasurer Arthur Sinodinos said the new government’s focus on roads would allow states to spend more on public transport.
“If they do not, then that is a decision for which they are accountable to their electorates,’’ Senator Sinodinos said.
In Perth in July Mr Abbott said: “If we can give more support to major road projects, that obviously makes it easier for the state government to invest in significant rail projects.’’
In other words, the commonwealth won’t spend a penny on public transport and if anyone complains, it will say the states are responsible.
It is sad that this is the best policy stance the Coalition can offer after six years in Opposition.
Resort to the blame-game position might provide political cover for a lazy government, but it will do absolutely nothing to advance the national interest.
What if Mr Abbott and Senator Sinodinos are right and increases in commonwealth road spending will lead to more state spending on public transport?
They aren’t right.
In recent weeks the NSW, Queensland and Western Australian state governments released mid-year budget reviews which all showed increased debt and deficit and, therefore, reduced ability to invest in public transport.
The WA Government went so far as to shelve $898 million in infrastructure spending, including delaying for three years work on the $464 million MAX Light rail project.
In Brisbane, the Liberal-National Party Queensland Government has dumped the proposed Cross River Railway in favour of a B-grade substitute to be delivered without commonwealth support.
In Melbourne, the Napthine Government will not build a Metro. Instead, it will accept commonwealth funding to build the $8 billion East-West Road – a project that has not even produced a full business case for approval by the independent Infrastructure Australia.
Last month The Age reported that the Victorian Government’s own secret analysis had found the East-West Road would not solve traffic congestion, but simply move it from one area to another.
In Sydney, Mr Abbott will fund the WestConnex project, which also has not produced a full business case, despite Mr Abbott’s claim that any big project he funds will be the subject of a cost-benefit analysis.
Putting all of this together, it is clear states either cannot or will not invest in public transport without partnership contributions from the Commonwealth.
And since we know that Tony Abbott won’t invest in anything except roads, the prospects for advancement of a public transport agenda are dim at best.
What a tragedy.
Anthony Albanese is the Opposition’s Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.