Feb 3, 2014

Business lobby accuses Abbott of secrecy

The most-powerful business lobby group in the country has backed Labor criticism of Tony Abbott’s plan to gut the independence of Infrastructure Australia.

The Business Council of Australia has warned in a submission to a Senate Inquiry that proposed changes to legislation governing Infrastructure Australia will allow the government to limit the scope of IA’s operations and censor its independent findings.

But, like Labor and a range of expert groups in the planning sector, the business community can see that amendments before the Parliament will not promote sound decision-making about spending on roads, railways, bridges and other infrastructure.

Instead they will promote secrecy and allow the government to dictate the infrastructure agenda in accordance with its political aims, rather than the national interest.

Labor created Infrastructure Australia in 2008 as an independent adviser to government. Its task is to assess and prioritise Australia’s infrastructure needs according to which have the greatest potential to boost national productivity.

But changes before the Parliament allow Infrastructure Minister Warren Truss to prohibit the publication of IA’s findings and to order it to exclude entire classes of infrastructure from its considerations.

These changes are designed to empower the government to tell IA what it can and cannot consider.

They are also designed to prevent embarrassment over Mr Abbott’s absurd refusal to invest in urban passenger rail, which IA and anyone serious about urban policy knows is a key contributor to productivity growth in our cities.

Labor calls on Mr Abbott to dump his reform package and leave IA to get on with its job free of government interference.

Billions of dollars in scarce public funds are spent on infrastructure.

Governments need independent, non-political advice so they make informed decisions and the community should be able to see that advice in the name of transparency.

It should be noted that Infrastructure Australia has been critical of the failure to present proper business cases for projects including the East-West link in Melbourne, which Mr Abbott has said he will fund without a business case.

As the BCA submission notes: “It would be a concern if evaluations are not published because the demonstrated economic or social value is at odds with a decision by government about whether or not to support  particular investment. Publication of evaluations should be the norm except where there is a justifiable reason not to do so.’’

The BCA submission to the Senate Inquiry into the Infrastructure Australia Amendment Bill 2013 is at: http://bit.ly/1fnC7YU