Australian voters are necessarily wary of big promises from politicians.
They’ve been misled so many times over the decades that they take most promises with a grain of salt.
It’s hard to know what voters thought last June when then Opposition Leader Tony Abbott climbed into the cab of a large truck and spent a couple of days driving from Brisbane to Terrigal along the Pacific Highway.
He vowed that under a Coalition Government, the project would be finished by the end of the decade – well before, he claimed, it would have been under a Labor Government.
“Let’s stop the argy bargy, let’s stop the blame game; let’s just get it built,” he said.
Winding forward a year, Mr Abbott has vindicated voter cynicism about promises by politicians, particularly those driving large trucks in search of television cameras.
The 2014-15 Budget – Mr Abbott’s first opportunity to deliver on his rhetoric – contains no new funding for the Pacific Highway – not a dollar.
It does nothing more than adopt the forward spending program put in place by the previous Labor Government – the very program Mr Abbott had attacked as inadequate during his tour of the road last June.
This fact is clear in the glossy infrastructure brochure that was released on Budget night.
Page 17 of that document listed the projects which the Government said it would fund over coming years on the Pacific Highway.
The map and accompanying text look are almost identical to the very same section of the equivalent document from Labor’s 2013-14 Budget.
There are no new projects.
There is no new schedule.
Nothing is being fast-tracked.
Despite these facts, Coalition MPs who hold seats along the route have continued to spread the claim that the Budget contains new spending.
Mr Abbott and Infrastructure Minister Warren Truss are also continuing to stick to their story, apparently hoping that if they repeat their false claims often enough people will come to believe they are true.
But Department of Infrastructure and Transport secretary Mike Mrdak, who ought to know the facts of this matter, set the record straight in a Senate Budget Estimates Committee hearing late last month.
Under questioning from Labor NSW Senator Doug Cameron, Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development secretary Mike Mrdak conceded: “Essentially the Pacific Highway program is continuing as per long-standing agreements”.
Asked by Senator Cameron whether the first Abbott Budget included any new initiatives on the Pacific Highway, Mr Mrdak said: “The program is continuing as it has been”.
This means people who supported the Coalition at the 2014 election on the basis of its Pacific Highway election promises have been conned.
Mr Abbott misled people during his big road trip.
The distortions went well beyond political spin.
But you could make the same observation about Mr Abbott’s pre-election promises across the board.
Prior to the election we were told there would be no cuts to health and education or public broadcasting.
We were told that there would be no changes to pensions.
We were also told by Mr Abbott that the Commonwealth should reduce fuel excise to ease consumer pressure at the petrol bowser.
But the Budget lifts excise and slices through health and education spending like a sword through jelly.
While those decisions will hurt Australian families, there is good news: The Pacific Highway duplication will continue.
The only difference is that because the Commonwealth has given the NSW Coalition Government a green light to reduce its contribution, overall spending will be less and therefore the completion date will be put back.
During its six years in office Labor invested $7.9 billion in the Pacific Highway duplication – dwarfing the $1.3 billion expenditure of the previous Howard Government over nearly 12 years.
Regular Pacific Highway users should simply ask themselves what they can see when they use the road.
They can see completed projects like the Kempsey Bypass and the Ballina Bypass.
They can also see thousands of people working on the projects up and down the length of the highway every day.
This is work funded in the Budgets of the Labor Government.
Last June, when Tony Abbott complained that it was time to “get it built”, the road was being built.
He needed only to look out the window.
Anthony Albanese is the Shadow Minister for Infrastructure and Transport
- This article appeared in today’s edition of the Coffs Coast Advocate
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.