Sep 23, 2019

Opinion Piece – Absence of Planning Bound to Cost Australia Dearly in the Future – Monday, 23 September 2019

A popular genre of computer game allows players to design and create civilisations from the ground up.

Players build roads, water supplies and industrial precincts. As their cities grow, they attract workers whose taxes fund further building, allowing the player to build wealth, raise armies and conquer the world.

The heart of these games is planning. Players have to make sure their civilisations have the infrastructure necessary to sustain development.

High speed rail down the east coast would completely transform the economies of the regional cities along its route, as it has done in Europe.CREDIT:RAIL EUROPE

If they skimp on roads and water supplies, for example, community sentiment goes sour, residents leave, the civilisation collapses and the player has to start all over again.

Of course, in the real world, it’s not that simple. We can’t just start the game again if we get it wrong.

That’s why it is critical governments ensure that they respond to population growth with commensurate infrastructure investment or risk real damage to our quality of life.

The simple lesson from those computer games is that government must invest adequately to meet the demands of growth with the investment required to deal with its effects.

The current federal government is failing in this task.

Over the five years to 2018, total annual infrastructure investment in this country was down by 17 per cent compared with average levels during the period of the former Labor government.

In the same period, the national population, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, increased by 1.5 million, or 6.5 per cent.

The outcomes of this under-investment are manifest across our big cities, most notably with traffic congestion.

According to the recently released Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey, the average daily commuting time for Sydney workers climbed from 61 minutes in 2002 to 71 minutes in 2017.

It is a tragedy that traffic congestion means many Australian workers spend more time driving to and from work each day than they spend at home with their children.

One of the first decisions of the Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison government was the cancellation of all federal investment in public transport projects that were not already under construction.

Tony Abbott set out the reason for this approach in his book, Battlelines.

“Mostly, 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,” he said.

The cuts and delays to urban rail projects has had an ongoing negative impact. Australians are paying by having to waste more time stuck in traffic.

Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison changed the rhetoric on public transport, but they have failed to restore Mr Abbott’s cuts, instead leaving the heavy lifting to states.

While the government announced an Urban Congestion Fund in its May 2018 Budget, not a single project has begun.

Indeed, only about 30 per cent of all money allocated to rail and road investment in the 2019 Budget will be invested within the next four years.

The government should bring some of this investment forward. In Sydney, it could speed up work on the Western Sydney Rail line and also get behind the proposed Western Metro to Parramatta and beyond.

This investment would also satisfy the Reserve Bank’s ongoing calls for increased infrastructure investment to stimulate the economy, creating jobs and economic activity in the short term, while boosting productivity over the medium to long term.

Infrastructure investment as an essential component of economic and social policy.

It’s about giving Australians the services they are paying for through their taxes, but also driving economic growth that will benefit their children and grandchildren.

It can also boost regional development.

High speed rail down the east coast would completely transform the economies of the regional cities along its route.

It would make regional cities more attractive as places to set up new enterprises and create new jobs, which would take pressure off the capital cities.

This article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald on Monday, 23 September 2019.

MONDAY, 23 SEPTEMBER 2019