Nov 23, 2018

Opinion Piece – Vision is the Key to Our Prosperity – Track and Signal Magazine – Friday, 23 November 2018

With a federal election due within months, it’s a good time to consider how a Labor Government would differ from the Coalition in the critical area of infrastructure investment.

It comes down to one word – vision.

While good infrastructure policy responds to capacity constraints, great infrastructure policy – the kind we should aspire to in this country – is forward looking.

It creates future economic growth by boosting national capacity, particularly in ways that encourage industrial and business growth and, therefore, job creation.

Take the Snowy Mountains Scheme. This visionary piece of nation building has created and sustained hundreds of thousands of jobs in this country. It was successful because its creators looked forward rather than backwards.

Unfortunately, the current Coalition Government’s approach to infrastructure investment has been wholly reactive.

It has cut investment across the board, dropped the ball on public transport and congestion in cities and dragged its feet on promised investment in freight rail projects including the Inland Rail Link between Brisbane and Melbourne.

It appears to regard infrastructure investment as some kind of expensive inconvenience that should only be undertaken when serious capacity constraints erode profits and generate intolerable political pressure.

Labor would take a different approach – using infrastructure investment to drive growth and prosperity, not just to fix problems after they emerge.

In the words of that great Irish thinker, George Bernard Shaw: “The possibilities are numerous once we decide to act and not react’’.

Our first challenge would be addressing under-investment under the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison Government.

Early in September analysis by the independent Parliamentary Budget Office found that on the current trajectory, Federal infrastructure grants to the states, expressed as a percentage of GDP growth, will fall by half from 0.4 per cent to 0.2 per cent over the next four years.

In the lead-up to this year’s Federal Budget, the Government attempted to address public concern about traffic congestion by announcing a range of public transport projects around the nation, including the proposed rail line to Tullamarine Airport.

However, 85 per cent of its proposed investment won’t appear for at least four years.

Labor would invest as soon as possible, not years into the future.

Our second big challenge would be to shift the policy focus from a game of catch-up to the use of infrastructure investment as a facilitator of future growth.

This will require better planning, increased investment, as well as genuine co-operation with other levels of government and the private sector.

In 2007, one of the first decisions made by the incoming Coalition Government was the cancellation of all Federal investment in public transport not already under construction.

This decision came just months after the independent Infrastructure Australia produced research showing that unless Governments acted, traffic congestion would cost the nation $53 billion a year in lost productivity by 2031.

Five years later, Infrastructure Australia’s warning is manifesting itself in serious traffic congestion in all Australian cities that is preventing economic growth, undermining the Australian quality of life and creating increasing anger among Australians.

Labor would tackle this challenge in two ways – by investing in public transport and also investing in regional Australia.

We’ve already committed to invest in transformative public transport projects including Brisbane’s Cross River Rail, the proposed Western Metro, the Western Sydney Rail, the Perth METRONET, the Sunshine Coast’s Beerburrum-to-Landsborough line duplication, and, in Melbourne, the Frankston to Baxter Upgrade.

We’ll make further announcements in coming months.

But if we really want to reduce crowding in capital cities, this nation needs a genuine decentralisation program that will encourage more people to live and work in regional Australia.

For that to happen, regional centres need more job opportunities and better transport links to capital cities.

On jobs, we’d collaborate with state governments, councils and the private sector to identify and invest in projects that will stimulate growth.

Our City Partnerships program, which will replace the existing City Deals framework, will work from the bottom up, on the basis that local communities are always better placed to understand local priorities than bureaucrats in Canberra.

We’d also focus on better rail and road links between capital cities and satellite regional centres so residents and businesses could easily access capital cities.

As an example, we would get moving with the High Speed Rail link between Brisbane and Melbourne via Sydney and Canberra.

It would not only revolutionise interstate travel, but also turbo-charge the economic development of the regional centres along its route, including the Gold Coast, Casino, Grafton, Coffs Harbour, Port Macquarie, Taree, Newcastle, the Central Coast, Southern Highlands, Wagga Wagga, Albury-Wodonga and Shepparton.

All of these centres would be better placed to attract business investment and new residents if they were within a short train ride of a capital city.

The bottom line here is that if Governments aspire to a better Australia, it won’t create itself.

It will require investment, planning and above all, vision.

This is an edited transcript Mr Albanese’s address to the Irish-Australian chamber of commerce luncheon in Melbourne on 21 September, 2018.

This piece was first published in the November  2018 – January 2019 edition of Track and Signal magazine: