Jan 8, 2016

We need to invest in infrastructure, not in spin doctors – Opinion – The West Australian

In politics and in life, the facts speak for themselves.

And often, people who can’t cite facts to prove their contentions have to resort to spin.

So it is with Infrastructure Minister Warren Truss, who plans to cut his existing infrastructure budget by $18 million to fund an advertising campaign telling Australians how good he is at delivering infrastructure.

Mr Truss’s problem is that the facts don’t back his arguments.

With the decline in construction investment in the mining industry, now is the right time for the government to be lifting its investment in infrastructure to help sustain economic activity and jobs around the nation.

Such investments would help the economy in the short-term, but also lift productivity, underpinning economic growth in the medium to long term.

But according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, public investment in infrastructure has fallen 20 per cent under this government.

At the same time, two of the three big projects that sit at the centre of the government’s road program have collapsed, while the Budget for the third has blown out.

Melbourne’s proposed East-West Link was abandoned last year after news it would have delivered only 45 cents worth of public benefit for every dollar spent.

An Australian National Office of Audit released a report last month that savaged the Government for allocating $3 billion to this dud project in defiance of departmental advice and in the absence of a cost-benefit analysis.

The report said the mishandling of the project “exposed the Commonwealth to heightened risk’’ and had increased the Budget deficit.

Then there is the Perth Freight Link, – a new toll road which Mr Truss produced out of thin air in the 2014 Budget, without any proper research into its viability.

The project, which would have passed through an environmentally sensitive wetland, came as news even to the WA State Government at the time of its announcement.

In June, 2014, the WA Government’s parliamentary secretary for transport, Jim Chown, told a parliamentary committee: “… at this stage we have not actually got plans that are worthy of public scrutiny’’.

Just before Christmas, the Supreme Court of Western Australia halted the Perth Freight Link on environmental grounds.

This means the only big-ticket Coalition road project still standing is Sydney’s WestConnex toll road.

But the Budget for this project has blown out from $10 billion to $16.8 billion.

With this record of failure, it’s no wonder Mr Truss has decided the facts about his performance need to be massaged by spin doctors in the advertising industry.

Ever since he took office, Mr Truss has been re-announcing old infrastructure projects that were initiated, funded, and in some cases even delivered by the former Labor Government.

What is particularly disappointing about this new move to taxpayer-funded propaganda is that the $18 million earmarked to fund the advertising will be taken from the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development’s existing infrastructure Budget.

In other words, Mr Truss, not surprisingly having failed to convince people he has lifted infrastructure investment when he has actually cut funding, will now cut funding again to fund advertisements seeking to perpetuate his absurd claims.

What this nation requires is actual investment in infrastructure.

For example, Mr Truss could be investing the $18 million in some of the nation’s worst traffic hazards. The average cost of projects under the existing Black Spots program is $157,000, meaning the advertising money could fund more than 100 new projects.

Yet the government wants to spend this money on spin.

That’s why I have written to the Australian National Office of Audit asking it to review the Turnbull Government’s entire infrastructure program.

Public money is scarce.

It needs to be treated with respect.

We don’t need advertising executives to conceal the problem; we need auditors to find out what is going wrong.

Anthony Albanese is the Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Cities

This piece appeared in today’s edition of The West Australian