Building a future beyond rail works

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The Age – Editorial – Building a future beyond rail works. May 4, 2014

On Tuesday, Treasurer Michael O’Brien will unveil the state budget. With an election in six months, Victorians can expect much less swinging of the sharpened axe than is expected in Canberra next week. Here, the public can expect to feel the swish of promises.

The Premier, Denis Napthine, and the Coalition will be hoping that voters like what they feel.

Infrastructure may be the ugliest word in the language, but on it hinges so much of the state’s prosperity. Mr O’Brien has said it ”will be a very big infrastructure budget”, and indeed some projects have already been flagged. Last week Dr Napthine confirmed plans for the building of both stages of the East West Link at the same time. The 18 kilometres of road is expected to cost $18 billion.

The government has also taken out of the drawer the promise of a rail link to Melbourne Airport, regional rail improvements, including an upgrade to the Cranbourne-Pakenham corridor, the Metro rail project, with the removal of level crossings, the redevelopment of the Port of Hastings and the leasing of the Port of Melbourne. (The New South Wales government announced last week a deal for the 98-year leasing of the Port of Newcastle for $1.75 billion.)

As icing on the public’s cake, if elected the government will throw in free tram travel in the CBD and Docklands, zone 1 and zone 2 fares will be reformed, and a V/Line railway station will be built at Caroline Springs.

This, of course, is all good news, which is certain to play well in the electorate. A government that cannot transport its citizens and freight is short-lived.

Tuesday affords Dr Napthine the opportunity to map his vision for the state. It will be not before time. His tenure as Premier since assuming the role a year ago after the resignation of Ted Baillieu has been marked by the constraints of the precarious state of parliament and the presence of independent MP Geoff Shaw.

This will be Dr Napthine’s second budget as leader, but the first time he will face the judgment of the people as leader when Victoria votes in November. The Coalition, under Mr Baillieu, won power from Labor in 2010 with the slogan: ”Build the future.” On Tuesday, billions of dollars will be promised to do exactly that. Financing of these promises needs to be transparent. It is how trust is built.

The use of public-private partnerships for major projects has come under fire in Victoria in relation to the long-term costs and benefits for taxpayers (the billion-dollar desalination plant being a case in point). In May last year Mr O’Brien announced a series of reforms in their use.

They will be under the spotlight again this week; 11 schools are to be built, using PPPs, in predominantly outer growth regions. While new schools are to be welcomed, other schools are in need of urgent repairs. At Beveridge, for example, the school portables are rotting and some pupils are having to study in the staffroom.

A rider to major projects is the involvement of the federal government in their part-financing. Money from Canberra for a range of state programs has been a point of tension recently. Last month Dr Napthine warned that about $1 billion worth of programs over the next four years for the homeless, hospitals and kindergartens was at risk as the expiry date for partnership agreements loomed. If the agreements were not renewed there would be closures and cuts in services. This is not acceptable.

Nor is it acceptable to slash education opportunities for which this government is responsible in its funding of TAFEs. How can a government say it is building for the future while curtailing the education chances of next generations? It is a road to nowhere.

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