Abbott breaks infrastructure promises

At the last election, the Coalition made two major promises on infrastructure – that any project worth more than $100 million would be subject to a cost benefit analysis before it was funded and that the “roads of the 21st century” would be under construction within 12 months.

One year later, both promises have been broken.

The Acting Prime Minister, Warren Truss was challenged in Question Time on Thursday to name any project funded by the Coalition that had started construction in the last 12 months. He pointed to five projects, including Melbourne’s East West Link and Sydney’s WestConnex. Unfortunately each of his examples had either been originally funded by the Gillard Government or was still in the planning stage.

When challenged on the claim that construction was underway for the East West Link he bizarrely said ”If you do not believe that there was any equipment on the site, perhaps you did not see the pictures of the protesters tying themselves to the equipment!”

These pictures were taken at protests against geotechnical drilling being done earlier this year as part of the design of the project. The planning process remains incomplete, no contracts have been signed and no construction has started. Work is now unlikely to commence until next year – even if there is a last minute before midnight contract signing before the Victorian caretaker period commences on 4th November.

The same day the Abbott Government broke its second promise. The commitment to cost benefit assessments has been watered down to only apply after the project has been approved and only if there is more than $100 million in Commonwealth funding.

These amendments to the Infrastructure Australia Act were concessions won by the Senate in passing the “Roads to Recovery” funding legislation. However the backtrack means the Government has broken its commitment to the Senate as well as to electors.

This is significant because the main debate over the East West Link has been the extreme secrecy over the business case and whether it is based on highly inflated estimates of the benefits. By refusing to have Infrastructure Australia undertake independent assessments of business cases the Government is admitting the highly politicised way in which public funds are being allocated

Shadow Infrastructure Minister, Anthony Albanese said, “Mr Abbott’s first act in Government was to cut billions from public transport projects identified by Infrastructure Australia as the most efficient investments. Public infrastructure dollars are too scarce for this irresponsible approach. Commonwealth funds should be invested in projects with the greatest capacity to enhance the nation’s productivity.”

The issue was pursued in a later debate where Labor attacked the payment of funds without any proof of value for money. It appears that $1.5 billion was secretly paid to Victoria for the East West Link before June 30th this year and both governments have refused to comment. Previously the Abbott Government had undertaken to the Senate Estimates Committee that no funds would be paid for either stage of the East West Link until full business cases were provided.

Anthony Albanese described the East West Link as “About as popular as the Ebola virus. It has had no cost-benefit analysis. It is a project that is on the road to nowhere.”

The business case for Stage 2, now called the Western Section has not even been written. Stage 2 remains at the “conceptual stage” despite both government’s committing to it and claiming construction will commence before the end of 2015. None of the preliminary steps required to start the planning approvals through the CIS process have commenced for the Western Section, making any construction next year an impossibility. The only action taken to date has been the appointment of Ernst and Young as business advisers in late August.

The responsible agency, the Linking Melbourne Authority has announced it has stopped design work on the Port Connection through Flemington and Kensington (which was previously known as Stage 1B). Its focus is on trying to get a contract for Stage 1A (Collingwood to Royal Park) signed before the election but numerous hurdles remain.

The design is incomplete, the planning permit conditions have not been met and due to the Geoff Shaw fiasco there will now be no legislative approval for this contract. The Napthine Government is rapidly running out of options and time. Tony Abbott’s broken promises provide some help by reducing Federal oversight, but probably not enough to get the tollway over the line.

Andrew Herington