The Age: Infrastructure is the new Victorian election battleground. April 30, 2014. Josh Gordon. State political editor for The Age.
The Coalition hopes to convince voters of its credibility on transport pledges.
For the past year Victoria’s population has been swelling by an average of 2115 people each week. Most of the new residents have called Melbourne home, meaning the city’s population has expanded by about one-quarter since 2000.
It has been an extraordinary rate of increase, and the results are obvious. The overburdened Westgate Bridge is now choked to capacity, with about 200,000 vehicles using it a day. The Tullamarine Freeway, sold as a congestion panacea by the Kennett government in the1990s, virtually grinds to a halt in some areas during some peak periods.
Across the city, parts of the Eastern Freeway resemble a car park in the morning, while Hoddle Street is a dog’s breakfast for much of the day. The Port of Melbourne is expected to hit capacity within about a decade.
Governments have become addicted to population growth, partly because it keeps influential business interests happy and partly because population growth translates into economic growth, which is in turn regarded as a key benchmark of political success.
But people aren’t dumb. Voters recognise – explicitly or implicitly – that there is an obvious link between more people and congestion.
Unless population growth is backed by better infrastructure, it inflicts costs: working people stuck in traffic get to spend less time with families; pollution increases; urban amenity is lost; business productivity suffers.
Our politicians are finally waking up to something the public has known for a long time. Building better infrastructure is as much about basic “retail” politics as it is about productivity. The 2013 budget – the first for Denis Napthine as Premier and Michael O’Brien as Treasurer – was only a partial recognition of this.
It offered $224 million for the first stage of the East West Link but a measly $10 million for planning work on the Metro rail tunnel. The rail tunnel – seen as crucial to adding capacity to Melbourne’s rail network – had effectively been pushed back in the queue.
It was a disaster. Voters were left with the impression the government had forsaken public transport users and motorists elsewhere in Melbourne to build an $8 billion road benefiting voters in the east.
Next week’s budget is part of a push to dramatically recalibrate the Coalition’s infrastructure narrative.
Tens of billions of dollars worth of infrastructure projects are on the agenda, including plans for a second section of the East West Link, a rail link to the airport, a multibillion-dollar upgrade to the Cranbourne/Pakenham rail corridor and the removal of various level crossings.
The Metro rail project, too, will be brought forward, potentially funded using proceeds from the lease of the Port of Melbourne. Add in the first stage of the East West Link, the redevelopment of the Port of Hastings and the regional rail project, and Napthine can probably boast to have a major projects agenda rivalling the Kennett years. This, of course, assumes such projects come to fruition.
If Napthine was previously in search of a narrative to define his government, now we have it: infrastructure. The simple message of the budget is that three years of strong economic management are now allowing the Coalition to deliver projects that will lead to tangible, lasting quality of life improvements.
Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews has been caught off guard. The second stage of the East West Link, connecting the Tullamarine Freeway to the Western Ring Road, snakes its way right into Labor’s heartland. For motorists travelling from Geelong, Werribee, Altona and Laverton, it will eventually save up to 20 minutes’ travel time.
In contrast to the former Brumby government’s 2008 proposal for a second river crossing under the Maribyrnong River, Labor is now opposed to both sections of the road, which when combined could cost as much as $18 billion.
Instead, the opposition is backing a plan to eliminate 50 level crossings and build new ramps to remove trucks from the Westgate Bridge. In terms of scale of vision, Napthine surely has the more grandiose transport package to sell, with Labor wedded to a smaller target vision conducive to localised campaigning.
The big question is credibility. Former premier John Brumby announced a $38 billion transport vision in 2008. Trouble was, it was largely dismissed by voters apparently skeptical about whether the unfunded plan would ever be delivered.
The Coalition may have a big vision, but after more than three years it has little to boast about in terms of major projects under way that it truly owns. The regional rail project was initiated by Labor, and work on the first stage of the East West Link is still some months away.
Another part of the problem is that for years there has a disconnect between the lived experience of transport users and the rhetoric coming from our political leaders. On Wednesday Melbourne’s rail network was thrown into chaos, with thousands of commuters facing major delays after a fire damaged signalling cables at Richmond station.
Napthine and O’Brien’s big task following next Tuesday’s budget will be to convince voters the Coalition’s tough approach to the budget over the past three years has given it credibility when it comes to future transport pledges. Labor’s job will be to dismantle this argument.
Forget law and order. This time round the battle will be fought over infrastructure.
Josh Gordon is state political editor.