A damning report by the Grattan Institute highlights wasteful infrastructure investment and leaking public piggy banks from politicians' puffery.
The key outcome of the Grattan Report, published last week, was that governments (both state and federal) have invested record amounts of money in infrastructure projects, but too many of them were either unnecessary, lambasted by the political process or poorly managed. You may notice me amuse myself by trying to retrofit 13 clunky jokes about pork into, what would ordinarily be, a slightly boring blog. Or, you might find it redundant and ham-fisted. :) What is important here is not the pork references, however chuckle-worthy - but the serious subject of wasteful infrastructure spending which is a feeling we all share in construction, and as taxpayers, and something we've all been saying for years, that has been legitimised and proven by a bunch of academics. Hooray for the thinkers!
The report, titled "Roads to Riches: Better Transport Spending" determined that Australia's cities have not received adequate infrastructure investment in relation to their contribution to the economy. One of the key areas brought to attention was road and rail, and the minimal investment relative to need.
One of the biggest things to come out of the report was pork-barreling - politicians leveraging their voting power to get a disproportionate amount of funding for their district, and political parties pouring cash into swing-districts to secure a vote for their party. A bigger porky political issue, in our opinion, is porky pies, told by politicians to win votes by leveraging the scrapping of projects already planned, developed or contracted, wasting giant wads of dough trying to galavanise voters on hot button issues that matter to small minority groups, spending infrastructure cash with no corresponding resulting infrastructure. Makes us as mad as a stuck pig (can I get a raise-the-roof from behind your desk for jamming four swiney references into one paragraph?).
Works on the New England Highway are a great example of this. No one will deny that the road needed money spent on it, but many parts of it were over-upgraded or had far more cash sunk into it than necessary, largely in order to get Tony Windsor to swing to Labor and break the hung parliament.
Rather than focus on long-term needs, politicians are throwing money wherever it takes to help them keep their job at the next election.
The abandoned East-West Link project is a great example of politically-driven waste which I have been banging on about for years. It doesn't matter which side you're on, the fact is that a load of taxpayer money was wasted largely due to political maneuvering.
The Canberra Light Rail also came under fire. It was claimed that the ACT government overestimated the benefits to be gained from the project, while also ignoring the possibility of a high-speed bus network that could deliver similar outcomes for a significantly reduced cost. To put it in dollar terms, the light rail network was initially expected to return $1.02 for every $1 spent, while a high-speed bus network would have the potential to return $1.98.
The report found that far too many projects were begun on an "ad (ham)hoc" basis, rather than founded on a real need or properly researched. Many of these projects are either a complete waste of money, failed to achieve adequate outcomes, or missed opportunities to deliver even better results.
Transport program director at Grattan, Marion Terrill, had some choice words regarding the study. "There isn't enough publicly available information on potential projects, so the public can't hold politicians to account or be confident funds are spent wisely."
"Since 2012, over half of Commonwealth infrastructure spending has gone to projects where Infrastructure Australia has not published an evaluation."
The overall outcome of the report was an immediate need for independent oversight of infrastructure spending to ensure that the right projects are funded for the right reasons.
To be clear on our position; iSeekplant is fervently, fiercely and relentlessly outspoken about the need for progress in Australia. We believe and support the successful passage of projects that are planned and scoped by the Government, and fight the unnecessary stasis caused by endless navel-gazing of Government agencies and the disproportionate impact that special interests groups have in influencing whether projects go ahead or not. What is most important to the plant hire industry and construction industry is that we have some certainty about what work is on the slate and clear about what we should be spending time to price & design, and what we can bank on in terms of a future pipeline of work. This is issue that is tearing at the fabric of our industry and destroying any semblance of predictability for our businesses.
At iSeekplant, we are huge fans of infrastructure investment. It creates jobs and puts pork-on-the-fork of thousands of contractors, plant hire companies and operators. However, government money needs to be spent prudently and practically, in a way that benefits the public - because it's our taxes that are paying for projects. If projects are going ahead simply to get a politician re-elected, then we need to take a long, hard look at the way we decide which infrastructure projects receive funding. Allowing it to be at the behest of the political process and in the hands of the self-interested politicians isn't working.
I think there is a grown-up collaborative way that we can all agree on what projects need attention in our great country. Thoughts on how we do this would be welcomed below!