JOHN AUSTEN. Where to for Commonwealth infrastructure policy?

Legend has it that Charlton Heston flashed a Rolex wristwatch during a chariot race in the 1959 Ben Hur movie. Some recent Prime Ministerial comments could be considered flashes of a policy Rolex in an infrastructure discussion fitted to the setting of Ben Hur – in ancient Rome. 

One flash, overlooked by the media, was $20 million in the Budget for studies into rail connections between capital cities and regional centres to promote decentralisation.[i]

It followed two other Prime Ministerial ‘Rolex’ moments. One was a comment the Commonwealth might invest in – lend to or own – infrastructure projects.

The other was that the Government will establish an infrastructure and projects agency in the Prime Minister’s Department. The agency is to advise on project investment financing. Its establishment is to be part funded from money from the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development.

For advisers like the Department and Infrastructure Australia this modern thinking must be concerning. The States and others who are comfortable with the current Federal advisers and infrastructure hand-outs are confecting outrage. Perhaps the Commonwealth is getting it right at last.

It seems likely the Commonwealth’s flashes of insight are associated with Badgerys Creek. There are reports of friction between it and the NSW government on railways to the new airport. A likely source of friction is the state’s 2012 rail plan which, while laying the ground for Sydney metro, ignored the possibility of such an airport. See:

Meanwhile at last Friday’s meeting of the Transport and Infrastructure Ministerial Council no one mentioned the new Commonwealth ideas.

Add to that the NSW government’s infrastructure policy fascination with privatisation rather than planning. The privatisation target this time is buses in Sydney’s inner west. Claims that the State government forgot to tell those likely to be affected and reneged on written assurances to workers are as unsurprising as the consequent bus strike. Especially given the Newcastle port privatisation: Also unsurprising is the government overlooking arguably the best candidates for bus privatisation; in the eastern suburbs and in the Premier’s electorate.

Eventually governments might modernise the content and approach to infrastructure policy as suggested by Dr Michael Keating AC and Luke Fraser in Pearls and Irritations. With a proper Constitutional basis and rational approach to roads, the focus must shift to important issues such as fairness in cities and opportunities in regions. How different this would be from tiresome sideshows and ancient agendas such as road ‘announcables’, lists of pet projects masquerading as plans, bashing the workforce through privatisation/automation and pandering to the infrastructure club.

The Prime Minister’s thinking represents some advance. However, a public inquiry such as into Sydney rail – essential for other reasons – is needed to motivate the political class and encourage it to lift its game.

Hopefully the Federal flash of insight won’t be our version of the Ben Hur myth – Mr Heston denied wearing a watch!

Hopefully the Prime Minister insists on proper railways between our capital and secondary cities, like between Sydney and Wollongong, despite the inaction and moaning of the States and whatever advice he receives from the old guard. As well as tackling the real problems facing Australian infrastructure.

John Austen is a happily retired, Sydney western suburbs dweller. Further details are at




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