Opinion article

Policy frameworks needed to facilitate infrastructure development

In the lead-up to the 2016 Federal Election, David Bowtell examines why we need infrastructure framework reform to secure Australia's economic future.

Governments go to lengths to build their infrastructure credentials with the public but too often this is manifested in hard-hat politicians in ribbon cutting photo-ops.

A more constructive approach would be to implement the Australian Infrastructure Plan which will enhance the economic and social outcomes from the infrastructure our nation needs.

Getting infrastructure planning right is especially prescient given recent long term projections from the Australian Bureau of Statistics which suggest growth rates will average 1.56 per cent to 2031 when our population is expected to reach 31 million, most of which will be concentrated in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth.

With the demands on infrastructure rising from a growing population, we can no longer afford inaction on needed infrastructure reform.
CEDA’s 2005 report Infrastructure: Getting on with the job examined Australia’s need for infrastructure investment and reform.

A decade on, it is time to do just that.

The Australian Infrastructure Plan and the Infrastructure Priority List is a start.

Delivering an address at CEDA’s Economic and Political Overview in Sydney, Infrastructure Australia Chairman Mark Birrell outlined the suite of frameworks designed to collectively enhance the development, funding, delivery and evaluation of the infrastructure projects Australia needs.

Perhaps the component of the report that has garnered the most traction and attention is the Infrastructure Priority List.

The Infrastructure Priority List identifies more than 90 potential infrastructure solutions to solve congestion and connectivity problems across Australia. 

Importantly, both major parties have done the right thing by announcing projects from the list.

However, while the big ticket projects are a start, the long term framework policies and discussion on how to reform Australia’s infrastructure system is missing from the debate.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull welcomed the Infrastructure Australia plan, calling it “absolutely critical” for the nation’s future, relating it to the Government’s focus on innovation, technology and cities first policy. 

The Government recently announced it would commit $260 million towards the Perth Freight Link project one of two high priority projects according to the Infrastructure Priority List.

With Federal Labor MP Alannah MacTiernan and Greens Leader Richard Di Natale opposed to the Perth Freight Link project, the election politicking has already started. 

In Victoria, the Federal Government also announced $350 million funding to complete the upgrades to the $2.25 billion M80 Western Ring Road which according to Infrastructure Australia is also a high priority initiative. 

While the Government announced road funding, the Opposition pledged money for the Perth Metronet project which includes the Perth-Forrestfield Airport Rail Link, also a project identified on the priority list.

With major funding and projects pledged in WA and Victoria, it is only a matter of time until South Australia, Queensland and New South Wales see announcements of a similar nature.

From the outset, it has become clear while this year’s election campaign will focus on the right infrastructure development, it won’t necessarily help create the cohesive, future thinking infrastructure framework Australia needs.

Rather, infrastructure projects will be a political battleground and the bipartisan support needed to implement a reform plan for infrastructure development that supports Australia’s long-term, sustained economic growth is unlikely to eventuate.

Yes, the projects announced so far are a step in the right direction and will deliver infrastructure for the future as identified by Infrastructure Australia.

But as CEDA’s research Infrastructure: Getting on with the job outlined, the focus also needs to be on establishing forward-thinking and resilient institutional frameworks to facilitate infrastructure development.

Integration between strategic planning, management and technical expertise in Australia’s public and private sectors must be part of the infrastructure discussion and reform.

The Infrastructure Australian Plan makes some high level recommendations to promote competition in infrastructure operation, public-private partnerships, investment in technology and opportunity for public sector investment.

Based on Australia’s experience in these areas, these recommendations appear sensible.

For example, competition will help better translate infrastructure spending into tangible benefits for the community and customer-focused services.

Leadership, consensus and bipartisanship is needed to ensure the infrastructure plan gets the attention it needs outside of the flagship projects.

However, what remains clear is as Australia prepares for a July 2 election, the debate and consensus needed to reform infrastructure is likely to be overshadowed by the announcements of big projects.

About the authors

David Bowtell

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David Bowtell is CEDA’s Associate Director in NSW responsible for ensuring CEDA’s policy-based discussions are both timely and topical. In his role he consults widely with members from across CEDA’s broad membership base and engages with all levels of government, the public sector, and Ministerial offices. He has 10 years’ experience working in public policy. Prior to joining CEDA, he worked at Transport for New South Wales and the Federal Department of Industry, Innovation, Science and Research where he led industry capability initiatives and contributed to the Prime Minister’s Taskforce on Manufacturing. David has a background in Law and Government Relations from the University of Newcastle.