Opinion article

Staying the course on national infrastructure delivery

It's time for Australia's governments to renew their commitment to infrastructure reform, writes Infrastructure Australia Chief Executive Philip Davies. 

When Infrastructure Australia released the Australian Infrastructure Plan in 2016, we knew it was the start, rather than the end, of a longer journey.

Looking out to the year 2031, we made 78 recommendations for reform in the planning and delivery of national infrastructure projects that would require staying the course over the long term – certainly longer than the electoral cycle.

The Plan provided a reform and investment roadmap for Australia’s governments to ensure our infrastructure drives productivity, improves our standard of living and delivers world-class services in our cities and regions.
It proposed ambitious and politically challenging reforms, including regulatory, governance and market reform, which would require buy-in from all levels of Australian government.

To keep up the momentum on reform and encourage Australia’s government to stay the course over the long term, we have released a new report, Prioritising Reform, which reviews the progress made against the key recommendations in the 2016 Plan. 

Some progress is clear but more needs to be done to meet future challenges

Our report finds that while there has been clear improvement across the Australian infrastructure sector in the past two years, there is still much to do.

Heavy vehicle road user charging reform is progressing, a renewed National Freight and Supply Chain Strategy is underway and targeted funding for pinch-points and first- and last-mile issues has been set aside.

Long-term corridor protection is being actioned in some jurisdictions, and there’s an increased openness to using government debt to fund projects.

At the city level, there’s better integration of transport and land-use planning. A greater focus on land-use planning and integrated land use and transport planning is a welcome improvement and critical to the success of major growth areas such as western Sydney.
However, on other key measures, there has been little or no progress against the recommendations in the Plan.
In transport, the planned inquiry into road user charging reform is yet to commence. The energy market has been dealing with an influx of new technologies, new methods of managing supply and demand and regulatory uncertainty, and efforts to address these complex issues have been fraught.

Progress on urban water reform has stalled, and there are significant compliance issues around water use in the Murray-Darling Basin. In telecommunications, the NBN rollout has faced challenges as demand for high-speed data connectivity soars.

There are also improvements to be made in planning for the future. The absence of a national population policy has fostered uncertainty around how to manage Australia’s growing population.

And while transport will become our second biggest carbon emitter in coming years, with no clear guidance for industry, the task of meeting our international commitments is made all the more difficult. 

Project selection is getting better but there is still room for improvement

Over the 10 years of Infrastructure Australia’s existence, we’ve gradually developed a credible pipeline of future infrastructure investment.

The update to the Infrastructure Priority List in March this year included $55 billion worth of projects, with $25 billion worth of projects moving off the list and into the delivery phase.

Australia’s governments are increasingly favouring a more methodical process for selecting major infrastructure projects, and are in most cases seeking a positive evaluation from the independent Infrastructure Australia Board before making funding announcements.
However, early stage announcements by governments and oppositions remain a concern.

We need bipartisanship around our big transport priorities, and cooperation across levels of government over the long term to ensure we invest in the right project solutions at the right time and in the right place.

Australians have never lacked vision

Australia has a long and proud reformist history from which to draw inspiration. At the turn of the century, we federated our states and brought together a nation unified by the shared ideal of an Australian dream.

From the Trans-Australian railway to the Western Sydney Airport, Australia’s governments have taken the lead in building nation-shaping infrastructure including most of our transport, energy, water and telecommunications networks.

Over a generation since the 1980s, Australia was transformed into an open, dynamic, and highly productive economy through reform.

These reforms – especially in the areas of open trade, ownership and competition – have contributed to a 27-year record of economic growth.

Much of this reform was not easy, requiring cooperative leadership.

As our regional competitors grow quickly, we need to drive a new round of productivity enhancement, improve regulation and service delivery.
There is a substantial growth pay-off on offer if we make this happen.
If we truly embrace the national reform agenda outlined in the Australian Infrastructure Plan, Australia will secure the social and economic benefits of great infrastructure for many generations to come.
About the authors

Philip Davies

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Philip Davies is an experienced infrastructure executive who has had over 25 years shaping policy, delivering nationally significant infrastructure projects, and leading reform within the infrastructure sector. Before joining Infrastructure Australia as CEO, Philip led AECOM's Infrastructure Advisory business in Asia Pacific providing government and private sector clients with infrastructure policy, strategy, business, program, planning and operations advice. Whilst Director of Operations for Transport for London, Philip developed a long term vision for proactive, long term integrated transport management in London, including the development of the London Transport Command and Control Centre. Philip is a Chartered Professional Engineer, a Fellow of Engineers Australia and a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Company Directors.