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Saturday, March 25, 2023

Can a new department head take the politics out of the infrastructure? (And is this a good idea anyway?)

Federal infrastructure policy has been beset with controversy over the years: from the sports rots scandal and questionable commuter car parks to excessive land for Sydney’s second airport. The excesses became so infamous that they convinced critics of the Morrison government to campaign for a stronger anti-corruption commission during the May election.

So it’s no surprise that the government of Albany has brought in a new broom to head its infrastructure department.

Jim Bates replaces Simon Atkinson, the Morrison-appointed career bureaucrat who held the job through all those recent scandals. Like Atkinson, Bates is a longtime public servant, but he comes to work directly from the state rather than from the federal bureaucracy.

Bates first served in Victoria’s Department of Transport, where he was eventually Secretary, then took charge of Infrastructure New South Wales, and most recently headed the NSW Planning Department. So he takes on his new job with decades of experience in state infrastructure policy making.

where is the action

It is important that Bates brings to the state rather than federal experience: infrastructure is a different kettle of fish at the state level. It is the state governments that usually design, prioritize and build infrastructure projects. The main role of the federal government is to decide which projects to bankroll (exceptions, such as national broadband networks, don’t exactly show the Feds in glory).

Because of Australia’s chronic vertical fiscal imbalance, states can rarely pay for projects: they rely solely on the Fed to turn their infrastructure fantasies into concrete reality, and against each other for funding. compete tough.

Read more: Shovel-ready but not shovel-worthy: how COVID-19 infrastructure projects missed an opportunity to change the way we live

Still, infrastructure initiatives usually lie with the states, and so where there is a lot of lobbying by vested interests and pressure groups – and where the jockeying becomes the state’s submission for federal cash between departments for its pet project. plays for.

As my new study of Melbourne’s infamous East-West link shows, Jim Bates knows this kind of politics deeply. At the helm of Victoria’s Department of Transport for that saga, he saw how intense the politics of infrastructure could be.

Politics meets infrastructure: Victoria’s opposition leader, Matthew Guy (left), with then-prime minister, Tony Abbott (centre), after Labor dismantles the East-West link. Guy lost the next state election in a landslide.
Tracy Nearmy/You

In fact, I suspect that Bates’ long experience in state infrastructure policy might even lead him to accept the main finding of my book: infrastructure is not Afflicted Politically but is inherently and essentially political.

Infrastructure essentially consists of public money, public space and the vision of the public good. It is one of the more concrete ways in which citizens approach public policy and is a measure by which they judge the ability of government. It is not something that can be administered scientifically or politically; There are no objectively right or wrong answers about what to build, only trade-offs and conflicting values.

When governments choose infrastructure priorities and build things, there are always winners and losers, there are always disputes, there are always votes on the line, and there is always a competing vision favored or crushed.

This means that the mission of many reform enthusiasts – to “get politics out of infrastructure” – is misguided. No independent authority or auditor has the power to do so, no matter how many priority lists they publish and no matter how much they name and embarrass governments for spending money in their political interests.

Indeed, during his time in Infrastructure New South Wales, Bates may have observed that such expectations are foolish. When politics is compelling, governments will always ignore advisory bodies.

behind closed doors

Bates’ experience in Victoria and NSW could help improve in the other direction. When he worked in Victoria – from the late 1990s to the mid-2013 – the state had no long-term infrastructure plans, except for the Brumby Labor government’s attempt at a transport plan in 2009, which was canceled a year later by the Belieu coalition government. was done.

Victoria still doesn’t have a proper long-term plan. Instead, it has a massive ad-hoc writ: Billions of billions were spent on the “Big Build” program without any guiding logic. Projects often seem to come out of nowhere in surprising announcements, with all the lobbying and jockeying taking place behind closed doors. The only time the public tries to find out is that the sods are about to turn.

Read more: Victoria needs a big-picture transport plan that isn’t about winners versus losers

Subway Tunnel
as planned? The new Martin Place metro station under construction in Sydney in 2019.
Joel Caret/You

In contrast, NSW did When Bates worked there, he has long-term plans. Many of those plans were and are still bitterly contested, and many aspects of state infrastructure governance are deeply problematic. But at least plans have been made for people to see and contest elections.

Public, long-term plans turn things around. Advocacy and pressure and organizing cannot hide in the shadows. Politics is over in the public sphere; The next project (and the next and next) is at least in the outline for all to see and debate.

Bates will have closely watched the difference plans. And he could, in his new position, urge the federal government to make long-term plans for federal infrastructure dollars a prerequisite.

transparency on denial

It is essential that states have good quality, public, long-term infrastructure plans in place before they can expect federal funding to be a game-changer. Plans cannot solve all the problems that plague Australian infrastructure policy-making – there are good plans and bad plans, democratic plans and schemes that serve narrow interests. But this would be a good start.

Read more: Will population freeze allow our big cities to hold onto infrastructure?

Plans force governments to make an argument not for this or that project, but for a holistic vision; They force governments to explain their trade-offs and assumptions; And they force governments to think ahead of the next election. They clarify the goals being pursued and defend the choice of winners and losers. If they do well, they generate buy-in and legitimacy – things desperately lacking in many infrastructure ventures these days.

Far from taking politics out of infrastructure, good plans lay bare the politics of infrastructure.

What we need in Australia is a change in infrastructure policy as always: not an attempt to deny or hide politics, but an effort to be honest about it, and an effort to deal with it.

World Nation News Desk
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