Senate douses pork-barrel bbq

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By Andrew Herington

The Senate on Monday rebuffed the Abbott Government by rejecting amendments that would have stripped Infrastructure Australia of its independence. 

Following widespread community and business alarm at the proposals, the government has now backtracked and accepted many of its proposed changes cannot proceed. Amendments to give the Minister power over Infrastructure Australia and to exclude whole classes of infrastructure (i.e. public transport) from consideration were defeated or withdrawn by the Government.

Labor Senator Stephen Conroy and Green Senator Scott Ludlum also restored provisions to require increased transparency, quarterly reporting, consideration of economic, social and environmental considerations and a requirement to produce independent reports on priorities for Commonwealth infrastructure funding.

Although Infrastructure Australia retains the power to consider public transport projects, the Liberal Senator handling the Bill, David Johnston, made clear that Tony Abbott’s absurd “stick to the knitting” policy will remain in practice and no funding will be provided by the Commonwealth for public transport – regardless of what Infrastructure Australia recommends.

The independence of Infrastructure Australia is important because a lot normally hangs on its recommendations. In recent years, the process has become increasingly politicised and, as in the case of the East-West Link, projects are proposed for political reasons and not because they are the best investment or provide the greatest economic benefits.

Senator Conroy attacked the amendments as a crude attempt to enable roads to be pork barrelled for marginal electorates without being assessed independently and prioritised against other transport projects – particularly public transport and projects in safe seats. He said:

I have unfortunately witnessed many a National Party minister pork-barrel extensively. That is exactly why the minister sought to gut the independence of Infrastructure Australia. I smell pork. We should do everything we can to put the barbecue out.

Senator Conroy also highlighted the planned $1 billion payment to Victoria later this week for the East West Link stage 2, which is not due to start for at least 18 months.

This is a project that Infrastructure Australia has not even assessed as being ready to proceed. There is not a starker example of why we need to make Infrastructure Australia an essential element of our decision making than this one.

He recalled how officers from Infrastructure Australia were unable to tell him during the Senate Estimates hearings where the Stage 2 tunnel is going to come out:

I have never heard such an absurd example of pork barrelling to help a flailing and failing state government than funding and building one end of a tunnel when you do not know where the tunnel is going to come up.

The legislation will now go back to the House of Representatives. The Abbott Government may accept it in the form the Senate has approved – or send it back with further amendments to be considered by the new Senate after it sits in July.

The Government has accepted the central proposition that the Minister should not have power to direct Infrastructure Australia but still opposes several of the refinements and previous provisions restored by the Senate amendments.

This debate may seem dry and of little relevance to the community campaigns for public transport. However it is about the control of billions in federal funding and ensuring that doesn’t just flow to roads and that public transport investments are fairly assessed.

They usually provide a much better return on investment and so would win hands down in a fair contest. The roads lobby want to rig the rules.

 

 

 

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