Published: 05 July 2017

The state needs to devise a better plan for infrastructure spending, says Ruth Forrest

THE annual Budget circus is about to get under way. Will it be the same old vaudeville that we’ll be glad to see the back of after a few frantic weeks, or will we see some fresh performances and displays of leadership? Is it too much to hope for a spirit of greater co-operation to move this state forward a notch or two?

To be realistic, about 98 per cent of the Budget will be the same as last year. Nothing is more certain. Only about 2 per cent differs from year to year, maybe $100 million or so.

Before we embark on the usual adversarial circus that follows the tabling of the Budget Papers, maybe we should pause for a moment and acknowledge that our points of agreement dwarf our differences.

Seeing how the remaining 2 per cent, the discretionary component, is allocated focuses the minds of most observers. The routine of a treasurer playing Santa Claus leading to an election is starting to wear awfully thin.

People don’t just want money showered upon them. The cynic would say this is little more than thinly veiled votebuying. We also don’t want repetitious reminders how bad the old days were when the other lot were in charge.

Nor do we want to be confused about how much is actually being spent in the budget when often the figures include another three years of forward estimates that are not being funded this year. The following years’ outlays are only expected amounts, and beyond this they are mere projections, certainly not amounts being approved this year. But even worse is the latest trend to talk about a 10-year plan as if the only thing standing between this plan and future reality is the efflux of time.

The Federal Government recently unveiled a $75 billion infrastructure spend. It was a big number. It turned out to be for a 10-year period and in fact is less per annum than had been flagged by a previous government headed by self proclaimed “infrastructure prime minister” Tony Abbott.

If we’re going to have a 10-year plan it would make sense if it were rolled out regularly.

“Why doesn’t the Federal Government instead say each year we’re going to make $6 to $7 billion available each year for projects that have been assessed by Infrastructure Australia so that the States have got some degree of reliability,” Brendan Lyon, the CEO of Infrastructure Australia, was reported on Radio National as saying the day after this year’s Federal Budget.

My sentiments exactly and something I have promoting for some time. On a percapita basis that’s $300 million to Tasmania each year. Add that to the other specific purpose capital grants for road, rail and water, plus the grants that flow through the state and are split among local government authorities by the state’s Grants Commission to be used mainly for roads, and we’d have a seriously big pot of money to be spent on the state’s infrastructure.

I’d be just as happy to see decisions and priorities made locally not necessarily by Infrastructure Australia. After all, wasn’t that what Infrastructure Tasmania was supposed to do? It is true we haven’t exactly displayed the necessary credentials to be trusted with so much money.

We haven’t won many plaudits with our inability to build a new hospital in Hobart on time and on budget, and we can’t even adequately cater for the shipping needs of the people of King Island.

Surely, though, if you were to list the roles a state government should have as part of a federal system, organising and prioritising the infrastructure needs of 515,000 residents of Tasmania should be close to the top of that list. This is where the State Government can provide the biggest boost to the state.

The state is primarily a service deliverer, with most of its funds dissipated pursuing that objective.

However, it can also nudge the economy in a desirable direction, and infrastructure spending is the best way to do this. As a state we need to be in charge of our destiny. That is not the case now. Bashing on doors in Canberra and handing out gifts every budget day with a few extra temptations before an election is not the best way forward. We need to take the politics out of infrastructure budgeting. It may satisfy the short-term goals of a few elected representatives, but no one else. Disappointingly, the well-intentioned grand review of our federal system has been abandoned, which means the only way of improving the system is via incremental changes. The way infrastructure spending is allocated would be a good start. Set up a system where regular amounts come our way removed from the exigencies of the electoral cycle where a beefed-up Infrastructure Tasmania takes a greater role with, for example, a rolling six-year program of projects covering more than one electoral period.

Currently Infrastructure Tasmania is a bit of a show pony, although one can’t be certain what’s it’s doing because its website hasn’t been updated for a year. I am reminded of the Nation Building Authority from the TV show Utopia. 

Needless to say I have yet to encounter a department or agency with the bar set any lower.

The media are happy to focus on budget difference between parties. But this distorts reality because the inertia and prevailing logic of the system predetermines most spending. We should instead be trying to set up budgetary and reporting systems that aim to inform and involve fellow Tasmanians not to divide and accentuate differences over the very small part of the pie that becomes subject to the tiresome adversarial battle every budget time.

Removing infrastructure spending from the field of battle would be a welcome start.

Ruth Forrest, MLC, is the independent Member for Murchison.

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