Published: 19 October 2017

Government hasn’t stuck to its agenda for major projects, says Ruth Forrest

THE TasWater takeover Bill which will soon be discussed in the Legislative Council contains provisions requiring the new corporation to formulate a 10-year infrastructure plan to be agreed with the Government, which must be reflected in the corporate plan and budgets.

If only the Government would run its own affairs like this. When it comes to sticking to infrastructure plans this Government has been woeful.

Mind you the last lot were just as bad.In its first year (2014-15) the government underspending on infrastructure compared to what was budgeted was $123 million. The next year the figure was $58 million. In the most recently completed year of 2016-17 the amount was $105 million. That’s a total of $286 million in three years.

That’s $286 million the current Government said it intended to spend on infrastructure but didn’t. It’s a bit much to berate others for failure when one’s own omissions are worse. Without the belated spend on the Royal Hobart Hospital rebuild, we barely spent more than depreciation. That means the old stuff is wearing out faster than it is being replaced, no different to the alleged errant practices of TasWater.

If there is one area where there should be a lot of common ground, it is infrastructure. The planning for it, delivering or building it, maintaining it, renewing it and funding it. This infrastructure covers our key assets in the state and the vast majority of the intergenerational infrastructure that will benefit our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Take all the water and irrigation infrastructure spending over the last eight years. How was it able to be achieved without too much political rancour?

Why can’t we build a hospital we need and everyone wants without all the political argy bargy? Why can’t we build all infrastructure we need and everyone wants without debilitating arguments and party politics and often the highly visible pork-barrelling that occurs leading up to elections? A long-term strategy that is agreed by all parties provides certainty for all Tasmanians and those who might invest in our state.

Whatever the government may spend on infrastructure, as much again is spent by government businesses, and spending by local councils adds up to quite a large sum. The reality is we have a few department and government businesses and 29 councils all making infrastructure decisions, seemingly independent of each other in the absence of a clear vision and plan of our future needs. For heaven’s sake, we are a state of 515,000 people.

Is more ministerial direction what’s required as mooted by the TasWater takeover Bill or should we be freeing infrastructure spending from politicians and the dictates of election cycles?

There is no doubt in the minds of anyone who has had a serious look at infrastructure spending — for instance, the Productivity Commission — that when political pressure influences decisions, the results are suboptimal.

The primary role of government in this instance needs to be instituting structures and helping assess needs. Jumping the queue with pet projects at election cycles should fall outside this role.

Recently the Legislative Council supported a motion I presented promoting the establishment of an infrastructure panel to review and explore infrastructure funding, decision making and assessment processes and investigating options for alternative models with the capacity to benefit Tasmanians and encourage private investment. These decisions need to be achieved through a consensus approach, with all political parties agreeing to the most effective way to achieve such an outcome. Private investment requires some certainty, and a model such as this would assist. If this could be progressed successfully, the same thinking and approach could and should be taken on education and health policy.

The majority of the public does not want more politicians; they want the current lot to do a better job. A collaborative approach is the optimal way to success. A shared vision for Tasmania is needed in these crucial areas.

The public also does not want to hear spiteful, political debate when the role of politicians should be to organise workable structures that are self-perpetuating and require political oversight but not interference. The public does not want to wait for the budget each year to see what infrastructure goodies are being handed out. The public, least of all, does not want to be insulted just prior to elections by deliberately tied promises. The public wants to see a rolling program of infrastructure spending that spans election cycles. The reality is, over half of infrastructure spending is sourced from federal government grants. The aim should be to make this a permanent predictable stream as part of the operations of the federal system. It should be combined with predictable budgeted amounts from state government and local government, if it is determined to include them, rolling out program spending agreed across the board and spanning beyond the next election. If governments and the people of Tasmania had some certainty around long-term

infrastructure planning and spending, this would create much greater certainty for all, including those in the private sector wishing to invest in Tasmania. Of course there will always be need to provide for urgent matters to be attended to, such as when natural disasters occur. Any sensible plan allows for contingencies.

We need all parties to leave all the puerile politics and name calling at the door and sit down at the table to develop a framework to achieve a long-term solution that will endure beyond election cycles. If there are problems with TasWater then let’s fix them. But let’s take the opportunity to develop a template for use across the whole spectrum of infrastructure in this wonderful state.

Ruth Forrest is the Independent Legislative Councillor for Murchison.

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