March 2019

Comment

Trains, pains and Berejiklian

By Paddy Manning
Will a big infrastructure spend help or hinder NSW’s Coalition government this election?

It is no surprise that infrastructure will play a major part in this month’s NSW election, as it did in Victoria’s in November. Politicians reflexively grasp for big-ticket announceables at polling time.

Yet despite record infrastructure spending, the Coalition government of NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian has so far failed to reap the political rewards. That’s partly due to a spectacular series of own goals: a bungled CBD and south-east light rail project; the unpopular demolition of Sydney Football Stadium; a wave of resignations over patient safety following the opening of a brand-new privately operated hospital on Sydney’s northern beaches; a fast rail feasibility study that was immediately lampooned as a plotline from Utopia. And above all, the rolling PR nightmare of the behemoth WestConnex tollway, the biggest transport project in Australia. 

Berejiklian took over when Mike Baird resigned two years ago, and as a former transport minister she is intimately associated with the projects that have turned Sydney into a construction zone and wreaked havoc for its motorists, businesses and residents. In her first election campaign as leader, seeking her own mandate, Berejiklian is trying to make a virtue out of the disruption, hammering home the message that her government is getting on with the job (and, by the way, is not obsessed with culture wars like her federal colleagues).

Fairly or not, Berejiklian contrasts her government with those of her Labor predecessors from 1995 to 2011: Bob Carr for a decade, then, in quick succession, Morris Iemma, Nathan Rees and Kristina Keneally. “Literally, for 16 years, nothing happened in New South Wales,” Berejiklian told 2GB in January. It’s an old slur: fact-checkers have quibbled when similar claims were made in the past, and Labor lists 15 major projects completed when it was in government. But there is no denying the years of dithering and backflips that surrounded Bob Carr’s $8 billion north-west and south-west heavy rail expansion program, which was announced with great fanfare in 2005 but was never delivered.

Berejiklian has certainly got things moving, and can cite some impressive dollar figures. Over the past seven years the Coalition has spent some $111 billion on infrastructure, and, if re-elected, over the next four years the government will spend another $87 billion, of which 60 per cent is for public transport and roads.

Berejiklian should compare her government’s track record not with those of her NSW predecessors but with that of another Labor government, in Victoria, where Premier Daniel Andrews’ achievement in infrastructure delivery was one of the main reasons for his landslide victory in November. Emblematic was Labor’s $2.4 billion Level Crossing Removal Project (LXRP), which has fixed 29 out of 75 targeted crossings over the past three years. One day people will write up LXRP as a case study of political genius: Take something plodding and unsexy out of the too-hard basket. Without grandstanding, get cracking, crossing off items on the to-do list, one by one. Watch as public scepticism steadily turns to wonder and then – paydirt – the kind of voter loyalty that gives a government longevity. Doing exactly what you said you would do? Brilliant.

There is more to it than level crossings, of course. The highly visible and much more expensive Metro Tunnel project, expanding the city’s choked heavy rail network and building five new underground stations, is already winning hearts and minds, and there are further stages on the drawing board. It’s still comparatively early days – there may be blowouts to come, and disruption is taking a toll – but Marion Terrill, transport program director of Melbourne think tank the Grattan Institute, says for now the LXRP and Metro projects are popular, and there is a stark difference between Victoria and New South Wales that has served the Andrews government very well. Victorian infrastructure projects have “actually been pretty well executed so far”, she says, “whereas I think – wherever the fault lies – there have been exceptional time over-runs and cost over-runs in Sydney”.

It’s not just poor execution, it’s also project selection, says Terrill, who evaluated the competing Labor and Coalition transport announcements ahead of the last Victorian election, and will shortly release a similar analysis in New South Wales. “In Victoria there has been quite a strong emphasis on these public transport projects [which] play pretty well in the minds of the public … people do particularly like heavy rail, given how fast Melbourne’s been growing. Managing the radial part of the system in and out of the city, heavy rail is the most efficient way to do that, and Melbourne Metro is seeking to significantly strengthen the radial rail system.”

Terrill says that while wonks like her might look at whether Infrastructure Australia, for example, has approved the rationale for various projects, the average member of the public does not. So the Andrews government’s announcement that it would start work on the long-talked-about suburban rail loop around Melbourne was hugely popular. “The morning it was announced here on talkback radio, everybody loved it,” Terrill says, “even though it was a $50 billion project with no business case.”

Popular affection for heavy rail is a worry for the NSW government, which has embarked on construction of a separate new metro system instead of expanding the existing rail network. Sydney Metro will be privately operated and fully automated – a driverless train recently completed a first trial run along the stage one route through the north-west, from Rouse Hill to Chatswood. A second stage under way will take the line under the harbour and the city to Sydenham. Will the new metro be sold off? Ominously, the government recently set up a new Transport Asset Holding Entity, to own the state’s transport infrastructure and manage it like a for-profit corporation. The structure is more financially efficient, but Labor has called it privatisation by stealth.

Transport planner Dr Michelle Zeibots, a research director at the University of Technology Sydney, is a former member of the state government’s expert advisory panel and believes there is a deeper malaise in New South Wales. Transport projects are being designed and commissioned, she says, for the benefit of construction contractors and private investors, rather than the public. Zeibots goes on to say that when Berejiklian was transport minister she promised to put customers at the centre of everything, but Liberal Party heavyweights like former premier Nick Greiner and former Business Council chief Tony Shepherd strongarmed the Coalition into projects such as WestConnex.

“The desires of the construction sector were put front and centre, leaving Berejiklian’s customer service vision to wither. Most of the big-spend transport projects are about feeding industry, not serving customers and the community. People can feel this. The big spending has become an insult to most people’s intelligence … Adding insult to injury, Australians are paying three times more for comparable infrastructure projects than other industrialised nations. And for all the public investment, commuters and passengers get poor outcomes.”

Zeibots cites WestConnex as a prime example of this. “Traffic volumes inside the WestConnex mainline tunnel for the morning peak will only reach one third of the tunnel’s full capacity 10 years after opening – an outcome similar to the Cross City Tunnel,” she says.

“But industry will slug motorists exorbitant tolls after paying only $9 billion for a $17 billion project. Taxpayer funds raised from the sale of electricity assets will fund the rest. Sensible voters look at this and feel they’ve been played for fools. So we’re seeing a backlash.”

Likewise, Zeibots predicts that when the new single-decker metro line is opened, “people will be surprised at how often they’ll have to stand. There’ll be far less seats than the trains we’re used to in Sydney.”

Metros with low seating capacities work in dense megacities such as New York and London, where trips are short, says Zeibots. But commuters travelling to Sydney’s north-west, standing for more than an hour after a long day at work, will not be happy. 

The premier’s office did not return calls. New state Opposition leader Michael Daley says the Coalition’s infrastructure problem goes right back to when the O’Farrell government came to power in 2011, faced a routed Opposition, ignored the advice of infrastructure experts, and made a raft of purely political decisions about what to build – then failed to get the planning watertight.

Daley, a former roads minister and shadow treasurer who took over in November, after the resignation of Luke Foley, says the government is guilty of both bad project selection and poor execution.

In the case of the light rail, the two local bidders dropped out, seeing the project as too risky, leaving only Spanish contractor Acciona. That should have rung alarm bells immediately, he says, but Berejiklian, then transport minister, was not for turning.

“They didn’t do any of the fundamentals right,” Daley says, “and that’s been their philosophy with every single project.”

Except NorthConnex, he points out, which cuts through Liberal heartland on Sydney’s North Shore. That project was properly consulted and has been uncontroversial.

Labor is promising $8 billion to fast-track the planned Metro West line from the city to Parramatta, but is firmly against the third stage of the government’s Sydney Metro, planned to replace existing heavy rail from Sydenham to Bankstown in Sydney’s south-west. It won’t reach capacity for a decade.

“We found out, not through the government, that it was really a plan to put about 90,000 dwellings along that corridor, to sell off airspace to developers, right around the proposed Metro stations. Another 300,000 people were going to live down Canterbury Rd – which is pretty chock-a-block already – [with] not an extra school or hospital, park or library, nothing. It was a big gigantic property deal.

“There’s always a sneaky deal … lurking behind every corner here. It’s the consultants and the developers and the lawyers and the big four consulting firms and the stadium builders – they always win – and when this government makes a mistake, which is often, it’s always the ordinary punter that gets hurt.”

Daley is close to Victoria’s treasurer, Tim Pallas, and open to the lessons from the state. “They do the planning right the first time, they do the consultation right, they get the building and implementation right, and people then have some ownership over the projects … that’s the way proper government should work, and that is exactly how government will work if I become the premier.”

New South Wales has spent twice as much as Victoria on infrastructure over the past seven years, yet the Coalition is on an electoral knife edge. Whoever wins, there are clear implications for the federal government, which is itself touting transport infrastructure spending of $75 billion over the next decade. The public has wised up, and won’t simply reward politicians promising to spend big on shiny new transport projects. Taxpayer money has to be well spent and for the benefit of the public, not some private builder, owner or operator.

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Inside the Greens and the unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?

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