Friday, April 27, 2018

Today by Paddy Manning

Pub test: roll out the barrel
Infrastructure spending is okay, as long as it’s the right infrastructure

Do you smell bacon? It certainly feels like election time, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull furiously denying he is pork barrelling while unveiling his second major infrastructure spend in a fortnight: $3.2 billion for infrastructure in Western Australia, including the state’s flagship Metronet rail project.

Two weeks ago it was Victoria’s turn, with the PM committing $5 billion to finally build a Melbourne Airport rail link.

We’ve already had a heavy hint from acting PM and Nationals leader Michael McCormack, who stole the treasurer’s thunder somewhat when he indicated that infrastructure is going to feature heavily in next month’s federal budget. Today, The Australian’s economics editor, David Uren, writes [$] about the risks to the budget from ill-conceived infrastructure investments that are primarily designed to deliver a commercial rate of return to the federal government, and therefore keep funding off the books, rather than being designed purely to achieve transport or other planning objectives. “Taxpayers should worry about how their infrastructure dollars are being spent,” Uren concludes.

Both sides will do it, of course. In response to Turnbull’s Melbourne Airport rail link announcement, shadow infrastructure minister Anthony Albanese this week promised that Melbourne would get a new deal under a future Labor Government, working in partnership with Spring Street. Albanese said the city was being “ripped off” by the Commonwealth. The story was accompanied by a table that ranked Commonwealth infrastructure funding to the states per capita, which showed infrastructure funding for New South Wales was right at the top, about four times higher than Victoria’s, at the bottom.

Most of the spending in New South Wales is explained by the Commonwealth equity commitment to Western Sydney Airport, a huge undertaking that has taken 50 years to resolve and that is going to transform the city’s western suburbs.

One sign of the scale of the investment comes at Leppington station, currently the end of a branch line that will eventually stop at the new airport. Surrounded by paddocks, Leppington station seems oversized and over-engineered, with a vast solar-powered roof jutting over a fully automated concourse, all touchscreens and ticket machines, glass lifts down to the platforms, and nobody about. It’s a one-man station: the manager on duty is highly trained, tracking all the nearby trains on his smartphone, pulling up 150 security cameras, reporting if train drivers and guards are drunk or tired, arresting miscreants if necessary … he does it all. It’s a glimpse of the future in other ways too: a bold experiment in privatisation, apparently destined for sale, probably to overseas investors.

There are big plans for Leppington. When demographers ponder where all those extra millions are going to go in Sydney, the answer is places like this. A ghost station when opened a few years ago, nowadays the car park is full, and soon it will be bustling. Out this way, one bloke tells me, he almost bought three acres of land for $40,000. Acre blocks now cost a million bucks, apparently, and that’s only the beginning. Units, shopping malls and the rest are on the way. The over-engineered station is a statement of intent from the state government, paid for by developer levies – Turnbull’s favoured magic pudding of “value capture”. It’s like a big ad, pitched at both landowners and homebuyers: watch this space. At least it’s an improvement on the old lack of planning, which saw whole suburbs subdivided and sold off without any infrastructure.

It’s a pity watching those fertile, historic paddocks swallowed by urban sprawl. Lockies Hotel sits on the old Cowpasture Road, marked out in 1805, which headed for the plains where the cattle that escaped the first fleet were found grazing happily a decade earlier. Some of our best farming country, on the fringes of Australia’s capitals, is disappearing under concrete.

Lockies, with an old train carriage out front that was put there in the ‘80s, is not long for this world: Woolworths bought the pub a few years ago and at some point they’ll turn into a tavern. “We’ll miss it,” the punters say.

Those at Lockies today are philosophical about the airport and the noise and the traffic – either they couldn’t care less, or they’re against it, but in any case they recognise it’s going ahead.

They’re less philosophical about the density of the planned development. “If I wanted to live in the inner city, I’d move to the inner city. In 10 years’ time this is going to be like the inner city,” says one bloke.

Leppington is going to see thousands of units, in buildings six to 10 storeys high. Thousands of trees are being felled to make way for this coming suburbia.

“I don’t like it. I think there’s enough land in this place to give people 700 square metres. They’re living on 250 square metres.” 

Another bloke lives on five acres his parents bought in 1971 for $20,000, having grown up on a farm further in towards the city. Now, a second generation is facing the music. His property would be worth a lot more than $20,000 now, he admits, but “it doesn’t matter, it’s our home. We rode motorbikes on it. Opposite chicken farms and market gardeners. They’re still there.” Not for long.

since this morning

In her closing submission on hearings into the financial advice industry at the Hayne royal commission, counsel assisting the royal commission, Rowena Orr, has today said [$] that AMP committed criminal offences by misleading ASIC. Elsewhere, Anna Bligh, chief executive of the Australian Banking Association, sought to limit how far back the royal commission into banking was able to investigate cases of misconduct, according to documents obtained [$] by The Australian. And the financial services minister, Kelly O’Dwyer, has apologised for not calling the banking royal commission earlier, a week after she refused to answer questions about whether the government had got it wrong.

Heavily armed police have surrounded a man who threatened to shoot people on a tram in Melbourne’s CBD this afternoon.

in case you missed it

Outgoing NBN Co chief executive Bill Morrow has blamed [$] poor customer experiences with the network on the Turnbull government’s multi-technology approach to building the $49 billion project.

Energy and environment minister Josh Frydenberg has welcomed the news that AGL Energy plans to build a new $400 million gas-fired power station to replace the Liddell coal-fired power station, but warned it will do little to fill the shortfall left if the company proceeds with its intended closure plan.

Meanwhile, Frydenberg has called for “waste to energy” incineration to be part of Australia’s response to its recycling crisis, and, at a meeting of the nation’s environment ministers today, is pushing the packaging industry to ramp up its use of recycled materials over the next seven years.

Social services minister Dan Tehan says [$] that the Turnbull government will fully fund the National Disability Insurance Scheme, “full stop, end of story”, after disability advocates raised concerns at the scrapping of the 0.5 per cent increase to the Medicare Levy, which was proposed to support the scheme.

The ABC’s Background Briefing reports that the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is six years in and Australian taxpayers have spent $8 billion on it so far – yet the internationally significant ecosystem at the end of the basin, the Coorong, is dying.

by Miriam Cosic
Epic theatre
Technology intensifies the Brechtian in a recent series of productions

by Hamish McDonald
The dining boom
Australia’s food and wine industry is the next big thing in China

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including a recently updated unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?


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