Australia
is facing an infrastructure crisis that will hold back economic growth for
years to come if it is not addressed now, the Committee for Economic
Development of Australia
said yesterday. Oh yeah? “I can feel a dam coming on,”
Bert Kelly would have said.

“Following two decades of under-investment,
vital elements of the nation’s infrastructure are in serious disrepair, if not
crisis,” CEDA claimed. “Australia’s infrastructure – investment sunk in land,
such as roads, railways, telecommunications, electric power, sea and air ports
and the like – is struggling to cope with the cumulative demands of Australia’s
sustained period of economic growth and the vast new trade and investment
opportunities emerging.”

And who contributed to the report? Well, the Business Council of Australia was
part of it. Along with Engineers Australia
and Master Builders Australia. Are you
thinking what I’m thinking? Why might
builders and engineers be interested in big infrastructure projects? Philanthropy? OK, so infrastructure facilitates economic
development and a lot of it is getting creaky. But no wonder. The economy has
been on the boil now for 14 years. It’s hardly
surprising that some infrastructure is running at near capacity.

If – when – a downturn comes, there will be
much whinging and whining by infrastructure owners whose capacity is
underutilised (except for when the owner is the poor old taxpayer – we
just
have to wear the poor use of the capital investment made by our
governments
for our common good). What might be better is raking over where
some of our money has gone in the past 25 years or so – and how it
might have
been better spent. Investment in road
transport infrastructure over the last 25 years has been more than ten
times that of rail – nothing but a massive subsidy to road transport
operators and big
business beneficiaries such as Woolworths and Coles and the other large
users of transport. Then there have been
huge subsidies on fuel costs. These
few owners of road transport and their coterie of large clients have
been
riding the high road of profits at taxpayers’ expense.

And who would be the cashed-up buyers of
public rail assets now clamouring for public infrastructure investment in rail
services be? Any of the above? Who is going to take responsibility for all
those deals that sold the rolling stock and left the really expensive bit, the
track, for the poor old taxpayer to look after? Finally, is this nothing but the
predictable suspects staking a claim on the proceeds of the sale of the rest of
Telstra already – buying off the punters, city and bush, by calling for a whole
bunch of projects that not only look big, give the pollies plenty of photo-ops
and silence the doubters but also do wonders for their bottom line.

Peter Fray

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