Deputy Prime Minister Mark Vaile might well have been rehearsing Peter Costello’s budget speech yesterday, a little off-Broadway preview at ABARE’s Outlook conference before Cossie treads the boards in May.

“We are spending $X billion on … as well as delivering tax reform. Some people said that we couldn’t do both. They said we had to choose one or the other. They were wrong because of our strong economic management, which has delivered the longest period of economic expansion in Australia’s history.”

Sounds more like a line from an election year budget speech than the minister for transport and regional services addressing “The Road to AusLink 2“.

The missing bits from the above quote are “$15 billion on our national land transport plan, AusLink, from 2004-05 to 2008-09” but it could just as easily have been a much, much larger number over a national five-year budget plan with a theme of “investing in our future”.

And even the AusLink 2 figure will be much, much bigger. There’s a line apparently first floated in the Oz that the next federal road and rail infrastructure package will be some $19 billion – but that may well be conservative.

Vaile wasn’t supplying the numbers yesterday, other than confirming it will be a lot more. But there’s $4 billion required just to finish off AusLink 1 projects, so $19 billion would really only mean a steady $15 billion of new projects. That wasn’t the feeling I was picking up from the National Party Leader.

With the precedent of the $10 billion Murray-Darling package – pick a nice fat figure and then fill in the number of years and whatever else to justify it – I suspect AusLink 2 will have to at least start with a 2.

“$20 billion” is an improvement, but “$25 billion” sounds much more impressive. Anyone for 30? It’s awfully easy to spend money on roads and such.

And with a large commitment to investing in infrastructure, it also deprives Labor of an avenue of election promises, by both spending the money ahead of them and being seen to be working on an acknowledged problem.

And don’t forget the other leg of the quote, “as well as delivering tax reform”.

Meanwhile, a footnote to Peter McGauran’s opening address to the conference underlines a National influence on the Prime Minister’s water grab.

While answering a question, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry minister stressed the government’s determination that the $10 billion would be split 50/50 between farmers and the environment. Make that $5 billion for more efficient irrigation and $5 billion for environmental flows.

Disclosure: Michael Pascoe chaired several sessions of the ABARE Outlook conference

Peter Fray

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