“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be newly-elected was very heaven!”

Such earnest, innocent times – community Cabinet meetings, determination that promises will be met, commitment to slash spending, new bodies to be set up to tackle big problems.

The last lot started out with similar steel in their spine and the same rigour of purpose. They went bad – pretty quickly. This lot will too. They’re only politicians, after all.

One thing the previous mob always had, though, was political smarts. The Government’s new body for pipes and wires and roads and rails, Infrastructure Australia, is not an original idea. The Coalition was elected in 1996 promising to establish a national infrastructure council as well, but never quite got around to it.

Howard and co realised early on that such a body would become a conduit for incessant demands for more infrastructure funding – funding which at that stage the Budget couldn’t sustain. It would also be a potential source of criticism of the Government when such demands weren’t met – criticism inevitably portrayed as coming from “the Government’s hand-picked infrastructure advisors”. Moreover, the Nationals had their own ideas about where infrastructure investment should be directed, and they wouldn’t have much to do with the needs of Australian business.

Instead, the Howard Government established a rather desultory National Transport Council, which met a few times, was restructured, met a few more times, then vanished, its agenda tightly confined to areas like logistics where it couldn’t bag its political masters. Any effort to examine politically-sensitive areas drew a sharp rebuke from Mark Vaile’s minders.

Infrastructure Australia poses exactly the same problems for Rudd and the portfolio Minister, Anthony Albanese, who, in their wisdom, have decided to cement it in place with legislation. This may not look like such a clever move down the track when its members start bagging State Labor Governments and, eventually, the Commonwealth, for failing to spend enough money on infrastructure, or for politicising that expenditure.

The other danger, as Adele Ferguson points out in The Australian, is that it will become yet another layer in the process of assessing and responding to Australia’s infrastructure needs. The Energy Supply Association has already questioned what Infrastructure Australia’s role will be in the electricity and gas business. And between COAG and the Australian Transport Council and its sundry committees and sector-specific offshoots, there is already a complex web of Commonwealth-State transport infrastructure processes.

The Prime Minister has also flagged that he wants to see more investment by superannuation funds in infrastructure. The rest of us, who anticipate relying on super to fund our retirements, might prefer our funds to go into the most profitable investments (if there are any left at the moment), rather than nation-building. Perhaps if more of our infrastructure was based on price signals and user charges, it would attract more investment.

Still, we should put all the cynicism on hold. It’s so rare we get to watch politicians operating without an obsessive focus on smart politics. And it never lasts for long.

Peter Fray

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