The Rudd Government needs a narrative, yes. But there’s a difference between promoting a narrative and chucking an idea a day into the news cycle, which is something the Prime Minister has been more than a little guilty of. Yesterday’s idea for the day was nation-building. The Prime Minister boasted of his $76b infrastructure investment program in Question Time and then told the Australian Industry Group annual dinner about it later.

And this morning, it became an infrastructure and indigenous employment program.

It’s not as if the Government needs a distraction at the moment. The economic news is turning in its favour. Not just today’s interest rate cut, but company profits and trade figures too. And Brendan Nelson can’t even get through a doorstop without embarrassing himself. So the need to talk up the Government’s nation-building credentials looks a bit peculiar.

Nevertheless, the $76b figure will probably stick. It shouldn’t. It doesn’t really mean anything or have a timeframe attached to it. This is what it’s composed of:

$26b for road (mostly) and rail under Auslink 2, the giant pork-barrel program established by the Nationals when they were running the Transport portfolio. Auslink 2 goes out to 2013-14 which, admittedly, is not quite as far away as it used to be, but is still two elections and five budgets away.

$20b under the Building Australia Fund – which Anthony Albanese keeps warning is under threat from the Opposition’s obstruction in the Senate — for which there’s no set expenditure period. Indeed, the second instalment of funding won’t even be paid into the Fund until next year, which is when Infrastructure Australia will get around to telling governments which mighty projects should be funded. Don’t expect anything anytime soon.

$5b for that broadband network that was originally set to start rolling out at Christmas but is now off in the never-never as the Department of Broadband moseys its way through a labyrinthine tender process.

$15b from the Education Investment Fund and $11b — it used to be $10b, evidently there’s been some rounding up – in the Health and Hospitals Fund. Same deal as the Infrastructure Fund – no set date for expenditure in hospitals and schools.

Clearly the Government is anxious to give the impression it’s hard at it, building new roads, expanding ports, giving us a 21st century — or at least late 20th century — broadband network, fixing up our hospitals and schools. In fact it’s doing none of those things beyond what was already in the pipeline a year ago, and won’t be for quite some time. It’s also slightly at odds with the alleged purpose of Infrastructure Australia, which is bring some order and planning to the country’s infrastructure construction so that jurisdictions are not bidding against each other for companies to build stuff and inflicting feast-or-famine economics on the construction industry.

But the Government knows that one of its most successful campaign themes last year was the idea that the Howard Government squandered the fruits of the mining boom. The big ticket infrastructure spruiking is designed to ensure that the public knows that this government will be converting all those mining company profits into concrete, steel and tarmac across the countryside. Stay tuned for a lot more from the 76 billion dollar man.

Peter Fray

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