When Ted Baillieu makes his pitch for re-election at the Victorian ballot box in 2014, the brains behind most of his infrastructure plans probably won’t get much of a mention.
But Sir Roderick Ian Eddington, Infrastructure Australia chair, Victorian Major Events tsar, JP Morgan chairman and News Corporation director, sits very high indeed in Melbourne’s “tower of power” at 101 Collins Street.
His ideas, hatched in another role under the previous Labor government but only now coming to fruition are, quite literally, changing the face of the southern metropolis.
“He’s a true source of ideas but he also propagates them relentlessly,” says one former senior Victorian public servant and close confidant.
Just ask the Footscray residents forced to move (with substantial compensation) out of the way of his $5 billion Regional Rail Link. Or the millions of visitors that clamber eagerly from venue to venue as part of Melbourne’s world-beating roster of major events.
“Hot Rod’s” trademark moustache may be gone but his influence is real. Everyone takes his calls, everyone regards him with gravitas. Almost no one in Australia, except perhaps the ubiquitous David Gonski, comes close to such a symbiosis of influence.
As the man directly responsible for carving up federal infrastructure cash, his musings are taken very seriously indeed. He may have stepped down last year from the board of global miner Rio Tinto (one of a staggering nine board or charity directorships), but this has meant his gaze is more keenly trained on his adopted home town.
In a wide-ranging interview, he confirms to The Power Index that he is able to “pick up the phone and talk to a minister, or the premier” when the need arises. He admits his business network also runs deep, but in a familiar refrain, the former engineering student and first-class county cricketer (with best figures of 3/48) claims he’s just the humble messenger for evidence-based proposals.
“I can speak to one of the more senior business leaders in town … but the case has to rest on its own merits. In Melbourne, people line up. They might argue about what the right thing to do is but once they agree they all get behind it.”
It’d be brave political or business leader who didn’t play nice with the Rhodes Scholar-turned British Airways chief, who was knighted for saving the airline — and Britain’s pride — after 9/11 (he admits the title “helps him get tables in restaurants”).
In 2008, fresh from overhauling Britain’s transport woes, he produced a similar report for the then-Brumby government that, if fully implemented, would have arguably eased the squeeze on the city, albeit at a cost of billions. Its centrepiece — ignored by Brumby — was a controversial east-west tunnel under Melbourne’s inner-north to link the Eastern Freeway with CityLink in Flemington and beyond.
Now it’s all back on the table. Baillieu announced in November that he would be taking three of Eddington’s own proposals to Infrastructure Australia — the road tunnel, a rail tunnel from South Kensington in the west to South Yarra in the south, and a new port at Hastings to help deal with the 1500 people each week that move to Melbourne. Ironically, it will be Eddington who will be charged with assessing the wish list’s merits.
Baillieu has asked for an initial $640 million — and if he fails he will almost certainly punished politically in the same manner as is Labor predecessor. Cynics including the state opposition say the cash will never be found and the Greens have promised to fight the freeway plan tooth and nail.
And as powerbroker Ron Walker told The Power Index last week, a paucity of state assets to privatise means that money for infrastructure funding has been drying up, forcing the Commonwealth to come to the party. Last month, Sir Rod issued his own warning of “bridges over puddles and roads to nowhere” without higher levels of private investment.
Shifting restlessly about on his JP Morgan couch, Eddington doesn’t take personal credit for steering the debate, insisting that he “plays the ball and not the man” and realises that “democratically elected governments” are the ones that make the ultimate decision.