The Federal Government’s refusal to fund public transport infrastructure dates back to 4 April 2013, when the then Opposition Leader Tony Abbott declared his opposition to it:
“The Commonwealth government has a long history of funding roads. We have no history of funding urban rail and I think it’s important that we stick to our knitting, and the Commonwealth’s knitting when it comes to funding infrastructure is roads.” – Tony Abbott, Federal Opposition Leader (4 April 2013)
In the 2 years since then, this position has barely changed. Which is to say it has evolved (very slowly) in the right direction.
The first change came on 16 May 2014, when the Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development Jamie Briggs promised that federal funding from its asset recycling fund would not be restricted to roads. It followed through with this promise on 19 February 2015, providing $60m in funding to the ACT for its proposed light rail project. This funding was small, particularly compared to the billions going to the marquee roads projects; it also included a side comment from the Treasurer Joe Hockey’s office that “it has been a controversial project in the ACT” and that “there has been debate as to whether alternative projects may have higher potential economic benefits”.
While the ACT project received lukewarm support from Canberra and could be described as tokenistic in terms of the quantity of funding; the 8 March 2015 decision to send $2bn to NSW changed that. With $1.3bn of that going towards the Sydney Metro project, the Federal Government is now providing more funding to this rail project than the $1bn it has committed to WestConnex. However, the rail funding came with strings attached in the form of requiring privatisation. Funding for WestConnex has no such restrictions.
14 June 2015 showed more promise on this front, with the Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss stating that “the Federal Government is quite happy to fund metro rail projects”. This would appear to be in start contradiction to the statements quoted by Mr Abbott earlier that the Federal Government “have no history of funding urban rail” and would not be funding public transport.
Perhaps the reason can be found by winding back the clock a month to 6 May 2015 when Greens leader Christine Milne was replaced by Richard Di Natale. In the past, Ms Milne had been resistant to supporting the re-indexation of the fuel excise because additional revenue would be hypothecated (i.e. promised to) road funding. However, when the Finance Minister Matthias Cormann offered to eliminate the hypothecation Ms Milne maintained her opposition.
The party now has a new leader, and one who appears to be more willing to negotiate with the Government of the day. Following the May budget, Mr Di Natale met with Mr Abbott. In this meeting, he offerred to support indexation if some of the revenue was hypothecated to public transport projects. In that context, Mr Truss’ comments make a lot more sense.
The policy taken to the last election – to not fund urban commuter rail, is a bad one. However, the question here is not whether the Government should abandon it. By funding Sydney Metro to the tune of $1.3bn, it already has abandoned it. Instead, the question is about when the Government will take a mode neutral stance on funding of transport infrastructure. Let Infrastructure Australia or the states determine the best transport projects and fund those. There’s a chance this possibility may become a reality sooner than expected.