What a PM Turnbull means for transport

Posted: September 21, 2015 in Transport
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VIDEO: Malcolm Turnbull announces new Cabinet (ABC News)

The new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will abandon the ban on urban rail funding and have a Minister for Cities instead of an Assistant Minister for Infrastructure. In a 14 minute press conference yesterday announcing his new ministerial line up, Mr Turnbull dedicated almost 3 minutes to cities and urban transport in which he stated that “infrastructure should be assessed objectively and rationally on its merits” and that “there is no place for ideology here at all”.

Malcolm Turnbull in Perth before becoming Prime Minister, about to take the train to Mandurah. Click to enalrge. (Source: Malcolm Turnbull.)

Malcolm Turnbull in Perth before becoming Prime Minister, about to take the train to Mandurah. Click to enalrge. (Source: Malcolm Turnbull.)

Mr Turnbull, an avid promoter of public transport who still intends to catch public transport as Prime Minister, is famous not just for taking public transport but also announcing to the world that he takes public transport.

“Livable vibrant cities are absolutely critical to our prosperity. Historically the federal government has had a limited engagement with cities. And yet that is where most Australian live. It is where the bulk of our economic growth can be found. We often overlook the fact that livable cities, efficient productive cities, the environment of cities are economic assets.

You know, making sure that Australia is a wonderful place to live in, that our cities and indeed our regional centres are wonderful places to live is an absolutely key priority of every level of government. Because the most valuable capital in the world today is not financial capital, there’s plenty of that and it is very mobile. The most valuable capital today is human capital. Men and women like ourselves who can choose to live anywhere. We have to ensure for our prosperity, for our future, for our competitiveness that every level of government works together constructively and creatively to ensure that our cities progress.

That federal funding of infrastructure in cities, for example, is tied to outcomes that will promote housing affordability. Integration is critical. We shouldn’t be discriminating between one form of transit and another. There is no ‘roads are not better than mass transit’ or vice versa. Each of them has their place. Infrastructure should be assessed objectively and rationally on its merits. There is no place for ideology here at all. The critical thing is to ensure that we get the best outcome in our cities.

Now of course, we have a Minister for Regional Development in the Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss. But cities have been overlooked, I believe, historically from the federal perspective. So within the Ministry for the Environment I’m appointing the Honorable Jamie Briggs MP to be the Minister to Cities and the Built Environment to work with Greg Hunt, the Environment Minister, to develop a new Australian Government agenda for our cities in cooperation with states, local government, and urban communities.” – Malcolm Turnbull, Prime Minister (Press Conference, 20/09/2015)

The former Assistant Minister for Infrastructure Jamie Briggs will become the Minister for Cities and Built Environment. Transport and urban development consultant Alan Davies points out that this moves the cities portfolio out of the Department of Infrastructure, where cabinet member and Minister for Infrastructure Anthony Albanese held responsibility for the then Major Cities Unit; shifting it into the Department of the Environment. Mr Briggs will not be in cabinet, and will instead rely on his senior: the Minister for the Environment Greg Hunt.

Mr Davies raises concerns that yesterday’s announcement was mostly symbolic and that he wants to see action, saying “I don’t think it can just be assumed the appointment of Mr Briggs heralds a new dawning for cities that goes beyond rhetoric”. He adds that Mr Briggs “is neither personally influential – he’ll have to rely on Greg Hunt’s efforts in Cabinet – nor pushing policies that most in his party think are critical issues. Mr Briggs administrative support will come from the Department of Environment; in terms of the Commonwealth’s influence on urban policy that’s a much less relevant portfolio than Infrastructure”.

This is a big turnaround from the previous Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, who refused to fund urban commuter rail and abolished the Major Cities Unit. Mr Abbott argued that the funding of public transport was not in the government’s knitting, preferring to leave this to the states. He promoted himself as the infrastructure Prime Minister, committing billions of dollars to transport infrastructure so long as that infrastructure was roads or freight rail. This was consistent with the views on transport outlined in his 2009 book Battlelines.

“…there just aren’t enough people wanting to go from a particular place to a particular destination at a particular time to justify any vehicle larger than a car, and cars need roads.”Tony Abbott, Leader of the Opposition (Battlelines, p. 174)

But this was not a unanimously held view within the Coalition. The Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss, who also holds the title of Minister for Infrastructure, has voiced his willingness to provide funding for rail projects: “The Federal Government is quite happy to fund metro rail projects” (Source: Herald Sun, Regional Rail Link unites state and federal MPs, 14/06/2015). Meanwhile, the Commonwealth Government has been willing to provide funding for urban rail projects as part of its asset recycling program; under this program it has provided funding to the NSW and ACT Governments for the Sydney Metro and Capital Metro projects.

NSW has a number of rail projects currently being planned which lack funding: the CBD and South East Light Rail extension South of Kingsford, light rail around Parramatta beyond the first line currently being planned, and a heavy rail line out to Badgerys Creek from the current South West Rail Link terminus at Leppington. But, these projects are all still in the planning phases and none will be shovel ready for many years. So the real test for the change of policy is likely to come from outside of NSW, with projects like the Melbourne Metro in Victoria and Brisbane’s Cross River Rail in Queensland.

However the most immediate project, which is both ready to go from a planning perspective and could be completed in the next few years, is the extension of the Gold Coast light rail. The Queensland Government is seeking to complete it in time for the 2018 Commonwealth Games, but has been unable to find sufficient funding for it. The initial line was funded jointly by the Commonwealth, Queensland, and Gold Coast Governments. The extension has the support of local MP Stuart Roberts, a member of the LNP and Turnbull supporter, and also the Queensland Government.

Queensland Deputy Premier Jackie Trad has called on Mr Turnbull to commit to funding the extension within a week, otherwise she argues that construction will not be able to commence in time to complete the project before the start of the 2018 Commonwealth Games. If this is the case, then Mr Davies’ question as to whether Mr Turnbull’s move is purely symbolic or not will be answered very soon.

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Comments
  1. Tony Bailey says:

    Before anyone gets too excited they should read what Alan Davies has to say on today’s Crikey.

  2. Alex says:

    I agree with Tony’s comment, but at least we have the end of the total Federal boycott of urban rail funding and the lack of any other meaningful engagement with cities that we had under Abbott. As Bambul pointed out though, an early test of whether this new-found love of cities is genuine will be whether the Feds make a meaningful contribution to the Gold Coast light rail extension.

  3. Todd says:

    I know it is unfashionable to say so on a blog like this, but I did admire the former Prime Minister’s moves to competitive federalism.
    It was not a boycott of urban rail, it was an end to funding State Government responsibilities by the Federal Government and it went further than just commuter-only infrastructure projects. There are a few reasons why this was good.
    Firstly, the idea that a project needs funding by three levels of Government is incredibly silly to me – like GCLR.
    Secondly, reduction in pork barreling.
    Thirdly, encouraging good behaviors of state Governments such as asset recycling and private operations.
    I, and I assume most people here, get a bit of a hard-on when it comes to infrastructure, but you can’t ignore the fact that the best results come when there are as clear areas of responsibilities for the different levels of Government.

  4. JC says:

    Todd. Reasonbable argument – but on that basis you would stop all federal road funding.

    …but back to Malcolm. As the first urban PM in a while, maybe he will actually try to put a stop to the Westconnex madness. (well I can dream)

    Anyone who appreciates the 389 can’t be all bad. But my personal favourite is the 311. When I lived in Kings X, my motto was “If it’s not on the 311, I’m not going”.

  5. Todd says:

    lol you think commuter-rail should be funded by the Federal Government, but not West Connex.

  6. Alex says:

    To quote the AFR: ‘Prime Minister Turnbull said the government should not discriminate between one form of transit over another, and that roads were not better than mass transit.

    ‘”Infrastructure should be assessed objectively and rationally on its merits, there is no place for ideology here at all,” the Prime Minister said. “The critical thing is to ensure that we get the best outcome in our cities.”‘

    I agree with that proposition and indeed that there is a good case for funding commuter rail ahead of a massive boondoggle like WestConnex.

    As for the perceived inefficiencies of all three levels of government funding public transport why us that any different to all three levels (or at least two of them) funding major road projects? It usually comes down to the fact that the Federal Government has the greatest taxing capacity and therefore the greatest level of financial resources. It could just give this money to the states but it often pursues its own policy objectives by using these resources as an incentive to influence state government policies, whether that be to encourage asset recycling or road projects (under Abbott) or indeed to encourage investment by the states in cities and public transport (under Labor and now it seems under Turnbull).

    And in any case why should Australia be any different to other countries in this regard? The US and Canadian federal governments also contribute to urban public transport and road projects. Many central governments elsewhere recognise the value of investing directly in their major cities – why should Australia be any different?

  7. QPP says:

    I take your point Todd, but the problem with Abbott’s policy on funding was the inconsistency with road project funding. Your arguments could (should?) apply equally to road projects in metro areas.

    I don’t have an issue either pro- or anti-Westconnex, but I don’t believe it would be going ahead if not for the federal funding. From a state government point of view, why wouldn’t you do it? $15bn worth of asset for about $2bn spend, with the feds and private funders putting up the rest of the cash, it’s a no-brainer. If that $2bn was the $6b it would be (OK, I know my figures are really rough) without federal support, it’s a different matter

    Federal govt funding interstate road routes (or rail for that matter)? Absolutely. Projects aimed solely at congestion busting in metro areas? Why were they viewed any differently to public transport? The answer can only be ideology, and in which case good riddance

  8. Harriet says:

    Competitive Federalism is a great idea …… if

    1. Federal Governments funds no projects that don’t involve interstate/international commerce. So building an International Port/Airport/ Intercity High Speed Rail/Interstate Motorways yes, building NWRL or WestConnex no.

    2. GST is changed to a state/territory only tax, where states can set rate & keeps all the revenue. Or better we go back to the original constitutional framework where states can levy the taxes of their choices ending the states dependence on the Federal Government able to experiment with their own policies without fear of funding coercion.

    “A single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country” Justice Louis Brandeis New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann

    Personally I think Amalgamated Society of Engineers v Adelaide Steamship Co Ltd should be overturned. Our Constitution was based on both American & English precedents. This case cut off from any American precedents with no explaining why. Well the real reason was because the court was packed with Fishers appointees and he wanted a large Federal Government which both Courts & multiple referendums had rejected. Its our Slaughterhouse Case.

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