Michael Pascoe: Albo does a ‘Joshy’ on infrastructure – and everybody falls for it

PM Anthony Albanese is not increasing infrastructure spending, Michael Pascoe writes.

PM Anthony Albanese is not increasing infrastructure spending, Michael Pascoe writes. Photo: TND

There are a couple of ways of looking at it. Maybe it’s just a matter of compulsory political ritual, like holding babies in election campaigns. Or maybe whichever government you elect, you get politicians.

Whichever, Anthony Albanese on Sunday trotted out the good ol’ “billions of dollars for infrastructure” fairy floss complete with Saturday “drops” for favoured journalists who reliably regurgitated the PR spin.

“Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is set to make infrastructure the centrepiece of Labor’s first budget since coming to power, earmarking funding for $1 billion worth of projects in NSW,” gushed the Sydney Morning Herald.

“Albanese and Infrastructure Minister Catherine King will on Sunday outline the commitments in the October 25 budget, which will ‘[make] up for nearly a decade of waste and missed opportunities’.”

This is tosh. There is no boost in funding for transport infrastructure. The Commonwealth is merely continuing to do what it has been doing – subsidising a fairly small portion of what the states spend on road and rail and such, the announced money being spread over several years.

Game playing

And nobody could know that better than Mr Albanese.

In a previous life from 2007 to 2013, he was arguably the best infrastructure minister the Commonwealth has had, establishing Infrastructure Australia to prioritise what was actually needed, rather than what politicians and their favoured sponsors liked.

In real terms, the Commonwealth transport infrastructure spend hasn’t grown since those days.

Former treasurer Josh Frydenberg.

It must have galled Mr Albanese on the Opposition benches to watch treasurers Hockey, Morrison and Frydenberg indulge in Mickey Mouse “record commitments” over multiple years to hide the reality of reducing infrastructure investment, claiming the opposite.

They got away with it just about everywhere except here and then rubbed salt into the wound by spending millions advertising their fibs.

Mr Albanese is only human, giving in to the temptation to think it was now his turn to play the game. Hold a baby, drink a beer in a pub, announce infrastructure projects, making up for “a decade of missed opportunities”.

And his spinners, well, spinners gotta spin. It has always been in their manual – and anything worth announcing is worth announcing again and again.

Sunday even had a touch of the Bolivia Hill upgrade about it. In his second 2020 budget, Josh Frydenberg singled out the Bolivia Hill upgrade (in Barnaby Joyce’s electorate) as a prime example of what his budget would do for infrastructure.

A quick Google would have found photographs of Mr Joyce with shovel and heavy machinery working away on the Bolivia upgrade in 2018.

Barnaby Joyce visiting the Bolivia Hill project in July 2018. Photo:

A slightly longer Google would find a photo from the Gillard government years of Tony Windsor and Anthony Albanese announcing the first federal money for the upgrade.

This week it’s “a further $50 million will go to beginning the Castlereagh Connection” – a connection the NSW government has been working on for years. (The corridor was actually reserved in 1951.)

The other thing about making big transport infrastructure announcements is that the road and rail construction industries are already operating at full speed.

Time to reset standards

This sort of spending – and a bit more – is required to maintain the industry when present programs dip in a couple of years. Right now, if this was extra spending (it’s not really), it would be unhelpfully inflationary.

What’s to be hoped and expected – no, demanded – is that this will be the start of returning Commonwealth infrastructure investment to at least the standards set when Mr Albanese was the responsible minister, with projects requiring solid business cases instead of political bandwagons i.e. the National Party’s inland rail boondoggle.

But there are worries. Just as some folk fall in love with trams, whatever their economics and efficiencies, the high-speed rail cult has plenty of adherents with Albanese, A. allegedly a member.

Federal Labor frontbencher Anthony Albanese

Anthony Albanese asked Parliament in 2013 to push ahead with plans for a high-speed rail network.

There might be a good case for high-speed rail between Sydney and Newcastle. There’s not between our capital cities, yet Sunday’s announcement included half a billion for the High Speed Rail Authority.

And the $9.6 billion the federal government added up for Sunday’s announcement included a fat $2.5 billion for the Northern Territory with most of that to go towards “the Middle Arm Sustainable Development Precinct, providing a pathway to a decarbonised economy by helping emerging clean energy industries”.

Well, maybe – or maybe that’s hogwash, a massive con job, with the project really an even bigger subsidy for the Beetaloo Basin fracking mob.

Michael West Media hasn’t been swallowing the press releases.

“We had playfully dubbed it the Port of Barnaby before the Election, deriding the notion of an un-costed, toxic petrochemical development just 3k from the Darwin suburb of Palmerston as peak fossil fuel baloney, another Morrison regime shoot-from-the-hip campaign promise,” Mr West wrote on Tuesday.

“Yet the new federal government, which has done well so far in so many ways, has managed to out-Barnaby the man himself. Gas is this government’s greatest weakness.”

Yes, Big Gas works both sides of the aisle.

Top End mystery

Mr West reported Environment Centre NT co-director Kirsty Howey as saying: “There’s nothing sustainable about the Middle Arm Project. It’s about toxic petrochemicals and plastics production in Darwin Harbour using fracked gas from the Beetaloo Basin.

“The minister’s commitment of funding for the Middle Arm Industrial Precinct is simply shovelling huge amounts of taxpayer funds to the fossil fuel industry.”

But there’s something about the Top End that lures funny government money. Going troppo is a real thing.

A sharp-eyed accountant contact has been looking into a spin-off from the Coalition’s dubious Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility – the Northern Australia Development Program (NADP). Like many a Coalition grants scheme, NADP seems to have been splashing government money on businesses that might reasonably be thought capable of fending for themselves.

A tiny sampling:

  • The Gough Family Trust, trading as Gough Plastics in Brisbane, was gifted $4.9 million to expand their business to Townsville. That’s nice for them.
  • Heli-Muster was given $590,000 towards buying another plane – adding to its fleet of 20 helicopters and three fixed-wings.
  • There was $2.2 million for Mobile Crushing Co Pty Ltd (Mackay Sand & Gravel Sales) to expand its operation – just one of many quarry operators in the region, but this one is funded by you.
  • Austral Fisheries, “one of Australia’s largest integrated commercial fishing companies”, would no doubt like to thank you for your donation of $10.5 million to expand their Darwin operation and buy five new fishing vessels.
  • And let’s not miss a little one, Jean-Pierre Patisserie got $22,000 to scale up its Townsville bakery. The day after the grant was announced, Scott Morrison was having a photo op there cos-playing with macarons.

There are many more, many millions of dollars’ worth in the NADP, part of the many billions of dollars of grants corruptly and/or dubiously fiddled by the previous government, dismissed on the ABC’s Insiders this week as being irrelevant in the broader scheme of things.

A few billion here, a few billion there – it’s much bigger than the odd swimming pool.

No, the unprecedented grant rorting isn’t as big an ongoing challenge as the NDIS funding. Unlike the NDIS, it can be quickly stopped.

But as important as the money is that integrity thing again. We’re over our money being played with for political kicks.

So let’s stop games like the “infrastructure cash splash” ritual and be straight forward about being a responsible government dealing with the priorities that arise.

Clarification and correction: Apologies to macaron lovers everywhere – I was so taken with the Morrison macaron malarky in the time of Macron that I missed the much bigger grant for the Townsville bakery. As well as the earlier $22,000 gift, it scored $1,736,350 from taxpayers just before Mr Morrison turned up for a photograph. 
And the NADP is not part of the NAIF, however naf some of their generosity with your money might appear. The NADP was direct National Party pork from the Minister for Northern Australia via DITRDC and DISER (Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications  and Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources).  In quick succession, the Morrison Government had Nationals Matt Canavan, then Keith Pitt and finally David Littleproud as Minister for Northern Australia. (And maybe Scott Morrison as well – who knows?)  
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