Looking backwards, progressing forwards
14 January 2009
I was nursing a cider down at the Brushtail Café wondering what 2009 would bring when Joadja suddenly grabbed the baseball bat she keeps behind the bar and strode towards the door. A young man in a spiffy suit scuttled off into the lane.
“Who was that?” I asked.
“One of those creepy ‘analysts’ who used to work for the Macquarie Bank. I can pick them a mile off. They’re always coming in looking for work or trying to flog their iPhone or their yacht. Before Christmas I caught one trying to scalp tickets to an exclusive Labor Party fundraiser. The patrons are sick of the bastards”, she said.
Who could blame them. The only good thing I could say about the Millionaire’s factory is that over the years I’ve made a few bob investigating them. Call it schadenfreude, but I’ve got no little fun out of watching their fortunes decline as fast as the political culture they fostered.
The rot set in with the so-called ‘public-private partnerships’ and the ‘build, own, operate, transfer’ schemes that began in the Greiner years and came to dominate the state’s politics from Carr onwards. Never underestimate the extent to which these schemes corrupted politics and planning and skewed infrastructure development towards the convenience of the merchant banks and the construction industry.
The Big Dogs developed a taste for gold-plated stand-alone projects. These things effectively maximised their profits. The projects were huge, so the profits were huge. They actually employed few workers and, because they ran for years they utilised equipment to maximum efficiency and profitability.
At first, the BOOTs and PPPs were simply a newfangled way of financing long-planned motorways. But as the builders and bankers became hooked on big projects and big floats, they began purchasing access to powerful politicians with unprecedented ‘donations’ to the major parties. They didn’t really need to buy the Liberal Party but Labor was a real sucker for it. The more the ALP tried to cut itself loose from the trade unions and ordinary working class folk, the more they needed the developer dollar.
The whole process reached its nadir in a new phenomena: the post-politics sinecure for the helpful politician or bureaucrat. Soon, a whole generation of cabinet ministers, department heads and even fixers lower down the food-chain were making far-reaching decisions with one eye on a sinecure.
In the RTA, they specialised in inflated traffic forecasts. Fibbing for the freeway became a habit. The RTA engineers got the road and, sometimes, nice jobs with the private operator after it opened. The merchant bank got fat fees for setting up the deal. The politicians got a photo-opportunity.
Many of the traffic forecasts weren’t just exaggerated, they were actually above the maximum possible throughput capacity. Rational planning went out the window.
Of course, savvy private investors knew that infrastructure only makes the constructors money, not the operators, so they arranged with their political mates to get their snouts in the public trough one way or another – anti-public transport clauses in tollroad contracts, or top-up provisions like the one that’s going to see the public pay out over a billion dollars for low traffic volumes in the Harbour Tunnel.
But now the party’s over. A prolonged recession, possibly a full-blown depression, is upon us. Funds for mega projects are drying up. To make matters worse, oil supplies are in inexorable decline. What we need, in the new environment, is a modest, reliable, long-term program of investment in public transport infrastructure. The most important element here is light rail because it’s terrific value – high capacity, low cost.
An investment of, say, $400m a year is going to get us somewhere between 20 and 40 kilometres of light rail every year (depending on where you put it), plus the vehicles to operate it. That’s something the state can afford and, year, by year, the kilometres are really going to add up.
So how do we progress this, going forwards (as the MacBankers would say)? Firstly, we do the easy bit. We get the light rail extended down the old freight line from Lilyfield to Dulwich Hill. That makes it an important part of the Sydney system rather than just a boutique line that ends nowhere.
“Easy?” you ask. Technically, yes, but it’s taken a lot of argy-bargy by the community to get any movement from the politicians. Remember, their advisors in the Ministry of Transport are pathologically anti light rail and these bus-fetishists haven’t yet been shown the door. When they are, we need a Light Rail Authority – a modest-sized team of planners and engineers to keep the work moving ahead steadily.
Here’s a vision of how it would work: first year, the tram goes down Pitt Street from Central as far as the Mall. Plus, in the other direction, to Green Square. Second year, the Pitt Street line reaches Circular Quay and they make a start on a line to the Eastern Suburbs by getting it as far as Paddington. And so on … a rolling program where you see the benefits quickly. Then after a couple of years we start putting in a route from Parramatta to The Hills. The buses the light rail replace get retasked to the outer suburbs. With this program, there’d be a steady demand for light rail vehicles and we could sustain local production and reliable long-term jobs.
Sometimes the simplest, most obvious things are the hardest to get done.