We are all victims of short term expediency

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Sunday, 12 October 2014 18:30 by 2353

In Australia, politicians are elected for either three or four year terms. The conventional wisdom is that the first year of their term is working out what they want to change — usually masquerading as ‘fixing up the mess’ left to them by their predecessors. The second year (and third where applicable) is when they implement what they consider to be their ‘mandate’ and the last year is when they try to convince a majority of the voting population that they are better than the other side. While there are various claims that they are making plans for the future, usually the plan is do nothing and hope they won’t have to make the unpopular decision at some time in the future when the need for the policy or infrastructure is urgent due to their previous lack of planning.

In contrast, when you go and get a home loan the usual commitment is somewhere between 25 and 30 years — although the property industry tells us that, on average, loans are refinanced or properties traded on another one within ten years.

Politicians of all persuasions claim they plan for the future. The last ALP Government in Queensland developed a plan for the state in 2020 — known as ‘Towards Q2’. According to the publicity booklet:

Our plan has been framed around five ambitions for our entire state, covering our economy, environment and lifestyle, education and skills, health and community.

The rationale for the forward planning included being better prepared for events such as the millennium drought, that threatened the water supply of a number of communities across Queensland in the early and mid 2000’s, and the subsequent flooding in 2011 and 2012. When Campbell Newman’s LNP Government came to power in 2012, it scrapped the ‘Towards Q2’ document but then created their own ‘Queensland Plan’, which is supposed to guide development, infrastructure and policy in the state until 2030. After the cost of co-ordinating ‘focus groups’ across the state — invariably attended by government ministers and senior public servants — internet sites for comments and other methods of consultation, the ‘Queensland Plan’ developed some foundations:

These foundations are: Education, Community, Regions, Economy, Health and wellbeing, Environment, People, Infrastructure and Governance.

The Queensland Government has recently issued a response to the ‘Queensland Plan’ — responding to a proposal it was instrumental in creating! If you can see large differences between the ‘Towards Q2’ ambitions and the ‘Queensland Plan’ foundations, please leave a comment below the line and educate us all!

In New South Wales, building the North West Rail Link to Castle Hill and beyond is underway. This train line, which was first announced in 1998, was originally to be a branch line from the current system at Epping to service a rapidly growing area of Sydney with inadequate road transport. (Even though buses can run express, they are still on the same roads as the private vehicles.) Wikipedia gives a history of the announcements and political games that have been played out to get to where we are now: and as you would expect, the ‘glossy’ website for the project sings the benefits of the scheme for all.

What the website doesn’t tell you is that the tunnels they are building for the North West Rail Link are too small to fit the existing Sydney double deck electric trains! Effectively it will be a separate network, which may one day go through a second Harbour crossing and continue to Blacktown.

If that’s not enough, while ‘Transport for NSW’ operates the existing rail network, Melbourne’s private train operator Metro will operate the north-west service under a contract — so the chances of co-ordination between the two distinct networks are likely to be pretty remote.

But wait, there’s more. The existing Epping to Chatswood train line is to be converted to take the North West Rail Link to Chatswood! So you have Sydney’s newest rail line being changed so the existing trains won’t fit, taking passengers from the north west of the urban area every four minutes in peak hour to a station requiring passengers to change to trains using the existing double decker carriages and then going across the Harbour Bridge on tracks that are already almost at capacity. Does this exercise in stupidity have anything to do with the ALP originally announcing the plan and the Liberal Government starting construction many years later?

The federal government is not exempt from the theory that we are all victims of expediency. Kingsford Smith Airport in Sydney’s east is Australia’s busiest airport. The Australian government sold it off in 2002 to Sydney Airports Corporation Limited (at the time a subsidiary of Macquarie Bank).

It has been recognised since the 1940’s that the demands on the current airport would outgrow the ability to deliver, as the existing airport is land locked. Over the years there have been a number of studies and promises that would deliver a second airport for the Sydney region — somewhere between Newcastle and Canberra. Wikipedia’s page describing the saga is worth a read for details. When the Howard Government sold off Kingsford Smith Airport, it agreed to a clause in the contract that the operator would have right of first refusal to build a second airport in the Sydney basin. Ben Sandiland’s excellent ‘Plane Talking’ blog on transport issues (predominantly aviation) has discussed this issue on a number of occasions — one of them is linked here. Note the spokesman for the Sydney Airport Corporation is the same Max Moore-Wilton who was Prime Minister Howard’s Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

The Abbott government announced on 15 April 2014 that Badgerys Creek would be the site of Sydney’s western airport. The commencement of the negotiation period with Sydney Airport Corporation was announced on 18 August 2014.

Ironically, the same New South Wales government that is crippling the potential of the North West Rail Link to operate in conjunction with the rest of the Sydney Trains system is funding the construction of the South West Rail Link, which does connect to the existing system at Glenfield and will pass very close to the Badgerys Creek site — using the same double deck trains that service Kingsford Smith Airport but apparently are not good enough to service the north west of Sydney.

Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss made the announcements regarding Badgerys Creek Airport. He is the member for Wide Bay, based on Bundaberg in Queensland. He should be aware that Australia’s newest airport is located 15km west of Toowoomba — known as Brisbane West Wellcamp Airport. This privately built four-engine-jet-capable airport is privately funded by the Wagner family (who have a history in quarrying and construction businesses) and commenced construction in 2013. Qantaslink will operate a service (with Dash 8 aircraft) from Wellcamp to Sydney from November 2014. Badgerys Creek in contrast will commence construction in 2016 and not be ‘fully operational’ for a decade. While there will inevitably be greater design requirements for a capital city airport, such as Badgerys Creek, than there would be for what is effectively a regional airport such as Wellcamp, why is there such a difference in the construction times? The airports are built to the same standards.

So, if there is little difference between the ‘Towards Q2’ and ‘Queensland Plan’; if Sydney’s north west looks like having an ineffective train service which will also emasculate the rail system across Sydney; if Sydney’s second airport is still a decade away despite ‘planning’ being undertaken for over half a century (and the locals can build one in Toowoomba in under two years); are we being well served by our politicians’ ability to plan for our future?

Devising a plan or strategy for a significant period into the future is not an exact science. There will be dramatic events that affect every plan; from personal illness to global financial meltdowns. To suggest for a minute that politicians can ‘do planning’ any better than anyone else and therefore should be exempt from the expectation that plans will change is ludicrous. However, above we have three examples of planning by politicians that fail to build on previous work; rather they seem to be deliberately white-anting previous planning processes, all of which had significant time, effort and cost expended on them.

In a world where governments are telling us they have to make hard economic decisions, sack tens of thousands of staff, cut back on ‘non-essential’ services and live within their means, why do we accept that significant plans are thrown out when ‘the other side’ gets into power?

While there is an ideological difference between the ALP and LNP in Queensland, rather than scrap the ‘Towards Q2’ consultation and process (with its significant public and private consultation), wouldn’t it have been a better idea to suggest that the existing planning cycle be extended?

Building new railway tunnels too small to fit existing rolling stock is similar in action and intent to the various states having different rail gauges in the 1800s through to today. Any economic and practical analysis of the experiences caused by the ‘break of gauge’ issues throughout the 19th and 20th centuries would tell a rational observer that, even if there is a real issue with the operation of Sydney’s train fleet due to the double deck design, creating a separate system and converting parts of the current system won’t fix anything in the short or long term.

Both sides of politics have ignored the problem of the western Sydney airport for too long. The Howard government stymied the development by giving the first right of refusal to the purchaser of the existing airport, who clearly is not in favour of building a ‘greenfield’ site over maximising return on the existing site. The ALP government commissioned another study into the location (coincidentally a number of ALP-held federal seats were in western Sydney) and Abbott’s government announced it will take a decade to build — and, by the way, he won’t fund a rail connection, the most efficient method of accessing the western Sydney site from the east.

All of these decisions indicate short term expediency wins every time. Regardless of the colour of the politicians in power at the time, those who participate in the public input sessions (be they ‘town hall’ style meetings or ‘internet surveys’), collate the documents and discuss the pros and cons of various options with the politicians, almost invariably do so with dedication and commitment to making a better Australia.

That the advice is not followed for any better reason than that’s what the other side did is criminal. That’s why we are all victims of short term expediency.

What do you think?