Infrastructure secrecy serves state poorly

21/05/2009 - 00:00

Questions are being raised over the government’s plans for infrastructure.

Infrastructure secrecy serves state poorly

AS the state government goes into bat for the economy by spending big on infrastructure, many are watching the resulting debt and wondering whether it's worth it.

I don't mean that they condemn spending on capital works or are completely opposed to debt, but there is growing disquiet that there may not be any method to this largesse, which will contribute to pushing debt to at least $19 billion in just a few years' time.

At a post-budget breakfast hosted by the Chamber of Commerce and Industry WA, Treasurer Troy Buswell ran smack bang into that issue during both the formal part of the proceedings and questions from the floor.

CCIWA has been calling on the government to release its strategy for some time in a bid to better understand the state's policy and obtain certainty for business, which relies on being geared up to meet the opportunities that public investment offers.

On the day, Mr Buswell admitted he has received a government developed infrastructure strategy, which was the result of a process started before the Liberals won office.

However, the strategy has not been made public and he doesn't intend to release it just yet.

Mr Buswell says he's not happy with parts of it and wants to change it.

Just why such a document needs to be kept secret beats me. The Liberals have been in power for six months, so it's surprising they didn't take charge of this important document as soon as they took office.

Perhaps releasing the strategy as a working paper would have been helpful. Who is to say all the clever people work in government? Couldn't the government's strategy benefit from industry input? These are people who understand what is needed and what can be done to deliver it?

Instead, we've had some Labor pet projects shelved in favour of Northbridge Link and Oakajee, though the latter two are not even in the budget. I am not knocking those proposals, but we'd all like to see a roadmap so we understand where these landmarks fit into the bigger picture.

Freo lessons

THE Fremantle by-election may not be a surprise result, but scratch the surface and it really is bewildering enough to show there is a real lesson for us all.

While I might concede that Freo is not your average inner-city area and has moved a long way from its working-class roots, there is still something worth examining in the result.

Here is a bunch of people living in pretty close quarters by Australia standards (Fremantle has always been more dense than most suburbs) who are voting Green. Put more simply, many in Freo who have chosen to live in what is obviously an unnatural, man-made environment are now committing their vote to the environmental cause.

Just think about this. It reminded me of a comment on the ABC's Q&A program a few weeks ago when, during a discussion on climate change, an artist on the panel suggested city people were intuitively realising that something was wrong.

I was fascinated by this thought. Gut feeling is guiding urban dwellers, like some sort of long-repressed instinct. Those most removed from the land intuitively understand what is wrong. How? By watching television? Losing touch is a dangerous thing, whether you are a political leader or an ordinary citizen.

The Fremantle by-election shows how clear-cut this has become. Greenies are no longer hippies communing with nature. They now live in the city, connected to the forests via the internet cafe.

Multinational sell out

A BRIEF observation on some of the recent corporate activity that has taken place since the global financial crisis took hold.

As a believer in free markets I am generally open to foreign investment, so long as it's transparent.

However, as debates go on about foreign ownership it is worth noting a trend that has occurred since the meltdown started (and in previous ones).

When they encounter significant threats, multinational companies don't act like the rational beasts we think they are. Australia's economy has clearly been one of the most robust in the world yet foreign companies have been pulling the pin on investments here at a rapid-fire rate.

Take for instance HBOS selling off its valuable BankWest franchise in a fire sale. After years of investment, it cut and ran from Australia quicker than you could imagine. Why? Because it's British core was in trouble.

Watch General Motors question the value of Holden as another example. In the past it's been the investment banks, management consultants and stockbrokers that have withdrawn en masse when the going gets tough

Why? Because multinationals aren't the global enterprises we pretend they are. They generally have headquarters, management, boards and key investors based in one region. And that means they have more emotional attachment to assets in that region, even if it is just through political blackmail.

These companies I mention are not government owned yet they act in a way economists might consider irrational by, at times, quitting profitable outlying businesses to save an ailing regional core.

$300m Pilbara pledge

IT would be a bit rich of me to claim to be driving change but I was pleased to see a pre-budget announcement of $300 million for the Pilbara to fix up their communities.

My pleasure was not necessarily in the amount - let's hope it all gets spent sensibly - but in the fact that it happened just a week after I pointed out what poor shape the north-west's communities are in.

A recent visit reminded me why people were given tax deductions in the past to work up there.

The social infrastructure is thin on the ground and the place feels temporary. Maybe throwing more money at it will improve things. Let's hope so.


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