08/08/2012 - 10:43

Politics makes toll roads a no go

08/08/2012 - 10:43

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Some in politics may support the introduction of toll roads, but no party is likely to embrace it publicly.

Some in politics may support the introduction of toll roads, but no party is likely to embrace it publicly.

A SUGGESTION by the opposition’s Treasury spokesman, Joe Hockey, that Western Australia should consider the introduction of toll roads as a revenue raiser to fund new infrastructure has attracted a surprising reaction – both for and against.

As reported in this column last week (August 2), Mr Hockey raised the issue at a recent business breakfast in Perth, at which he also poured cold water on Premier Colin Barnett’s campaign to win a better deal over the redistribution of money raised through the Goods and Services Tax. 

Both the state government and opposition were quick to officially knock the toll idea on the head. Promoting new sources of revenue ahead of a state election is akin to the political kiss of death.

However I tested Mr Hockey’s proposal on three Liberals – two were state MPs, but not ministers, and the third was a former senior party official. The results were enlightening to say the least.

The first MP whose reaction I sought said he supported toll roads. His view was based on the user-pays principle. If you want to use the better and more direct route with no intersections, then you should be prepared to pay.

When I raised the fact that motorists have already paid for the construction of the roads through various taxes, the point didn’t even cut the mustard. The answer was that if there are two routes to a particular location and one is far superior to the other, then you pay up.

I raised the issue again in the company of another Liberal MP and a former party official. The MP was strongly opposed to the idea that the Forrest Highway – the extension of the Kwinana Freeway south towards Bunbury – might be the prime candidate for tolls because, as Mr Hockey suggested, if it was in his home state of New South Wales that is what would happen. 

In fact the MP gave the impression he was prepared to go to the barricades on the issue.

The former official took the pro-tolls view – user pays, especially where greater convenience was involved. 

I first paid a toll in 1978 to drive on the Newcastle Expressway, which starts at Hornsby, north of Sydney, and cuts the time for the trip to Newcastle considerably. The alternative was the Pacific Highway, which was a winding and comparatively narrow drive through some very rugged terrain on both sides of the Hawkesbury River. 

Now, of course, toll roads are commonplace in Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane.

Can a valid case that would gain general acceptance be made for introducing charges on new Perth roads? It would be a brave move, given the state’s relatively small population and the low urban density.

Certainly congestion is becoming a growing problem on the Kwinana and Mitchell freeways; but the solution until now has involved providing extra lanes on the freeways and increased investment in public transport, especially suburban railways, which has been very successful.

Naturally, cash-strapped governments look for new revenue sources; and tolls have proved irresistible in other states. It could be tempting for a future WA administration to introduce charges for certain roads – and blame the Commonwealth for being tight fisted in parcelling out the GST money.

For obvious political reasons, however, such a measure would only be likely in the first year after an election. It would be a courageous party that went into an election campaign and levelled with voters that they would get toll roads if it won. Sure, John Howard did it with the GST. That was supposed to be revenue neutral, accompanied by the removal of a list of inefficient state taxes.

My tip is that neither the Liberal nor Labor party will be prepared to take the chance at a WA poll.

Last week I observed that the logical extension of Mr Hockey’s toll road idea would be a proposal to increase gambling revenue courtesy of the general introduction of poker machines in the state’s hotels and clubs. It is a lucrative prospect that other states rely on to boost their coffers, accompanied by the downside associated with increased problem gambling.

Well, Mr Barnett went part of the way on this issue when he announced the Packer plan for a six-star $570 million dollar hotel at Burswood, with 130 extra gaming tables and 500 new gaming machines on the site. He said the development would add $57 million to tourism expenditure annually, with, presumably, a healthy boost to gambling and payroll taxes.

The hotel complex is due to open in 2016, two years ahead of the $1 billion planned football stadium project, also at Burswood. That will accommodate up to 60,000 fans each week for at least 22 weeks of the year. Before and after the games, many will drop in to the casino to try their luck, which would be good for the casino, and the state’s income.

It might just boost overall revenue enough for any enthusiasm for toll roads generated by Mr Hockey to be quietly forgotten, to the relief of most.

That would truly be a win-win-win.

Focus, Mr Swan

WHAT is it with Wayne Swan? When the country is crying out for leadership from the federal government, all it gets is a renewed attack on the mining billionaires Andrew Forrest, Gina Rinehart and Clive Palmer.

The treasurer accuses Mr Palmer of trying to force his way into parliament to overturn the government’s tax policies, especially the new mining tax.

Mr Forrest is under fire for “using his wealth” to fund a High Court challenge to the tax, and Ms Rinehart is at fault for attempting to buy into the struggling Fairfax media empire and “baldly seeking the power to manipulate public opinion”.

The latest assault is all the more extraordinary because, when Prime Minister Julia Gillard was overseas last month, she was talking up the national economy as being the envy of most comparable nations. 

And which state has the best economic record with the highest growth rate and lowest unemployment rate? Western Australia. 

And which state is the recipient of billions of dollars of investment from the three mining moguls? WA.

Mr Swan can’t have it both ways. Does he want the three to pull their money out on the grounds it is tainted? Is it illegal to stand for election, lodge High Court appeals or invest in the media?

According to former Victorian premier Steve Bracks, the key characteristics of successful governments are unity, discipline and focus.

The federal treasurer’s job is to manage the economy. Mr Swan would be much better off sticking to basics, and taking a leaf out of Mr Bracks’ book, especially when it comes to focus.

 

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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