A Successful Infrastructure Australia should spell its demise*

*Opinion piece published Australian Financial Review, 19 February 2016

Infrastructure Australia (IA) is under new management, with a grand plan and reform agenda that at first blush seems sensible enough.

However, there are early signs of an identity crisis in IA as it wrestles with the need for more market efficiency in infrastructure and how it will evolve from its purpose of anointing projects through an administrative selection process that can produce ‘hit or miss’ result.

The end game may necessitate IA to plan for its own redundancy in no more than 15 years as this would be evidence of its success with markets and would come with the gratitude of the nation.

IA’s call for even more funding is to be expected, but Australia can be too trigger-happy when it comes to spending up big on infrastructure. For example, in the past decade more than half a trillion dollars has been invested in infrastructure, double the previous decade.

Despite this, escalating congestion, higher emissions, greater service costs, lower service quality and lost business and investment opportunities persist in both cities and regional Australia.

It appears Australia has a problem translating big spending on asset building into meaningful benefits that lift competitiveness and improve the lives of its people.

Part of the diagnosis is that too much emphasis is on rushing the engineering blue prints for ‘shovel ready projects’ without proper consideration to setting objectives to measure future success. Compounding the situation further is an absence of problem identification the project is seeking to fix.

Governments must choose their infrastructure well, if it is to live up to the rhetoric of boosting productivity and living standards. The trouble is choosing projects is not easy, in fact it’s very difficult.

Australia’s experience suggests that the best way to deal with this is for the Turnbull government to finish the reform agenda started in the 1980s, and then do some more.

Many sectors in infrastructure have been reformed through corporatisation and privatisation. The big successes like airports and telecommunications has transformed these sectors for the better. We have seen excellent investment in facilities and customer service. Brisbane airport currently looks more like Dubai with its massive new runway excavations is a case in point, and other airports are decongesting and debottlenecking to ensure good customer experiences.

But other sectors like roads and public transport remain largely untouched by reform. As a result an undisciplined investment process has seen taxpayer dollars failing to fix poor service levels, and tardiness with introducing capital saving new technologies. In contrast, telecommunications has had a far more stable investment pathway and has been quick to introduce new technology. Customers have been the winner as they have benefited from markets and competition.

A good first step for new infrastructure minister Darren Chester is to step into the customer shoes and be their champion.

Customers want services, not assets. All governments need to adapt by enabling markets to deliver these services where possible.  It is better that infrastructure is provided through businesses to customers, not politicians lobbying voters.

When markets are not possible, then governments must seek to procure service outcomes. This will invite a broader participation in the market, not just those that want to build assets. It should seek to give greater emphasis to using existing infrastructure better, stimulate innovation and reward risk taking.

These issues are the focus of the University of Sydney’s Better Infrastructure Initiative report ‘Re-establishing Australia Global Infrastructure Leadership’ released on Monday.

Necessity is the mother of invention. But it has been difficult for Australians to bring their genius to the fore in resolving our infrastructure challenges when the system is awash with money without clear purpose and procurement processes inflexible to new ideas

Australia has an infrastructure services deficit, but piling more money into it does not seem to be delivering the outcomes required. Minister Chester and IA can change that by first acknowledging services matter more than asset building, and allowing the discipline of markets and customers to guide the spending.

END

 

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