EDITORIAL: $20b blank cheque must be spent wisely on transport

By: Jason Whittaker


A $20 billion investment in Australia’s transport future, or an almost bottomless slush fund for cynical vote-buying? It would be naïve

A $20 billion investment in Australia’s transport future, or an almost bottomless slush fund for cynical vote-buying?

It would be naïve to think Labor’s Building Australia Fund, announced by Treasurer Wayne Swan in handing down the federal Budget on Tuesday, is not just a little of the latter. But industry has welcomed the massive pledge in the hope of a genuine long-term commitment to improving transport infrastructure links.

The centrepiece of a Budget that was supposed to make deep cuts in government spending saw Swan pledge $20 billion to finance road, rail and port projects as well as communication infrastructure into the future. While almost $5 billion of that has been promised for upgrades to broadband networks, it should leave up to $15 billion for transport projects.

It’s a mountain of cash that will make a real dent in upgrading key transport infrastructure corridors and facilities. The investment is welcome and due.

But the only real commitments Swan made in the Budget, a total of $3.2 billion, will fund Labor’s election promises, laudably bringing forward a number of key road projects which weren’t due to start until the end of next year.

The $20 billion cheque is blank. Swan says the money will be spent when the economic conditions are right, when the right projects are identified. Probably and conveniently in 2010, as the timetable stands, when Labor is due to go back to the polls.

Infrastructure Australia, Labor’s new arms-length body to find and fund key projects, will be tasked with brokering the fund. As it prepares to map the needs of Australia’s transport operators, the billion-dollar deposit is, quite literally, money in the bank to make projects happen.

But where AusLink became a slush fund to buy marginal electorates under the Coalition, Labor’s nation-building bonus, only possible as the economy makes the most of a mining boom that won’t last forever, must not be allowed to be squandered.

Swan must spend his windfall wisely. And the transport industry, through its input to Infrastructure Australia, must make sure he does, highlighting the links most important to a growing freight task.

Only the actual spending plan will decide whether Swan’s first Budget is transport-friendly.

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