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Bernard Keane

Labor has made a good start on infrastructure, but it has more work to do

Labor has made a good start in purging the rancid influence of Barnaby Joyce from the infrastructure portfolio, but there’s a long way to go to detoxify it.

Back in July, Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government Catherine King appointed long-serving former department secretary Mike Mrdak and NBN director Nicole Lockwood to review Infrastructure Australia (IA), a creation of Anthony Albanese in the Rudd years intended to provide independent advice about funding.

Under the Coalition, IA was routinely ignored, and then demeaned in one of the most egregious examples of board-stacking and jobs for mates in a government renowned for it. Last November, Joyce appointed Colin Murray, a self-described Joyce supporter, to chair it and appointed former LNP vice-president Amanda Cooper, failed LNP candidate Elizabeth Schmidt and former Liberal office holder Vicki Meyer to the board.

All have now left; Murray told a regional newspaper this week that he’d jumped rather than be pushed.

In a statement remarkable even by Joyce’s cretinous standards, he complained this week that Labor had made a “farce” of the independence of IA.

Purging the body of Joyce’s malignant influence is only the start: King has flagged to handpicked journalists an intention to reprofile infrastructure spending to smooth out ups and downs in coming years, partly to reduce pressure on the construction sector, which is experiencing supply-side constraints and labour shortages, and partly to offset serious drop-offs in infrastructure spending.

In recent years the Reserve Bank has called repeatedly for a smoother “pipeline” of major infrastructure spending to reduce economic volatility.

The real problem of IA, however, is that it is only an advisory body, and can be ignored by governments — as the Coalition repeatedly demonstrated over nine long years with billions of dollars spent on rorted programs and National Party pork-barrelling, usually in the infrastructure portfolio, with minimal resistance from bureaucrats.

The logical next step is to give IA direct control of a substantial proportion of the Commonwealth’s infrastructure budget — say $7-$8 billion a year — with the brief to, in coordination with state and local governments, spend it only on projects that maximise return for taxpayers. Such a body, closer to a Reserve Bank of infrastructure, would need a bipartisan board appointments process to prevent future National Party ministers from corrupting it.

King’s purge of the board of IA has so far not been matched by the required purging of the Australian Rail Track Corporation, another victim of National Party soiling.

Former Nationals leader Warren Truss continues to head the board of the ARTC. Joyce quietly appointed Angus Taylor fundraiser Ryan Arrold to the board on March 30 this year, as well as former NSW National minister Katrina Hodgkinson on the same day, and veteran fossil fuel industry lawyer Keira Brennan.

Brennan’s appointment is noteworthy. The $20 billion inland rail project, which is the biggest (and most wrongly accounted-for) item on the ARTC’s books, is primarily intended to be a subsidy for coalminers, meaning Brennan’s skillset and experience in advising coal companies like AngloAmerican, Glencore and QCoal is ideal.

King has only announced a review of inland rail, rather than killing it altogether — or ordering ARTC not to use it to provide a taxpayer-funded subsidy to coalminers who are enjoying massive war profits.

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