Thursday, June 13, 2024

Secretary outlines how to best build the nation, says new infrastructure policy statement coming

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Jim Betts has told an audience in Canberra that approaching infrastructure goals with a view to the commonwealth being an infrastructure co-investor with the other tiers of government is a better way to meet national priorities.

“The key question that I’m asking is how the Commonwealth can set itself up to be an informed and influential investor,” Betts said.

“Part of the way that it can do that is to be more strategically transparent than perhaps it has been in the past.”

The top mandarin at the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, Communications and the Arts made his remarks at a CEDA ‘state of the nation address’ earlier this week.

Reflecting on the first year of the new Labor government, Betts said the bureaucracy’s main focus was to translate election commitments into Budget priorities, and lifting the integrity of legacy grants programs.

Over the next two years, the secretary flagged his desire for the department to build more transparent strategic frameworks for all industry and government partners to understand how best to operate in the infrastructure ecosystem.

“That would go to the reconstitution of Infrastructure Australia — which has gone through the parliament — as a source of independent and public advice to the government; and the decarbonisation roadmaps for the transport sector,” Betts said.

“For the infrastructure construction sector, we are developing and will publish an infrastructure policy statement, which will articulate what the Commonwealth government is seeking to achieve.”

The infrastructure policy statement is set to include unlocking housing supply, trade network resilience and supply chains, and land transport network efficiency.

Betts also underscored the need for a culture of respect between the federal, state and territory and local governments. Strategy documents, evidence and long-term planning was the best way to manage expectations and align priorities, he said, flagging the importance of strong assessment tools played in setting projects up for success.

In a separate panel conversation at the CEDA event, Australian Unity’s Esther Kerr said expanding thinking beyond a “strategy and pipeline” perspective was essential. She cautioned public servants to avoid treating social infrastructure as the “poor cousin” of other streams such as transport, energy and utilities.

“I worry when [the secretary] talks about rationalising the long list of ‘rats and mice’ [infrastructure priorities] that because the capital into, inevitably, smaller discrete social infrastructure projects will look like they are smaller projects with smaller impact, they might get lost because they are not ‘nation-building’ enough,” Kerr said.

The wealth and capital markets CEO said it was important to always remember that infrastructure was the means to an end: for someone to get to work, return home, stay warm, have their children looked after, and receive healthcare.

“We shouldn’t be building any infrastructure unless we’re really clear on what it’s for and how it’s going to make Australian’s lives better,” she said.

Steve Brogan, Infrastructure Australia’s acting policy and research chief, said CEDA’s newly released report on dynamic capabilities could be instructive for how partners innovated in this space. The report examined how to deal with Australia’s productivity problems.

“The act of innovating — simply making changes that add value — is a real opportunity for federal and state governments, they way they work together, and within industry as well,” Brogan said.


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