Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Secretary warns of impact when state governments leave an infrastructure ‘strategic vacuum’

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Jim Betts has witnessed a lot of bad culture when it comes to how federal and state governments have worked together across the infrastructure, transport and planning portfolios but he says policy omissions in the other jurisdictional tiers can cause a special headache for all concerned.

The secretary of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, Communications and the Arts told an audience in Canberra on Tuesday that a fruitful relationship between the three tiers of government required both a culture of respect and respectful individuals.

“During my time, I’ve seen the Commonwealth display arrogance and bring a bit of brinkmanship to its relationship with the states and territories,” Betts said.

“I’ve seen the states and territories treat the Commonwealth as little more than an ATM — ‘Just give us the money and bugger off’. I think we can do a lot better than that.

“And, at times, we have done significantly better than that,” he said.

Because the state governments controlled many of the policy levers, Betts warned the absence of long-term frameworks and strategy allowed for so-called “politically expedient or opportunistic” projects to get going.

“It’s legitimate for the Commonwealth to expect the states and territories to have long-term plans, and they should be integrated and respond to things like decarbonisation challenges, and like housing affordability.

“And the states and territories should have strong assessment frameworks so that, out of their strategies, can come projects that are substantiated through business cases, stress-tested with good, consistent, common planning assumptions so that there’s a degree of robustness, predictability at the point where those projects are brought to market for the construction sector to deliver,” he said.

The secretary made his comments in a conversation for a CEDA ‘state of the nation’ session on tackling Australia’s infrastructure challenges.

Having taken on his current role a little over a year ago, the mainstay of Betts’ time in bureaucratic leadership has been with state government. He worked for the Victorian government for 15 years, mostly in the transport portfolio, and later went to work for the NSW government in infrastructure and then planning for eight and a half years.

“Success in every relationship starts with the culture and the respect that each party brings — and that’s across three tiers of government,” Betts said.

“We talk about states, territories and government but local government has an absolutely critical role to play and controls many of the infrastructure assets which are most critical to the performance of the economy,” he added.

In order for a healthy, respectful relationship between the three tiers of government to flourish, Betts said it was critical for the states to have well-developed, strategic long-term plans for their jurisdiction.

This meant thinking beyond ribbon-cutting photo opportunities and considering the social and economic objectives on the horizon for the state.

“When I think about plans that have been done very well in the past, things like the Victorian transport plan in 2008-9 which I was involved in; the long-term transport masterplan in NSW a few years ago — particularly where those plans integrate transport and land use, there’s real value there,” Betts said.

“That creates an evidence-based framework within which the Commonwealth can invest.”

Respect also called on expectations flowing the other way, with the secretary noting he thought the federal government should be transparent about what its investment priorities were.

“We can’t leave the states and territories guessing,” Betts said.

The federal government also had a natural role to play in nationwide focused initiatives such as national supply chains, the transition to electric vehicles (EVs) and eventually connected and automated vehicles, as well as those issues identified by the national cabinet.

“Transport and infrastructure ministers have been told to work together across the tiers of government to bring common frameworks together [on those issues identified in the national cabinet],” he said.

The secretary said another significant cultural shift that was needed to boost respect between how the commonwealth and states operated on infrastructure matters was to accept that, in many cases, the role of the federal government was as a “junior partner”.

This called on federal public servants to sit in rooms with state and territory peers and understand their challenges, go on the journey with them and arrive together at a point where cheques could be written for projects that were genuinely in the strategic interests of the nation.

“[This means] we work with the states and territories, and we work with institutions like Infrastructure Australia — rather than swanning in at the last minute and anointing ourselves as the heroes that are going to save the hour, doing the hard work of confronting some of the challenges.

“[Challenges that are] really difficult, wicked, intractable that face cities like Melbourne and Sydney that are growing by 100,000 people a year — that’s pretty huge on a global scale. For the Commonwealth to arrogantly assume that it will have all the answers is wrong,” Betts said.

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