Wed, 12 Jan 2022 - 07:49
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Albanese promises have never remained on track

You know it’s the media silly season when Anthony Albanese is once again trotting out a plan for high-speed rail up and down the east coast of Australia.

This cynical announcement speaks volumes about Albanese’s approach to politics.

If you want to talk about high-speed rail from Melbourne to Brisbane, then be honest with the Australian people about how much it is going to cost.

On any credible estimate, east coast high-speed rail would cost between $200bn and $300bn. Yet Albanese’s big announcement – dropped to the papers for the first Sunday of the new year – was that, if elected, Labor would commit $500m towards this project in its first term. It’s a bit like somebody saying, “I am going to buy myself a house in Sydney (median price $1.5m) and I am setting aside $3750 for that purpose”.

One possibility is that Albanese fully intends to spend several hundred billion dollars, but just will not admit it before an election. In that case, Australians should certainly be worried, because that huge a spend will have to be paid for, which means higher taxes.

According to the Grattan Institute, east coast high-speed rail would cost every taxpayer $10,000 in higher taxes. You might live in Adelaide, Cairns, Darwin, Hobart or Perth and never use it – but you would still pay for it.

The other possibility is just as troubling: Albanese knows it will never be delivered, he just loves to talk about it. Albanese was infrastructure minister from 2007 to 2013. If he was serious about delivering high-speed rail he had plenty of time to get work under way.

All he actually delivered was a study, which reported in 2013. That study did not exactly give the project a glowing bill of health. Indeed, in a 2013 speech, presumably drawing on the study, Albanese sounded distinctly negative about high-speed rail: “The reality … has a wide corridor, major tunnelling, significant noise impacts and that’s before we consider the significant economic costs.”

His study also said operations would not commence on the Newcastle-Sydney part of the line until 2040. Almost 10 years later, that now means 2050. Funnily enough, Albanese failed to explain that point when he made his $500m announcement in Newcastle.

For a politician who prefers to talk rather than do, high-speed rail is perfect. But Albanese takes the same approach to other big projects. He got into parliament in 1996; in his very first speech he called for the provision of “Sydney West Airport”.

So presumably when he was infrastructure minister, delivering the new airport at Badgerys Creek would have been right at the top of his to-do list? Well no, actually. Albanese spent six years making excuses. There was a green paper, a white paper, a joint study with the NSW government, talk of Wilton, of Richmond and a raft of other potential locations – but no actual progress on delivering an airport.

It took our Liberal-National government, in 2014, to make the decision to build Western Sydney International (Nancy Bird Walton) Airport at the Badgerys Creek site. We committed $5.3bn in funding and we got on with the job. The airport is on schedule to open for service by the end of 2026.

It’s the same story with the NBN: lots of talk from Labor and very little delivered. When Labor left office in 2013 – and Albanese was the minister responsible for the NBN – there were barely more than 50,000 premises connected to the fixed line network. Thankfully, our government turned around the trainwreck of a project we inherited. Today there are 8.3 million premises connected.

If you want a prime minister who talks about infrastructure a lot, Albanese is your man.

If you want projects that get delivered, best to stick with the Morrison government.

This article first appeared in The Australian on 12 January 2022