Election Perspective: Engineers Australia’s Stephen Durkin

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Wednesday, August 21st, 2013
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For Stephen Durkin, CEO of Engineers Australia, infrastructure should be at the top of the agenda after the September 7 election, with long-term infrastructure planning system essential to the future of engineering.

“Australia needs a long-term infrastructure planning system to underpin Australia’s social and economic development,” Durkin says, adding that infrastructure funding tends to come in boom-bust cycles, which has a direct impact on engineering jobs.

“As infrastructure construction retracts, engineering professionals seek job security in other working environments, excluding their years of training and technical experience from Australia’s overall engineering capacity.  Without continued experience and knowledge of contemporary best practice, many professional engineers do not return to engineering roles.”

Filling this gap with migrant engineers, Durkin says, barely meets demand in the boom phase and can only be a short-term, stop gap solution.

“Retaining a highly skilled engineering workforce by flattening out the investment cycle is critical for successfully delivering infrastructure for the future of Australia,” he says. “As a large consumer of engineering services through its investment in infrastructure, government is best-placed to ameliorate the cyclic nature of infrastructure spending with a long-term pipeline of confirmed projects.”

Tony Abbot, Leader of the Opposition, has stated that he wants “to be an infrastructure prime minister” and that vital infrastructure projects such as $6.7 billion to fix Queensland’s Bruce Highway, $1.5 billion to get the East-West Link under construction in Melbourne, and $1.5 billion to ensure the WestConnex project gets underway in Sydney will begin within 12 months of an election.

Abbott said the Coalition will ensure commitments to build the roads and infrastructure of the 21st century result in real action on the ground by producing an annual statement on infrastructure delivery.  The statement, he says, will set out the construction status of major infrastructure projects, the amount of Commonwealth money spent on major projects over the preceding 12 months, and whether milestones have been met

While Engineers Australia believes an increased focus on Australia’s infrastructure is necessary, the organisation also says this commitment will largely mirror what the existing National Infrastructure Construction Schedule (NICS) already provides.

“The critical difference is a promise to report on the amount of Commonwealth funds spent on major projects, a piece of information that is currently almost impossible to ascertain,” Durkin says.

“Infrastructure underpins a successful economy, enables innovation and encourages business investment.  We need to avoid acute demand spikes across specific locations and engineering specialisations, and provide more certainty to those employed in the delivery of major infrastructure projects.”

Durkin says his organisation would like to see the information promised by Abbott made publicly available at all times for the sake of transparency.

Although the government has overseen positive progress, including the NICS roll-out, Engineers Australia believes there is a dearth of transparent infrastructure information available under the current policy settings.

“The status of Australia’s major infrastructure projects and how much is being spent on them must become more transparent under whichever party forms government after the election,” insists Durkin.

Beyond infrastructure, Durkin is keen to stress again the ‘Scrap the Cap’ battle that Engineers Australia has been fighting.

“The proposed cap of $2,000 on self-education tax deductions, the implementation of which has been deferred to 2015, should not just be re-considered but removed,” he argues.

Engineers have an ethical responsibility to maintain the highest standards of professional development and education. Existing self-education expense deductions are used by engineers to increase their professional expertise and to keep up-to-date with new discoveries, techniques and ideas. Existing requirements provide an equitable incentive for all Australian workers to invest in growing their expertise.”

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