Australians are all too familiar with the election time frenzy of vote-buying. Pork barrelling costs Australia dear in monetary terms, but it’s also wrecking our future infrastructure.
We need to get much, much better at making decisions on infrastructure spending.
A recent analysis of grants awarded via the Australian Infrastructure grants fund and the Community Development fund shows hugely disproportionate spends in politically expedient areas.
Marginal seats did best, receiving 3.5 times more funding than safe seats. Both Labor and the Coalition have extensive form for handing out more money in seats that vote their way. Unsurprisingly, those seats held by independents whose votes were needed in Parliament have also done well in recent years.
This is no way to make billion dollar decisions. It creates areas of unmet need and inefficiencies, with short term PR more important than the big picture. It saddles us with expensive white elephants – anyone for an underused sports stadium? Worse still, it fails to let us use the available resources to work methodically towards a vision of a better future for all of us.
It’s obvious how pork barrelling skews decisions about where to put that train line extension or whether to finally start on that new hospital. But even without pork barrelling, how good are Australia’s infrastructure spending decisions?
The everyday amenity and liveability of our cities is in many cases underpinned by the strengths or weaknesses of past infrastructure decisions. We’re all familiar with stories of new housing in the outer suburbs built without a shop or a school within cooee, while tens of millions are blown on an expensive new program of ‘sport promotion’ in a wealthy area.
Infrastructure projects are traditionally assessed in ways that don’t fully evaluate all costs, or leverage all benefits and opportunities. The Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council’s report Bang for Buck – Delivering better business cases to realise more value from our infrastructure investments conducts an in-depth review of the methodologies and approaches to business case development across government. The results? There are several practical, common sense ways to deliver better outcomes from every dollar we spend on infrastructure.
The first thing we need is to start making sure our politicians are singing from the same hymn sheet. A bipartisan vision needs to be created, reaching across all levels of government. At the same time, a national plan for infrastructure, overseen by an independent body, would be able to see past local issues and political scuffles, ensuring that big picture thinking matches the big spending required to have the best infrastructure.
The way we make infrastructure spending decisions could also be improved. Right now, there are a bewildering array of tools and assessments in use, with different arms of government focused on different issues. A finance department might see everything in terms of the bottom line, while a suburban council might be obsessed with parking. If we could get better at understanding the method (and the madness) of business case development, we’d be in a much better position to evaluate the impact of potential infrastructure spends and make the best use of the money available.
Most crucially of all, we must engage the public. It’s no good telling people what’s good for them – we need them to understand and advocate for new projects. When that new train line is built, everyone benefits. When that expensive white elephant is used to grab votes at the expense of more urgent priorities, everyone suffers.
If we can override the Aussie tendency to pork barrel like mad at election time, we can make better decisions about how to spend our infrastructure billions. And if we can do that, we can ensure better quality of life for all of us, now and in the future.