Two years ago, I encouraged quarry industry members before the 2013 federal election to question their local MPs about their vision for infrastructure investment. Indeed, as financial guru Robert Gottliebsen predicted at the time, there was a possibility that infrastructure investment would be needed like never before to relieve unemployment as the mining boom wound down.
This prediction ought to have been exciting for the quarry industry, which has often lost its brightest talent to mining. It’s been hoped that workers who moved from quarries to mines would eventually return, armed with enhanced knowledge and skills. However, for that to happen, there must be an infrastructure boom – unlikely when construction activity is at record lows and we have shambolic leadership from federal and state governments.
The Federal Government boasts of up to $125 billion of future infrastructure investment in the pipeline to 2019-20. This includes a “record $50 billion” in the 2014-15 budget that wasn’t new money and whose benefits to the quarry sector may have already passed. Some of the government’s infrastructure announcements have merit (such as $9 billion of grants for local councils to spend on community infrastructure and a $1 billion National Stronger Regions Fund) but the problem is we haven’t seen the activity yet to match the funding.
The Federal Government has also made hay of its national partnership agreement with the states and territories to sell or lease infrastructure assets in return for co-payments from the Commonwealth to invest in other infrastructure. The problem is this initiative is stalled in the Senate and the Federal Government is clashing with some states about how infrastructure funds should be spent. The infamous East-West Link project in Melbourne will create tensions this year between the Federal Government and the new Daniel Andrews-led Labor Government in Victoria, despite the cost-benefit analysis revealing that the East-West Link would have been unsuitable. The Commonwealth is insisting it will only fund the East-West Link or another road or rail project of “national significance”. So again national/state and partisan rivalries are derailing national infrastructure investment and stifling growth in the quarry industry downstream.
The Commonwealth has also been criticised for sidelining Infrastructure Australia (which has made evidence-based recommendations about infrastructure projects) and paying lip service to advice from the Productivity Commission that discourages governments from making lavish spending promises and rushing into projects. Yet, East-West Link was poised to proceed, and Sydney’s WestConnex will progress, despite an independent audit casting similar doubts about
While quarrying in Victoria and NSW would benefit from supplying raw materials for East-West and WestConnex, these projects’ lack of transparency illustrates what slipshod policymakers we have. There must be a new approach and perhaps it’s time the quarry industry had a more active voice.
In our 30th anniversary feature in Quarry last year, industry stalwart Mike Cameron recalled a presentation in the 1990s from then IQA president Iain Stainton that encouraged the quarry industry to not just supply raw materials but generate capital to build infrastructure, ie the industry could partner with governments on the building of roads, rail, airports and other key construction projects. There is no need to believe that time has passed.
In fact, the industry should be more proactive in the next 18 months and advocate meaningful infrastructure projects. One only has to look at the Wellcamp Airport and Business Park precinct that Wagners has built on its own (without any government grant) to show that the quarrying industry can make a significant contribution to infrastructure debate. Let’s not leave it solely up to fickle governments to decide what we should build and continually disappoint us.