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Restoring infrastructure – to its rightful place at the top of the table

The politics of 14 September, 2015 are etched in history. The day began favourably with a major infrastructure announcement in Adelaide, and ended that night in Canberra with an unlikely casualty: a “damaged” Italian marble coffee table in the Prime Ministerial office suite!

In between, Australia had another leadership spill. Out: Tony Abbott, after just two years as PM. In: former Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

The “Abbott years” will be viewed by the business sector in general, and the construction materials industry especially, as a wasted opportunity. When the Coalition Government came to office in September 2013, it committed to spending more than $20 billion on new or upgraded infrastructure projects. In the May 2014 budget, the government boasted of $125 billion of future infrastructure investment in the pipeline to 2019-20. Today, we’re still waiting for the activity to match the funding – two- thirds of the way through the electoral cycle.

The government also spruiked an 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. Of course, the government’s mindset under Abbott was to only fund road and freight rail infrastructure, putting it at odds with Victoria and Queensland that were committed to urban rail infrastructure projects.

It was ironic that Abbott’s last official act as PM was to announce Adelaide’s Northern Connector project, which would see the injection of almost a billion dollars by the Federal and South Australian governments into SA infrastructure. This should have been a milestone moment for the man who once dubbed himself the “Infrastructure PM”, and also a major “win” for SA, which is showing some signs of recovery after taking a number of hits in recent years. Instead, the focus of the attending media was on Abbott’s dying leadership.

Hopefully the ascension of Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister restores infrastructure to the top of the national agenda and creates more opportunities in the construction materials industry. Turnbull has said that there is “no place for ideology” by discriminating between road and transport infrastructure and each “should be assessed objectively … on its own merits”. He marked this shift in direction by committing $95 million in federal money to the second stage of the Gold Coast light rail project.

Turnbull’s comments on the importance of liveable cities as economic assets and his appointment
of Jamie Briggs, the former assistant minister for infrastructure, as Australia’s first Minister for Cities and the Built Environment, has been welcomed by industry groups, including Cement Concrete Aggregates Australia. CCAA CEO Ken Slattery told Quarry that advising Briggs of the pivotal role of the quarrying and extractive industry in supporting the development of Australia’s cities is high on the CCAA’s agenda.

It’s encouraging that there are even hints of a bipartisan approach to the nation’s infrastructure challenges. The Labor Opposition’s proposal last month to enable Infrastructure Australia to facilitate finance for private sector investment is welcome. Both PM Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten agree that the traditional Commonwealth grant funding model no longer holds and the nation should consider innovative mechanisms to lift capital investment on infrastructure. Whether the government and opposition are united on infrastructure remains to be seen. The Federal Government will also need to make peace with its state counterparts, particularly in Victoria.

As for that infamous table … the Honourable Member of Parliament Tony Abbott will kindly reimburse the taxpayer for its replacement but the bureaucrats could show some faith in the Australian quarry industry and not source the replacement marble from overseas. I think most taxpayers would prefer the marble was produced here – especially if it was to symbolically kickstart the “infrastructure boom” that this nation has been craving.

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