Public servants self-interested, truculent: Deegan

“You would expect that somebody, somewhere, knows all the key pieces of economic infrastructure, what is needed for the future and that all relevant land spaces are monitored, protected and planned,” Mr Deegan said.

“You would expect commonsense and effective planning,” he said.

“You’d be wrong.”

Infrastructure boss lashes out :  24 JAN 2014, Australian Financial Review, Jacob Greber, Photo: Sean Davey

“The nation’s top infrastructure adviser has blasted the Abbott government for threatening the credibility of Infrastructure Australia by eroding its independence and muzzling its advice.

In a scathing attack, Infrastructure Australia head Michael Deegan says changes planned by Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss will enable the government to dictate projects to be spared from the advisory body’s scrutiny.

Mr Deegan also hit out at changes that would give the government the right to intervene in how the body – established by the last Labor government in 2008 – prepares long-term infrastructure plans and block it from considering how climate change may affect needs in sectors such as energy and transport.

The proposed changes, which require legislative approval, would damage chances of winning bipartisan support for nation-building, including the expensive capital city road projects that the Abbott government hopes will cushion the economy from the end of the resources boom, he said.

The changes and were “diametrically opposed” to providing the government and public with fearless and transparent advice.

While Mr Deegan strongly supports the government’s proposal to have the agency prepare national plans twice a decade, he expressed frustration that he was not consulted by the Abbott government on legislative changes to the body, despite them going through more than 20 drafts before being presented to the House of Representatives last year.

In a submission to a Senate committee inquiry into the changes, Mr Deegan suggested they would reinforce public cynicism about politicians’ infrastructure promises and obscure the true scale of the current backlog “or the cost of overcoming that backlog”.

“With rising infrastructure expectations and limited budgets, there is an air of unreality about our infrastructure planning,” the submission says. The critical remarks from Australia’s ­leading independent infrastructure adviser emerged as Mr Abbott uses a visit to Davos, Switzerland, to spruik his credentials before a global audience as an “infrastructure prime minister”.

“It should be easier to get big new road, rail and dam infrastructure off the ground,” Mr Abbott said in his keynote speech to the global conference.

A report by PwC this week showed more than a quarter of leading chief executives, including Telstra’s David Thodey, want the Abbott government to urgently fix flagging infrastructure.

Mr Deegan slammed both major parties for promising big-ticket projects with “only limited regard” for how they would be funded and without preparing “robust business cases”.

He cited Sydney’s WestConnex road and the East West Road link in Melbourne. “This is a particular problem during election periods,” he said.

Mr Deegan’s strongest criticism is directed at Mr Truss’s legislation, the Infrastructure Australia Amendment Bill 2013, which he said broadens the minister’s power to give specific directions to the body on its long-term list of what the nation needs.

“This is a failure that will inevitably compromise the perceived independence of any national infrastructure plan,” he said.

He challenged a provision in the bill that would prohibit the agency from publishing project evaluations or audits without Mr Truss’s approval.

“It is possible that the minister will give a carte blanche direction to Infrastructure Australia to publish all this material. But even if the minister does so, the provision makes any claimed independence or transparency an illusion,” the submission says.

“[This] will completely undermine the credibility of Infrastructure Australia and its value to the nation.”

Infrastructure Australia was created to reduce the politicisation of infrastructure and to direct funding to the most productive projects. It has failed to live up to the expectations of some, and has been excluded from considering projects such as the former government’s national broadband network.

A key weakness in the new government’s bill, according to Mr Deegan, is that it remains silent on what the minister should do with the finished infrastructure plans. This opens up the potential for its work to be shelved, wasting resources and “eroding public confidence and trust in governments’ ­infrastructure planning”.

Mr Deegan argues the bill should require the government to table the infrastructure plans in parliament and subject them to parliamentary approval. To be “taken seriously”, Infrastructure Australia needed to be placed under a department with a broader scope – such as Treasury – rather than its current structure under the ministry of regional development, “whose responsibilities extend over only some of the sectors addressed by” Infrastructure Australia.

A plan to strip the body of its role in giving advice on Abbott government infrastructure funding programs threatened to hobble consultation with state governments, he said.

“This absence of this function reflects unwillingness on the part of Australian government agencies to subject their programmes to Infrastructure Australia’s scrutiny,” he said.

Mr Deegan urged the government to take heed of recommendations of a UK review, published in last September, by the head of London’s 2012 Olympic Delivery Authority, Sir John Armitt, into Britain’s long-term infrastructure planning. It emphasised the need for an independent and transparent national infrastructure commission.

He welcomed the bill’s emphasis on giving the body the job of building “truly national, medium to long-term” plans, but took a swipe at the lack of additional money for the task.

“It is a nice but unfortunate compliment for Infrastructure Australia that the government apparently contemplates that the responsibility for ­preparation of a national infrastructure plan will require no addition to [its] 10-person team,” he says.”

 28 JUN 2013, Australian Financial Review, Fleur Anderson 

Infrastructure Australia’s national infrastructure co-ordinator, Michael Deegan, says groups within the public services are putting “self-interest before reform” and are “stolid, hestitant and reluctant” about implementing changes. 

The commonwealth’s top infrastructure adviser has accused public servants within federal, state and territory governments of “self-interest”, “displays of truculence” and failing to show commonsense in planning for ­Australia’s infrastructure needs.

Infrastructure Australia’s national infrastructure co-ordinator, Michael Deegan, made the harsh assessment about Australia’s efforts in dealing with shortfalls in transport infrastructure at a Committee for Economic Development of Australia conference in ­Canberra on Tuesday.

Despite strong public support from the prime minister, premiers and transport and infrastructure ministers for a co-ordinated approach to dealing with Australia’s infrastructure, Mr Deegan said groups within the public services were putting “self-interest before reform” and were “stolid, hesitant and reluctant” about change.

“You would expect that somebody, somewhere, knows all the key pieces of economic infrastructure, what is needed for the future and that all relevant land spaces are monitored, protected and planned,” Mr Deegan said.

“You would expect commonsense and effective planning,” he said.

“You’d be wrong.”

He said in 2013, Australia still had no national snapshot of the condition of our existing roads and highways.

Australia failed to identify road routes where improvements could lead to an increase in national income, and failed to measure whether money spent on roads actually improved service ­performance.

“No one does these things. They ­simply don’t get done.”

Mr Deegan said some state bureaucracies resisted including the impact of ports on freight networks, “never mind that as an island, almost all of our trading economy relies on the efficiency of our ports, sea channels and road- and rail-connecting networks”.

He said nearly two years were lost in delays because of bureaucratic resistance to the Council of Australian ­Governments adopting a national ports’ strategy.

But even now, there are no ­government-endorsed published long-term port plans or measurements on performance of ports, which has been a politically-sensitive issue in the past.

“These bureaucratic charades and displays of truculence have real ­consequences for jobs and national productivity,” Mr Deegan said.

He said major reforms agreed to by federal Infrastructure Minister Anthony Albanese and his state and territory counterparts had still not been implemented “despite huge personal and political commitment” from the ministers, and Mr Albanese in ­particular.

Coalition infrastructure spokesman and Nationals leader Warren Truss said an Abbott government would attempt to lift the regulatory burden on Australia’s shipping industry.

Mr Truss’s call came after shipping businesses complained a change in licensing arrangements a year ago has increased red-tape costs.

“Some companies are reporting container rates from Melbourne to Brisbane at almost twice the cost of that from Singapore to Melbourne,” Mr Truss told the CEDA conference.

“When it is cheaper to ship sugar from Thailand or cement from China than around our coast, there is something going seriously wrong with our regulatory arrangements.”

3 Responses to “Public servants & politician self-interest a barrier to better infrastructure outcomes – Head of Infrastructure Australia”
  1. Lynda says:

    Michael Deegan quits IA 7/2/2014

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