WA Super News
Infrastructure WA needs to be an independent voice
The State Government is on the cusp of delivering one of its major election promises – establishing Infrastructure WA. At a business breakfast in early February, Premier Mark McGowan launched his proposed blueprint for the new agency. Our industry members have been calling for an independent infrastructure advisory body for years, so this announcement was welcome news. How well then does the State Government’s proposal deliver on what industry had been hoping for?
The promise of Infrastructure WA for industry is to provide a credible voice with objective evidence on the merits of infrastructure projects. Infrastructure provision has been highly politicised for a long time: swing seats often attract big spending commitments; announcements of projects often come before a business case has even been created; and when there are business cases they are often not released to the public. This lack of transparency has made industry and the electorate sceptical – are we receiving the best bang for our buck when it comes to infrastructure that will underpin the next phase of WA’s economy growth. A lack of transparency around infrastructure projects erodes trust in the community. If poor quality projects are being protected from public scrutiny, the support for genuinely good quality projects will also be weak.
For example, take the State Government’s announcement in early March of a $118 million upgrade to the intersection at High Street and Stirling Highway. This is a project to address the access constraints in and out of Fremantle Port for trucks and local traffic – the same problem that Perth Freight Link (Roe 8/9) was intended to address. The news that day was all too quickly dominated by polarising commentary from the two major parties and opposing community groups. How is the electorate is supposed to make an informed view on this proposal? We all need an Infrastructure WA to clear the air once and for all and make a long-term strategic plan for our state.
It’s important for an infrastructure body to be independent but still rooted in the reality of what is achievable and realistic by a current government. Proposed measures to e
ncourage alignment between Infrastructure WA and the State Government’s agenda need to be balanced against the risk that too much perceived influence could damage confidence in its advice. There is no point having an Infrastructure WA if industry and the wider community don’t have confidence in its directives to government.
CCI has evaluated the fine details of the government’s proposed model for Infrastructure WA. Our submission to the government makes recommendations that are designed to protect the independence of Infrastructure WA both now and in the future. Namely, the government has proposed to house the staff supporting the Board of Infrastructure WA in a sub-department within the Department of Premier and Cabinet. While the Board will be made up of a majority of private sector members, which we commend, there is a genuine risk that the community at some stage could perceive there being political influence in the workings of Infrastructure WA. CCI has recommended that the Board have control over where and when it moves its support staff if there was ever a need.
The purpose of tasking Infrastructure WA with developing a long-term infrastructure strategy is to provide credible objective advice on the infrastructure projects that will be needed in the long-term. A review of the long-term infrastructure strategy every few years is appropriate as updated information on key inputs becomes available. The strategy will help guide expectations about the infrastructure projects that the State Government is likely to provide funding for in the Budget. This will help build support across the community for projects and help industry to plan its investment, hiring and workforce training decisions.
It makes sense that the final decision on which infrastructure projects are funded in the Budget should be reserved by the State Government. This goes to our core tenant
s of a democratic society. However, there is nothing stopping the State Government from choosing to fund projects which are not included in the long-term infrastructure strategy, under their proposal. Public scrutiny of government decisions where they deviate from the advice of Infrastructure WA is vital. We have recommended that the government release Infrastructure WA’s advice on infrastructure projects that are not featured in the long-term strategy.
Infrastructure WA promises a lot to industry and the community, but achieving this vision is not guaranteed. Continued consultation across industry and the community will give Infrastructure WA its best chance of success. It is worth spending the time now to listen to the community and get this right to ensure Western Australia has the infrastructure it needs to support economic growth both now and in the decades to come.
Source: Rick Newnham appears courtesy of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Western Australia.