As the high powered cameras receded from the glitz and frenetic action of budget night with its attention hogging tax cuts, the sustainable transport, housing and climate change sectors were left with a sense of disappointment and short-termism.
Two days after the federal budget was brought down the word that emerged to best describe the consensus from the sustainable transport, affordable housing and climate change arenas was disappointment.
The big-spending infrastructure pledges are “smoke and mirrors”, according to Monash University’s Professor Graham Currie, and will do nothing to address the key issues of congestion and planning for future population growth.
“Under no circumstances will this budget have a significant impact on our biggest problems,” Professor Currie, who is part of the university’s Public Transport Research Group, told The Fifth Estate.
Among the infrastructure announcements was a $250 million Major Project Business Fund to contribute to the development of business cases for future land transport infrastructure investments; $3.5 billion for the Roads of Strategic Importance Initiative to upgrade key routes, and a $1 billion Urban Congestion Fund.
Professor Currie said more funding towards roads would not help congestion, particularly given the occupancy rate of cars has been dropping steadily. Our growing road traffic volumes are leading to growth in congestion – and costs to the economy from congestion are the highest of any OECD nation, he said.
“All the evidence is that more roads lead to more congestion.
“It is unproductive to have single person occupied vehicles running around.”
While he welcomed investment in rail, he said it was not enough.
Brisbane’s Cross River Rail, for example, missed out. Professor Currie said the project would have provided better benefit for people in Brisbane than funded road projects.
“There is a lack of objective visioning of what we want our cities to be,” he said.
“I think for our vastly growing cities we require solutions that ease congestion and help city centres to grow and be the busy and productive places we want them to be.”
He said the one of the biggest problems was Australia’s “gigantic infrastructure backlog”, though this budget spend is a decline in investment compared to previous years – down to around one per cent of GDP compared to 1.6 per cent in previous years.
The 10-year forward estimates projects are also “essentially meaningless”.
“It is essentially smoke and mirrors.”
Dr Ian Woodcock, convenor of the Planning and Transport in City Regions Program in the Centre for Urban Research at RMIT University, said comprehensive, integrated transport planning was needed more than “support for project-based business cases for politically-driven road projects”.
“Roads represent about 84 per cent of the transport project funding, far more should be going to rail where we are playing catch up for an advanced economy.”
Dr Woodcock said the up to $5 billion for the Melbourne Airport rail link also came “with strings attached that may reignite the political differences that have stalled this link for several decades”.
Light on future-proofing
Consult Australia said the budget was “light on future-proofing”.
Chief executive Megan Motto said there “won’t be too much dancing in the (transport) corridors any time soon”.
The trustworthiness of the big infrastructure pledges was also questionable, with $24.5 billion committed to new projects and less than 20 per cent projected to be spent in the next four years, leaving projects susceptible to economic or political change.
“That a government can move from ‘budget emergency’ to personal tax cuts in less than five years shows how much can change,” Ms Motto said.
“Just $250 million of the $5 billion allocated for the Melbourne Airport is projected to be spent over the next four years, and this project is still subject to approval by the Victorian government.
“Consult Australia welcomes the focus on infrastructure, but we do so cautiously, knowing a great deal of spend is based on future projections and externalities outside the Treasurer’s control.”
Climate change – the words are there but the plan is MIA
While the words “climate change” are used in the portfolio statement for the Department of Environment and Energy, overall substance is missing.
While the government has said it is implementing the Finkel Review recommendations, the only specific funding mentioned is $11.7 million over five years from 2017-18 towards initiatives including:
- Establishing the National Energy Guarantee
- Developing a distributed energy register to improve and lower the costs of system security and grid management, and allow consumers to receive a benefit from their demand reduction
- Developing a consumer data access platform to help consumers compare offers and get a better energy deal
That last point, in particular, is not even aimed at addressing emissions from energy use – just on helping consumers get cheaper energy.
Climate Council acting chief executive Dr Martin Rice said it was disappointing the budget appeared to be ignoring climate change, despite Australia’s greenhouse gas levels continuing to rise for more than three consecutive years.
“The federal government’s continuous failure to seriously tackle climate change is an embarrassment,” he said.
“Australia is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change in the developed world, with worsening extreme weather events including severe heatwaves, supercharged storms, heavy rainfall, flooding, droughts and bushfires.”
The $500 million Great Barrier Reef package also came under fire.
Dr Rice said putting the package towards combating water quality issues, such as agricultural runoff and the culling of the crown-of-thorns-starfish, would “do little to address the root cause of the problem and is nothing more than a gold-plated bandaid solution”.
“Intensifying climate change is the real culprit.”
GBCA looks on the bright side
Green Building Council of Australia head of public affairs Jonathan Cartledge said some of the smaller measures announced in the budget could have a big impact and welcomed “social sustainability” funding
This include $3.6 million over four years from 2018/19 to establish an AntiSlavery Unit, a total of $8.3 million to expand and build Australia’s social impact investment capability and $4.8 million to bolster the Australian Bureau of Statistics’s tracking of affordable housing data.
GBCA also welcomed the $37.6 million in funding over five years from 2017/18 for measures to improve energy affordability, reliability and sustainability including implementation of the Finkel review recommendations.
“However, the budget is largely silent on funding additional measures to help Australia meet our international emissions reduction targets and maintain our world-leading position on sustainability in the built environment,” Mr Cartledge said.
A “mixed-bag” says Australian Institute of Architects
AIA national president Richard Kirk said specific housing measures remained on the fringes in this year’s budget.
“The Institute is certainly pleased to see the federal government funding the new National Housing and Homelessness Agreement, providing $7 billion in housing funding and an additional $620 million for homelessness services over the next five years,” Mr Kirk said.
Another positive is just under $500,000 towards improving housing outcomes for Indigenous Australians in the Northern Territory.
Mr Kirk said $15 million over four years to support Australian businesses and maximise commercial opportunities in overseas markets was also welcome, and could help expand the reputation of Australian architects.
Sustainability and energy efficiency, however, have been largely ignored, with funding focused on implementation of the Finkel Review as the highlight of the energy measures, Mr Kirk said.
“As we have said previously, the focus must switch to the demand side of the equation and harness the opportunities offered by the built environment if we are to achieve real progress.”
The Property Council perspective
The Property Council of Australia called for the big infrastructure boost to be leveraged into a stronger plan to create great cities and support a growing Australia.
“The budget goes long on infrastructure and overwhelmingly funds the right projects. Now these need to be leveraged into comprehensive plans to grow our cities and regions,” PCA chief executive Ken Morrison said.
He said future planning needed to be “much more ambitious”.
“The funding for infrastructure is vital, but it also means getting the planning right and tackling the regulatory issues which affect the productivity and liveability of our communities,” Mr Morrison said.
Federal funding dropping for homelessness and social housing
An analysis of the budget by the Everybody’s Home campaign – an alliance of housing and community groups – showed that federal funding for homelessness and social housing has been cut 16 per cent over five years, while the affordability of housing has plummeted, and homelessness has grown by 14 per cent.
Campaign spokeswoman Kate Colvin said the government appeared to have abandoned last year’s budget commitment to address housing and homelessness for ordinary Australians.
“The budget shows the Treasurer has a tin ear for the everyday concerns of Australians who are increasingly struggling to keep a roof over their head and put food on the table,” Ms Colvin said.
“Housing affordability is a top tier issue for voters that the government is ignoring. Nearly two in three Australians believe that all major parties are not doing enough to address housing affordability.”