Close your eyes and imagine that your home town is suddenly the perfect place to live. What do you see? Chances are good public transport is there, along with accessible jobs, education and healthcare; high-quality affordable housing; clean air to breathe; and green spaces to wander in.
So there’s your vision. Now how would you get us there? An infrastructure spend is going to be involved, but there are so many options. Across Australia, our needs are many, budgets are limited and the money is coming from you and me – the taxpayers. How can we be sure we are getting the best bang for our infrastructure buck?
Although many governments tend to spell the word “infrastructure” T-R-A-N-S-P-O-R-T, it actually goes far beyond that new train station or road bypass. Every major facility from the schools where your kids learn, to your local swimming pool is infrastructure.
At the Infrastructure Sustainability Conference on Wednesday, ASBEC will launch Bang for Buck – Delivering better business cases to realise more value from our infrastructure investments, which shows how delivering better business cases can help Australia get the most from our infrastructure spending.
Right now, our infrastructure development is piecemeal. Politics is often a big factor, with governments and politicians wanting to be remembered for delivering that bypass or new hospital. Unfortunately, this limits vision to the short three or four years of a political term, when actually infrastructure projects need to be bipartisan, long-term efforts that benefit all of us.
The way we make decisions on infrastructure spending is also an issue. Different arms of government often see things very differently. An environment agency might see an infrastructure development in terms of its capacity to reduce carbon emissions, for example, while a transport agency might be focused on what it means for traffic congestion.
The obvious solution here is for Infrastructure Australia (the independent statutory body that prioritises and progresses nationally significant infrastructure) to lead on this issue, by setting consistent standards and measurement to evaluate all infrastructure proposals.
What do you see when you imagine a new train station in your neighbourhood? You might see a quicker journey time to work or a reduction in cars on the road meaning less pollution to aggravate your asthma, but many decision-makers see nothing but rows of red zeros on next year’s bottom line.
This focus on short-term financial assessment is a big barrier, especially in regional Australia. One person’s “transport” project might be another’s “job or health access” project.
Consistent data is needed
Even the data we use to assess needs and solutions varies wildly. Right now, governments and departments are collecting different information using different methodologies. More data is not necessarily better, but consistent data would be a huge improvement, allowing decision-making based on a common understanding of what we need and how to supply it. Again, it makes sense for Infrastructure Australia to lead on a consistent approach.
So where does all this data end up? In a business case for or against an infrastructure spend. We hear so much about business cases, from secret ones that we can’t see for commercial-in-confidence reasons, to flawed ones that take no account of Australia’s international obligations to reduce carbon emissions. One thing is obvious: there’s currently more than one way to write a “business case”.
Often business case methodologies are imported wholesale from overseas, with no thought to local conditions. But of course, what works in Europe or the US may not apply here, with our unique challenges of enormous distances and an extreme climate.
Again, Infrastructure Australia could address this by creating a nationally consistent set of business case methodologies, but they would need the resources and a mandate from the federal government to do this.
Telling the story in a way that we can all understand is crucial. Agencies need to work harder to demonstrate the value to our community beyond the spend of taxpayer dollars. Will that new broadband capability mean we don’t have to travel into the city and will it create a massive number of local jobs?
Will the new train station attract tourists and revitalise a forgotten precinct? Will the extra cycle path mean we’re all healthier, saving money from the health budget 20 years from now?
We need to all see the vision of a connected, efficient, environmentally friendly Australia. Good infrastructure decisions benefit all of us. We need to be able to imagine a better future before we can create it.
Suzanne Toumbourou is executive director of the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council.