The new broom sweeping through Canberra may have significant consequences for major state government rail projects. Malcolm Turnbull has specifically repudiated his predecessor Tony Abbott’s comment that Commonwealth government funding for infrastructure should be limited to roads.
Turnbull, a noted bus and train traveller, said the Commonwealth should not discriminate between modes of transportation. “There is no ‘roads are not better than mass transit’ or vice versa, each has their place,” said Mr Turnbull after winning the leadership of the Liberal Party.
“Infrastructure should be assessed objectively and rationally on its merit. There is no place for ideology here at all.’’
A number of state leaders have taken Mr Turnbull’s comments as a sign that he may back public transport projects in their own backyards.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews met with Mr Turnbull within days of his elevation to the prime ministership. They discussed, amongst other things, funding for Melbourne Metro rail project, which is proceeding apace after the incoming Andrews Labor government cancelled the giant East-west link road project,
“I would welcome a strong and significant financial contribution from the Turnbull government in recognition of the new Prime Minister’s clear sense that public transport is so important,” Mr Andrews said.
Queensland Deputy Premier Jackie Trad said she had already sent list of potential rail projects to Mr Turnbull, including a ‘no brainer’ business case for extending the Gold Coast’s successful light right project ahead of the city’s hosting of the Commonwealth Games in April 2018.
Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett said on ABC radio that he hoped Mr Turnbull would expand the Federal Government’s infrastructure funding to include rail as well as roads. Mr Barnett’s government is facing funding problems with its proposed Max light rail project and airport rail link.
Mr Turnbull’s comments about funding have been interpreted as a direct dig at Tony Abbott, who wrote in his 2009 book Battlelines of ‘Kings in Their Own Cars’, saying public transport was not suited to Australia’s sprawling ‘suburban metropolises’.
“In Australia’s big cities, public transport is generally slow, expensive, not especially reliable and a still a hideous drain of the public purse. Part of the problem is inefficient, over-manned, union-dominated, government-run train and bus systems,” Mr Abbott said in his book.
“Mostly, there just aren’t enough people wanting to go from a particular place to a particular destination at a particular time to justify any vehicle larger than a car, and cars need roads.”
Mr Abbott’s bias against public transport was seen by many as part of his ideological mindset. In 2013 he said: “We have no history of funding urban rail and I think it is important that we stick to our knitting. And the Commonwealth’s knitting when it comes to funding infrastructure is roads.”
If a week is a long time in politics, then the last seven days has been an eternity.