WE’RE all watching how our governments respond to COVID-19. We’re heartened by politicians’ new-found reliance on expert research and opinions as they struggle with enormous, unexpected challenges. We don’t know what the lasting effects will be, but we hope that things will change for the better, not only in emergencies but in all other areas of concern.
The virus has shone a harsh, tragic light on many of our shortcomings. It’s incumbent on us to reflect on this and campaign for change in our areas of expertise. This is my attempt to contribute in mine.
My primary interest for the last couple of decades has been in transport planning in Victoria, Australia.
Let me be very clear about this – the system of rational and objective planning for transport is completely broken in Victoria.
It’s a systemic problem. Politics has trumped planning when it comes to investment decisions. Nowadays, projects are picked – or dreamt up – solely by politicians and their advisors, especially during election campaigns. They’re then post-rationalised through flawed appraisal and approval processes.
There’s no guarantee that the investments are the right ones, nor that they’ll provide worthwhile economic, social and environmental improvements. Political gain is the primary benefit.
It’s nothing short of pork-barreling in the extreme, with billions of our dollars.
There’s no strategic planning, no binding targets or objectives (apart from motherhood ones) and the principles of the Transport Integration Act 2010 are ignored, twisted or openly flouted.
Infrastructure Victoria prides itself on its independence but so far, its outputs have been either warmed-over reordering of the same old lists of projects, or research pieces on new technologies and trends. They have little or no demonstrable influence on decision-making in transport.
Victoria’s Department of Transport, like much of the public service in this state, has been steadily neutralised and dumbed-down to become a mere facilitator of political decisions. The vital concept of ‘frank and fearless advice’ has been destroyed.
The Victorian Auditor-General’s Office has thrown some light on all this in its reviews, but they are, by definition, after the event. Despite some strong criticisms in their reports, very little has changed. I’d argue that things are actually getting worse, despite VAGO’s presence.
The last independent, comprehensive and detailed transport study in Victoria was the East West Link Needs Assessment study, led by Sir Rod Eddington and published thirteen years ago. It was a rare example of a study into a problem (east-west travel in Melbourne) which came up with some actions clearly aimed at solving it. It wasn’t perfect, but it took a lot of effort to get it there, I can tell you! Some of its actions were even implemented.
As I’ve said, nowadays we’ve got a politically-generated list of priorities. The appraisal process for these is a box-ticking, post-rationalisation exercise. We have flawed, biased business cases and environmental appraisals; they make a mockery of established guidance and principles.
Community consultation through these processes is highly variable and prevents any meaningful debate on the basic needs – it’s nowadays limited to comments and submissions during EES hearings, many of which are ignored or discounted. The adversarial nature of the hearings relies on verbal gymnastics by lawyers, trying to prove their clients’ points to well-meaning but often under-qualified panel members.
Many genuine issues, concerns and objections don’t survive this process. Those that make it into the panels’ recommendations then risk being ignored, belittled or criticised by the Planning Minister when rubber-stamping the projects, often with little or no real changes.
Recently we’ve seen big objectors (local Councils, in the cases of East-West and North-East links) resort to court proceedings to try and get their concerns addressed. I’m not aware of any real successes there. It’s a questionable use of ratepayers’ money, and it shouldn’t even be necessary.
Once these poorly-conceived and under-planned projects get started (Victoria’s ‘Big Build’), we’re seeing unexpected problems, cost blowouts and time overruns. These further erode the economic and financial viability of the initiatives.
Yes, we have a big backlog of work due to underfunding and neglect in previous years, but that doesn’t justify the unseemly haste and shoddy planning we’re seeing these days.
In future posts, I’ll record my own experiences in these processes to substantiate these observations. I’ll cover many major projects, including:
- East West Link
- Melbourne Metro Rail Tunnel
- West Gate Tunnel
- North East Link
- Airport Rail
- Suburban Rail Link
As I write about these and other experiences in the coming months, I’ll update this post as well. Links will appear here to new posts, where I’ll expand on my comments in this one.
Hopefully, it’ll all hang together!
In the meantime, I’d welcome your thoughts and comments. Am I right in my observations, or is it all just sour grapes? How can we bring our politicians to account? What are your personal experiences of this? Is the Victorian situation echoed in other states, and other countries? Where are people ‘doing it right’, and what does that look like?