Growing the infrastructure pie in Australia

Consult Australia is proposing a new model for Australian infrastructure advisory bodies that aims to establish a more uniform and collaborative approach to prioritising state and national infrastructure projects.This February, the Western Australian Government released its first blueprint to establish Infrastructure WA.

Akin to Infrastructure Australia – an independent statutory body with a mandate to prioritise and progress nationally significant infrastructure projects – Infrastructure WA aims to provide a new approach to long-term infrastructure planning in the west.

The organisation will be tasked with providing the Western Australian Government expert advice on the state’s infrastructure needs and priorities, and focusing on ensuring investment is made in the right projects, at the right time. This includes the development of a 20-year strategy for infrastructure and industry investment.

This first step towards creating Infrastructure WA sees Western Australia join other states with their own established independent infrastructure advisory bodies, which are Infrastructure NSW, Infrastructure Victoria and Building Queensland, and the national entity, Infrastructure Australia.

While it’s a fruitful first step for ensuring the right infrastructure projects are progressed within the region, a new report from Consult Australia suggests more could be done to improve the model of the infrastructure bodies.

Consult Australia – the national industry association representing consulting firms operating in the built and natural environment sectors – released its Infrastructure Governance in Australia report in January. The report presents a model infrastructure body or “iBody” for adoption by all jurisdictions following a comprehensive review of their existing governance procedures. The proposed iBody model sets out its functions and structure based on four key components: independence locked in by statute, long-term planning, assessment in line with Infrastructure Australia guidelines, and a published pipeline of priority projects. The association proposes that the states, which have already established an iBody, review their legislation so that it aligns with the proposed model.

“From the outset, we think the infrastructure bodies have been a great idea – we’re great advocates for their establishment and strengthening,” explains Consult Australia CEO Megan Motto. “The current bodies have been praised and recognised around the world – even the UK is keeping an eye on what Australia is doing in this space.”

However, Ms. Motto says politics can interfere with the processes of these existing bodies, placing stress on jobs and growth, and wasting taxpayer funding, particularly when infrastructure is used as political cannon fodder.

“Independent advice provided to the government of the day is independence-on-a-leash. It risks the clash of short and long-term cycles, with decades of foresight required for infrastructure potentially lost in the weeks of a campaign trail,” Ms. Motto says. “An iBody would buffer this, locking in independence through statute so only Parliament could make changes, and ensure we can plan beyond the short term for sustainable economic growth.”

The proposed iBody model, for instance, outlines that if a government wants to deliver an infrastructure project that is not included in an infrastructure body’s pipeline, or change the order of priority, it must seek parliamentary approval.

Ms. Motto says the main concern for her, in regards to the existing situation, is that jurisdictions typically work independently of each other. She suggests that a more uniform model could be implemented so that each state or territory benefits from joint innovation across the board.

She says having a more uniform iBody structure could potentially improve models for cost-benefit analysis and data collection, adding that establishing best practice across each state helps to prevent different authorities from butting heads over different processes.

Under Consult Australia’s proposed iBody model, for instance, it suggests that Infrastructure Australia and the other iBodies would work together to develop national guidelines for business case development, consistent with Infrastructure Australia’s assessment guidelines. Likewise, the methodology for the assessment of priority projects would be based on an agreed framework of assessment principles.

“Now is the time to implement such a model – the infrastructure sector is in a very strong space at the moment. We want the model to be planned officially and provide a solid foundation for major infrastructure projects to be delivered as efficiently as possible,” she says.

“We don’t want to find ourselves 20 years down the track and not have the state and national infrastructure to support the population.”

She explains that the benefits of these infrastructure bodies working more closely together are countless.

“What’s going to be the best way to finance infrastructure? What innovation can we use here? Using a uniform model, jurisdictions can talk together about what disruptions there are to the regulatory process and how to address them. We want to make sure these infrastructure bodies are all engaged in the conversation.

“There’s so much good to come through collaboration and sharing of best practice and standards.”

She says Infrastructure Australia already has excellent insight into the national infrastructure project pipeline, with good collaborative plans and procedures in place.

“Infrastructure Australia is bringing together those involved to collaborate, but we think that could be strengthened and formalised more, which is really important towards industry having a more stable pipeline of infrastructure projects in the future.”

Rail is a good example of where a new iBody model could facilitate growth, Ms. Motto explains.

“Australia hasn’t done much in rail for 30 years and now, all of a sudden, we’re seeing major rail infrastructure projects commencing along the east coast. By having consistent planning approvals in place and ensuring the projects can get the best capacity, we’re not using different planning processes in different states and overheating the conversation.”

Bypassing the challenges

Ms. Motto says short-term thinking can often derail the goal of ensuring long-term infrastructure projects move from concept to reality.

“Some of the obstacles are political. Politicians have historically used infrastructure projects before and during elections as part of their campaigning. What we are calling for is politicians to think more long-term and not use infrastructure as ammunition.”

Like the political cycle, Ms. Motto says there are other challenges in regards to adopting a uniform iBody approach in Australia. The country’s landmass and geography, for instance, do pose some challenges, given the sheer distance some of these infrastructure projects need to cover.

“There are different challenges because of how big the country is, but look at a country like China – they’re achieving major milestones in the infrastructure space,” she says.

“I think addressing those challenges really comes down to government and the different sides between federal, state and local government levels. They do work quite well together, and so do the existing infrastructure bodies. But, in some ways, we have a fairly aggressive industry that can cause the sector to be siloed.”

She says to overcome industry or government working in silos and not collaborating, the respective infrastructure bodies have a larger role to play, and by aligning them under one model – an iBody – it will benefit the nation as a whole.

Ms. Motto says industry, government and the respective infrastructure bodies have given positive feedback on Consult Australia’s report and the proposed iBody model. “Everybody knows it’s the right thing to do, it’s now just about doing the hard yards.”

To prevent socially and economically beneficial long-term infrastructure projects from falling by the wayside, Ms. Motto adds that everybody needs to be involved in the processes. “The construction sector has to be part of the conversation with government about how they’re going to have the capacity to bring these projects to fruition.

“Everybody should have a piece of the pie and we want to increase the size of the pie by creating collaboration. We also want to grow the quality of the pie – the projects that give us social and economic uplift so that taxpayers are getting more bang for their buck.”

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