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ACT election week 4, and the big ticket-promises have dried up

Malcolm Turnbull's failure to mention the tram at the Canberra Liberals' campaign launch, and Richard Farmer's promise of a $100,000 advertising blitz in his bid to oust Labor added a tinge of shock and surprise to an otherwise muted ACT election week.

With eight days to go, the big-ticket promises have come to a halt and both parties are down to the odds and sods. Next week, Labor will return to health and education; the Liberals can be expected to release a plan on rates and taxes.

The final fortnight has been coloured by Auditor-General Maxine Cooper's report into the Land Development Agency, and a return to debate about the tram. These, and longevity, are the three big problems for Labor – because while the tram is clearly a vote-changer for those who might normally support Labor or the Greens, it doesn't appear to have the same pulling power among its supporters. Other than Turnbull's silence, you don't hear many Liberal voters unhappy at the party's plans to scrap the tram.

One theory attributes a level of foresight to the Liberal strategy which possibly doesn't exist – suggesting that the characteristically Labor agenda the Liberals have rolled out on health, education, housing and public transport was designed from the get-go to neutralise Labor on those issues so by the time we got to the pointy end, we would be back to the tram as one of the few, and the big, difference.

The extreme views either side of this debate have persisted for three years as the government has set about preparing reports and studies, culminating in the business case of 2014 and the planning applications of 2015, each new release fuelling controversy.

The pro-light-rail lobby regularly accuses this newspaper of bias on the issue. But it would do well to reflect on the source and content of the news stories. Within weeks of starting on the Assembly beat two-and-a-half years ago, I was being taken aside and briefed by insiders concerned about internal work on "value capture", including the possibility of a levy. While a levy was quickly ruled out, the documents showing it was at one point in the mix were finally released recently under freedom of information.

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Concerns were also raised then about the viability of the project in transport terms – again, from people with information from inside government who knew it didn't stack up on those terms. The 2013 report which was presumably the source of those concerns, was released only in August. That report also explains the decision to frame the initiative not as a transport project, but as a transformative project for Canberra's main corridor.

Economists like David Hughes, once in charge of major project analysis for the ACT Treasury, have been highly critical of the conflation of a transport project with much wider promises of job creation and economic activity. Fundamentally, Hughes argued, the project must stack up on its own, transport, terms.

It never has. The government's own business case identified just 49¢ of transport benefits for every $1 spent. It factored in wider economic benefits, to bring the total benefits to $1.20 for every dollar spent. But the treatment of wider economic benefits for such government projects is by no means settled and is the subject of debate in infrastructure circles. When Auditor-General Cooper reported on the project this year, she also pointed to a view that caution should be used with such inclusions.

In its jobs report also, the government (and unions) left itself open to critics by choosing to use a "gross footprint" figure for the number of jobs to come with light rail, insisting the project will deliver more than 3500 jobs.

The report on which it based that figure, from Ernst and Young, warned that while it was "technically acceptable" to use gross footprint figures when discussing economic impact, it was more accurate to say a project "supports" those jobs rather than "creates" them. And it was better to quote net "achievable" jobs (1930 direct and indirect during construction) for the tram, because that took into account the displacement of jobs from elsewhere in the ACT economy.

The government has chosen to use the 3500 figure, and while it is largely careful to use the word "supports" (and "delivers"), the unions have shown no such care, running campaigns claiming the creation of 3500 jobs.

For scrutineers of the project, this leaves a government open to the criticism that it is not taking a dispassionate approach in its decisions on what will be the biggest infrastructure project in Canberra's history.

Last year, the environmental impact assessment also did little to advance the argument in favour, suggesting the project would mean a faster car journey from Gungahlin in the morning, four minutes faster than if there were no tram, but a slower journey home in the afternoon, taking seven minutes longer. The tram itself would be faster than the bus – cutting three minutes from the morning journey and one minute from the afternoon journey, compared with bus times now.

The same report revealed plans to turn a London Circuit carpark into a construction compound – a poorly conceived idea that handed another set of headlines to the critics before it was abandoned.

The problem for the proponents of the tram is that its benefits are on the one hand not universally loved – some like the idea of higher-density development in Northbourne Avenue; others hate it – and on the other hand not tangible. What price do you put on a comfortable ride in a modern vehicle? How do you quantify that sense, real or perceived, or that they're safer; and how do you explain the appeal of trams compared with buses?

Commentator Richard Denniss addressed the question of why the project excites so much hate recently, pointing to an underlying opposition to the idea of a much bigger, busier Canberra and to the difficulty in putting a value on convenience, safety, less congestion and pollution, fewer crashes and more vibrant communities.

He also pointed to the media's preference to "whip people up rather than calm them down". Denniss is correct to the extent that debate, criticism, contrary viewpoints, controversy and revelation are the stuff of news, but it is equally or more pertinent that reports and publications are the primary basis for the stories and the fact remains that what might be termed the "negative stories" have their origins in the government's own analyses of the project.

Labor's other problem is explaining where the light rail line goes from here. It chose Gungahlin as the most efficient and simple place to start – the corridor is essentially already there. But the choice of Woden appears rushed and politically motivated, made before the detailed work has been done, and as soon as you try to cross the lake not only will engineering headaches mount up, so too do the questions about the suitability of light rail for a sprawling city, and the big question of whether the citywide network will ever be completed. The government says it will build the line "over several decades". Though not a reason to oppose the project, it certainly gives some pause. What if the Liberals get into power in the meantime as surely they must at some point?

Trams might be appealing, environmentally superior to buses, and enable intense development at their doorstop. But the government has been unable to convince those who also want to see trams justified on the grounds of being the most efficient and sensible public transport option for Canberra.

Kirsten Lawson is The Canberra Times chief ACT political reporter.