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Coal rail or light rail? It's no contest

While everyone agrees governments need to invest more in infrastructure, not everyone agrees on what infrastructure we need. As the Canberra light rail debate makes clear, one politician's "essential service" is another's "white elephant".

As with all big decisions, choosing whether taxpayers should spend billions of taxpayers dollars on light rail in our cities or billions on coal rail in northern Australia is deeply political. Choosing between such options encompasses the decision maker's view of whether government spending should help industry or help citizens. It reveals attitudes about what the decision maker thinks the future looks like and whether they think supporting old industries or helping new ones to develop should be the priority.

Tony Abbott found making such decisions easy. Mining infrastructure good, research infrastructure bad. Roads good, public transport bad. Coal-fired power stations good, wind turbines bad.

As opposition leader Abbott united and inspired conservatives by telling them that if he scrapped mining and carbon taxes, he could wind the clock back to 2007. However, as prime minister he scared nearly everyone in his efforts to take us back to 1907.

Abbott's main focus as prime minister was not to solve the problems of the new century, but to restage the battles of the previous one. Fighting with unions, fighting with environment groups and fighting with those seeking asylum all gave meaning to the former prime minister, but his battles achieved nothing of substance. The electorate tired of the pantomime more quickly than the Liberal Party, but eventually they arrived at the same conclusion. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, the National Party remains one of the only groups in the country who still can't see what the problem was).

It is only in a post-Abbott environment that the extent of the previous prime minister's ideological overreach becomes obvious. Take, for example, Malcolm Turnbull's statement that public transport has an important role to play in improving the productivity of our cities. Only in a post-Abbott world could such a statement seem fresh and new rather than a statement of the bleeding obvious. No Republican mayor of New York or Tory mayor of London would think that investing in public transport was anything other than productivity enhancing.

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Abbott's love of road funding had nothing to do with economics and everything to do with his instinctive hostility to the groups demanding investment in public transport. Because "greenies" wanted public transport, Abbott wanted to build roads. But once he made goading his opponents his government's central goal, he strayed further and further away from good policy and good politics.

The most visible manifestations of the Abbott government's instinctive opposition to policies supported by his opponents was his hostility and determination to cut investment in renewable energy, but those watching closely could find many more examples.

While the political objectives of Abbott's royal commission into the trade unions have been widely debated, another clear example of his determination to inquire into his enemies can be found in the House of Representatives inquiry into tax deductibility. Just as the trade union royal commission was designed to waste the time and diminish resources of Abbott's designated enemies, so too was the inquiry into the work of environment groups. However, in attacking groups he didn't like Abbott was effectively attacking the millions of people who donate to them, many of whom both live in Coalition seats and vote for the Coalition.

Abbott also overreached in his attack on the rights of individuals to use the courts to protect the environment – a process he termed "lawfare", but which is known to most as "the rule of law". Just as his attack on green groups had the unexpected (for him) consequence of upsetting millions of donors, his attack on the use of the courts by individuals backfired when farmers realised it impacted on them.

Australian conservatives tend to simultaneously barrack for the mining industry and the agriculture industry. Both are tiny employers, but both are widely considered to deliver significant "indirect benefits". While there is no doubt that investment in new, subsidised coal mines creates jobs in the building sector, there is also no doubt that investment in new, subsidised, urban light rail projects will create jobs in the building sector as well.

But while conservative enthusiasm for mining and agriculture once helped to unite powerful political groups, Abbott's "coal is good for humanity" rhetoric actually drove a wedge deep into his own base. Whereas coal mines were once small and underground, today they are enormous and open cut. At 40 kilometres long and 10 kilometres wide, the proposed Adani/Carmichael mine would gouge a hole that would stretch from Mitchell to Tuggeranong. As Barnaby Joyce discovered recently, proposing to build enormous coal mines in prime agricultural land upsets farming communities. Abbott barracking for them didn't help.

Turnbull's elevation to Prime Minister has taken some of the heat out of some the fights that Abbott picked, and his early statements have clearly been designed to calm the horses. But ultimately, as Prime Minister, he will be asked to make big decisions, like whether we should build light rail or coal rail. As Abbott showed, it is much easier to criticise such decisions from opposition than to make them from government.

Here in Canberra, the Liberal's opposition have clearly taken a leaf out of Abbott's book. They have just substituted the "great big north-side tramline" for the "great big tax on everything" in their scare campaign against building the infrastructure Canberra's rapidly growing population needs. Modelling shows that with no change in how we move people in the ACT, we can expect an extra 140,000 cars on our local roads by 2050. At precisely the time that Turnbull is trying to place the role of cities and productivity at the heart of his agenda, the Canberra Liberals support building only roads and more roads – and declaring that anyone who supports public transport instead must eat mung beans.

Roads are infrastructure, coal-rail tracks are infrastructure, public transport light-rail tracks are infrastructure and wind turbines are infrastructure. While building them all will create jobs in the short term, only some investments will deliver benefits in the long term.

While Abbott's economic and political strategy was based on breaking the hearts of his opponents, the only thing he broke was his own government. As a nation we still have hard choices to make about not just what the future will look like, but the best way to get to the future we want. While Turnbull's rhetoric is a radical departure from Abbott's, it doesn't seem that Jeremy Hanson has got the memo.

Richard Denniss is chief economist at The Australia Institute. Twitter @RDNS_TAI