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Tony Abbott calls for greater investment in infrastructure

Date

Mark Kenny

Australia may not be in danger of becoming a banana republic as Paul Keating once warned, but it must guard against another economically ruinous tendency Prime Minister Tony Abbott says: ''BANANA syndrome''.

In a major economic speech in Melbourne on Thursday arguing for greater global investment in productivity-enhancing infrastructure, Mr Abbott hit out at opponents of development, slamming traffic jams that ''plague our cities'' and freight bottlenecks that strangle commerce.

''There's the syndrome known as BANANA - build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone - that has been a further handbrake on building the infrastructure Australia needs,'' he said. ''We need it to improve our country's long-term competitiveness and productivity.

He said nothing boosted confidence more than ''cranes in the sky and bulldozers on the ground''.

''It shows that investors have faith in the future,'' he said. ''All too often, at every level, governments have been thinking short term, not long-term.

''It's why, in my own city, road congestion costs some $5 billion a year and why a plane trip from Sydney to Melbourne can take longer than it did 50-odd years ago. It's why dams haven't been built and the construction of new base-load power stations is mostly put into the too-hard basket.''

Fronting the 2014 Economic and Social Outlook conference dinner, Mr Abbott used his speech to predict the carbon tax would be gone ''within a week'' and to imply, unlike the formal budget papers, that the Commonwealth's balance sheet would reach surplus in four years.

''A lot else has happened since the election but the boats are no longer coming, an infrastructure boom unmatched in our history is shortly to begin, the budget is now projected to be in balance, and the carbon tax is likely to be gone within a week,'' he said.

The government is placing its hopes in convincing a clutch of new senators to pass unpopular budget measures having advisers brief them on government priorities.

But the early signs of co-operation are difficult to see.

Tellingly, Mr Abbott looked to some Labor reformers and nation builders to help broaden his appeal to the national interest, twice quoting Labor's postwar reconstruction hero, Ben Chifley, to make the case for big projects.

''In 1949, during the last months of his prime ministership, Ben Chifley put the case to the nation for the Snowy Mountains Scheme that was ultimately delivered by his successor, Sir Robert Menzies,'' Mr Abbott said. ''It was,'' he said, "… a plan for the whole nation, belonging to no one state, nor to any group or section … This is a plan for the nation - and it needs the nation to back it.''

Mr Abbott used those words to argue for other large projects from major arterial roads, to a second Sydney airport.

''Provided the numbers stack up, we should back big plans for our nation,'' he said.

While the current government would argue that the numbers had not ''stacked up'', Labor MPs will view the new prime ministerial appeal as hypocritical after the Coalition ran hard against the national broadband network.

Mr Abbott also redoubled the government's commitment to drive its budget through Parliament no matter how long it takes.

Mr Abbott's complaint that the construction of new baseload power stations had mostly been put into the too-hard basket will raise eyebrows in the renewable energy sector. Advocates say the greatest threat to investor confidence is the government because it does not regard wind, solar, and other technology as serious.

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