Brisbane Voters Should Heed Melbourne’s East-West Debacle

AS COUNCIL elections loom in Brisbane, voters in the River City would do well to look south to assess a moronic pledge by ALP aspirant Rod Harding; hot on the heels of Victoria’s Andrews government paying $1.1bn to cancel a contract — for zilch in return — Labor says it will kill an upgrade of Kingsford-Smith Drive to fund other projects. Harding claims it can be cancelled: history suggests otherwise. As the Brisbane press has tagged him, he’s a fool.

“There is nothing to walk away from, be very clear about this, the contracts are not worth the paper they’re written on…this is not a legally binding contract (sic).”  — Daniel Andrews, then opposition leader and leader of the ALP, emphasising his policy to cancel the East-West Link would not cost the State of Victoria any compensation on 25 November 2014: four days from a state election Labor would win.

I find it unbelievable that with its track record of utter ineptitude and incompetence where the sound management of taxpayer money is concerned that the Labor Party has the nerve to expect people to blindly accept its continuous declarations of fiscal rectitude: yet it does. And it expects you, the voter, to elevate it to office.

Everywhere you look, the consequences of Labor governments are visible: the federal government is swimming in close to half a trillion dollars of red ink locked in by the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd disaster, and the ALP — now in opposition — petulantly and cynically refuses to pass bills in the Senate that cut outlays, whilst being only too ready to pass anything that ramps up spending, and has the sheer effrontery to try to pin blame for the continued consequent debt haemorrhage on the Liberal Party.

In the states, anywhere that has had the misfortune to have experienced Labor in power in the past 20 years has been left with a huge pile of debt, a state budget in structural deficit, or both: and in the states that have recently restored the ALP to power — Victoria and Queensland — those new state Labor governments have undone work by their conservative predecessors to put public finances on a sounder footing, with the debt binge of Bligh Labor in Queensland back up and running with a vengeance and the Andrews government in Victoria running a budget deficit last year, turning around a surplus of almost $2bn in a single budget.

And this textbook basket-case of exactly what not to do is set to be opened in Brisbane’s City Hall in March, should Labor achieve the seismic swing it needs to dislodge Lord Mayor Graham Quirk and pick up the six extra council wards needed on top of the mayoralty to hand it control of the council.

If ever there was a case of “buyer beware,” this is it: and the good folk of Brisbane, fortunately for them, need not look all that far afield to see exactly how Labor’s latest dishonest ruse will affect them if its candidate, Rod Harding, becomes Lord Mayor of their city.

I’ve been following the tit-for-tat promises of the LNP and the ALP in the runup to elections for the Brisbane City Council, and the thing I’ve been most intrigued to watch has been Harding’s handling of a promise to scupper a $650 million upgrade of Kingsford-Smith Drive in the inner north-east; today it seems Mr Harding is being reminded of some good common sense shown by the last candidate Labor ran for the mayoralty — Ray Smith in 2012 — who had the honesty to note that once arrangements to build Brisbane’s Legacy Way toll tunnel were finalised, there would be no way he could stop the project from proceeding.

“I’m a businessman. I’m no fool. And I know damn well that we can’t stop a contract once it’s under way,” Quest Newspapers quotes Smith as saying of the idea at the time, laying Harding open to the charge that he is “a fool” if he thinks it possible to now kill off the planned upgrade of Kingsford-Smith Drive from four lanes to six, in addition to other separation and alignment works, the contract for which was let by Council late last year.

First, a first-hand perspective.

I spent close to a decade driving in Brisbane before I moved south 18 years ago, the last year of which I lived and worked in the same area that Kingsford-Smith Drive covers; that road was an abomination and a traffic nightmare.

Over the past six months I’ve spent a day each week in Brisbane, flying in and out each Tuesday* for a particular purpose — often travelling Kingsford-Smith Drive either in peak hour or the early evening on my way back to the airport — and I know that it remains an abomination and a traffic nightmare now, too.

It also just happens to sit in the ultra blue-ribbon Liberal council ward of Clayfield, funnily enough: and coincidentally, I’m sure, the road projects Harding wants to take the money away from Kingsford-Smith Drive to fund just happen to be in more marginal wards on the southside that may be winnable for Labor or which it currently holds (narrowly, in the case of Wynnum-Manly).

Harding’s argument seems to be that the upgrade of Kingsford-Smith Drive would save motorists just 60 seconds’ travel time; I disagree with him on that, even taking into account the inevitable logjam citybound motorists still run into in the morning as Kingsford-Smith Drive empties into Breakfast Creek Road, but even so, Harding misses a crucial point.

Kingsford-Smith Drive isn’t just a local thoroughfare for the well-heeled inhabitants of Ascot and Hamilton and Hendra; it’s a gateway to retail and hospitality strips enjoyed by people from across Brisbane and beyond; it provides access to a still-considerable industrial and commercial precinct in the shadow of the Gateway Bridges; and it does in fact form part of an alternative route to Brisbane Airport — and that’s just for starters.

So trying to play down the importance of the project — or the benefits it will deliver — is a red herring that should be ignored.

Yet whether you agree upgrading Kingsford-Smith Drive is an urgent and necessary improvement that will reap enormous benefits or whether you agree with Harding that it is a terrible waste of money on the well-heeled that could be better spent somewhere else, the fact remains that Council has let a contract for the works to commence: and cancelling road contracts, as has been spectacularly proven in Melbourne in the past year, is an exercise that brings only red ink — with nothing to show for it.

Here in Victoria, the Coalition government of Denis Napthine that lost a state election to Daniel Andrews and Labor in November had let a contract to build the first stage of the so-called East-West Link; at a total cost of $15bn, this road, in two stages, would link Melbourne’s Eastern Freeway to Citylink and eventually the orbital Western Ring Road, removing thousands of cars and heavy vehicles from the CBD and inner suburbs every day, and (to use Napthine’s terminology) would “decongest Melbourne” by linking its existing freeways directly and removing the need for vehicles to travel through central Melbourne.

(Again, I’m not engaging in a debate over whether it would or wouldn’t have today, or the merits — or lack of them — of Andrews’ alternatives).

But Andrews campaigned on an explicit promise not to build the East-West Link, mindful of four inner-city electorates in its path that Labor risked losing to the Communist Party Greens (it lost one of them anyway). The contracts weren’t worth the paper they were printed on, Andrews said. Labor would rip them up, Andrews said. The contracts weren’t legally binding, Andrews said. Not one cent in compensation would be payable, Andrews said, hand on heart, in his closing pitch to voters they day before polls opened.

After becoming Premier, Labor held good to its promise, and tore the contract to build the East-West Link up: originally, his government claimed the cost to taxpayers was $339 million, a figure that almost immediately jumped to $900 million once completed works and other associated expenses were factored in. Late last year, revised estimates of the total outlay shot up to $1.1bn. Ominously, there is still every possibility that figure could increase in the short to medium term. But there is no road.

In fact, there is nothing at all to show for the reckless wastage of $1.1bn of Victorian taxpayers’ dollars; nothing at all. The money hasn’t been redirected (although a separate pool of federal funding might be) and it has generated a return to the State of Victoria and to the people who live in it of precisely nothing.

Readers may access some content I published on the East-West compensation debacle at the time here; this also includes links to a selection of material from other press sources on the same subject.

I’ve never voted for the ALP in my life and I never will — the informal pile is more deserving of support than Labor ever will be — and I apologise to an old friend and associate in Quirk when I say this, but those Brisbane folk who were open to having Labor anywhere near City Hall missed their opportunity four years ago: at least Smith, it seems, could comprehend the basic realities of contract law and elementary business practice.

You just have to wonder what planet Harding is on if he thinks he can simply cancel most of the planned upgrade to Kingsford-Smith Drive — which, just like the East-West Link, is now subject to a binding contract — and cart the money away to buy off gullible swinging voters in areas he thinks are more conducive to Labor’s prospects.

I haven’t, of course, seen the contract for the Kingsford-Smith Drive upgrade, but I know this: as sure as night follows day, if it’s cancelled in part or in full, there will be compensation payable — and that means higher rates and parking fees for every Brisbane homeowner, motorist, and increased fees and charges to access Council services.

$650 million is a lot of money, and there are far fewer people to spread it over in Brisbane than the six million people who live in Victoria. If Harding is elected and goes through with his half-baked plan, it will hurt people. A lot.

And what would the City of Brisbane have to show for it? Absolutely nothing.

In closing, there’s something else Brisbane people should consider, too; a chat with Trade minister Andrew Robb recently confirmed what many of us in Melbourne suspected, which is that in the wake of the fiasco over the cancellation of the East-West Link, sovereign risk has become a considerable issue for private sector investors abroad looking for global opportunities to do business.

According to Robb, what the Andrews government did in Victoria is scaring people away from investing not just in Victoria, but in Australia generally: and whilst the money may well flow for future public-private partnerships from foreign capital sources, those funds are likely to come priced at a premium in terms of the costs they incur and the returns the projects are expected to generate.

The Kingsford-Smith Drive project might be smaller than the East-West Link, but it’s not inconsiderable; ripping up the contract will damage Brisbane’s international reputation, and cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars it doesn’t have and can’t afford to add to the red side of its ledger.

Yet just like everything else the ALP touches where money is a consideration, the City of Brisbane is now firmly in its sights, and the instinct of Labor to buy elections with public money — and get the greasy arses of its latest chosen cabal into positions of power — will win out every time over quaint notions of prudent governance, astute management of the money it is entrusted with, or any consideration beyond slaking its thirst for power at all.

If Harding thinks he can cancel the contract for a major road infrastructure project with nary a care, then he is a fool.

Brisbane’s million voters should not be hoodwinked. There’s a perfect example of what is likely to follow if Harding is elected, and all they need to do is to look at what Daniel Andrews said would not happen in Victoria if he was elected — and that happened anyway, exactly as his conservative opponents forecast.

If this incident is indicative of Harding’s credentials as a prospective Lord Mayor, he deserves to lose, and lose badly.

Harding has proven — as Labor always does — that he will say literally anything to get himself elected. Voters in Brisbane should look at the precedent set by his mate Daniel Andrews, and re-elect Quirk in a landslide.

*I’ll be in Brisbane on Thursdays, not Tuesday, this year, between March and June at any rate. We’ll see if the traffic is any different later in the week and if it is, I’ll dutifully rescind my criticism of Harding’s story in this column. Stay tuned. But don’t hold your breath.