Monday, October 17, 2005

Tunnel vision

The new cross-city Sydney Tunnel has turned Old Sydneytown into a cross city. As the contractor/operators have been working through their teething problems to put the bite on Sydney's road users, the Pollies have been hitching a ride on a road to nowhere. It's a case of you get what you pay for, though, near as I can see.
When we moved here 17 years ago, we were aghast at how discombobulated the traffic in and around Sydney was. It took hours to get across Sydney, with no design to the left-over-spaghetti works of a road "system". This notwithstanding that all the area planning maps had beautifully laid out arterial roads to bring order where there was chaos. These planned roads were on the maps for decades.
Trouble was, you see, that no Pollie in her right mind would take on such an infrastructure project. First, hard decisions had to be made, such as do we take down that house, uproot that tree, work hard and fast or succumb to stoppage and union highjack? Do you appease the greenies or unions and road builders and commuters? Were there enough votes in the new, serviced areas to counteract the ones you'd lose by cutting through someone's golf course? More to the point, would it be done in time to see you through the next election, or would the next guy get all the credit?
Turns out Pollies just don't have a gut for public administration. Too much work, not enough lollies. Every disgruntled voter becomes a management issue, getting in the way of proper administration. When it comes to guts and glory, the Pollies only do half the job.
So the Pollies discovered PPPs. For those of you who don't know, that's peepee with one more pee. Public-private partnerships. Those go something like this. The Pollies sit down with business in a cozy and completly secret meeting and agree that the business will develop and operate the infrastucture project. Although it is the public's business to be done, this is accomplished behind a veil of commercial confidence and it's none of the public's business to know any details of the deal that the government doesn't want to reveal. Sweet or sour, you won't find out what they've cooked up.
In return the business will get a guaranteed ("secure" they like to say) income (infrastructure being by its nature monopolistic and necessary for the common good) and, often, all the near term capital gains to be had from the project (such as selling the stock or taking the project public [and ain't that ironic] soon after the project is up and running). The costings are guaranteed to cover the added cost of project finance (as well as the merchant bankers, accountants, lawyers, etc), the costs to the government of doing its own feasibility and other studies and whatever else they can throw into the thing, and provide an incentive to the operator if they achieve different not-too-difficult benchmarks. And if things go really super, the government can get another kick of the can, too.
Oh, and the taxpayer/user pays system picks up the tab.
In return, the Pollies get to play dumb and say they didn't know anything about what a great deal the contractor got and what a piss poor deal the public gets, blame the operators on all the tough and wrong decisions, blame the Pollies who came before them, and perhaps get a neat job with some bank or other when they "step down" from politics.
Oh, and the taxpayer/user pays system picks up the tab.
But you know what? The light at the end of the tunnel is traffic coming your way. In a year's time, this little typhoon in a tunnel will blow through. Sydney is getting pretty close to have a road system that actually does a fair, if temporarily expensive, job of getting people about. It's just about the most expensive way to get the job done, but it does get done instead of just sitting on the planning maps for decades and decades.
So, when Pollies complain about their wages and allowances and pensions not being enough, when they say "you'll only get monkeys if you pay us peanuts", just remind them that you have thrown whole troughs of money at infrastructure and only got pigs.
And don't complain about private enterprise doing the public's dirty work. When politicians say, we can't afford to do infrastructure, ask yourself, will it cost me less if some PPP does it? It's your job to make sure your politicians perform the public duty that they can and should do. If you allow them to be lazy and shirk their jobs and outsource tough decision making, it'll only cost you more. We, as electors, also have some tough decisions to make. We can demand more of our politicians or we can pay the piper.
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