ACT Government’s malady of constantly playing catch-up is worth remedying

Ian Bushnell 9 February 2020 41
Rachel-Stephen Smith and Chris Steel

Health Minister Rachel-Stephen Smith and Transport Minister Chris Steel have both had to take action on issues that should have been foreseen. Photo: File.

From light rail to bus routes to the hospital system, it seems the ACT Government just can’t seem to get its forecasts right.

Last week, Transport Minister Chris ‘Mr Fixit’ Steel announced extra light rail services on top of sweeping changes to the hardly broken-in bus network, while Health Minister Rachel Stephen Smith tipped $60 million into the hospital system to keep EDs staffed and elective surgeries happening due to “unforeseen” demand.

Surprise, surprise, commuters love travelling on a direct mass transit system that is new, shiny, clean and efficient, particularly when it has replaced bus services. And while Mr Steel says the network changes are based on six months of feedback and data, an extensive consultation before its launch last April produced many of the same concerns that eventually forced the minister’s hand.

Even the extra funding for more drivers was something the Transport Workers Union had predicted would be necessary.

In short, one didn’t need a crystal ball to see the government would have to backtrack on Network 19 and boost light rail services.

The ACT hospital system has been the sick ward of the nation in terms of performance for years, whether that be for poor ED waiting times or how much it costs to treat patients.

Doctors believe Canberra Hospital simply does not have enough beds for it to operate efficiently.

Ms Stephen-Smith argues the ACT’s circumstances are exceptional, with more complex cases and higher population pressures than those in other jurisdictions, although there is little evidence that we are so different to produce the parlous performance results that dog the ACT health system and Canberra Hospital in particular.

As soon as the Centenary Hospital for Women and Children opened in 2012 it became apparent that it was not able to meet demand, with new mums bundled out the door as soon as possible.

It has been a work in progress ever since and the latest $50 million expansion is under way, symbolic of how things appear to be done in the ACT.

Arriving back from Brisbane last weekend at the Canberra Airport, I noted its spacious halls and the ease with which travellers pass through. The architecture helps but the owners have obviously factored in expected growth in population and travellers so the facility can cope well into the future.

If only governments were so practical.

Canberra Hospital

Canberra Hospital continues to dogged by performance issues. Photo: George Tsotsos.

Crystal ball gazing is always a risky business but the government has some tools at its disposal to ensure reasonable predictions that allow it to plan properly for services and infrastructure, and hopefully build in capacity for growth.

It seems the bureaucrats either can’t crunch the data properly or the government feels it has to cut its cloth according to what’s in hand, resulting in projects and services that fall short and require subsequent stages, retrofitting or boosts as pressures become apparent.

For former Labor chief minister Jon Stanhope, a constant critic of the Barr Government, and University of Canberra colleague Dr Khalid Ahmed, our hospitals predicament was all too predictable.

In their recent blog at the UC Policy Space, they argue the current levels of demand for hospital services in the ACT and its rate of growth were both anticipated and planned for as early as 2008, with former health and chief minister Katy Gallagher steering a $1 billion expansion that would have provided a further 400 beds.

But when Ms Gallagher left for the Senate in 2015, the government under new Chief Minister Andrew Barr dumped the plan in favour of the watered down Surgical Procedures, Interventional Radiology and Emergency Centre (SPIRE) proposal for the Canberra Hospital, which will still fall short of what is required.

Mr Stanhope and Dr Ahmed say that a withdrawal of funding in real terms forced bed closures, causing a shortfall in 2017-18 of 126 beds.

They say SPIRE, due to be completed in 2024, will only deliver 148 beds, about a third of the number originally planned, and almost a decade late, “by which time it is estimated an additional 400 beds will be required over the 2017-18 bed numbers based on the current growth estimates.”

“In short, if SPIRE was operational today it would be fully utilised and a further two similarly sized hospital bed supply projects would still need to be delivered by 2024 in order to meet currently estimated growth in demand for hospital beds.”

The bureaucrats did their job but political priorities changed.

It may be that the ACT simply can’t afford it all, all at once, but surely it is folly to ignore the forecasts that public servants produce and instead underestimate demand in the hope that inadequate budgets can be met. And it’s false economy to build infrastructure and develop services that will not do the job they were meant to, and then have to fix a self-created problem.

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41 Responses to ACT Government’s malady of constantly playing catch-up is worth remedying
Arthur Arthur 3:41 pm 16 Feb 20

Why not fund it out of the people sponging off ratepayers by registering their cars for 15 years+ while ownig and living in a house in the ACT. Top that with negating of their 3rd party insurance the ACT government could start catch-up on that, the way all states do.

Remember too, not only are rates higher because of it, you or one of your kids might be the one’s run down by an uninsured driver the ACT government deliberately turns a blind eye too.

    Arthur Arthur 2:22 pm 17 Feb 20

    Oops – living permanently in ACT but register their vehicle in country NSW that is.

Andrew Trousdell Andrew Trousdell 8:27 am 12 Feb 20

single lane GDE comes to mind as well as all the roads up in Gungahlin that are constantly being widened... planning is definitely a weakness

HiddenDragon HiddenDragon 9:06 pm 10 Feb 20

Enlightening as the piece on health funding is, it may be that Mr Stanhope is seeing things a little differently now that he is no longer weighed down by the burdens of office – let us not forget this (including the admirably plucky spin from John Hargreaves) –

Getting back to the question of health funding, it’s worth remembering all those roadside signs during the 2016 ACT election campaign which told us that we could have light rail, and a new hospital – there must have been some (very) fine print at the bottom of those signs about exactly what was meant by a “new hospital”.

Aldith Graves Aldith Graves 8:00 pm 10 Feb 20

Unfortunately the ACT doesn’t get the funding that places like WA get for infrastructure, swimming pools or hospitals.

Come to WA & be green with envy about all these facilities & the pace with which they keep being expanded.

There are many good lessons to be learned on integrating train/tram transport with public bus travel with bus stations adjacent to train stops & very regular services.

Friday nights & weekends & you see hundreds of people coming & going to major sporting events by public transport.

Maybe the whole approach to where trams travel needs to be reassessed with bus stations put in to take local people home.

Eg a route that travels the Tuggrenong Parkway with bus stations to service Weston Creek/Molonglo, Woden Inner Tuggrenong, Tuggrenong Town Centre might be a better fit if regular local buses did the rest.

A line linking the Parliamentary triangle to Woden that services major officesruns along Yarra Glen & drops off at Deakin shops, the exit to Curtin Hughes, Woden might work well with the other line allowing for fast movement between major interchanges & buses home

Robyn Holder Robyn Holder 7:16 pm 10 Feb 20

Have a look around Australia and see which govt is doing the best. Clue: it is NOT a Liberal state. Our ACT govt is improving infrastructure and public transport with little help from where the funding is supposed to originate. Stop sucking up to ACT Liberals Canberra Times. They are every bit as bad as the federal mob.

    Lexie Donald Lexie Donald 9:37 pm 10 Feb 20


    Most expensive

    Worst services

    Yuuuuh nuh

Stuart Doyle Stuart Doyle 2:49 pm 10 Feb 20

As far as I remember, the Canberra Times ran a huge anti - light rail narrative (don't you remember, Ian Bushnell?) and here we are, 9 months into the service and it's so successful that they're putting extra services on. I'd hardly call this a "backtrack", more like a resounding success! Maybe it's people in the media who poo pood the idea that should now backtrack and admit they got it wrong!

bj_ACT bj_ACT 1:58 pm 10 Feb 20

The article and comments below highlight what a parlous state the ACT Liberal party is in.

Years of ACT Government mistakes and mishaps. Years of budget errors and electoral based project funding manipulation, yet Jon Stanhope provides the clearest and best articulated opposition view of the government.

I do agree with with other respondents that Stanhope needs to be taken with a grain of salt, but he and his excellently skilled and experienced comrades have things right around things like the tax system changes and real estate development problems, but other canberra issues are part of multiple previous Chief Minister and Fed Government makings.

Nathan Bennett Nathan Bennett 1:58 pm 10 Feb 20

"They need to predict every problem and solve them before they arise without any mistakes." Thats a pretty high mark to set for any human or organisation.

Acton Acton 1:15 pm 10 Feb 20

Come back Jon Stanhope and Gary Humphries. All is forgiven. We need you.
If Jon and Gary launched a new party led by themselves, what a team that would be.

Tammy Marie Tammy Marie 1:12 pm 10 Feb 20

And not just transport needs. The needs and importance of the family and the community. I could go on.

Anura Samara Anura Samara 12:19 pm 10 Feb 20

The issue for governments is that if they built infrastructure based on future needs, with only a fraction in use of day one, everyone will complain about wasted money! I’m in favour of the approach for building for the future (like the NBN) but we have to accept that there will be unused capacity in the short term.

    Garry Mayo Garry Mayo 2:12 pm 10 Feb 20

    Nah do less than you need, works for the Morrison government on bushfires and climate change!

Warren Morris Warren Morris 11:21 am 10 Feb 20

This has always been the case for the ACT government. Remember when they built the GDE with only 1 lane each way.....

It was a traffic jam from the day it opened.

Then they spent a fortune on ripping up a heap of work and landscaping to build the second carriageway which should have been built to begin with! 🙄

    Loris Manns Loris Manns 11:37 am 10 Feb 20

    Warren Morris same with Horse Park Drive. Should have been 4 lanes from the start. Crazy!

    Mark Chapman Mark Chapman 12:17 pm 10 Feb 20

    Even back when Gungahlin Drive proper was being duplicated, it was only done at the traffic lights at first, then almost immediately the crews were back to duplicate the rest of it.

    Shan Weereratne Shan Weereratne 12:35 pm 10 Feb 20

    Gundaroo Drive ???? 4 years to duplicate 2.8 kms of roadway 25 years after it was built as a single carriageway with thousands of traffic accidents and major blockages within that period.

    Is this sheer Imcompetancy or just gross nonchalance towards Canberrans?

    Alan Hartcher Alan Hartcher 12:52 pm 10 Feb 20

    The GDE was never duplicated until it could be leveraged as an election bribe to the populace, just like 90% of the other big projects that happen round here.

    There may be problems in the management and rollout of projects, but the core problem begins right at the minister holding the bag.

    Why are we keeping our heads in the sand and refusing to fix that problem too?

    Justin Watson Justin Watson 1:50 pm 10 Feb 20

    Alan Hartcher Because as soon as expenditure is mentioned in one part of the city, the opposition uses that as leverage to win votes and play the jealousy game. Both parties are at fault, but it is not just in the ACT, it is all over Australia and the globe this is happening. The other party can never have a good idea, so they attack all policies regardless of whether it is actually beneficial or not. If both parties agreed on spending $210 million for the dual carriageway GDE then it would have been built from the start. Instead, they built single lane for $140 million, with bridge infrastructure in place for duplication.

    Kerstin Mahoney Kerstin Mahoney 2:19 pm 10 Feb 20

    ACT Gov loves to build suburbs but no infrastructure until years later when traffic is horrendous then make it worse by starting to build one lane roads and take further years to fk up.

    Julie Patricia Smith Julie Patricia Smith 3:22 pm 10 Feb 20

    Warren Morris this is the false economy since self government with the misguided idea that delaying provision of expensive public infrastructure is cost less. The truth is that it shifts costs to the people who would otherwise have used the roads schools or hospitals etc that are only belatedly provided

    For the past two decades this has been how governments have denied the residents of Gunghalin

    Sean Cryer Sean Cryer 4:34 pm 10 Feb 20

    Warren Morris but our government is so pRoGReSsiVe😂

Darron Marks Darron Marks 10:55 am 10 Feb 20

$100 million + per year is on average what it costs to run and maintain the bus network. And yes it runs at a loss so that is a secondary debate about the fundamental primary purpose of public transportation.

So yes you could have buses to everyone's door step but it comes with a $ tag. So the efficiency of the network is what I would hope is the Governments major priority.

    Shan Weereratne Shan Weereratne 12:39 pm 10 Feb 20

    Darron Marks, just hand it over to the private sector.

    Bill Gemmell Bill Gemmell 12:57 pm 10 Feb 20

    But isn't the real point of the article here (even though not quite articulated) that decisions on investment in services and infrastructure are made without the best available information being harnessed. For example, "the answer is light rail now go and justify it". BTW, I do think light rail was the correct answer just without good data on travel patterns the amount to be provided was probably estimated by some character while lodging their internet betting wagers.

Deborah Mesman Deborah Mesman 10:48 am 10 Feb 20

The biggest issue for a lot of these projects is public buy in. The only way forward is to start small and expand once it’s accepted - it’s a problem for all governments trying to implement projects designed for the future - the electorate is often reluctant to look to the future and won’t be ‘led’ regardless of the merits.

    Maria Greene Maria Greene 12:01 pm 10 Feb 20

    Deborah Mesman future? With 19th century technology and a stuff up of southside buses. Great start by complete incompetents

    Anura Samara Anura Samara 12:15 pm 10 Feb 20

    Deborah Mesman cars are 19th century technology so we should stop building new roads!

bj_ACT bj_ACT 10:07 am 10 Feb 20

Excellent article. I think we can all except that unexpected events happen which mean the government will have to change course sometimes.

The problems with the Bus network changes and the pressures on the ACT health system were absolutely obvious to many with even just a passing interest or a need for buses and hospitals.

If Minister Steele needed six months to work out the new Bus network was broken, I presume it’s taken 3 hours of standing in the rain this morning for him to decide to open up his umbrella?

Jim Jim Jim Jim 9:55 am 10 Feb 20

Can’t we just dust off Jon Stanhope to replace the current mob?

    Bill Gemmell Bill Gemmell 1:00 pm 10 Feb 20

    Jim Hosie but were health and transport any better under this former CM? Isn't it the reality that a pumped up municipality isn't equipped well enough to take on big ticket items?

    Jim Jim Jim Jim 1:09 pm 10 Feb 20

    Bill Gemmell the states seem to manage and our rates are high enough. Like the states it’s up to Mr Barr to lobby the feds for additional funding for big ticket items.

    Bill Gemmell Bill Gemmell 11:27 am 11 Feb 20

    Jim Hosie been hearing that for a long time

    Jim Jim Jim Jim 1:41 pm 11 Feb 20

    Bill Gemmell nature of the beast

Loris Manns Loris Manns 8:50 am 10 Feb 20

If only they listened to what the people want/need instead of what they want!

    Jorge Gatica Jorge Gatica 8:58 am 10 Feb 20

    Loris Manns it’s what happens when they’re I power for so long

    Loris Manns Loris Manns 10:35 am 10 Feb 20

    Jorge Gatica yes exactly! Time to go!

chewy14 chewy14 7:58 am 10 Feb 20

The changes here have almost zero to do with poor planning and everything to do with trying to minimise costs.

But it is an election year, so let’s ring in the changes, “improvements” and pork barrels.

But particularly with the commentary about the upgrades to the hospital, where is the additional funding coming from to provide these extra hundreds and hundreds of beds that are apparently needed? Has anyone read the budget lately?

I would also read anything that John Stanhope writes with a massive grain of salt these days, a large number of “problems” that he identifies actually either existed when he was chief minister or were actually exacerbated through the policies of his own government. Someone seems to have a massive chip on his shoulder.

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