26 February 2021

Feds' tram splash puts an end to light rail wars as COVID-election loosens purse strings

| Ian Bushnell
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Light Rail

Next stop London Circuit: the Commonwealth funding ensures the future of Stage 2A and signals support for the building the rest of the network. Photo: File.

Two things became clear this week – the light rail wars are over and this is a federal election year.

The Commonwealth’s $132.5 million contribution to light rail Stage 2A from Alinga Street to Commonwealth Park and its likely support for the next section to Woden signals the official cessation of any lingering skirmishes on the future of the project.

At the love-in that passed for a press conference announcing the funding, a one-time opponent of light rail, and the Liberal Party strongman in Canberra, Senator Zed Seselja, declared the people had spoken and was quick to say he had been on board for a while, when asked what had changed his mind.

“As I’ve always said, once the first stage of light rail was completed it made absolute sense to expand that into a network and not just have it from Gungahlin to the city. That debate is over. The question now is making it work and be accessible to as many Canberrans as possible,” he said.

That view didn’t stop his successors as Opposition Leader going to election-after-election opposing it or the party sending mixed messages about it as it did last October.

Light rail has been an electoral graveyard for the Canberra Liberals but now with their Senator fully converted, the issue can be taken off the electoral agenda, except perhaps keeping tabs on its construction and argy-bargy over which areas of Canberra deserves a stage.

As Chief Minister Andrew Barr said, $132.5 million is nothing to sneeze at and it signals a new level of collaboration with the Commonwealth on transport infrastructure.

It suggests that when it comes to the much bigger and more expensive Stage 2B, the Commonwealth will chip in again, particularly as that leg will go through federal land in the Parliamentary Triangle.

“It’s a pretty good basis to have a conversation about Stage 2B,” Mr Barr said.

And Senator Seselja was keen to say that he will be pushing for more funding for transport infrastructure, and that light rail will be one priority.

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Two things have converged to help the ACT’s cause: the need to boost the pandemic-hit economy and the imperative for Prime Minister Scott Morrison to go to the polls this year to capitalise on the Federal Government’s stewardship of COVID-19 and the vaccine roll-out.

Mr Barr thanked everyone from the PM down, with a special call-out to his Treasurer counterpart in National Cabinet, Josh Frydenberg, for being a good listener when pitching spending ideas.

He praised collaborative federalism for delivering practical outcomes such as the light rail funding.

Deputy Prime Minister and Infrastructure Minister Michael McCormack zeroed in this – people don’t care what political stripe you are, they just want outcomes, he said.

Which is all very well when you have announced a $110 billion infrastructure program across the nation, and you can bet there will be plenty of government ads reminding voters just where the money has come from.

If ever there was a stump speech it was Mr McCormack’s exuberant announcement of the Commonwealth’s generosity towards the national capital, and of more to come.

“It won’t be too long before it will be all aboard, all aboard this congestion-busting, job-creating, hope-building, confidence-creating project,” he enthused.

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Senator Seselja, who has been spruiking a $1.4 billion infrastructure bonanza for Canberra, although more than a third of that will be the War Memorial expansion, will be pleased to benefit from the Coalition Government’s beneficence.

Hope springs eternal that the Greens will be able to finally oust him from his Senate seat, despite the maths not adding up, but the recent splurge on roads, bridges, the War Memorial and now light rail can only reinforce the point that having a Liberal senator who, as Mr McCormack says, wears out the carpet in his office in pursuit of cash for Canberra, is more than worthwhile.

Like the gathering at the Alinga Street Station on Tuesday, everyone’s a winner. All aboard, all aboard!

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HiddenDragon8:45 pm 26 Feb 21

“….The question now is making it work and be accessible to as many Canberrans as possible…”

No, Zed, the question is and always will be how we pay for this and whether we could do better with the money – an issue which is much more pressing for Canberrans not blessed with the income of a Senator, let alone a junior minister, as they contemplate relentlessly rising annual rates assessments from the ACT government, along with other rising living costs.

Interestingly (in the sense of the curse about living in interesting times), the pandemic we had a century ago was followed by a decade of what we now call “nation building”, including substantial debt-funded spending on public projects which continued until it became apparent that those projects did not deliver anticipated returns and foreign lenders started raising questions about the “vociferous” levels of borrowing by Australian governments.

We all know what happened next, and to continue with the parallel, with exquisite timing we have today’s reports of Wall Street “jitters” about rising long term government bond rates – a sobering prospect for politicians who have become too fond of boasting that borrowing “has never been cheaper”.

None of the preceding is an argument against government spending – it’s about the priorities for such spending, with this episode illustrating a sad triumph of politics over good public policy in setting priorities.

ChrisinTurner5:44 pm 26 Feb 21

A contribution of less than 1% towards the LR network won’t go far. However this amount would be against the advice of Infrastructure Australia who say LR is “unsuitable” for Canberra. The Business Case for Stage 2 also says it will take almost twice as long to travel Civic to Woden as the existing bus along with half the seats.

I think you believe light rail to be a far bigger election issue than it actually is. I’ve found that outside of here, very few people care one way or another, and about equal numbers support and oppose it.

So in other words this is all about Zed and his election campaign. How surprising.

Having drained the Canberra Liberals he’s “wearing out the carpet” to magically appear with bags of other people’s money and take credit for it.

Another balanced light rail article from, LOL.

“It suggests that when it comes to the much bigger and more expensive Stage 2B, the Commonwealth will chip in again, particularly as that leg will go through federal land in the Parliamentary Triangle.”

Why exactly do you think it’s suggests this?

Canberra Light Rail still doesn’t meet the requirements to be included on the priority infrastructure project list due to the woeful business case.

So the only way it gets funded is by receiving special political treatment outside of the normal, independent infrastructure assessment process. Yes, there’s always the chance of political meddling in these things but it still doesn’t seem there would be any political benefit for the current government to get involved seeing as they won’t be winning any seats here in ALP rusted on Canberra.

It also seems exceedingly strange to see these advocacy articles which are literally promoting pork barreling and wasteful government spending as if it’s a virtue. Particularly when we then see regular articles here bemoaning service delivery and a lack of funding in other areas, yet unable to make the obvious link as to one of the reasons why.

I wholeheartedly agree with your summation here Chewy14.

This is a bit off subject but I’m very interested in the comment you raised about Canberrans being “rusted on” as Labor voters. I know the city is a Labor town, but I don’t know why?

Canberrans pride themselves on being politically savvy and intelligent in regards to policy and government. But it astounds me that, for all their stuff ups, bungling and financial mismanagement, Canberra Labor keep getting elected to government.

its not hard jwinston, just look at the libs and you understand why. they are just too socially conservative for most of us. as well as that every canberran I know (even liberal voters) laughed themselves silly at alistair coes election promises where he tried to convince us that he could simultaneously spend more money and cut taxes to be funded by growing the population…. my four year old has more finacial literacy than that.

The libs will never run canberra again, because there is an alternative for current labor voters which is the Greens.

The Greens will never be a realitisic alternative whilst they refuse to deal with reality when determining their policy platform. They are the party of irrational dreamers.

The main reason the Libs struggle locally is that their Federal counterparts have a preference for small government, hence making the public service smaller. Because so many people in Canberra derive their income from Government expenditure, this fact makes it difficult for the local Libs.

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