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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 17-Dec-2005

Edition: First

Section: Spectrum


Page: 27

Wordcount: 1265

Ten years on the spin cycle



The State Government’s public-private partnerships – often kept quiet – are delivering abysmal results, writes ELIZABETH FARRELLY.

Premier Morris Iemma’s announcement of full taxpayer funding for the Kurnell desalination plant may prove that his Government, however long in the tooth, is still capable of learning.

That’s one possibility. In committing $1.3 billion of public money to the plant, Iemma hopes to avoid having to buy water from a private contractor whether we need it or not. What the move emphasises, though, is just how badly the Sydney public has been served by recent public-private partnerships, or PPPs.

We typically see this substitution of spin for fact as a Carr Government trait, but it shows no signs of waning. The thing about spin is it saves you from having to do anything, and doing is much more expensive than saying. As the former auditor-general Tony Harris noted recently: “Gone is the idea that governments should lead and should challenge vested interests. It has been replaced by Carr’s model: a government should act more like a concierge, offering modest assistance … but not intervening.” And the PPP is, of course, perfect for a government committed to non-intervention.

Ten years on the spin cycle, though, has taken its toll on public assets. And chances are there’s more – as in less – to come.

Exhibit A: the tale of two tunnels. While the Lane Cove Tunnel brought us the spectacular evening-news embarrassment of second-floor bedrooms dropping into private-sector holes in the ground, the Cross City Tunnel gave us the more serious (but less entertaining) intricacy of secret Government commitments to increase city congestion in order to force voters and taxpayers off their own roads and into the gently smiling jaws of the private sector. For the Government, the sin lay not in the doing, but in the being caught. If only, you can hear them think, the wretched public had never found out. Now that we do know, though, the whole PPP notion has a distinctly less enticing aroma.

Nor is PPP-blight limited to roads. Suddenly, the Government’s long refusal even to consider the glaringly obvious transport remedy of a CBD light-rail system linking the sports and entertainment venues, the University of NSW and the eastern suburbs is explained. What they were conscious of all that time, and we were not, was the covert agreement they’d signed requiring them to sterilise not just roads but also public transport initiatives within the tunnel’s main catchment area. Sneaky, huh?

In other words, not only has the Government been neglecting public transport, which we knew all along. It has, in effect, been paid $100 million to undermine it.

Such crossed agendas produce some ironies, such as the contortionist antics in which the Government will engage simply to avoid building a simple railway station. At Parramatta, for instance, the much-touted transport interchange (aka station redevelopment) is due to open at any moment. It couldn’t be just a station, though – of course not. It needed shops and commercial space to generate revenue.

Retail, though, requires pedestrian flow. To get it, the Government compulsorily acquired a number of properties along Argyle Street, selling them to Westfield with no open tender but negotiating directly for an undisclosed sum. The result, which was then approved by the Government-dominated Central Parramatta Planning Committee, is the newly engorged Westfield shopping and cinema complex, due any moment to start sucking the remaining blood from old Church Street.

Not only does the public get to spend after-tax dollars in plasticised shop-till-you-drop-land, it also gets the public spaces of its town, as potential competition for that shopping centre, destroyed. Now that’s what I call PPP.

Or take the Chatswood Station debacle. There were three turn-of-the-century buildings left at Chatswood station: the pretty brick-and-timber signal box, the side platform and the parcels building. The entire group was listed on the State Government’s own S.170 register as “rare”: historically, architecturally, socially rare. They were highly prized by locals, historians and rail buffs. And yet, on Boxing Day last year, the day the tsunami hit, the Government demolished them.

Why? Because a station is not a station but a development opportunity. And although architect Bruce Edgar, for one, had prepared detailed plans showing how the proposed towers could cohabit with the heritage buildings, the Government wasn’t having a bar of it. Whammo – a nice clear site for three towers up to 40 storeys high, as announced by Planning Minister Frank Sartor in August, as well as shopping and – wait for it – “improvements to the public domain”.

It’s as though some paving and a water feature will change the fact that Chatswood has no public realm to speak of. Higher densities around rail lines is a laudable thing, of course, but if you think this development is meant to encourage public transport use, remember, there’s also provision for 501 new car spaces.

Meanwhile, the Parramatta-Chatswood rail line that was to link these two PPPs has died, to be replaced by “transit ways” – aka bus roads. Like the one that will service the Rouse Hill city centre, due to come on line in 2008 – despite the fact there is a perfectly good rail line just far enough from the designated Rouse Hill city centre to be of no earthly use to it in transport terms.

Meanwhile, controversial widening proposals for both major routes across the Blue Mountains – the Great Western Highway and the Bells Line of Road – involve the kind of destruction you might have thought we were finished with: obliterating the working-class village of Lawson, on the one hand, and World Heritage areas on the other. But we do love roads.

As Malcolm Turnbull said in his recent talk on sustainable cities at Town Hall: “Distance is a temporal, not a linear, concept. And yet the [State] Government’s answer has been to speed up the cars and slow down the trains.”

Turnbull commended to his rapt audience the Federal Government’s Sustainable Cities Report and AusLink’s proposed $1.8 billion freight-rail expenditure over five years. What he omitted to note, however, is that Canberra’s proposed expenditure on roads across the country is more than four times that amount: $4 billion on local roads between 2000 and 2006, plus $3.4 billion on major highways.

Still, it was a good speech. It made you wonder just what life might be like in a land where politics was concerned more with fact than fiction. On desalination, Turnbull recalled Carr’s famous “bottled electricity” put-down, the energy appetite of desalinated water being almost five times that of the recycled sort. And desalination wastes water, as well. Then again, the Government profits from use and wastage, water and electricity. Where’s the conflict in that?

Regarding recycling’s “yuk factor”, Turnbull pointed out that if reverse osmosis, which is really just filtering, can get salt out of seawater, it can certainly get the shit out of waste. Ask God – he’s been recycling water for a while, dropping the filtrate from the skies. No one complains about that.

What God may not have considered, though – and this is my Christmas offering – are the commercial possibilities inherent in wastewater recycling (read: oceans). If God were as smart as the NSW Government, he could be paid for the energy wastage and the water wastage. As it is, God just does the wash, while government sticks on the spin cycle.


DRAWING: By Richard Collins


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