Be Wary, We're in Safe Hands


The Rudd Government has made much, since well before coming to office, of its determination to unblock Australia’s infrastructure bottlenecks and to tackle climate change.

I have noted before that unless carefully managed, these two goals will come into direct conflict with each other to the long-term detriment of both. Unfortunately, the appointment of the board of Infrastructure Australia last week does not fill me with confidence that Rudd realises this.

In March, the Government passed enabling legislation for Infrastructure Australia which effectively sidelines the climate change and oil-use implications of infrastructure decisions. Under the legislation, Infrastructure Australia can only consider climate change at the direct request of the Minister.

Throughout the debate on the amendments I had proposed, which were rejected by both Labor and the Coalition, the Government assured the Senate that it took climate change seriously and that we should trust to their bona fides. As I said at the time, perhaps we should trust them, but that is hardly the point. Surely greenhouse implications should be an explicit and core responsibility of a body with a strategic overview of infrastructure. For an issue like climate change, goodwill is not enough.

With Labor having failed the first climate trust test by stretching out its already weak election promises in their first Budget, we need to very carefully consider how the newly announced board of Infrastructure Australia might advise the Government to act. This is particularly important, given the massive $20 billion ‘Building Australia Fund’ the body now has to play with – with no climate strings attached.

In the Senate debate, Senator Conroy made much of the appointment, already announced, of Sir Rod Eddington to chair the new body. Conroy said that in his extensive experience in this area, Eddington "has always examined the climate issues and I do not think you will be disappointed this time. I hope that gives you some comfort".

While it must be remembered that Eddington’s background is in the airline industry – a sector known for its skyrocketing emissions – and that he has also served as a Director of Rio Tinto, his recent experience in providing a strategic overview for infrastructure does make him well qualified for the position. However, the response of many respected Victorian sustainable transport experts to his report into Melbourne’s transport needs does not, in fact, give me any comfort at all.

Indeed, given the legislative situation I described above, it is deeply troubling that, when pressed on the greenhouse implications of Eddington’s Melbourne recommendations, a member of his team told The Age that "Sir Rod was not asked to address the greenhouse problem". If that is the approach he takes with this commission, we are all in serious trouble.

But what of the other members announced last Monday?

In summary, it is firmly skewed to those deeply rooted in the status quo.

With one stand-out sustainability expert and one stand-out voice for the coal sector, the majority are apparently reliable public servants and corporate types who will be ‘safe hands’. This is valuable for ensuring that the pork-barrelling tendency of infrastructure projects is overcome, but a serious problem in terms of turning Australia around to rebuild for a post-carbon economy. The latter will require courageous and imaginative, out-of-the-box planning.

The appointment of Peter Newman to the board is welcome news. If anyone can provide this level of thinking, it is Professor Newman, the Director of the Institute for Sustainability and Technology Policy at Murdoch University. Peter is thoroughly cognisant of the threats of climate change and peak oil and has well-developed ideas of how to reshape our infrastructure to deal with them. All power to him to convince his fellow appointees of his views.

Newman is balanced, however, by Ross Rolfe. Rolfe is more than just a Queensland Labor man, but his time as Coordinator General at the Premier’s Department under Peter Beattie proved that he was no friend of the climate. In a two year hiatus between his directorship of the Department of Environment and Heritage and taking up the position at Premier’s, Rolfe consulted for Chevron Asiatic, Powerlink Qld, the Minerals Council of Australia, Australian Premium Coals Pty Ltd and BHP Coal Division. Since leaving Premier’s, he has been CEO of Queensland’s coal giant, Stanwell Corporation, before joining Babcock and Brown. He is a coal man.

The five senior public servants are all respected achievers of the ‘safe hands’ variety, with Treasury’s Ken Henry the only one I am aware of who might suggest some brave ideas. Terry Moran, the new secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Anthony Kannis of WA Treasury and Kerry Schott of Sydney Water are all pretty much guaranteed not to rock the boat. Jim Hallion, the new Chief Executive of the Department of Transport, Energy and Infrastructure, took a brave decision with the Adelaide to Darwin train line which does not appear to have paid off. Hopefully he will not be once bitten twice shy. Having come out of Primary Industries and Resources South Australia, the minerals and energy promotion arm of South Australia’s public sector, there is a risk he could swing for uranium.

The remaining four are a mixed bunch from the private sector.

Garry Weaven, as chairman of Industry Fund Management, has huge amounts of money to invest in infrastructure across the country. Weaven came out of the ACTU to be a very early entrant into industry super funds. Encouragingly, he has talked of the need for investment in renewable energy as part of the climate challenge.

Mark Birrell, chairman of Infrastructure Partnerships Australia and a former Liberal Minister from Victoria, will do what he can to get the best deal for infrastructure providers. The fact that he warmly applauded Eddington’s vision for Victoria and is a mouthpiece talking up the success of private public partnerships when the evidence is to the contrary is deeply troubling.

And finally, of course, Heather Ridout. Her impeccable industry credentials and restraint in last year’s election have made her the go-to woman for the Rudd Government. Ridout is regarded as the 24th member of Cabinet – just witness Penny Wong’s first speech on climate change delivered at the AIG. She wields tremendous power, it seems. Let’s hope she can show some vision for the long-term benefit of the industry groups she represents.

I took the opportunity last week to write to all these 12 people, sending them a copy of the Senate debate and making sure they are aware of Senator Conroy’s commitment that climate change will be "front and centre" and "one of the key considerations in the decisions [Infrastructure Australia] are going to make".

I assured them that I, like many others, will be watching to make sure that Infrastructure Australia helps, rather than hinders, the vital shift Australia needs to make in the coming decades to become a post-carbon economy.

We shall see the result soon enough.

This article has been edited for accuracy since it was published.


Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.