Canberra, we need to talk about politics

As published in City Metric here and The Fifth Estate here. Image by the amazing James Jasper.

For one day we are government

For one day it is our decision that determines the future of our city.

It is up to us to consider all that we see around us, and all we cannot yet see: the future light-rail lines, hospitals, affordable homes and road duplications our politicians have promised; the future people who will join us and to make our population double in the next fifty years; the future influx of traffic on our roads, pupils in our schools, and jobs required to make our economy grow.

Yet nowhere in Australia are people better qualified to have such foresight – to imagine what a future could be even though it is not before their eyes.

Canberra is a city which waited half a century for a dustbowl separating north and south to become a lake. It did not build in between or give up because that’s not what great cities do: great cities have vision, from which comes a plan, to be implemented over decades. In 1963 the Scrivener Dam was opened and Lake Burley Griffin was born.

It is a city where world-class scientists race to discover our future possible, where world-class institutions equip students to make our future achievable, where bureaucrats and officials aim to make our future sustainable.

Canberra does long term. The problem is politics often doesn’t.

Like in late 2014 when a promise to ‘tear up’ a contract to deliver the East West link saw voters in Victoria remove a first term government for the first time in 60 years. The cancellation cost taxpayers $1.2 billion only for the project to reappear last week in the state’s independently produced long-term thirty-year infrastructure plan.

Or here, in Canberra, where a promise to ‘tear up’ a light rail contracts is headlining the election despite an estimated $300 million compensation cost taxpayers will have to cover, the damage it will do investor confidence locally and nationally, and the precedent it sets that long-term projects can be ditched every three or four years.

Politics struggles with long term infrastructure because of the clash of short-term political and long-term infrastructure cycles; the strength of rhetoric relating to cost and debt over value and investment; and the difficulty in communicating a compelling future vision.

If we spend every weekend arguing about the cost of a lawnmower the grass keeps growing regardless. The longer we argue, the longer the grass, the more expensive the lawnmower required to cut it will be.

All evidence shows the population of Canberra is growing. In half a century it will have doubled. Twice as much traffic. Twice as many people requiring homes, schools, hospitals and employment. We can keep arguing about the type of infrastructure required, but the longer the argument, the greater the population, the more expensive (and disruptive) the infrastructure will be.  

The Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Scheme would be too expensive to make happen today. It required action in 1949 to enable it to provide a third of renewable energy to the eastern grid in 2016 and water for $3 billion of agricultural produce. This is how infrastructure works – decades in advance – as it is too expensive not to be of relevance 30 years after it is built, or to be part of broader resilience and sustainability plans.

So to truly consider light rail or any major infrastructure project, voters must zoom out, see the big picture decades from now. The difficulty is politics likes to zoom in.

A shorter four-year cycle supplemented by a daily news cycle means rhetoric becomes about present day cost and not long term value. Spend is equated to present day debt, like a credit card and less as a future investment, like a mortgage. The cost of doing is criticised without consideration of the cost of not doing – by 2031 congestion will cost Australia $53 billion a year.

The key is to find a way to keep the focus zoomed out: to keep infrastructure at arms-length from politics through a bi-partisan long-term plan or an independent body; or, sell, sell, sell the bigger picture – set out a compelling long-term vision of which infrastructure forms a part. We advocate both but we emphasise vision.

Martin Luther King did not inspire by saying ‘I have a plan’. A vision allows cities to have reach beyond their grasp. Constantly pursuing goals which upon achieving are reset to be just out of reach again. Like scientists. Like researchers. Like government. Like Canberra. 

On Saturday we are government.

The present was taken care of by those preceding so listen for long-term, think in decades, and vote for those with vision.

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