Signals crossed

Overlapping portfolios but underwhelming transport results.

Bill Barwood

The NSW Government has 42 ministerial portfolios serviced by 22 ministers, including the premier, but only nine identified departments: Premier and Cabinet, Treasury, Police and Justice, Education and Communities, Family and Community Services, Health, Trade and Investment, Regional Infrastructure and Services, and Planning and Environment.

The remaining 33 portfolios are scattered across the total ministry with, in some cases, one minister having three or more portfolios.

There is an absence of plain English from which one would expect the title of the portfolio to explicitly define the function of that portfolio.

Among the nine departments we have two — Education and Communities and Family and Community Services — having something to do with the community.

There are similar mixes in the Federal Abbott ministry which has 48 ministers, assistant ministers and parliamentary secretaries.

There are 21 ministers in the federal cabinet including the prime minister, and here again there is no minister for roads or minister for transport. There is only a Minister (Cabinet) for Infrastructure and Regional Development (the Deputy Prime Minister, Warren Truss).

The most nebulous of all the responsibilities assumed by government is that of “infrastructure”. This would have to be the most glibly used term, and seems to be applied to anything and everything. Announcements that money is to be spent on “infrastructure” end up having an anaesthetising effect on people.

Interestingly, in NSW the Minister for Infrastructure is the Premier, Mike Baird, while the Deputy Premier, Andrew Stoner, is the Minister for Regional Infrastructure and Services.

As well as these, two other ministerial portfolios cover similar territory — that of Transport, Gladys Berejiklian, who only has responsibility for transport services in the Sydney area and not railtrack west of the mountains, and Roads and Freight, Duncan Gay, who makes all the announcements regarding unused railway lines in rural, regional and remote NSW.

These regional lines, in effect, are slowly being privatised by stealth. Thus the nebulous nature of infrastructure regarding rail use in NSW allows a privatisation process to continue unquestioned.

There is a vast bureaucracy in NSW that sets policy over a wide range of matters such things as ports, ferries, buses, light rail, roads and maritime services, Sydney Rail and the state’s regional rail — a bureaucracy similar to the faceless men and the backroom boys of years gone by.

Procrastination is the order of the day. This explains such messes as Badgerys Creek as a political paralysis exists wherein the Federal Government won’t make decisions that affect State responsibilities while the State considers certain matters as being outside its responsibility.

It is a marvel that the Snowy Mountains Scheme was ever built after World War 1, when shortages of materials and man-power were critical.

An efficient national road/rail network could have been built in Australia — the Federal Government has the power to carry this out under the Constitution, s. 51 and s. 98. This is also the case under the Australian Land Transport Act (1998) s. 7(1), 7c, and s. 11 and s. 12.

NSW justified the action of corporatising rail in 1996 to comply with National Competition Policy and the Trade Practices Act, under s. IV. But rural, regional and remote NSW railway lines, if not now leased (privatised), continue to remain unused and are expected to remain as such for an indefinite period.

The Commonwealth also corporatised all interstate tracks in 1998. The original concept was the development of a National Rail Track equivalent to the National Highway established in 1974. This National Rail Track has still not been declared under s. 7 of the Australian Land Transport Development Act 1998. If this were to occur, funding for rail could automatically be provided commensurate with that provided for roadworks.

There is a lesson to be learnt from the tsar who designed and constructed Russia’s rail network in the 19th century.

Anyone who has travelled from Moscow to St Petersburg by train knows about the method used to build that line.

A ruler was placed on the map, a straight line was drawn in pencil and followed by the instruction, “Build it!”.

Bill Barwood is a retired teacher.