Hundreds of Coalition ‘press release’ infrastructure projects in the gun

Hundreds of infrastructure projects announced by former Coalition governments are under the gun in a snap review of the Commonwealth building pipeline that could save billions and halt popular works.

The Albanese government has launched a 90-day probe into the $120 billion federal infrastructure pipeline to find savings and scrap unnecessary projects announced to win votes rather than address community needs, clearing the path to cut or delay road and rail ventures.

Infrastructure Minister Catherine King says projects under construction will proceed.

Alex Ellinghausen.

The review, first revealed on Friday, was spurred partly by a spike in material costs driven by supply shocks and a 95,000-person worker shortage that has stretched the ability of construction firms to build dozens of megaprojects announced by states in recent years.

The number of infrastructure items grew from 150 to 800 under the previous Coalition governments and hundreds of these projects, Labor claims, were announced with minuscule funding.

“Importantly for industry, projects under construction will proceed and we have committed to maintain significant infrastructure investment for the medium term,” Infrastructure Minister Catherine King said in a written statement.

“It is time to clean up the mess left by the Liberals and Nationals clogging the pipeline with ‘press release projects’ – announced but unable to be delivered.”

“Easing the pressure on the construction sector will help drive inflation lower and deliver more predictable investment and delivery outcomes from governments.”

States and territories agreed to participate in the audit at a meeting of national cabinet on Friday, but some of them have expressed private worries that crucial projects will be affected.

Government sources in Victoria, Queensland and South Australia confirmed talks were being held with the Commonwealth about either staggering, delaying or cutting jointly funded projects.

In Victoria, the airport rail link will be delayed by years even though early works have begun and the sources said the $16 billion North East Link was also being discussed as a project from which money could be saved, fuelling opposition claims that the Andrews government’s largesse has created an unsustainable budget.

The North East Link is one of Australia’s most expensive roads.

Other projects up for review in Victoria will include the Frankston to Baxter rail, the Shepparton Bypass, the Canterbury Road upgrade, and Geelong fast rail.

In Queensland, changes could be made to the $1.8 billion South-East Queensland City Deal, while the Bruce Highway Brisbane to Sunshine Coast rail extension could also be scrutinised.

A leaked document presented at national cabinet stated: “Recognising the fiscal constraints that all levels of government are currently facing, concurrent action at all levels of government is required to drive much-needed reform in areas including infrastructure, migration, housing and planning, to meet growing demands on our communities”.

After the meeting in Brisbane, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said the Nationals had their “imprint all over the infrastructure program”.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese speaking after national cabinet on Friday.

Dan Peled

“We know the debacle that is Inland Rail, for example, a program that has been going for years, where the costs have blown out to in excess of $30 billion – blown out by more than four times and yet still does not have a path or a plan to get to a port,” he said.

The review will be undertaken by former department secretary Mike Mrdak, Infrastructure Australia acting board member Clare Gardiner-Barnes, and senior West Australian transport bureaucrat Reece Waldock.

A 2020 analysis by the Grattan Institute found state and federal governments spent $34 billion, or 21 per cent, more on transport projects completed since 2001 than they first told taxpayers the works would cost.

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