The costs and benefits of infrastructure projects should be published, not kept under the cover of darkness

Gautrain construction taking place in Centurion, Pretoria, part of a metro connecting Johannesburg and Pretoria, from Oliver Tambo International Airport
26 May 2023

Transparency improves tendering processes, reduces the risk of corruption and leads to better infrastructure projects. This means infrastructure that is more closely aligned with community needs and more likely to represent value for money. 

Infrastructure is a highly corruption prone sector with large incentives for various stakeholders to influence decisions about which projects are selected and funded. Governments also routinely use infrastructure announcements to gain support from the electorate. This ‘pork barreling’ approach to infrastructure undermines democracy and can result in projects that are not fit for purpose, do not meet community needs and are not the best use of funds. There is also a risk that decisions can be skewed by undue influence to win contracts worth billions and lasting decades. Labor and the Coalition joining forces to block the Teal’s push for increased scrutiny on large infrastructure projects demonstrate the Labor’s commitment to integrity in government does not match their views in opposition. 

The amendment called changes to a proposed bill that would require a cost/benefit analysis to be done on any project over $100 million before it could be added to the Infrastructure Australia priority list as well as the release of regular audits of the priority list so the public could learn more about the costs and benefits of the projects. 

Infrastructure Minister Catherine King rejected the proposed amendments saying some information was too sensitive to be released. Coalition infrastructure spokeswoman Bridget McKenzie said the amendments would have increased costs and reduced the government’s ability to initiate projects, which she said was fundamental to democracy. 

Back in 2014 Prime Minister Anthony Albanese called for greater transparency and accountability in the sector and pushed for the same requirement of a cost/benefit analysis for projects over $100 million before funding road and rail projects. 

Surely decisions about why a project is funded and the projected benefits and costs are fundamental to democracy and should be made public. Publishing the business case demonstrates that a project is a worthwhile investment and whether it is best approach compared to alternatives. Concerningly it is common practice for governments to announce large infrastructure projects without publishing these assessments, often without even doing them at all, or long after decisions to fund them have been made. For example, the business case for the Victorian Government’s Suburban Rail Loop was released three years after it committed to the project. Initially projected by the State government to cost $50 billion, by 2022 the projected costs had blown out to $200 billion. 

Not conducting or publishing the business case prior to committing funding can result in huge cost blowouts and runs the risk that limited government funding is not being put to the best use. Publishing the business case is necessary for transparency and accountability of decisions but it is also an opportunity to demonstrate the benefits of a proposal to the community and for people to participate in decision making processes. The Albanese government should be supporting measures that bring these decisions out in the open, not blocking them and keeping this information a secret and out of the public’s view.