A book by a well-known Australian argues that public transport in this country is “generally slow, expensive’’ and “not especially reliable’’.

This author went further, insisting that, “There just aren’t enough people wanting to go from a particular place to a particular destination at a particular time to justify any vehicle larger than a car, and cars need roads.’’

Clearly, this author has little interest in developing public transport and exploring its potential to increase the sustainability, efficiency and livability of our major cities.

The author?

Tony Abbott.

The book?

Battlelines – a publication the current Prime Minister penned to give Australians an understanding of the ideological basis for his approach to important policy issues.

Given Mr Abbott’s unambiguous antipathy toward public transport, this nation is at a crossroads when it comes to investing in public transport. At a time when we need to carefully consider each and every means at our disposal to boost economic productivity and create jobs, Mr Abbott is turning his back on urban rail projects that can smash traffic congestion, which acts as a handbrake on productivity growth.

He says the states should invest in rail while the Commonwealth should “stick to its knitting’’ and invest in roads.

I’m all for building new roads. In six years as the nation’s first Minister for Infrastructure, I doubled the roads budget. This led to the building or upgrading of 7500km of roads.

But roads are only one part of the urban transport equation.

Urban passenger rail cannot be ignored.

However, urban rail will be ignored by Mr Abbott in his first Budget in May. He has made clear he will strip billions of dollars from the existing Commonwealth Budget allocated for urban rail projects like the Melbourne Metro, Brisbane’s Cross-River Rail project and the Perth Airport link.

That is not in anyone’s interests, least of all commuters, whether they use public transport or drive to work.

To justify its position, the government argues that if it lifts road funding, states will have more resources to spend on urban rail.

There are two fundamental problems with this policy.

Firstly, it assumes that state governments have the resources to fund the big, game-changing urban rail projects that will drive productivity gains and jobs growth.

They don’t.

In January, the then WA Treasurer Troy Buswell, responding to a call from Joe Hockey for the states to pump prime the economy by accelerating infrastructure spending, was unequivocal.

“We are not in a position to do so,’’ he said. “We won’t be at the hall for that dance.’’

The second problem with the Government’s rigid view of the intergovernmental division of labour on transport is that it ignores the need for Commonwealth leadership to ensure spending on transport is properly integrated.

There’s no point in the Commonwealth working away in one silo on roads while the states operate in another on rail projects.

Someone has to set a direction.

That’s why the previous Labor Government created a Major Cities Unit within the Department of Infrastructure.

One of Mr Abbott’s first acts in government was to abolish the Major Cities Unit.

He is vacating the urban policy field.

This is a mistake.

Labor believes that serious nation builders do not limit themselves by wearing ideological blinkers.

We will always support whichever transport project – road or rail – can be shown by independent expert research to deliver the greatest productivity gain for the community.

Roads are just as important as railway lines.

A full bus can take 40 cars off the road. A freight train can take hundreds of trucks off the road.

To identify the relative merits of competing proposals for road and rail projects, governments need expert advice. That’s why the previous Labor Government created Infrastructure Australia, made up of experts tasked with providing an independent evidence base about the potential for projects to boost national productivity.

But Mr Abbott has legislation before the Senate that will destroy Infrastructure Australia’s independence by allowing the Minister for Infrastructure to issue orders about what it can and cannot study. Under the changes, the minister can order Infrastructure Australia to exclude certain classes on infrastructure, such as public transport, from its considerations.

The Government also proposes to give itself the power of veto over Infrastructure Australia publishing its research.

Transparency was at the heart of Labor’s design of Infrastructure Australia. We wanted the public and the investment sector to have access to the same information as the government so they could see where we were headed and make their own judgments about the wisdom or otherwise of government investment decisions.

We need an independent Infrastructure Australia to ensure that all modes of transport – including public transport (bus and rail), are on the table when it comes to the broad infrastructure debate.

The Business Council of Australia, the Urban Development Institute of Australia and Infrastructure Australia itself have rejected the changes as an attack on Infrastructure Australia’s independence.

Australia is one of the most urbanised nations in the world.

It is crucial that we get the planning right.

While Mr Abbott talks a lot about infrastructure investment and economic productivity, he fails to understand the need to provide the investment and leadership to link the two.

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