Development, Economics and finance, Government and governance | Australia

15 June 2020

While executing its stimulus package, the government must fast-track infrastructure projects when they are ripe for investment, but this must not come at the cost of genuine consultation with the public, Sara Bice and Kirsty O’Connell write.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s recent announcement that the nation will fast-track 15 major infrastructure projects to kick-start economic stimulus and drive the COVID-19 economic recovery came as no surprise, and follows state and territory efforts to do the same. But, fast-tracking also brings calls from political and business leaders to cut green and red tape to speed this much-needed stimulus to market.

In making the much-anticipated announcement to Monday’s Committee for Economic Development of Australia State of the Nation Forum, the prime minister answered leaders, including the treasurer, deputy prime minister, and the NSW planning minister, and industry groups, such as the Master Builders Association and the Urban Development Institute of Australia, who have been urging for roadblocks to ‘shovel-ready’ projects to be eliminated.

This includes calls for reduction in red and green tape to allow stimulus to be delivered as quickly as possible. Several states have already made changes to their planning regimes to assist in this and more than $3 billion in state construction and infrastructure projects have been identified to be fast-tracked as part of the stimulus. The Government’s announcement covers $72 billion in public and private infrastructure investment and the creation of an estimated 66,000 jobs.

Support for speedy stimulus is not without precedent. Australia’s recovery from the 2008 Global Financial Crisis and the United States’ response to the Great Depression demonstrate that when a range of high quality infrastructure projects are brought to market quickly they can spur economic recovery, create employment and deliver an intergenerational legacy of useful infrastructure.

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But we also know that if communities believe a project has been pushed through without appropriate consultation it can lead to trouble.

Research from the ANU Institute for Infrastructure in Society demonstrates that where communities and other stakeholders’ concerns are left unaddressed in the planning phase, seeds of community opposition may be sown.

Such opposition is costly, with estimates suggesting around $30 billion in Australian infrastructure projects lost to delays, cancellations, or mothballing. It is also avoidable.

We know that communities, when given the opportunity, generally support projects that respond to a clear community need. Communities also value fair play in terms of how projects are selected, designed, and delivered.

It makes sense then, to look to fast-track projects that have already been socialised with communities and which have already been through some form of public evaluation process.

Infrastructure Australia’s Infrastructure Priority List and the 2019 Infrastructure Audit provide excellent guidance for Australia’s fast-tracked investment, although these projects could benefit from an updated evaluation through a lens of COVID-19 recovery, including potential to fast-track.

Projects that have already consulted with impacted stakeholders and have developed plans that are responsive to stakeholder needs and concerns, for instance, should potentially achieve a higher priority.

Similarly, projects that respond to the likelihood of a cash-constrained economy in the short to medium term, or that support health and community-connectedness, may now deserve reconsidered priority.

Projects that assist in addressing major long-term issues, especially climate change, are also now ripe for investment in the pandemic recovery environment. ANU Crawford School Professor Frank Jotzo and colleagues have even developed economic investment criteria to support such decisions.

We have the knowledge and tools to support community-centred fast-tracking, but that must be prioritised very early in the fast-tracking process.

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Consultation is critical to timely and successful infrastructure project delivery. Our research shows that there are three key aspects of successful consultation. They are: planning, and that includes appropriately scoping and resourcing projects; relationships, which means building trust with impacted communities; and alignment, which includes ensuring that project developers, government, and their contractors are all on the same page.

Projects that work towards engagement excellence are community centred, coordinated, and cost-effective. The Infrastructure Engagement Excellence (IEE) Standards, co-developed with Australia’s infrastructure sector as part of the Institute’s Next Generation Engagement Program, highlight 10 standards to guide successful infrastructure project outcomes.

Where fast-tracking remains under consideration, tools like the IEE Standards can be applied early to assist governments and planning agencies to better evaluate whether a particular project might be suitable to fast-track, from a community perspective.

Where fast-tracking has been recently announced, it is critical that relevant standards are used to ensure that economic stimulus comes not at the expense of local communities. The sooner such actions are taken, the better.

Ideally, proposed investments would result in benefits in the immediate and longer term. But this is possible only with proper and planned community engagement, carried out by skilled professionals.

Consultation has to occur – but that doesn’t mean projects cannot be streamlined. It is absolutely critical, however, that any streamlining is not done at the expense of quality engagement and genuine consultation.

Thorough and early community research is one important way to ensure quality while streamlining projects. Helpful research tools might include ‘pulse’ surveys – carried out regularly with substantial cross-sections of the community, with results publicly available in real-time. Rapid community baseline analysis can also play an informative role.

Communication between project proponents who are delivering or have recently delivered a project in the same geographic area as fast-tracked projects are also key and can assist with rapid benchmarking against like projects.

Tools like these can be combined with focus groups or deliberative methods to encourage public participation and identify the most important features of local communities for preservation or enhancement. They can assist project teams to quickly identify material issues related to impacted communities and begin addressing those issues in design.

Most importantly, they offer tried and proven ways of ensuring that communities remain central to any fast-tracked project delivery. After all, if projects are not for the long-term benefit of Australian communities, their purpose becomes questionable.

The bottom line is that consultation is an essential part of the successful project delivery – especially when governments want to deliver without delay.

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