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 There is much talk in Australia of “nation building” projects that will “transform” cities and regions, with massive amounts of capital being expended on such signature projects as the Sydney Metro and Second Harbour Crossing, the Inland Rail “bridge”,  three light rail or tram projects in NSW, and the demolition and replacement of the Sydney Football Stadium.

The names that are most bandied about are Bradfield, Menzies and his Sir John Overall and William Hudson, and the Cumberland County Council. Bob Menzies, Ben Chifley and John Howard are the political touchstones. 

Their work (even if commentators misunderstood the details of history) saw the Sydney Harbour Bridge remove smoky ferries from the Harbour, the Bradfield rail system remove families from slums and put them in “healthy suburbs”, and the Snowy and great water supply dams deliver real services. The far-sighted CCC is said to have reserved corridors for tollways.

The difference between “then” and “now” is that breakdowns in planning integrity, professional administration, community engagement and constructive funding have produced a planning culture that  reverses “nation building”. Malcolm Turnbull is the focus of consternation rather than praise.

Where “congestion busting” is the promise, the effect is to increase congestion; where exciting new funding mechanisms are announced, it turns out they produce massive waste; and where trade and “jobs jobs jobs” is the desired outcome, all three of NSW’s ports face a sad future and disconnection from Inland Rail.  Canberra might get a speedy train but it won’t be a commuter service and it won’t help to build a stronger economy. Where the Nationals are the bedrock of the Coalition, the “bush” keeps losing to “the city”.

Rebuilding community confidence is seen to be the greatest challenge, but the results are increasing cynicism and political instability.

While the transition from PM Turnbull to PM Morrison in late 2018 produced talk of removing Turnbull’s barnacles”, it created few ripples on the ponds of cronyism in Labor or Liberal NSW, and in the Labor ACT.

John Howard’s poll-winning “For all of us” took office off Paul Keating in 1996.  It reflected his argument that the Keating government had lost touch with the electorate, and was providing government for insiders, by insiders.

He was determined to govern directly, rather than through agencies long compromised by Labor appointments and influence, and voluntary bodies intrinsically hostile to Howard’s world view, subsidised and kept in line by federal cash. Both Turnbull and NSW Premiers Mike Baird and Gladys Berejiklian repeated the “for all” mantras, with Turnbull’s aphorisms including “there is no place for ideology at all”.

Privilege and influence continued regardless, being parlayed through lobbies, Party fund-raising and mates’ circles, and factional allies and enemies. There were oscillations within predictable bounds over the next decades, until 2015 and the ascension of the boardroom ideologue, Malcolm Turnbull (in partnership on all issues, he said, with his wife Lucy).

Monumental tussles had been waged between the energy-conservative streams of the Coalition led by Tony Abbott, and the “doctors’ wives” streams of Turnbull’s urban and neo-gen adherents. Turnbull made his second tilt at Abbott and the Coalition disintegrated.

The ideological side was partly seen where Turnbull shared the NSW Coalition’s obsession with shiny urban toys such as the HK-cum-Melbourne metro trains, replacing the Bradfield legacy double-decked trains; and light rail or trams, replacing buses (which largely ran along previous tram routes). 

In so doing he was acting deliberately against professional advices, including by the Liberals’ former top Premier, Nick Greiner, who was briefly chairman of the supposed reform body, Infrastructure NSW, before the State Government’s muse, Gladys Berejiklian, forced him out (over the shiny toys). 

The NSW Treasury was reduced in responsibility and scope in 2011-12, ironically when, first, it then became headed by the current CEO of Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s national Treasury;  second, Berejiklian broke core election promises;  and third, NSW stopped the COAG-led “city plan” protocols.

Both Parties buried these factors even though they grew “like Topsy” into city-killing parasites. That came from a lack of understanding as well as influences by shared lobbies. There remain no “plans” in housing, congestion, metro trains and trams, tollways, airports, regional development and freight and ports. Hence the reversal of nation building.