When Canberra’s voters go to the polls tomorrow, they need to think long term

The legislative assembly of the Australian Capital Territory. Image: Bidgee/Wikimedia Commons.

This Saturday, the Australian Capital Territory goes to the polls to elect its legislative assembly. One Canberra resident thinks it needs to think long term.

For one day, it is our decision that determines the future of our city.

It is up to us to consider all that we see around us, and all we cannot yet see: the future light-rail lines, hospitals, affordable homes and road duplications our politicians have promised; the future people who will join us and to make our population double in the next fifty years; the future influx of traffic on our roads, pupils in our schools, and jobs required to make our economy grow.

Yet nowhere in Australia are people better qualified to have such foresight - to imagine what a future could be even though it is not before their eyes.

Canberra is a city which waited half a century for a dustbowl separating north and south to become a lake. It did not build in between or give up because that’s not what great cities do: great cities have vision, from which comes a plan, to be implemented over decades. In 1963 the Scrivener Dam was opened, and Lake Burley Griffin was born.

It is a city where world-class scientists race to discover our future possible, where world-class institutions equip students to make our future achievable, where bureaucrats and officials aim to make our future sustainable.

Canberra does long term. The problem is, politics often doesn’t.

Like in late 2014, when a promise to tear up a contract to deliver the East West link saw voters in Victoria remove a first term government for the first time in 60 years. The cancellation cost taxpayers $1.2bn, only for the project to reappear last week in the state’s independently produced long-term thirty-year infrastructure plan. 

Today, here in Canberra, a promise to tear up a light rail contracts is again headlining an election. That’s despite the estimated $300m compensation cost taxpayers will have to cover, the damage it will do investor confidence locally and nationally, and the precedent it sets that long-term projects can be ditched every three or four years.

Politics struggles with long term infrastructure because of the clash of short-term political and long-term infrastructure cycles; the strength of rhetoric relating to cost and debt over value and investment; and the difficulty in communicating a compelling future vision.


If we spend every weekend arguing about the cost of a lawnmower, the grass keeps growing regardless. The longer we argue, the longer the grass, the more expensive the lawnmower required to cut it will be.

All evidence shows the population of Canberra is growing. In half a century it will have doubled. Twice as much traffic. Twice as many people requiring homes, schools, hospitals and employment. We can keep arguing about the type of infrastructure required, but the longer the argument, the greater the population, the more expensive (and disruptive) the infrastructure will be.  

The Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Scheme would be too expensive to make happen today. It required action in 1949 to enable it to provide a third of renewable energy to the eastern grid in 2016, and water for agricultural produce worth $3bn. This is how infrastructure works – decades in advance – as it is too expensive not to be of relevance 30 years after it is built, or to be part of broader resilience and sustainability plans. 

So to truly consider light rail or any major infrastructure project, voters must zoom out, see the big picture decades from now. The difficulty is that politics likes to zoom in.

A shorter four-year cycle supplemented by a daily news cycle means rhetoric becomes about present day cost and not long term value. Spend is equated to present day debt, like a credit card, rather than to a future investment, like a mortgage. The cost of doing is criticised without consideration of the cost of not doing. By 2013, congestion will cost Australia $53bn a year.

The key is to find a way to keep the focus zoomed out: to keep infrastructure at arms-length from politics through a bi-partisan long-term plan or an independent body; or, sell, sell, sell the bigger picture – set out a compelling long-term vision of which infrastructure forms a part.

I’d advocate both – but I’d emphasise vision. Martin Luther King did not inspire by saying, “I have a plan”. A vision allows cities to have reach beyond their grasp. Constantly pursuing goals which upon achieving are reset to be just out of reach again. Like scientists. Like researchers. Like government. Like Canberra. 

On Saturday we are the government. The present was taken care of by those preceding – so listen for long-term, think in decades, and vote for those with vision. 

Kevin Keith tweets as @KevKeith works for not-for-profit built-environment body Consult Australia and blogs here.

 
 
 
 

“A story of incompetence, arrogance, privilege and power”: A brief history of the Garden Bridge

Ewwww. Image: Heatherwick.

Labour assembly member Tom Copley on a an ignominious history.

The publication last week of the final bill for Boris Johnson’s failed Garden Bridge has once again pushed this fiasco into the headlines.

As well as an eye-watering £43m bill for taxpayers for this Johnsonian indulgence, what has been revealed this week is astonishing profligacy by the arms-length vehicle established to deliver it: the Garden Bridge Trust. The line by line account of their spending reveals £161,000 spent on their website and £400,000 on a gala fundraising event, amongst many other eyebrow raising numbers. 

Bear in mind that back in 2012, Johnson promised that the bridge would be entirely privately funded. The bridge’s most ardent advocate, Joanna Lumley, called it a “tiara for the Thames” and “a gift for London”. Today, the project would seem the very opposite of a “gift”.

The London Assembly has been scrutinising this project since its inception, and I now chair a working group tasked with continuing our investigation. We are indebted to the work of local campaigners around Waterloo as well as Will Hurst of the Architects Journal, who has brought many of the scandals surrounding the project into the open, and who was the subject of an extraordinary public attack by Johnson for doing so.

Yet every revelation about this cursed project has thrown up more questions than it has answers, and it’s worth reminding ourselves just how shady and rotten the story of this project has been.

There was Johnson’s £10,000 taxpayer funded trip to San Francisco to drum up sponsorship for the Thomas Heatherwick garden bridge design, despite the fact that TfL had not at that point even tendered for a designer for the project.

The design contest itself was a sham, with one of the two other architects TfL begged to enter in an attempt to create the illusion of due process later saying they felt “used”. Heatherwick Studios was awarded the contract and made a total of £2.7m from taxpayers from the failed project.


Soon after the bridge’s engineering contract had been awarded to Arup, it was announced that TfL’s then managing director of planning, Richard de Cani, was departing TfL for a new job – at Arup. He continued to make key decisions relating to the project while working his notice period, a flagrant conflict of interest that wouldn’t have been allowed in the civil service. Arup received more than £13m of taxpayer cash from the failed project.

The tendering process attracted such concern that the then Transport Commissioner, Peter Hendy, ordered an internal audit of it. The resulting report was a whitewash, and a far more critical earlier draft was leaked to the London Assembly.

As concerns about the project grew, so did the interventions by the bridge’s powerful advocates to keep it on track. Boris Johnson signed a mayoral direction which watered down the conditions the Garden Bridge Trust had to meet in order to gain access to further public money, exposing taxpayers to further risk. When he was hauled in front of the London Assembly to explain this decision, after blustering for while he finally told me that he couldn’t remember.

David Cameron overruled the advice of senior civil servants in order to extend the project’s government credit line. And George Osborne was at one point even more keen on the Garden Bridge than Johnson himself. The then chancellor was criticised by the National Audit Office for bypassing usual channels in order to commit funding to it. Strangely, none of the project’s travails have made it onto the pages of the London Evening Standard, a paper he now edits. Nor did they under his predecessor Sarah Sands, now editor of the Today Programme, another firm advocate for the Garden Bridge.

By 2016 the project appeared to be in real trouble. Yet the Garden Bridge Trust ploughed ahead in the face of mounting risks. In February 2016, despite having not secured the land on the south bank to actually build the bridge on, nor satisfied all their planning consents, the Trust signed an engineering contract. That decision alone has cost the taxpayer £21m.

Minutes of the Trust’s board meetings that I secured from TfL (after much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Trust itself) reveal that weeks beforehand Thomas Heatherwick had urged the trustees to sign the contract in order to demonstrate “momentum”.

Meanwhile TfL, which was represented at board meetings by Richard de Cani and so should’ve been well aware of the mounting risks to the project, astonishingly failed to act in interests of taxpayers by shutting the project down.

Indeed, TfL allowed further public money to be released for the project despite the Trust not having satisfied at least two of the six conditions that had been set by TfL in order to protect the public purse. The decision to approve funding was personally approved by Transport Commissioner Mike Brown, who has never provided an adequate explanation for his decision.

The story of the Garden Bridge project is one of incompetence, arrogance and recklessness, but also of privilege and power. This was “the great and the good” trying to rig the system to force upon London a plaything for themselves wrapped up as a gift.

The London Assembly is determined to hold those responsible to account, and we will particularly focus on TfL’s role in this mess. However, this is not just a London issue, but a national scandal. There is a growing case for a Parliamentary inquiry into the project, and I would urge the Public Accounts Committee to launch an investigation. 

The Garden Bridge may seem like small beer compared to Brexit. But there is a common thread: Boris Johnson. It should appal and outrage us that this man is still being talked about as a potential future Prime Minister. His most expensive vanity project, now dead in the water, perhaps serves as an unwelcome prophecy for what may be to come should he ever enter Number 10.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.