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Disclose infrastructure contracts earlier, former min agrees

State governments are overly protective of commercial information to the detriment of transparency, one former state minister has told The Mandarin, backing a federal frontbencher’s call for more disclosure.

In what was seen by some as a rebuke to the Victorian government over its secrecy around East West Link, federal Assistant Minister for Infrastructure Jamie Briggs says states should make public the business cases on major infrastructure projects more often and earlier. He told The Australian Financial Review:

“I’m for more transparency … We need to come to an agreement with the states and Infrastructure Australia for a format or a set of information we can release early on which doesn’t give away the game as far as tenderers are concerned.”

Afterwards, the junior minister told ABC Local Radio:

“… we think, and the states agree, mind you, that there can be additional information which can assure the taxpayer that they are getting the best value for the spend that we are making on their behalf.”

Briggs’ statements came as transport ministers from Australia and New Zealand met in Tasmania for the biannual Transport Infrastructure Council meeting to agree on a standard framework for project assessment.

Paul McLeay, a former New South Wales minister for ports and waters, says the biggest problem is bureaucrats interpreting existing legislation too conservatively.

Generally, although disclosed information technically complies with reporting requirements, he says too often information that should be included is not. Often this is due to erring on the side of caution or “misinterpreting competitive advantage as IP”.

[pullquote] “State legislative frameworks aren’t necessarily bad, but people aren’t interpreting them in the sprit of transparency.” [/pullquote]

“State legislative frameworks aren’t necessarily bad, but people aren’t interpreting them in the sprit of transparency,” said McLeay, who now consults on performance audit reviews. “People think that contracts might be subject to IP or commercial-in-confidence provisions, but once the contract’s issued, really none of it is.”

While there are typically unique methodologies and technology involved in areas like computing that do make the grade as intellectual property, this does not tend to be the case with infrastructure.

Cassandra Wilkinson, a former director of rail and freight policy in the NSW Ministry of Transport, says that “with cleaning primary schools or road maintenance, for example, there’s nothing in disclosing those prices that would betray a piece of clever technology or process”.

Instead, infrastructure costs tend to be found in “off-the-shelf” financial, legal or engineering advice that should not need to be kept in confidence.

McLeay argues it mostly comes down to politics. One key driver in delaying publication is governments wanting to ensure a big announcement for the right time.

This means state governments often use cabinet confidence to cloak big announcements until the perfect moment like an inter-governmental meeting or big speech, though McLeay argues the states should not even really need cabinet confidence measures, as they “don’t really have anything that warrant cabinet confidentiality”.

There’s also “the fear of making decisions that don’t stack up economically on a league table”.

But, he says, “you can’t just rely on one tool in the toolbox to say ‘this is the thing to make it more transparent’. A cultural shift is needed to allow more debate.”

When contract transparency has been increased in the past “the sky has not fallen in”, says McLeay, “but more efficient and value-for-money services get built, and tenders get better … Industry responds swiftly, they will adopt the framework you set.”

He believes it “augurs well when you have the assistant minister putting on the table a set of step changes for transparency in project decision-making processes. This is news for them to involve themselves in the transparency process.”

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He's previously written for The Guardian and Crikey and holds a masters in international relations.