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BCC Budget 2017 Post 2: Thoughts on the Labor Budget Reply

This morning we heard Labor Opposition Leader, Peter Cumming, speak in reply to Lord Mayor Graham Quirk’s city council budget. I’ll be presenting my thoughts on the council budget and sketching out a bit of an alternative agenda next week.

There was nothing especially surprising or revolutionary about Labor’s budget reply, but I think it serves as an interesting launching point for analysis of how Labor and the LNP differ at the city council level, and where they line up.

Labor and the LNP do diverge on many smaller issues. However Labor has essentially capitulated to neoliberal parameters of debate, which necessarily restricts what they can call for and how ambitious they can be in terms of crafting a different vision for the future of the city.

My general observation is that much of the criticism Labor directed at the LNP did not include clear and specific alternatives. Councillor Cumming seemed to criticise the Liberals for the level of debt they were taking on to fund their projects and programs, but also criticised them for raising rates.

This gives Labor very little wiggle room because it means the next time they get back in power, they open themselves to arguably legitimate accusations of hypocrisy if they then raise rates or take on debt to fund infrastructure.

In kicking off his speech, Councillor Cumming spent a solid chunk of time attacking the LNP for a well-publicised IT cost-blowout that was the subject of a contractual dispute with a private contractor and apparently cost Brisbane City Council around $60 million. We’ve already spent a lot of time in council debating this issue, so while I definitely think it’s worth raising and deserves scrutiny, it maybe didn’t deserve quite so much air-time.

He noted that rate rises in some suburbs had been quite significant, and made the astute observation that last year’s changes to the pensioner rebate on water charges (which effectively means pensioners who move house can lose the rebate) could act as a disincentive for pensioners to downsize. Some people might argue that the higher charges will also encourage older residents with spare bedrooms to take in boarders or tenants, but there are lots of variables that influence those kinds of decisions so it’s hard to know.

Labor also attacked the $25 million that council spends on Brisbane Marketing, suggesting that it’s a waste of money. I’m inclined to agree that there might be better ways to spend that money, but it strikes me as a comparatively small issue to be hammering the Liberals on in the context of a $3 billion budget.

Councillor Cumming also heavily criticised council’s neighbourhood planning process, which I agree is tokenistic and insincere in its approach to community consultation. Labor even suggested some specific positive changes including ensuring a local infrastructure plan is produced and introduced alongside each neighbourhood plan. This would be a great step forward. However I’m mindful that the real question is not necessarily “does infrastructure get included in a plan?” but, “how it will be paid for?” and unless Labor is willing to support more debt-funded infrastructure, vacancy taxes or higher fees and charges on big businesses, this would essentially be a case of moving money around rather than delivering a net increase in local infrastructure.

Labor was saying most of the right things in terms of public transport, again raising the merits of light rail and arguing that under-investment in buses leads more people to drive, thereby increasing congestion. Councillor Cumming noted that many buses are frequently stuck in general traffic congestion, but didn’t once mention transit lanes. I don’t think too much should be read into this omission except to note that there’s a cheap, straightforward and proven solution to reduce the amount of time buses spend in general traffic congestion, which is to roll out T2 or T3 lanes on all major road corridors. Hopefully Labor will shift towards clear support of transit lanes and away from road-widening projects as a response to traffic congestion.

Labor supported taking cars off the Victoria Bridge, but didn’t explicitly question the loss of bike lanes that the current concept designs for the Brisbane Metro project seem to advocate.

The area where Labor and the LNP most closely line up is in their support for massive road spending that revolves around private vehicle transport. Labor continues to support expensive road-widening projects like the one on Lytton Road in East Brisbane ($115 million for 700 metres) and offered no criticism of the many major intersection upgrades that focus – short-sightedly – on speeding up cars rather than on improving pedestrian and cyclist safety. All up, BCC is spending well over $1 billion (1/3 of the total budget) on projects and maintenance revolving around private vehicle transport. Even a slight decrease in this section of the budget would allow massive increases in council spending on parks, flood mitigation, libraries, community festivals and, dare I suggest, affordable housing.

It struck me that while Labor stuck to the familiar opposition tactic of picking holes and focussing on comparatively small differences in priorities, there was nothing in the budget reply speech to suggest a significantly different vision for how revenue should be raised or what kinds of infrastructure spending should be prioritised.

I think this have-a-bet-each-way approach is symptomatic of a party that’s trying to please everyone. They don’t want to call for cuts on road spending and massive increases in public transport spending because they believe it would be unpopular with motorists. They don’t want to increase fees and charges on the big end of town for fear of being attacked as anti-business. And they don’t want to take on debt to fund urgently needed infrastructure because they’ve made a habit of criticising the Liberals for doing so. It made me wonder what their idea of a more sustainable, more democratic, more equitable Brisbane would look like, and whether it would be so very different from what we have at the moment with Graham Quirk and the Liberals.

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