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"How are you going to pay for it?" Overview of Greens campaign commitment costings

It’s so predictable and consistent that you can set your watch to it…

In an election campaign, the Greens will propose increasing government spending on certain essential public infrastructure projects and services, with detailed cost estimates for each proposal.

Our party will clearly spell out how we propose to pay for this spending - usually through a combination of cutting funding to harmful or unnecessary line items elsewhere in the budget, and requiring major corporations or mega-wealthy individuals to contribute a little more via carefully-targeted charges or taxes that won’t apply to the vast majority of people.

And like clockwork, the major parties and the conservative commentariat will start their usual frenzied screeching: “These fanciful proposals are uncosted!” “The Greens don’t know how to manage a budget!” “HOW ARE YOU GOING TO PAY FOR IT!!!????”

This is despite the fact that we have already clearly explained our cost estimates and how we would pay for our proposals.

But the major parties aren’t asking “how are you going to pay for it?” as a genuine, sincere question (some of their supporters might be, but that’s not why the Labor/LNP strategists continually amplify the question). They’re asking that primarily to muddy the waters, derail the debate about the policy or infrastructure project itself, and feed a broader fear-based narrative about the Greens not understanding economics.

This narrative has gained traction because many Greens proposals are detrimental to big business profit margins, and a lot of people in the political establishment wrongly act as though anything that’s good for multinational corporations is automatically good for the economy/society at large. But just because the major parties and the Courier Mail keep saying something, doesn’t mean it’s true.

The other related reason the political establishment likes to pose the ‘how are you going to pay for it?’ question is because it’s a convenient shorthand way of implying that individuals and political movements who demand a better world or call for big positive changes are being unreasonable or naively idealistic.

They rarely ask ‘how are you going to pay for it?’ when someone proposes a project or policy that maintains and reinforces the status quo. Rather than explaining the truth behind why they don’t want to fund simple changes to make people’s lives better - that they’re deliberately prioritising big business interests - they attack the very premise that a better world is possible. Because if enough people started believing a better world is possible, their whole corrupt edifice could begin crumbling under the pressure.

In the 2024 Brisbane City Council campaign, the Greens have already made a number of major announcements, many of which are cost-neutral for the council - e.g. a 2-year rent freeze, a vacancy levy, a crackdown on short-term rentals, and some which involve quite a bit of spending - e.g. massively increasing the number of high-frequency bus services, rolling out free public transport, building more pedestrian crossings and bike lanes, funding a delivery study to investigate light rail, building more swimming pools and making public pools free entry.

Labor and the LNP have also both announced projects involving major public expenditure, but despite some very loose cost estimates and some notably ambiguous statements about where the money would come from, they have not been subjected to the same bad faith accusations about uncosted/unfunded proposals.


The LNP’s track record

I don’t want to spend too much space talking down other parties, but given how much they've been attacking me lately, it's worth highlighting that last year, the LNP announced their budget, then shortly afterwards announced that they were discounting infrastructure charges for private developers (a major council revenue stream), and just a couple of months later announced that they would have to slash funding for a long list of projects and services in order to balance the budget.

That’s a phenomenal degree of financial mismanagement - to release a budget, then immediately after the budget announce a surprise cut to a major revenue stream, then have to rewrite your own budget and cut spending by $400 million.

Note also that several of the LNP’s major projects in recent years have run WAY over budget, with multi-million dollar cost over-runs that were entirely predictable if they’d done better planning…

  • Brisbane Metro is costing hundreds of millions more than initially announced.
  • The widening of Moggill Road at Indooroopilly (described as a roundabout upgrade but mostly just road-widening) is now costing $234 million, even though the LNP initially said it would cost just $126 million.
  • even the Kangaroo Point footbridge is $100 million over budget.

I could go on.

Schrinner’s green bridges fiasco is particularly telling.

Just over four years ago, he promised his administration would build FIVE green bridges at a cost of $550 million. He downplayed the fact that it was really just four bridges over the river plus a bikeway bridge over Breakfast Creek, but even so, a lot of people at the time said that $550 million was an ambitiously low cost estimate, particularly given that he was talking about some of them being bus bridges. He hastily updated his promise to clarify that he would also be seeking state and federal funding, even though those levels of government hadn’t given any indication that they were interested in funding the bridges.

When the LNP makes a big council infrastructure announcement and then adds in brackets “partly funded by the state or federal government” no-one in the media establishment seems to bat an eyelid, yet if the Greens do a similar thing, we’re drowned out with political commentators’ cries of “Aha! So it’s unfunded! Gotcha!”

The reality is that a lot of city council infrastructure projects receive state or federal funding in one way or another. So it’s perfectly reasonable for the Greens to say “we would ask higher levels of government for more funding for public transport or active transport infrastructure and less funding for road-widening.”

But my main point here is that any claims that the Greens’ project proposals are ‘uncosted’ or ‘unfunded’ ring particularly hollow when they come from the LNP administration.


So how much spending have the Greens committed to?

Just to spell it out for those who can’t be bothered reading the individual costings on each of our major policy announcements, here’s a breakdown of all the big spending commitments the Greens have announced so far in the 2024 council election campaign…


Ongoing spending commitments (per year figures)

Free public transport for under-18s - $13.5 million

Free off-peak (including weekends) public transport for everyone - $80 million

Upgrading bus services and creating new high-frequency services - $39 million

Directly funding more live music and performing arts events at suburban clubs - $6 million

Directly investing in local clubs - $5 million

Direct support for local First Nations-run community organisations (including operating expenses for a new cultural centre) - $13.5 million

Making public swimming pools free entry - $10.75 million

Additional operating costs of five new swimming pools - $1.25 million

Greater enforcement of construction site erosion and sediment control to help clean our waterways - $0.5 million

(Note that these cost estimates include buffers to cater for the possibility that free public transport/free swimming pool entry also leads to increased demand and patronage)

Total: $170 million per year


Infrastructure and project funding commitments over the next four years

35km of new bike lanes (including major intersection redesigns to better accommodate pikes and pedestrians) - $90 million per year

200 new pedestrian crossings, 100 new traffic calming devices, 200km of new footpaths - $35 million per year

Building 5 new swimming pools - $18.75 million per year

(Note that these annual costs are averages - you’d expect that for infrastructure projects like bike lanes and swimming pool construction, the costs will be slightly lower for the first year or two where we focus on design and consultation, ramping up in the third and fourth year as we get into construction)

Total: $144 million per year (average)


One-off spending commitments

3-month trial of universal free public transport - $45 million

Delivery study and initial public consultation regarding proposed light rail corridor from Mt Gravatt to Hamilton - $10 million

Pedestrianising/greening Albert St and installing shade covers on Victoria Bridge - $10 million

Contribution towards constructing a First Nations cultural centre in Musgrave Park - $10 million

Investigating new swimming spots in creeks and abandoned quarries - $2 million

Revegetating and stabilising creek banks to help clean the river - $2 million

Collating prior research and collaborating with other stakeholders to agree on key actions and timelines for cleaning up the Brisbane River - $2 million

Total: $81 million

Averaged out over four years, and with a slight buffer, that’s an extra $21 million in one-off funding commitments.

So for the coming 4-year council term, that adds up to an average of just under $335 million per year in spending announcements (mostly on public transport services and active transport infrastructure) - a long way shy of the Labor party’s ridiculous claim that our promises run into the “billions.”


So where would the money come from?

In short, the majority of it would come from a combination of reduced spending on car-focussed infrastructure projects, and more revenue from property developer infrastructure charges.

Currently, the council’s total annual budget hovers around the $4.3 billion mark.

Brisbane City Council directly spends a couple hundred million dollars per year on projects that are designed to expand road network capacity. This includes ‘Congestion Busting’ projects that aim to squeeze more car lanes into existing road corridors, as well as intersection expansions and road-widening projects.

A lot of the money for these road-widening projects comes from state or federal government funding streams. It’s a fair bet that if the council stopped asking the federal government for funding for road-widening projects, and instead asked for funding for public or active transport infrastructure projects, the council would likely be able to attract tens of millions of dollars in funding for more sustainable transport options.

But let’s be overly cautious and assume that even though the council currently receives hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for road capacity expansion from higher levels of government, a Greens-led council wouldn’t be able to secure any funding for active transport infrastructure.

Once you strip away all the state and federal roads funding that’s directed through the council, Brisbane City Council still spends an average of about $160 million per year on projects that are primarily or exclusively focussed on expanding road network capacity.

Many of the council’s intersection redesign projects are primarily about maximising the number of cars flowing through an intersection, but sometimes also deliver other safety upgrades or minor pedestrian access improvements. It’s important to remember that the Greens are still proposing to spend $125 million per year on pedestrian and cycling infrastructure - a significant component of which could still be directed towards much cheaper intersection redesigns that don’t involve road-widening.

We should note that the figure of $160 million on road-widening doesn’t include the incidental road-widening that sometimes happens as part of other council projects. For example, as part of the Brisbane Metro project, the council spent a couple million dollars expanding the intersection of Grey St and Peel St into Stanley Place outside the State Library. Those kinds of one-off council-funded road-widenings are also outside of the $160 million/year estimate.


So with (at least) $160 million per year coming from reductions in road expansion spending, where does the other $175 million in our spending proposals come from?

Answer: Property developers.


Infrastructure charges

Right now, private developers pay infrastructure charges to the council based on the size of their development.

For commercial/industrial developments, infrastructure charges are calculated according to building floor area, with developers paying in the range of $50/m2 to $250/m2 depending on what kind of development it is.

For residential developments, the standard charge is $22 200 per dwelling with 1 or 2 bedrooms, and $31 080 per dwelling with 3 or more bedrooms. Half of that revenue goes straight to the Queensland Urban Utilities for sewage and mains water supply infrastructure, and the other half (either $11 100 or $15 540) goes to the council.

So even if a developer is selling their new two-bedroom apartments for $600 000 or $700 000, they are only paying $11 000 per apartment to the council in infrastructure charges - a phenomenally low amount when you consider the rising costs of actually delivering infrastructure.

These charges have been capped by the State Government, and the Greens position is that we would ask the State to remove these caps so we could raise infrastructure charges significantly.

Side note: In some cases, developers will negotiate with the council to just deliver an equivalent value of public infrastructure themselves in lieu of paying the charges e.g. a developer might widen a road that the council wanted widened, and reduce their infrastructure charge contribution accordingly. So in addition to all the money the council spends directly on road widening, AND all the money the council gets from state or federal governments to spend on road widening, they ALSO grant certain developers a discount on infrastructure charges in exchange for the developer spending money on road widening.

In the 2022/23 financial year, the council collected $253 million in developer infrastructure charges. For comparison, revenue from council rates was about $1.3 billion.

But the LNP are now cutting infrastructure charges even further, basically because property developers asked them to (Labor seems to have supported these cuts, but their general position is pretty unclear).

The Greens believe we can squeeze more money out of developers - a lot more than the $175 million needed to cover the various campaign commitments we’ve made. Property values have risen by hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past few years, but developer infrastructure charges haven’t risen at all - in fact, the council has given developers major discounts on infrastructure charges.

We want to raise infrastructure charges on almost all kinds of development. We would raise infrastructure charges the most for the kinds of development we want to discourage e.g. space-intensive commercial showrooms, weapons factories etc. The exact increases for different land uses would necessarily be the subject of a lot more detailed planning by the council’s economists/finance experts.

The main argument against raising developer contributions is that if you raise the costs of building housing (such as by increasing infrastructure charges), developers will either pass those increased costs onto end-buyers, or will stop building and thus reduce the supply of new housing. These claims don’t hold up to close scrutiny though.

Developers of new housing have to meet the market. Because new housing stock only ever makes up a small proportion of the total number of homes that are up for sale at any given time, the prices that newly built houses and units sell for are heavily shaped by the prices of existing homes. Well-designed newer homes might sell for slightly more than older houses and units, but developers can’t just set whatever prices they want.

The argument that increasing infrastructure charges forces developers to raise their prices ignores the fact that developers already always set their prices at the highest level the market can bear. If a developer could add $20k or $30k to the sale price of their units, they would already be doing it, regardless of whether infrastructure charges were raised.

If developers were able to just easily pass on infrastructure charges to end-buyers, there's no way they would be complaining so much about them and endlessly lobbying to get them scrapped.

What actually happens in practice is that if costs rise, the amount that developers are willing to pay for developable land will fall in response, perhaps by quite a lot. If land values fall, it becomes cheaper and more viable to build, despite the rising infrastructure charges.

There's no evidence that raising infrastructure charges means less housing will be built, or that the price of new homes will rise, because rising costs will be offset by declines in land value.

However raising infrastructure charges does mean that the council has more money to spend on essential public infrastructure and facilities.

All this is a very long way of saying that contrary to the spin and propaganda from the LNP, Greens policy and project commitments are indeed fully costed policies, and we do have a plan to pay for them.

In contrast, the major parties are happily supporting further rapid private development without any plan for how investment in public infrastructure will keep up.

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