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One of the best gifts Prime Minister Anthony Albanese could give Jacinta Allan this Christmas would be an excuse for her to press pause on the multibillion-dollar Suburban Rail Loop.
With the festive season almost upon us, the Albanese government is poised to deliver its long-awaited (and overdue) infrastructure review, which will see 700 infrastructure projects around the country deemed naughty or nice.
Privately, a growing number of federal cabinet ministers are fed up with Victorian government’s obsession with the costly rail loop, which it committed to despite the project never appearing on any infrastructure priority lists, and the state’s Auditor General suggesting its benefit may be overstated. Yet curiously, the 90 kilometre orbital rail line from Cheltenham to Werribee has been excluded from the federal review, even though it would seem a perfect candidate for a reassessment.
Since it was hastily announced five years ago, the state government has pressured Canberra for help to fund up to a third of the rail loop, but enthusiasm from successive federal governments has been lukewarm at best.
In 2019, then opposition leader Bill Shorten pledged $10 billion for the project if he were to win government that year. He didn’t.
As part of his election campaign pitch, Albanese, who set up Infrastructure Australia after taking office in 2022, agreed to tip in $2.2 billion during – a meagre amount when you consider the Parliamentary Budget Office estimates the first half of the project alone will cost $125 billion.
Seemingly unperturbed by the loose change on offer, the Allan government says it will push on with the first stage of the SRL regardless.
Skyrocketing inflation, surging construction prices, workforce shortages, changed work patterns reducing public transport dependency and mounting debt are all perfectly good and legitimate reasons for the Allan government to reprioritise its infrastructure priorities and take a beat.
But this is politics, and even if the Premier was tempted to ditch one of her signature projects, she knows that breaking an election promise rarely goes unpunished.
Politicians are still haunted by Julia Gillard’s infamous 2010 promise that there would be “no carbon tax under the government I lead,” or Tony Abbott’s pledge not to cut health and education funding – both decisions which fast-tracked their demise.
In Victoria, the state government has already used up political capital when it withdrew as hosts of the 2026 Commonwealth Games earlier this year.
But a strong signal from Canberra to slow down or axe the SRL entirely could give the Allan government the wriggle room it needs. After all, it’s straight from every state government’s playbook to blame Canberra for things state governments can’t afford.
In such a scenario, the Allan government would publicly express its frustration and disappointment, but could use it as a convenient excuse to reprioritise its spending priorities without losing too much political skin.
A masterful politician could even use the recent statement by the International Monetary Fund, which last week warned the federal government that the nation’s infrastructure bill had forced the Reserve Bank to increase interest rates, to make it seem like it was doing us a favour.
As history shows, not all political backflips automatically lead to electoral defeat. Take John Howard’s “never, ever” GST pledge in 1996 or Josh Frydenberg’s promise to get the budget “back in black”. In both cases, the government felt the heat, but they were able to convince the public that not all instances of unfulfilled election commitments are made in bad faith.
The electorate is acutely aware of current economic conditions and, as such, Victorians are probably more likely to accept a broken election promise if the broader justification can be made for doing so.
The Coalition, too, would be hard-pressed to prosecute a policy retreat given a year ago it also promised to shelve the SRL to free up cash if elected.
Should the Allan government ever decide to change tack on the SRL, it’s likely that the biggest criticism will come from Labor’s own caucus – where those MPs whose marginal seats were won off the back of the promise would have to face the music at a local level.
Ultimately, some political promises are made to be broken, particularly when conditions – and premiers – change.
But by excluding the SRL from its infrastructure review, the Albanese government looks as though it’s happy to sit on the fence. And in doing so, it is the Allan government that will miss out on the political cover it needs to change course.
Annika Smethurst is state political editor for The Age.
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