Sydney pays a price for dysfunctional government
There is a squeamish message on the Cross City Tunnel website headed “Toll adjustment - 1st October 2010” which is notable for two reasons.
The first is that it reminds us how, in these jargon-addled times, things such as tolls never go up, jump or rise. They simply “adjust”. The second is that it demonstrates how the NSW Labor Government has abrogated much of its responsibility for protecting taxpayers from cost of living increases.
The construction of the Cross City Tunnel, as you may recall, finished behind schedule – but because of the contract between its operators and the NSW Government, where the price of the toll is linked to CPI, the toll actually went up before the road even opened.
The latest October 1 increase is tiny – five cents, up from $4.36 to $4.41. Hardly worth complaining about.
But it’s just one of the many little penny-pinching features of life in this city, where it often feels that every time you leave the house you lose fifty bucks.
The cutest aspect of the contract between the Cross City Tunnel operators and everyone’s favourite government department, the Roads and Transport Authority, is that the toll is “adjusted quarterly in line with movements in the Consumer Price Index, or a 1% minimum”.
What this means is that if the CPI were flat, and prices weren’t going up at all, they’d still increase the toll just for the hell of it.
Between the chaotic baton-passing between premiers, and a marathon string of ministerial scandals, personality politics has often overshadowed a more disturbing truth about the current NSW Government - which is that it isn’t very good at policy either.
Some of the bungling probably stems from the permanent state of distraction the government has found itself in. In fairness, it must be hard remembering everyone’s name at Cabinet meetings.
The confusion surrounding Education Minister Verity Firth’s unapproved announcement of new school heaters, or the fact that NSW failed to receive a single cent in federal transport funding because they forgot to ask for any…these examples point to a kind of ineptitude which comes when a government outlasts its shelf life.
The Daily Telegraph’s ongoing Power Countdown campaign documenting the Government’s failure to do anything about spiralling electricity prices is the most dramatic example of how professionally indifferent NSW Labor has become to its core constituency of working-class families.
There are complex issues surrounding power prices, many of which show how the apparent benefits of the competition policy the nation embraced in the mid-90s has proven to be a bit of an illusion in terms of lowering prices.
The reverse has happened. And it has happened most dramatically in NSW.
Power prices have gone up everywhere – five years ago the average family was spending $14.56 a week on power, and now spends $21.78, an increase of 50 per cent.
But in Sydney, the cost of power has risen by 60 per cent over the same period - from $16.14 a week in 2005 to $26.05 a week in June of this year.
So far, Premier Kristina Keneally’s response to these facts has been one of obfuscation and denial, when there’s actually plenty the Government could do.
For starters, the Government will reap some $5 billion in dividends from state-owned power generators over the next four years. Just 15 per cent of that bonanza is returned to struggling households in the form of rebates. The Government has trumpeted the fact that it’s just increased the most common rebate by a whopping $16 a year. That’s 30 cents a week. It covers less than one-third of the cost-of-living pressures outlined in the above statistics. And not many people are eligible for the rebate anyway.
Another point worth raising is the role of the so-called Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal in green-lighting proposed increases in electricity charges. IPART is one of the softest touches going around, and has rarely met a cost increase it didn’t passionately support. Its relationship to the power industry is muddied by the fact that the Australian Energy Regulator, which is part of the ACCC, has the first say in approving or disallowing any increases. IPART has final sign-off, and it signs off enthusiastically.
The cruellest example of the Government’s indifference to these cost of living questions is its determination to withhold pension increases for elderly people living in public housing.
If not for the intervention of Canberra, the NSW Government was set to claw back more than one-quarter of the $30-a-week pension increase awarded last year to some 70,000 NSW aged pensioners living in public housing. It was the only State Government that intended to do so.
Federal Housing Minister Jenny Macklin was forced to issue a statement saying that not only should the full increase be passed on this time, but that pensioners should continue to enjoy the full $30 rise in future.
“The 2009 pension rise was for pensioners, not state government public housing authorities,” the statement reads.
It’s pretty extraordinary that this government is now so out of touch and indifferent to the needs of families and pensioners that a fellow Labor Government needs to slap it around publicly to force a backdown such as this one.
It does help explain why Labor suffered a record 25 per cent swing against it in the Penrith and may replicate the feat next May.
For now if Kristina Keneally is looking for a new state slogan, she could do worse than “You are now entering NSW - hand over your cash.”
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