Victoria’s Choice: Rail Lines or Health Care?

Victoria’s health system is in crisis and needs fixing. And because we are heading for a record $170billion debt, as interest rates rise the Liberals and Nationals will suspend Labor’s proposed $34.5billion rail line from Cheltenham to Box Hill. All savings will be redirected to the health system.

It’s the choice Victorians will face when they go to the polls in November: solve the health crisis now or build a rail line through some of Melbourne’s southeastern and eastern suburbs in 13 years. All but the economic illiterate would agree that you simply cannot have both.

Investing in infrastructure – when done correctly – is an important way to boost productivity and ensure our economy grows steadily. Government, however, is about priorities. Hardworking Victorian taxpayers’ money should never be taken for granted and every penny should be worth its money.

When I received a phone call from Opposition Leader Matt Guy earlier this year asking if I would be the Shadow Transport Infrastructure Minister on his leadership team, I knew I would not be spending my time take spectacular photos. in a hard hat and high visibility.

That, of course, is what Premier Daniel Andrews does every day. Yet, in my mind, the real work of transport policy was bureaucratic, factual and arid. I imagined ministries full of experts, with a much deeper understanding than mine, writing long recommendations and conducting comprehensive analysis for government to follow.

Turns out I was wrong. Under the current Labor government in Victoria, processes that should be above partisanship and short-term politics are just as political as the Prime Minister’s Facebook feed.

Inevitably, this government’s approach to infrastructure planning – an approach dominated by public relations and bullshit in marginal seats – has resulted in enormous waste. Following the last explosion of the North East Link (a new road in Melbourne), this waste now exceeds $30 billion.

It would be good if governments were not under severe financial constraints. Perhaps that is what many on the other side of politics think? The proliferation of modern monetary theory among progressive circles has promulgated the idea that huge debts and budget deficits are just an inconvenience. As interest rates continue to rise, I’m not sure how it all works. That is, unless one believes there is a money tree at the bottom of the garden with plump little goblins dancing under it.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of the futility of this view among mainstream economists, this worrying trend has reinforced Labour’s longstanding disregard for fiscal prudence. The days of self-proclaimed “economic conservatives” in the Labor ranks are officially over. Now Victoria’s debt is already bigger than that of New South Wales, Queensland and Tasmania combined.

The reality is that the Andrews Labor government’s alarming management of public finances has left us penniless. Interest rates are skyrocketing and we have lost our AAA credit rating, making borrowing even more expensive. It may not be political to say it, but the party has to stop.

This means that we are faced with a difficult choice. Labor would have you believe it is possible to invest the billions needed to fix our crumbling healthcare system and move forward with a $34.5 billion railway line from Cheltenham to Box Hill ; a line that experts at the Australian Population Research Institute have described as “useless, unsuitable for purpose and a debt bomb”. The only way to achieve this is either through crippling tax hikes for Victorians at a time when cost-of-living concerns rightly dominate, or through savage cuts to public services elsewhere.

Liberals and Nationals understand the importance of a strong infrastructure pipeline and we are committed to completing all major projects currently under construction including the Metro Tunnel, North East Link, West Gate Tunnel and the Melbourne Airport Rail Link. We will also follow expert advice and ensure that any new projects go through proper processes before public money is committed, such as assessment by Infrastructure Australia – something the current government has failed to do.

But we make no apologies for prioritizing the urgent task of rebuilding our healthcare system over a blueprint that was written on the back of an envelope by a handful of Labor hacks and consultants five minutes before the last election, and that just happened a string of marginal seats.

As Victorians die waiting for a triple-0, ambulances flood hospital aisles, emergency rooms (or tents!) are packed with desperate patients and our waiting list for elective surgeries is longer than ever, now is not the time to embark on yet another mega-project that is almost certain to explode and cannibalize every Victorian budget for decades to come.

The first step in rebuilding trust between politicians and the constituents they serve is to agree with the public on what is possible and what is not. And frankly, it’s just not possible to solve the health crisis and build a $34.5 billion rail line between Cheltenham and Box Hill.

Any political party that tells you otherwise is either a lie or economic illiterate – or both.

Dr Matthew Bach – Victorian Shadow Minister for Child Welfare

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