Diarist-at-large Richard Ackland flys about the nation. By Richard Ackland.

Road plans a trainwreck

Gadfly has often puzzled over Tony Abbott’s pre-election promise that he would not fund urban rail projects, because it is not in the government’s “knitting” to do so.

The budget cancelled funding for planned rail projects in Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth. Instead, it’s money for roads, highways, great muscular slabs of tar and cement crisscrossing the wide brown land – all part of the government’s butch knitting program.

The feds also are piling cash into the greatly disliked WestConnex “tunnel to a traffic jam” project in Sydney. Just coincidentally, the WestConnex Delivery Authority is chaired by bizoid Tony Shepherd, who headed Abbott’s pre-budget softening-up exercise – the Commission of Audit. Shepherd is also threatening to sue journalist Wendy Bacon for saying beastly things about his roads.

Any day of the week you’ll catch flabby federal ministers in fluorescent vests and hard hats turning over sods of earth for spanking new roadworks.

But why does Abbott prefer roads over rail? I consulted a political psychologist, a fast-growing subdiscipline specialising in a specific kind of personality dysfunction.

The explanation goes back to Young Tone’s days at the knee of DLP mentor and sage B. A. Santamaria. Santa was against unions because they were full of commies. Trains and railways are unionised, whereas roads are about individual liberty, democracy and all the great things that make us free.

Abbott’s people have been marketing their love of freeways and highways by saying that if they fund roads, that will free up state money for other infrastructure. However, this thesis has been unkindly busted by Infrastructure Australia, whose research reveals that if Abbott is giving money for roads, that creates little to no incentive to build railways.

Anyway, it’s nice to have this knitting puzzle cleared up.

1 . Pedal power

So where does Abbott’s love of cycling fit into this anti-communist agenda? Certainly it’s a chance for him to get out of his fluoro vest and into body-hugging Lycra emblazoned with corporate logos and some decent crotch-enhancing netherwear. Again, no unions.

Importantly, the NSW government, led by former merchant banker Mike Baird, is doing the right thing by freedom-loving motorists and tearing up cycle lanes in Sydney and narrowing key footpaths.

The idea is to abolish the main north-south city College Street cycleway and replace it with a part-time track in the much busier and narrower one-way Castlereagh Street.

It’s a stroke of policy genius. Fewer cars in cities is regarded as Nancy boy stuff by the NSW roads minister and ageing National Party duffer Duncan Gay.

Fair and balanced News Corp hacks are on the case, demanding more liberties for motorists and sending photographers to snap cycleways at crucial moments – when they are empty.

According to transport economists, London’s network of urban cycleways is expected to return zillions of pounds’ worth of improvements to health, the environment and reduced absences from work. But what would they know?

Now the Australian Cyclists Party has inserted some pedal power into an otherwise soporific NSW election campaign by running candidates in lower and upper house seats. Apparently, there are more cyclists in NSW than shooters, who traditionally carry the balance of power in what used to be called the Premier State.

2 . No Grant love for gallery project

The clink of chardonnay glasses could be heard across Sydney when NSW deputy premier, yarts minister, and former country copper, Troy Grant, unveiled a $600 million arts and cultural infrastructure fund.

More than $200 million is going to improvements for the Sydney Opera House. As Troy Boy put it: “The Opera House is on the bucket list of most tourists visiting Australia and this renewal will improve the experience for everyone visiting our global icon.”

Another $140 million is earmarked for the Walsh Bay arts “precinct” –another “game-changer for audiences, artists and tourism”.

But no mention in Troy’s announcement of the $300 million needed for the Art Gallery of NSW’s bold plans to conquer neighbouring parklands and extend itself with a massive project called Sydney Modern. Maybe that falls into the category of “other priority investments” buried in the beautifully glossy, but highly rubbery, future infrastructure strategy document.

Is the gallery not on anyone’s bucket list?

3 . Pudding magic

I see reports from the Old Dart that a troupe of young disabled North Korean musicians has been visiting Oxford as part of a European tour.

For some of them it was their first time out of Kim Jong-un’s paradise and, intriguingly, on arriving at the university town their first request was a meal of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.

Amazingly, this is the very meal that Tony Abbott served to a select clutch in his private parliamentary dining room, just after Australia Day, aka Prince Philip Day.

What is going on? How did these Pyongyang performers know this was our supreme leader’s favourite meal? Is Abbott behind a covert strategy to replace ping-pong diplomacy with roast beef and Yorkshire pud?

4 . Visionary leader calls it quits

Dislike of the United Nations runs deep in conservative circles. Grande Dame Julie Bishop (aka Julia Gillard according to Grecian-haired Kevvy Andrews) clearly adored her time strutting the world stage as rogue states quavered when she took the chair of the Security Council.

Back home it’s a different story, with Coalition governments consistently starving local branches of the UN Association of coin, while paying lip-service to their achievements. So it is scarcely surprising that after 17 years running the United Nations Association (Victorian Division) Patricia Collett is calling it a day.

Visionary is a word bandied about far too loosely, but few community group leaders could point to having successfully set up awards for dazzling reptiles of the meeja, prizes for environmental enterprise, business and human rights workshops and programs on sustainability leadership.

The UN media awards bring in entries from around the globe, and often spotlight remarkable enterprise, such as a local Queensland paper that embarked on explaining the area’s Aboriginal dialect.

Collett’s drive saw mini-UNs running in unis and schools across the state, a practical way of showing the workings (or not) of that organisation.

She’s unlikely to rest now, even as the family vineyard on the Mornington Peninsula beckons persuasively.

5 . Labour pains

News to hand. Dyse Heydon’s $52 million royal commission into evil trade unions has put out a call for Sydney University law students to sign up as interns for the “upcoming program of work for 2015”.

So far the commission has been making sluggish progress, so engaging students to assist in preparing materials for hearings and other dogsbodying may inject some zest into the whole apparatus.

There were reports earlier in the week that counsel assisting Jeremy Stoljar was trousering $3.35 million for two years’ worth of assisting.

Then there are three other counsels assisting.

The law students are required to work “on a job-share basis, up to six months, dictated by operational demands”.

Sounds as though they might need a trade union in their corner.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 28, 2015 as "Gadfly: Road plans a trainwreck".

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Richard Ackland is The Saturday Paper’s legal affairs editor. He publishes

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