Last Thursday morning I attended an excellent breakfast seminar on infrastructure organised by the French-Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (FACCI) and hosted by Holding Redlich Lawyers in their Queen St, Brisbane CBD offices. The seminar featured highly informative and engaging presentations by Building Queensland CEO David Quinn and Keolis Downer Gold Coast (GC Light Rail operator) CEO Campbell Mason (presentations available for download at bottom of post).
Building Queensland is a statutory authority established by the Queensland Government to provide independent expert advice on infrastructure, which is a worthy mission, given the risks to the budget and economic development posed by poorly conceived or executed infrastructure projects. CEO David Quinn gave a very good account of Building Queensland’s mission and agenda, but I was somewhat concerned by one of the points made in his presentation, that Building Queensland would only publish, and only every six months, “Cost benefit analysis summaries of the projects it leads.” (see “Transparency” slide from Mr Quinn’s presentation reproduced below). Summaries only, that is, not the full cost-benefit analysis reports.
In question time, I asked Mr Quinn about this, expressing my concern that this is an insufficient level of transparency. In reply, he noted the oft-expressed concern about commercial-in-confidence matters, the disclosure of which might compromise the negotiating position of project partners, which may include the government and private sector players. So Mr Quinn would not commit to releasing full cost-benefit studies, but did promise that cost-benefit analysis summaries would be substantial and would not simply be one-page summaries. While I was somewhat pleased with this response from Mr Quinn, I still think it would be highly desirable for full cost-benefit studies of proposed infrastructure projects to be released.
In its 2014 report on public infrastructure, the Productivity Commission called for full disclosure of cost-benefit studies for projects which receive public support, rejecting the claim that commercial-in-confidence information should be protected:
“It is sometimes argued that there are commercial-in-confidence reasons for not making cost–benefit analyses public. Typically such analyses are done prior to the procurement process commencing and so the data used are unlikely to be commercially sensitive. Accordingly, the Commission is not convinced that there are valid commercial-in-confidence reasons to withhold the release of full cost−benefit analyses. Even where data are provided by private participants, the normal presumption of transparency should prevail as a condition of involvement in government-backed projects.” (from p. 105, volume 1)
I fully agree with the Commission on this point, as taxpayers, whose money is at stake, deserve full disclosure from governments and project proponents.
I have made the presentations from the breakfast seminar available for download: