An interviewee told Radio 774 announcer John Faine today that the Melbourne outer suburb of Frankston has been waiting almost 40 years for a major redevelopment of the local railway station; but it still hasn’t happened.
According to the local newspaper, the Frankston Standard reported in 1975 that the transport minister of the day prepared a detailed plan to create a multimillion-dollar transport centre for Frankston.
Justifying major public projects on the basis that they’re long-standing but unfulfilled promises is now familiar, even routine. It’s an obvious tactic because it taps our natural sympathy for those who’ve patiently waited “their turn”.
But it’s not always clear that what today’s advocates portray as an iron-clad commitment really has the assumed provenance.
In some cases, a supposed promise was only a cleverly contrived proposal, or it was qualified by overlooked weasel words, or perhaps it was merely the idea of a now forgotten government agency or inquiry that always lacked the power to implement it. (1)
But even if a promise is ‘real’, there are at least two issues that need to be considered in assessing whether the project’s claim for priority is reasonable.
First, politicians at all levels of government have a justified and well-earned reputation for pulling dud projects out of the air.
Merely because a project was promised by some barely remembered politician way back in the day doesn’t mean it was ever a good project. It doesn’t mean it was – or currently is – justified on cost-benefit, financial, operational, or other relevant criteria.
Second, a promise made by a person or party who’s no longer in a position to implement it is irrelevant. Circumstances change over long periods of time.
The fact that a particular project fit with the budget priorities of the distant past doesn’t mean it warrants the same priority today. The case for it could still be strong when considered in isolation, but other demands on government which have emerged in the succeeding years might very well now trump it.
The fact that projects like Frankston railway station or the East West Link Motorway have been on the drawing boards for eons is undoubtedly important politically, but it’s not important in deciding today whether or not either of these projects should be privileged over competing investment opportunities.
Projects need to make sense in the here and now, not in the circumstances of the distant past.
I can’t say if the redevelopment of Frankston station is a ‘genuine’ commitment or mostly vapour; it’s complicated by the Geoff Shaw factor. My interest here is the general issue of promises.