In the terms of reference to the recent study into the non-viability of high-speed rail from Brisbane to Melbourne it is promised that “It will draw on expertise from the public and private sectors”.
So, who did this study that concluded that Australia would need 50 years and 114 billion dollars to build a high-speed rail line that would make travel slightly longer and more expensive than just going by air?
The report was compiled by a gravy-train made up by AECOM and its sub-consultants (Grimshaw, KPMG, SKM, ACIL Tasman, Booz & Co and Hyder), all highly-paid private consultancies. There was no noticeable involvement of the public sector at all.
What is wrong with that? Everything. Private consultancies get paid for their answers, not their honesty. Just take AECOM’s strategic vision: “Our purpose is to create, enhance and sustain the world’s built, natural and social environments”. Lovely. Its a bit cheeky of course to have entirely contradictory elements (build and natural) in your mission statement as if they are not contradictory at all, but what do you expect from consultants? Honesty?
KPMG Australia then, what about their reputation for honesty? Its stated values are of course beautiful, full of words like ‘respect’, ‘honest’, ‘community’, ‘integrity’. But what about its history in this kind of area? Well, its 2010 report into the mining tax was a great example of being paid-for-an-answer. It was selective, made false comparisons, and uninformative. My conclusion at the time was that “The report, and in particular the summary, is indeed not an objective appraisal but a piece of propaganda that was bought for a reason.”
So, it is a bunch of paid consultants that now tell us that it would take 50 years to build a high-speed rail line (whilst the Chinese took 4 years to build a longer one between Beijing and Shanghai). And how serious are its pronouncements? Well, if you use their own disclaimer, not very much for they say in their own disclaimer “The Study Team has not verified information provided by the Information Providers (unless specifically noted otherwise) and it assumes no responsibility nor makes any representations with respect to the adequacy, accuracy or completeness of such information. ”
So, it was given a set of assumptions and information by others and takes no responsibility for checking those, meaning that its conclusions could have been pre-cooked by those ‘information providers’, including the controlling ministry. How handy! How convenient to have such non-inquisitive consultants! So much for integrity!
It is basically ridiculous to have national debates on the basis of the words of hired guns. The Australian civil service should have something like its own independent budget office with the ability to calculate the effects of major infrastructural projects, as well as major tax plans.
We now in fact have a parliamentary budget office and I hope it grows into a substantial independent body that can get us out of these consultancy-lead shadow debates.