If this article had been written by a Murdoch journalist for a Murdoch outlet, and the Murdoch outlets were as down on the Coalition as they are on Labor at the moment, it would read like this:
HAPLESS, HOPELESS AND HELPLESS TONY ABBOTT has been undermined yet again, this time by his transport spokesman, over his promise that Coalition funding of $4 billion for big projects will put cranes over Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane within a year of its election.
Mr Abbott said that he wanted to be a prime minister "who revels in seeing cranes over our cities, who revels in seeing bulldozers at work" and has pledged that three big projects, including the WestConnex road in Sydney and the east-west road link in Melbourne, would be "under way within 12 months of a change of government". Today, Mr Abbott is not so much revelling as reeling after an interview with the Coalition transport spokesman, Warren Truss, conceded a start date for the projects could be further away - if at all.
"The project in Melbourne ... will require considerable time associated with planning and various approvals to get under way - the Sydney one as well. It is part of a bigger project now, and so there will be time ... I think it will take at least a couple of years and maybe longer for those two to start construction," said Mr Truss.
This latest twist comes after a sequence of poor polls for Mr Abbott, where more Australian women would rather play footsie with a blue-ringed octopus than have him as Prime Minister. Given his inability to lay a glove on the Prime Minister during the AWU fizzer, and after serious doubts over his recent campaigns against Peter Slipper, Craig Thomson and the carbon tax, the last thing Tony Abbott needed was to have his flimsy policy platform white-anted.
Truss' off-hand references to "the project in Melbourne" and "the Sydney one" are telling. Holding a relatively safe seat in southeastern Queensland, Truss can afford to be insouciant about these projects. Like fellow banana-bender Barnaby Joyce, Truss has a folksy disdain for policy detail and hopes this will translate into the kind of popular support enjoyed by the state's Newman government last March.
Mr Abbott had promised $1.5 billion to the WestConnex motorway, $1.5 billion to the east-west link and $1 billion to the Gateway extension road in Brisbane.
The O'Farrell government has committed $1.8 billion to the WestConnex road, expected to cost $10 billion to $15 billion.
But it is uncertain where the rest of the funding will be found, even if a large proportion comes from tolls on the motorway, a 33-kilometre road between Auburn in Sydney's west that will connect to the airport and the M5 motorway in the south west. The government has set up a project office to come up with a detailed case for WestConnex by the middle of next year. It had said construction would start before the state election in March 2015.
Given Australia's fairly poor record in toll road modelling and the fact that the companies behind projects such as the cross-city and Lane Cove tunnels in Sydney and the Clem7 tunnel in Brisbane have ended up in administration, Mr Truss said the Coalition was looking for innovative ways a Coalition government could attract private investment for the projects.
"I've been approached with lots of ideas about how the government could share the investment risk on these projects," he said.
"I am not attracted to proposals where the government takes all the risk and the private sector gets all the profit. But risk sharing is something I am prepared to look at". Many of the people who approach people like Mr Truss with ideas such as these as constituents of Mr Abbott (for a waspish sneer at such people, see Miranda Albrechtsen on p. 19).
"We will have to find ways to leverage private-sector funding - particularly the Sydney and Melbourne projects are likely to require a mix of Commonwealth, state and private funding", said Mr Truss. This overlooks the fact that Mr Abbott has already committed to funding, and that journalists reported this on the assumption that the sums had already been done.
Now Mr Truss - who would be Deputy Prime Minister in an Abbott government - is casting doubt over the very idea of careful planning for major capital expenditures on infrastructure projects. "This is further proof that the Coalition is in turmoil", said a senior Canberra observer. "If the Coalition does not succeed, it runs the risk of failure".
"Investors say since toll finance projects haven't gone so well recently, they want an arrangement where the government takes some risk if toll revenue turns out to be less ...
Once a patronage estimate has been established there might be a formula under which a certain percentage of risk and profit is shared with the government, with the percentage getting bigger or smaller depending on the size of the divergence ... I haven't said yes or no to that yet but I am looking at it," Mr Truss said.
Neither Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey nor Shadow Finance Minister Andrew Robb could be contacted for comment.
This overlooks the fact that the last Labor government in NSW spent a decade bending over forwards to make unprofitable toll road projects happen. Truss was federal transport minister during this period, and during the Clem7 debacle. It is clear that nothing has been learned from this expensive experience, and that there is no hope for a better future for infrastructure projects as a result.
Under pressure on the leadership front, Mr Abbott needs these comments from Mr Truss like a hole in the head. Coalition hopes of winning support in Sydney and Melbourne must be in doubt thanks to Mr Truss' airy comments. The Coalition needs to fix this perception of division and uncertainty - and if Mr Abbott won't, someone else will do it for him.