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Stumbling into the future: living with the legacy of the great infrastructure sell-off

Phillip O'Neill, Western Sydney University

This is the fourth article in The Conversation's series Making Cities Work. It considers the problems of providing critical infrastructure and how we might produce the innovations and reforms needed to meet 21st-century needs and challenges. The Conversation


The privatisation of urban infrastructure in Australia is an ironic story. The vehicles of urban infrastructure – the utilities and the state-owned enterprises – were so central to the life of cities that they became perfect entities for private sell-off. We now live with the consequences of the sell-off.

The utilities flourished in Australia as a nation-building exercise following the second world war. The Bretton Woods agreements entrenched Keynesian fiscal behaviours across the Western world.

The utilities thrived on the willingness of governments to raise capital for public works. They were also central to the development of state capacity and the assembly of a career-based professional public service. As part of the social compact, the public accepted reasonable user pricing for the availability of water, energy, public transport and telecommunications services.

Hence, the utilities and the state-owned enterprises led the roll-out of urban infrastructure in the second half of the 20th century. This roll-out shaped the nature of Australian urban life, its format and flows.

But then fiscal crisis of the state descended in the 1970s and 1980s. The sell-off of public assets was seen worldwide as a solution to state indebtedness. Arguments that private enterprise could deliver infrastructure services more efficiently added impetus.

A wholesale transformation

Few governments resisted the sell-off urge. Australian governments, state and federal, participated in the sell-off, though in a stuttering manner. Through time, however, the change has been substantial.

Abbott and Cohen calculate that the output of state-owned enterprises in Australia in 1989-90 accounted for 7% of GDP, 9% of total employment, and 14% of gross fixed capital expenditure.

By 2011-12, the output of state-owned enterprises had fallen to 1.3% of GDP. Their gross fixed capital expenditure contributed only 1.8% of the nation’s total. The authors estimate that proceeds from privatisations in Australia since 1987 total around A$194 billion (in constant year 2000 dollars).

The sell-off commercialised and privatised a raft of assets: electricity generation and transmission, gas distribution, airports, ports and telecommunication. New assets went straight to private hands: motorways, public transport, renewable energy generation, and freight handling.

The shedding of public responsibility for infrastructure meant public investment in Australia as a share of GDP fell from more than 5% in the mid-1980s to well below 3% by the end of the 1990s.

What’s in it for investors?

There is much to understand about the sell-off. Here I focus only on why private investors are willing to pay extraordinary prices to acquire urban infrastructure assets.

The attraction of investing in an urban infrastructure asset comes from the infrastructure services being embedded in the daily flows of people, water, energy and information throughout a city. The flows of a city are remarkably ordered in terms of volume, direction and timing.

How a city operates is dependent on the co-existence of decisions by infrastructure operators and users. The operators decide how and when services will be available. Households and firms decide what they will be doing across a 24-hour day and therefore how and when they will use the infrastructure services on offer.

Thus, the efficiency of infrastructure provision comes from the predictability of the flows of a city. These in turn come from a historical patterning and sequencing of behaviours by householders and firms as they read off and conform to each other’s movements.

An example is the relatively sympathetic structuring and sequencing of work hours and school hours. This ensures that public transport facilities are utilised more efficiently in peak hours, while the hours that parents and children spend together are made more convenient.

The embeddedness of infrastructure into city life means that revenue streams from user fees for infrastructure services are highly predictable and stable. And because transport, water and energy supply is usually monopolised, the householder has little choice but to continue as a consumer of an infrastructure service.

The books of a utility or state-owned enterprise, then, represent a discrete set of households well trained to pay their monthly bills. This is precisely the type of revenue stream that pension, insurance and sovereign wealth funds seek when faced with the peculiar problem of having surplus cash to lock away for at least the next two decades.

What did we lose in the sell-off?

Perhaps it was clever to have solved a government debt problem in Australia back in the day through a sell-off of assets to a new class of long-term investor. But as a consequence we have lost other things.

Infrastructure as a planning tool to shape our cities is one. Revenue streams to subsidise needy customers or supply to remote locations is another.

And, critically, we have lost the opportunity for the state to revamp energy, water and transport systems to allow for innovative supply and demand formats – such as distributed electricity supply networks – that are more appropriate to a climate-threatened planet.

Long-term privatisation contracts, most of them closed to scrutiny, lock urban infrastructure provision into 20th-century formats.

The difficult task now will be their unlocking.


This article draws on a research paper by the author in a new special issue of the international journal, Urban Policy and Research, on critical urban infrastructure. You can read other published articles in our series here.

Phillip O'Neill, Director, Centre for Western Sydney, Western Sydney University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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