Ports, roads, rail and power.
These are the topics you expect from some of WA’s top executives when talk turns to the State’s infrastructure needs.
But instead education, tourism, public transport and retaining Perth’s “liveability” best captured the zeitgeist of the 16 guests at the latest CEO Voice boardroom series.
Building better cities
There was unanimity that if Perth was to retain its laid-back lifestyle by 2050 more effort must go into public transport.
Committee for Perth chief executive Marion Fulker said public transport such as light rail that wasn’t just about travelling to work, but also linking to education venues, had positive spin-offs.
“It’s not just about transport as a solution but also about how we can solve some of the other social issues when we get to those lower socio-economic areas,” she said.
A holistic 20-year plan was needed to ensure productivity didn’t slip, by ensuring much-needed items such as additional river road crossings for Perth did not fall off the radar of bureaucrats, according to City of Perth chief executive Frank Edwards.
But the need or otherwise for 20 or 50-year infrastructure plans was a contentious one, with some chiefs suggesting they were destined to end up gathering dust and become an excuse for inaction by government.
However, AIM WA chief executive Gary Martin said ever-growing and disparate infrastructure demands made long-term planning more essential than ever.
Mario D’Orazio, managing director of Channel 7, said not enough thought had been given to “liveability” issues, most commonly reflected in the debate over small bars. He was backed by Lifeline WA chief executive Fiona Kalaf, who said that physical infrastructure needed to be complemented by attractive destinations.
But engineer at heart, Paul Sadleir, managing director of property group Cedar Woods, said physical infrastructure was crucial.
“As an old Western Power engineer I sort of have a problem every time I see a pole fall over, there are 700,000 of them and they’re all getting very old,” he said.
“So I think we do have to put a lot more into infrastructure renewal and well as the growth aspect.”
A suitcase-wielding businessman is more likely to be tourism’s saviour than bikini-clad swimmers, according to one of the best brains in the business.
Dean Lee, chief executive of the Perth Exhibition and Convention Centre, said that enormous wasted effort went into boosting the leisure — rather than the corporate — tourism market in the interests of “short-term political populism”.
“The reality is that WA is not sufficiently appealing to overcome the twin tyrannies of dollars and distance,” he said.
“Unless you build tourism attractions on a very large scale, you can’t become a tourism destination and WA’s population is too small to build an attraction of any note.”
He said that business tourism, including conferences, had been growing — in contrast to leisure tourism — and that WA’s growing economic might was attracting wealthy commercial visitors who often extended their stay to take in areas such as Margaret River.
Home building magnate Dale Alcock added that not enough was being done to capitalise on Perth’s strengths — its beaches — which also fed back into the liveability issue.
“You can’t go and have a coffee or a drink on the beach,” he said.
“Now that is just wrong, that is so backward. I think sensible development and progress of what goes on along that coast (centred on surf lifesaving clubs) and how we engage with it is important.”
Austal Ships chief executive Andrew Bellamy, who has lived around the world, said West Australians were quite likely living in the best spot on earth and urged people to remember this when talking about the State’s tourism flaws or potential.
If there was a company that seems custom made for the National Broadband Network, it is Rio Tinto.
The global mining giant is investing heavily in a fleet of remote driverless trucks and trains for its massive Pilbara iron ore mines, linked by the internet to a Perth operations centre.
But Rio’s president of Pilbara iron ore operations, Greg Lilleyman, said the huge $37 billion project was unlikely to deliver benefits to cutting-edge mining companies.
“We have put our own technology in and are quite comfortable with our investment plans,” he said.
“Nothing material from a remote perspective will come from the NBN other than for those that might sit at home and click on a button — they might get a quicker download to their house.”
Dale Alcock went further, saying the NBN would be “Australia’s greatest peace-time disaster”.
“I reckon that the cost of that, it won’t even be a quarter rolled out before stuff (technology) is already over the top of it,” he said.
He recounted experiencing Maasai tribesmen two years ago getting perfect mobile reception in rural Kenya as an example of how the NBN could become redundant.
However, Town of Vincent Mayor Alannah MacTiernan defended the venture and said there was “a danger of paralysis” if businesses or government kept holding off investment in technology to wait for the next big thing.
Student Edge managing director Mike Schwartz said that a survey of its students showed while they were overwhelmingly interested in better public transport, health and education infrastructure, a growing number were demanding faster and widely available high-speed internet access which played into the NBN debate.
Finally attention turned to how to fund all these grand compacts.
Managing director of corporate adviser Torridon Partners Jeremy Carlberg said that recent calls to have superannuation funds plough more money into big mining infrastructure projects faced significant hurdles, due to the uncertainty of resource developments.
“They (super funds) see a huge amount of investment potential in resources infrastructure, but it is the development risks associated with that infrastructure which prices them out of the market,” he said.
“They are much more interested in predictable outcomes of existing brownfields assets.”
Peter Mott, chief executive of St John of God Murdoch Hospital said there was scope for more private-public partnerships, given the enormous capital requirements of a growing population.
“My sense is that without governments committing to PPPs, we’re just not going to have the capital that we need to do all the things we want to do,” he said.
Atlas Iron managing director Ken Brinsden and Synergy chief executive Trevor James both said that government had a role to play in helping to make investment in resource projects such as ports and energy more transparent.
Andrew Bellamy expressed surprise that, having built enormous LNG and mining projects in the State’s north, little thinking went into how to defend them.
“We’re investing in our strategic energy assets in the north-west of this country and we operate (navy) ships out of Perth and Darwin,” he said.
“So the fact that we’ve got no effective infrastructure coverage other than a small amount in Broome, I find amazing.”