“Tearing up the contracts” for the road tunnel means there is an actual difference between the political parties. Wow!

The state opposition here in Victoria has just announced it will cancel the contracts for an $8 billion tunnel if it wins the election in November. (While it’s true there’s often a big traffic jam on the road in question, the tunnel fails both cost-benefit analysis and any assessment of what sort of infrastructure the city will need in the future).

THE POLITICS

Deciding to cancel the contract is a bold call, and I suspect, the result of intensive polling. Of course, the government saw this coming, and has a strong line of attack running, calling opposition leader Daniel Andrews an economic “vandal.”

In pledging to cancel the contract, Andrews leaves open the question of what he might do instead, and he doesn’t seem to have much of an answer.

Of course Labor doesn’t want to make new giant policy pledges, before the election. The end of the road project would mean, however, that some money becomes free.

 

Labor still has as part of its election platform the construction of a major rail tunnel – “Melbourne Metro”. Both parties are pretending these two mega-projects are not alternatives, with the coalition government pretending to progress the rail project alongside its favourite road. But realistically, the expense and trouble means the projects are an either/or. Cancelling the road contract is an essential input to building the rail project, it’s just that Labor can’t really admit it.

Assuming the “vandal, Naysayer” tags don’t stick, and the lack of a clearly defined alternative doesn’t hurt Andrews much, I think this is smart politics. Voters like a clear choice and the sniff of real leadership.

The seats that would benefit from the tunnel are mainly Liberal strongholds, and I think if Labor focuses on talking about health and education for the rest of the campaign (and especially if Tony Abbott pops his head up) Labor will win the election.

THE ECONOMICS

Promising to tear up the contracts, before they’ve been signed, is a big risk on the part of Labor. I can imagine Lend Lease and the infrastructure minister sitting in a room right now, amending the cancellation provisions. $100 million? Why not $500 million? Protecting the project and/or hamstringing Labor could both be achieved in the stroke of a pen.

We rely on their good citizenship not to do so. A flimsy protection indeed.

Of course there should be some cancellation provision. A lot of money has already been spent on this project. But from an economy-wide perspective those are sunk costs and we ought to ignore them.

The companies that are selected to build the tunnels will seek sympathy. They will talk a lot about all the investments they have made – hiring people, doing mapping, buying diggers, etc. But we should not listen too closely:

  1. Until just this week there were two bidders in the running for the project. Each of them faced a chance of missing out even if the project went ahead.
  2. The prospect of the project being cancelled was obvious. I bet they haven’t actually made a dedicated unilateral investment in this project for months. Anything they have bought will probably be able to be sold or moved to other projects.
  3. Generous contract cancellation provisions arguably makes this money for jam. When you start building a project, there’s risk of making a loss. When it gets cancelled before you begin, any compensation is pure profit.

The real impact of this cancellation will be felt in future projects. Political parties will have similar incentives to infrastructure companies. Both have incentives to prevent the opposition cancelling the contracts.

If Lend Lease offers Labor a contract for the rail tunnel that includes a slightly lower total cost but enormous contract cancellation provisions, Labor will leap at the chance to protect their project from the whims of future administrations.

There’s game theory at work, and this might be the last chance we have to cost-effectively vote out a project of this kind.

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thomasthethinkengine

Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

One thought on ““Tearing up the contracts” for the road tunnel means there is an actual difference between the political parties. Wow!”

  1. In the Age this morning they said that the councils through which the tunnel will run have solid legal cases for any contracts to be nullified due to a lack of due process on the Transport minister’s part. I suspect that as soon as the opposition heard this, they decided that they couldn’t go wrong opposing it: it’ll probably not happen anyway. You’ll note that they don’t have an alternative plan for roads that would speak of a deliberated decision.

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