The late 1980s saw a reduction of grant monies to the States from the Commonwealth with promises of further cuts to come. Peak construction funding was over. This concerned the large private sector firms that had arisen with Commonwealth patronage and they now cast their eye over public works. It is no coincidence that the ‘outsourcing’ movement that had started overseas, should now arrive in Australia. Private Sector think tanks began to speak adversely about government construction performance, whilst at the same time boosting their own chances by promoting the country’s need for more. This was when the word ‘infrastructure’ started to be heard. The Australian Federation of Construction Contractors (AFCC) funded annual ‘Infrastructure Forums’ held in Canberra (near the source of power) and claimed that there was an infrastructure gap.
I challenged this in my first presentation to the Infrastructure Forum in 1988 and said that, since we didn’t know what we had, and we didn’t know what we needed (both of which were indisputably true) we couldn’t know whether we had a gap or not. This annoyed the AFCC and they asked the CSIRO, who organised the forums for them and who had arranged my first presentation, not to invite me again. So they didn’t. But they did arrange for the NCRB (the National Committee on Rational Building) – and a group that the CSIRO was heavily involved in – to be invited and the NCRB asked me to speak on their behalf. So my next address focused on the expensive consequences for the recurrent budget in future years of increasing capital spend this year. They didn’t like this either.
I didn’t have the power that the AFCC had – and, unfortunately, neither did the public works departments around the country. Gradually work was ‘outsourced’ to the private sector and it became obvious that if Asset Management were to grow, it needed to reach out beyond the engineering and corporate planning base that had guided it in its early stages.