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2.1 Commonwealth sector infrastructure

In considering infrastructure, it is useful to distinguish between economic and social infrastructure.

Economic infrastructure is generally taken to include physical structures which facilitate the production and use of goods and services including transport, telecommunications networks, energy, water treatment and supply and sewerage. Social infrastructure includes the facilities and equipment used to satisfy society’s education, health, community service and cultural needs.

Compared with the States, Commonwealth ownership of public infrastructure is limited, mainly a network of rail lines and communication assets. This infrastructure is held in public corporations. It also holds research and defence related infrastructure and an extensive holding of land and properties for its own use.

As outlined in the Commission’s Phase One Report, as at 30 June 2013 the Commonwealth held $110 billion of non-financial assets on its balance sheet. Within this, infrastructure is valued at approximately $57 billion.

In contrast, the States hold some $1.3 trillion non-financial assets including schools, hospitals, water infrastructure, police stations and rail and road infrastructure.

The disparity in infrastructure holdings and investment reflects the Constitutional division of responsibilities, with the Commonwealth’s role primarily in the areas of telecommunications, interstate freight and aviation while the States have responsibility for roads, intra-state transport, water and social infrastructure.

The current level of Commonwealth infrastructure holdings also reflects policy decisions by successive federal governments to reduce their direct involvement in commercial activities with a resultant shift in asset ownership to the private sector through privatisation programmes.

Figure 2.1: Snapshot of Australia’s economic infrastructure at 30 June 2012
 Snapshot of Australia's economic infrastructure at 30 June 2012

Source: Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics, 2013 and 2014.

Three Commonwealth public corporations hold the majority of Commonwealth-owned economic infrastructure held for public use – the Australian Rail Track Corporation, NBN Co and Airservices Australia. A fourth, Australia Post, owns a network of postal depots and mail sorting centres.

The Commonwealth also owns a 13 per cent share in Snowy Hydro Ltd, an energy utility based in New South Wales and 100 per cent of the Moorebank Intermodal Company, which will construct a freight terminal in Western Sydney.

The Commonwealth owns comparatively little social infrastructure with a limited number of health and education assets including the Mersey Hospital in Tasmania and the Australian National University.

The majority of the Commonwealth’s infrastructure assets are held for its own use. They include property valued at $36 billion and other infrastructure, plant and equipment totalling $21 billion which includes information and communications technology and office equipment.

Commonwealth-owned infrastructure also includes some $600 million of assets through the National Capital Authority (including roads and bridges in Canberra and Scrivener Dam) as well as other assets such as Parliament House, various CSIRO research stations and facilities, a nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights in Sydney, immigration detention centres, navigation buoys and lighthouses.

Table 2.1 below summarises the Commonwealth’s holdings of infrastructure assets.

Table 2.1: Commonwealth infrastructure holdings
Agency Description/examples

Fixed assets ($m)

Public corporations    
Australian Rail Track Corporation Railway track and related infrastructure 4,467
NBN Co Broadband infrastructure 2,496
Australia Post Postal depots, sorting centres and related infrastructure 1,616
Airservices Australia Air traffic control and landing infrastructure 1,023
Other public corporations Various 1,199
Total:   10,802
General government sector    
Department of Defence Office buildings, Defence Force bases, training areas and ranges 23,713
Department of Parliamentary Services Parliament House 2,220
CSIRO Laboratories, research stations, marine research and radio telescopes 2,138
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Embassies, consulates, overseas residences 2,134
Department of Finance Domestic Commonwealth-owned office buildings, law courts and other property 1,662
Defence Housing Australia Over 3,800 owned properties and over 18,300 under management 1,456
Department of Immigration and Citizenship Immigration detention centres and related infrastructure 1,101
Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation Lucas Heights Nuclear facility, Cyclotron 1,063
Australian Broadcasting Corporation 47 owned studios, carparks, offices and broadcast equipment 853
National Capital Authority Scrivener Dam, Lake Burley Griffin assets, bridges, roads and tunnels 769
Special Broadcasting Service Office and studio, broadcast transmitters and other equipment 97
Other general government sector Various, incl. navigation buoys, Sydney Harbour Federation Trust shipyard 9,021
Total:   46,227
Total Commonwealth public sector   57,029
Snowy Hydro Ltd Commonwealth 13 per cent shareholding, net assets value 233

Source: Department of Finance, Final Budget Outcome 2012-13, Snowy Hydro Limited 2013 Annual Report.