Infrastructure – too precious to be left to the pollies…

With its 3-year Federal parliamentary cycle and fixed 4-year terms in each State and Territory*, Australia is never too far away from an election. South Australia and Tasmania are both currently in full election mode. Victoria doesn’t go to the polls until later this year, but the informal campaigning (rather like a phony war?) is already underway. And although the next Federal election is not due until 2019, the stump speeches are already being wheeled out.

Fiction imitates (or even predicts) fact in ABC TV’s “Utopia” (hard hats obligatory)

With so much focus on “infrastructure”, it’s going to be a bumper year for hard hats, hi-viz vests and photo opportunities in front of big “stuff”. It’s just such a shame that even with the real life Utopia, Infrastructure Australia (and respective statutory and quasi-independent bodies in each State), so much of the decision-making is left to politicians. Because this “stuff” is far too important to be left to the short-term priorities, self-serving tactics and party preservation shenanigans that most of our elected representatives are forced to succumb to.

Hot infrastructure topics this time around are energy (especially in South Australia), water (Murray Darling Basin), resources (what do we do after the mining boom?), and the call for “jobs” linked to putting up or digging up “stuff”.

I understand that we need employment opportunities both sparked by, and as a driver for, economic stimulus. But there has to be more than simply creating short-term jobs on unsustainable projects (Adani, anyone?). Of course, one could argue that the powerful construction and mining unions (and their infrastructure owning superannuation funds) have a vested interest in maintaining this trajectory.

But if these projects need to take on long-term debt, with the 3 or 4 year election cycles, you can see how difficult it becomes to manage budget priorities. Worse, incoming governments may strive to cancel, overturn or curtail projects of their predecessors, which won’t endear them to the private sector companies (and their banks) who have successfully bid on the contracts.

Roads represent a large chunk of the infrastructure “stuff” in my own State of Victoria, and are already shaping up to be a key election issue (at least in the minds of the parties). For a major city that still doesn’t have a dedicated train service connecting the CBD to its ever-growing international airport, Melbourne probably needs fewer roads, and more planning (especially as we move to ride-sharing and self-driving vehicles). Besides, while we are in an urban and population growth cycle, given the rate at which some of the current new roads are being built, they will be under-capacity before they are even finished.

I would argue that there is just as much demand to upgrade and refurbish existing infrastructure, (which will probably generate just as many employment opportunities) rather than feeding the insatiable demand for shiny new toys. Or revisiting (and even restoring) some “old” ideas that might actually make sense again today, such as the orbital railway concept connecting Melbourne’s suburban hubs. Sure, we have the new Metro Tunnel project under the CBD, and this may lead to extensions to existing suburban services, and even the airport itself. But future projects have not been scoped, and are subject to prevailing party ideologies (not to mention the NIMBY brigades…) – rather than serving  the interests or greater good of the population (and environment) as a whole.

Finally, some sobering news came out of the UK recently, where London is actually experiencing a decline in passenger numbers on public transport. There have been a variety of explanations for this drop (the first in more than 20 years) – from the threat of terrorism, to new work patterns (more people working from home); from changing lifestyles (more Netflix, less Multiplex), to the “on-demand” economy (more Deliveroo, less dining out).  With fewer people likely to commute to the CBD (40% of the population will have self-directed careers), governments, their infrastructure boffins and their policy wonks will need to think about what this does actually mean for roads and rail…. and how much longer must I wait for the NBN in my suburb of Richmond (and will it already be obsolete by the time I have access)?

Next week: Blockchain, or Schmockchain?







* For the breakdown see here.

End of Year Reflection

As we reach the end of 2016, I can’t help thinking: “What just happened?“. It’s been a year of unexpected (and far from conclusive) electoral outcomes. Renewed Cold War hostilities threaten to break out on a weekly basis. Sectarian conflicts have created levels of mass-migration not seen since the end of WWII. Meanwhile, there have been more celebrity deaths than I can recall in a single year. (And a Scotsman is the #1 tennis player in the world.)

Old Father Time, Museum of London (Image: Chris Wild)

Old Father Time, Museum of London (Image: Chris Wild)

The Brexit and Trump poll results are being cited as either examples of the new populist/nationalist politics, or proof that our current democratic systems are highly flawed. Either way, they are indicative of a certain public mood: anger fueled by a sense of despair at not being able to deal with the rapid changes brought about by globalisation, multiculturalism, modernisation and the “open source” economy. Ironically, both the Brexit and Trump campaigns relied heavily on the global technologies of social media, 24-news cycles and internet-driven soundbites (plus they surely benefited at various times from fake news, false claims and belligerent rhetoric).

As I write, I am in the UK, which is heading for a mini winter of discontent (with high-profile strikes in the rail, mail and airline sectors). The last time I was here about two years ago, there was a general sense of public optimism; now, post-Brexit, it feels very subdued, even depressed. Whether this is a delayed response to the Brexit result, or uncertainty about the exit process itself, it’s hard to tell. While the governing Conservative party leadership is struggling to implement the outcome of a referendum that many of them did not want (or expect), the opposition Labour party (whose own leadership was highly ambivalent about the Brexit vote) is busily re-enacting the 1970’s and 1980’s….

Speaking of the 70’s and 80’s, the return to Cold War hostilities has felt like an inevitability for the past few years, and if it weren’t so serious it might be the suitable subject of a satire by Nikolai Gogol. While the primary fault lines are again between the USA and Russia, there are some complications and distractions, that don’t paint as clear a picture compared to the past: first, the relationships between the US President-elect and Russia confuse matters; second, the ideological war has shifted from capitalism vs communism, to liberalism vs autocracy; third, the role of “satellite” states is no longer to act as proxies in localised disputes – these supporting characters might now provide the trigger for all out hostilities between the super powers.

The ascendancy of this new nationalism (within the USA as much as in Russia) and the increased autocratic leadership on display in democratic, theocratic, oligarchic and totalitarian regimes alike is a renewed threat to enlightened liberalism and classical pluralism. Hence the significance of failing democratic institutions and political leadership in the west – the vacuum they leave behind is readily filled by the “certainty” of dictatorship and extremism. With China added to the mix via recent maritime events, plus ongoing strife in the Middle East, the potential flash point for a new Cold War conflict might be in the Spratly Islands as much as Syria, Ulaanbaatar as Ukraine, or Ankara as Aden.

On a (slightly) lighter note, the number of celebrity deaths reported in 2016 could be explained by demographics: artists who became famous during the explosion of popular culture in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s are simply getting old. In terms of dead pop stars, 2016 was book-ended by the deaths of David Bowie and Leonard Cohen. Both were experiencing something of a renaissance in their professional fortunes, and each left us with some of the most challenging but enduring work of their careers. Of their surviving contemporaries, some might argue that Neil Young and Bob Dylan continue to keep the musical flame alive, but for my money, Brian Eno and John Cale are the torch bearers for their generation.

In a satirical end of year review in The Times last weekend, the following words were “attributed” to Bowie (someone known to understand, if not define, the zeitgeist):

“Sorry to bail, guys. But I could see the way things were going.”

Next week: Content in Context is taking a break for the holidays. Peace and best wishes to all my readers. Normal service will resume on January 10.

Is this The Conversation we should be having?

Here’s a barbecue topic for Australia Day: What is happening to the quality of public discourse? Over the holidays, I read The Conversation’s 2015 yearbook, “Politics, policy & the chance of change”. It’s a collection of individual articles from the past 12 months, grouped into broad themes, covering key issues of the day, at least among the academic and chattering classes. As a summary of the year in Australian political, economic, cultural and social reportage, it’s not a bad effort. With “news” increasingly bifurcated between a dominant commercial duopoly and a disintermediated social media maelstrom, The Conversation can offer a calm rational voice and an objective alternative.

Screen Shot 2016-01-24 at 6.43.50 PMThe title promises a new direction in political debate, and I went to the book’s Melbourne launch at the start of the summer, where Michelle Grattan, The Conversation’s Chief Political Correspondent held court in an audience Q&A. I was looking forward to the event, because part of The Conversation’s remit is to foster informed debate that is more than tabloid headlines, news soundbites and party room gossip. It has also positioned itself as a non-partisan, independent and authoritative source of news analysis.

I was hoping the Q&A would provide a considered discussion on some of the key policy issues facing the country – long-term tax reform, addressing climate change, updating Federation, dealing with the post-mining boom economy, improving the quality and efficiency of our education, health and infrastructure systems, etc.

Instead, the first three questions from the audience concerned Mal Brough, Ian Macfarlane and Tony Abbot. How demoralising. Haven’t we moved on from this cult of personality? Haven’t we learnt anything from the past 10 years or so? If the same event had been held during Julia Gillard’s term as PM, the names would have been different (Craig Thomson, Peter Slipper, Kevin Rudd?) – and for quite separate reasons, I hasten to add – but the context and implication would have been very similar: “Never mind policies, what’s the chance of (another) leadership spill? How are the numbers stacking up in Parliament? When’s the court case?”

Although I admire the aims of The Conversation, and I understand why it exists, I have some concerns about the type of discourse that The Conversation is actually fostering among its audience. As with many public institutions, I appreciate that it’s there (even though I am not a frequent reader), but like other news media, it risks confirming the bias and prejudices of its audience. It can also feel as if it is serving only the vested interests of its contributors, partners and sponsors.

So much of Australia’s recent political history has been dominated by self-delusional egos, nefarious party factions, insidious vested interests and character assassination (which I blame for giving us five prime ministers in as many years).

When it was my turn to ask a question, it concerned the recent bipartisan compromise between the Coalition and The Greens to publish the tax records of companies generating more than $200m in revenue (as a step towards tackling corporate tax avoidance). I asked, “Should we expect to see more of this seemingly new approach to politics?” Although Ms Grattan gave a detailed (and somewhat technical) explanation for this particular Parliamentary outcome and its likely implications, I felt that most of the audience were not interested. They would probably have preferred to be talking about the ins and outs of the party rooms. For me, this does not bode well for the level and quality of public debate we are having on (non-party) political issues that really matter.

I also have a few other niggles about The Conversation and the 2015 Yearbook:

  1. By only sourcing content from “recognised” academic experts and policy wonks, I think this overlooks contributions from commercial and industry experts which are just as valid. As long as such authors also declare any interests, it should ensure balanced commentary – but to exclude them from the debate just because they don’t have academic, public or research tenure is self-limiting.
  2. The site as a whole (and the book in particular) is rather thin on actual data references, and when research data is included in articles, there are rarely any charts, tables or infographics. I think this is a shame and a missed opportunity.
  3. The book hardly mentions the critical issue of tax reform (which barely merits half a dozen pages). Whereas, reform of the education system (including academic research funding) gets around 40 pages – which rather smacks of self-interest (and bias?) on the part of the academic authors

Finally, The Conversation provides a valuable (and from what I have seen, an impartial) service via its factcheck section, which in tandem with the ABC’s Fact Check is doing a sterling job of trying to keep our pollies honest (at least in Parliament…). More power to it.

Next week: David Bowie Was – “It’s a god-awful small affair”