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“Award for Ross Gittins,” The Sydney Morning Herald, March 15, 1991, p. 2.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s Economics Editor, Mr Ross Gittins, has won this year’s C.R. Kelly Award, given to the author of an article that best advances the case for a competitive market economy in Australia.

Mr Gittins’s article, “Why we must roll back the tyranny of distance,” published last May [reproduced below], was selected from 14 entries. It examined the excessive costs of monopolistic practices, unnecessary regulation in the transport system and the vested interests in maintaining these structures.

The award honours Mr C. R. (Bert) Kelly, a former Federal Cabinet minister and Member for Wakefield during the 1960s, regarded as a pioneer advocate of a competitive market economy in modern Australian politics.

Mr Gittins was in Canberra last night to receive his $1,500 prize.

Ross Gittins, “Why we must roll back the tyranny of distance,” The Sydney Morning Herald, May 23, 1990, p. 13.

You can say what you like about Geoffrey Blainey, but I reckon any man who can uncover “the tyranny of distance” can’t be all bad. As is my custom, I discovered Blainey’s book about 20 years after the rest of the populace.

(Actually, I read it while lounging on a beach at the French Riviera. It may have been odd reading for such a sophisticated location, but it was my kind of beach. All those boardwalks, deck chairs and umbrellas meant I could “lie on the beach” without ever coming in direct contact with sand, sun or water. Regrettably, regular visits to the Riviera are not my custom.)

Blainey opened our eyes to the remarkable way distance has shaped Australia. For us, the tyranny of distance has two dimensions: we’re a long way from anywhere else, and we’re holed up in cities scattered around the edge of a vast continent.

Transport is important for any country, but for us it should be an obsession. If ever a country needed an efficient system of transport, we’re it.

We need every mode of transport — air, sea, rail, road — in tiptop condition, so that we can make optimal use of all the choices available; so that our horses go on the right courses.

Yet the truth is that each mode is plagued by major inefficiencies. The organised robbery that is the two-airlines policy needs no elaboration.

Similarly, the costliness of our coastal shipping — compounded by the inefficiency of our waterfront and ports — has had a lot of attention lately. It’s got to the point where it can be cheaper to buy goods brought in from other countries than goods brought from other parts of Australia.

And a major reason why we do so little to raise the value of our mineral commodities before exporting them is the cost of shipping them around Australia for further processing.

Now rail. Our five railways systems are poorly co-ordinated, rundown and rife with overmanning and crazy work practices. Their productivity is roughly half that of railways overseas. Their deficit is about $1.8 billion a year.

That brings us to road transport. In one sense, road freight in Australia is highly efficient. The big freight companies run very tight ships. In fact, they exploit the oversupply of men wanting to lead what they initially imagine to be the romantic life of a self-employed interstate truck driver.

The trouble is that the road transport industry enjoys a hidden road subsidy running to more than $1.5 billion a year. That’s the extent to which the cost of the road damage done by heavy vehicles exceeds the fuel excise and registration fees they pay.

So, from that point of view, road transport is inefficient, too.

Why such a mess in our transportation? Why so much inefficiency wherever you turn? Mainly because, in different ways, each mode is protected from competition.

Preventing competition from third parties is the whole point of the two-airline policy. Even when that policy expires later this year, domestic airlines still will be protected from competition with international airlines.

The ships plying our coast have have grown ever more costly because the Federal Government’s policy of “sabotage” restricts the coastal trade to Australian-flag vessels.

As for railways, the State Governments give them special protection: over half the freight carried by rail has been subject to monopoly provisions preventing its carriage by road.

Looking across the transport modes, the picture is clear. Lack of competition breeds inefficiency and excessive costs; as businessman seek to cut their transport costs, freight migrates to one mode that is technically efficient and heavily subsidised: road.

To avoid high domestic air fares, more people travel by road coach. Apart from heavy bulk commodities, coastal shipping has lost most of its cargo to land transport. And the railways have lost most of their general cargo to road, Coal, minerals and grain account for almost two-thirds of the rail system’s freight tonne kilometres.

For a country with a chronic balance-of-payments problem, all this expensive inefficiency makes no sense. But the inexorable drift to road creates many other problems, of which we’ve become acutely aware in recent days. All the extra road freight and coach traffic causes more accidents and fatalities. We get upset and demand more spending on dual-carriageways. After all, we’re paying enough in petrol taxes. But our Governments are heavily stretched paying to repair the damage being done by all the heavy vehicles.

Apart from the problems of people living near airports, road is the transport mode which generates most noise and air pollution.

Road is the least fuel-efficient mode. And it emits most greenhouse gasses.

Clearly, something needs to be done. For economic, social and environmental reasons, the mess needs to be sorted out. Basically, we need to get rid of all the artificial factors forcing freight on to our roads. To limit the social and environmental costs, we should have no more freight on the roads than is economically justified.

Governments have begun working on the problem. Domestic aviation is to be deregulated — sort of. Coastal shipping and the waterfront are to be paid huge bribes of taxpayers’ money to raise their productivity over the next three years.

But as yet, nothing’s been done about rail and road. The Hawke Government has not decided how to dismantle the great rats’ nest of inefficiency, protection and subsidy. The position is so inherently complex as to provide each player with a seemingly impressive excuse for resisting reform.

Right now, the Government faces a stand-off which is as typically Australian as it is Mexican.

Thanks to the attention the matter received during the election campaign, the Government is under considerable political pressure to get results on the waterfront and in coastal shipping.

But already, that crowd is making its excuses to the Government, which is retailing those excuses through the media: why is everyone coming on heavy with us? What kind of delusion is it to imagine that the waterfront and coastal shipping is the be-all and end-all of micro-economic reform? If we were perfectly efficient, the difference that would make to the national economy would be tiny. The inefficiencies in rail are infinitely greater than any sins of ours.

OK, you may have a point. Why don’t we move in on rail? Let’s find a way to force the States to remove the monopolies which shelter so much overmanning and inefficiency. Let’s make the railways pay their way.

I can tell you now the reaction from the railways and their unions: What? You must be crazy! You’d take away our subsidy, but leave the road industry’s untouched? Our problem isn’t work practices; it’s the dilapidated state of our track and rolling stock. We’d never be able to compete with road. Huge increase in road freight traffic would cause pollution to escalate and road deaths to skyrocket. The social costs would be unthinkable.

OK, you may have a point. Why don’t we go straight to the heart of the problem: road. Let’s override the States and impose a proper weight-distance tax on heavy vehicles which recovers the cost of the road damage they do.

You can imagine the reaction from the transport companies, not to mention the roadblock-happy truckies: Why pick on us? We’re the one efficient transport mode the country’s got. What about all the inefficiency of the railways, their monopolies and taxpayer-funded deficits? Can you imagine what this impost would do to the cost of road freight? How’s that going to help the balance of payments? What would it do to inflation? We’d all of us go broke.

Dear reader, you see the point I’m driving at. The only feasible way to break this impasse is to work on all fronts. All the anti-competitive measures have to be withdrawn, not just some. All the subsidies — explicit and hidden — have to be rolled back together.

We have to tell the wharfies and seamen to stop whingeing and get on with it, because land transport’s next on the block. We need a package of measures which sorts out road and rail simultaneously, to minimise the inevitable arguments.

We need to phase in a tax on heavy vehicles at the same time as we phase out the railways deficits which allow crazy work practices to roll on forever.

We need to put pressure on the railways — and give a quid pro quo to road transport — by removing their monopolies over the carriage of certain commodities.

But, provided the railways come to the party on increased productivity, we do need to give them big bucks to bring their main lines up to 21st century standard. The obvious problem with all this, of course, is that “we” really means seven Governments, who can never agree on anything.

I fear that the tyranny of distance will blight our lives for some time yet.

(in order of appearance on
  1. Bert Kelly on his journalism
  2. Move for a body of Modest Members
  3. Modest Members Association
  4. Bert Kelly's Maiden Parliamentary Speech
  5. Government Intervention
  6. 1976 Monday Conference transcript featuring Bert Kelly
  7. Bert Kelly, Hayek and Mencken on the virtues of farmers
  8. Sound economics calls for quiet from government
  9. Petrol for Farmers
  10. Some Sacred Cows
  11. Experiences in Parliament
  12. Spending your Money
  13. Is Taxmania a politician fetish?
  14. How Bert Kelly repays a free feed
  15. Modest column #898
  16. Chicken-hearted feathered friends strange bedfellows on a feather bed?
  17. Who needs literary licence?
  18. A touch of Fred's anarchy
  19. Helping the farmers help themselves
  20. Standing on the shoulders of the downtrodden
  21. Supply and Demand
  22. Bert Kelly responds to claims he is arrogant and uncredentialed
  23. Politics: it's a very confusing business
  24. The best featherbeds run on rails
  25. Bert Kelly on Disaster Relief
  26. Bert Kelly Wants to Secede
  27. Blinded by their tears
  28. Anti-freedom pro-tobacco industry lobby harmed Australia
  29. Under Labor, is working hard foolish?
  30. An Idiot's Guide to Interventionism
  31. Is free healthcare worthless?
  32. Can government kiss it better?
  33. Bert Kelly Destroys the Side Benefits Argument for Government
  34. Bert Kelly gets his head around big-headed bird-brained politics
  35. First Modest Member (Bert Kelly) AFR Column
  36. Second Modest Member (Bert Kelly) AFR Column
  37. Third Modest Member (Bert Kelly) AFR Column
  38. Fourth Modest Member (Bert Kelly) AFR Column
  39. Fifth Modest Member (Bert Kelly) AFR Column
  40. Sixth Modest Member (Bert Kelly) AFR Column
  41. Bert Kelly on the 2011 Budget and Australia's Pathetic Journalists and Politicians
  42. Bert Kelly, Bastard or Simple Sod?
  43. Liberal Backbencher Hits Govt. Over Import Restrictions
  44. Bert Kelly feels a dam coming on at each election
  45. Bert Kelly Enters Parliament
  46. Why take in one another's washing?
  47. Bert Kelly breaks the law, disrespects government and enjoys it
  48. Gillard's galley-powered waterskiing
  49. State Premiers are always asking for more taxing powers
  50. Can price control really work?
  51. Should we put up with socialism?
  52. We're quick to get sick of socialism
  53. Time the protection racket ended
  54. Can't pull the wool over Farmer Fred
  55. People not Politics
  56. Bert Kelly admits he should have had less faith in politicians
  57. The inspirational incentivising Dear Leader Gough Whitlam
  58. Labor: a girl who couldn't say no
  59. Why leading businessmen carry black briefcases
  60. Ludwig von Mises on page 3 of AFR
  61. Bert Kelly's empowering feminism
  62. Mavis wants the Modest Member to dedicate his book to her
  63. What if the whole country is swindled?
  64. Moss Cass: "Flood plains are for floods"
  65. A worm's eye view
  66. Eccles returns to haunt us
  67. How to grip a politician's ear
  68. It's hard to digest this economic cake
  69. Time to Butcher "Aussie Beef"
  70. Cold water on government-instigated irrigation schemes
  71. Hooray for Ord River Dam!
  72. Tariffs paid by exporters
  73. The problem of principles v popularity
  74. If you support State Quotas, where will your logic take you?
  75. Against guidance by government
  76. A socialist in Liberal clothing
  77. Never ask the government to help
  78. Don't listen to economists!
  79. Bert Kelly's revolutionary strategy
  80. Whitlam's July 1973 25% tariff cut
  81. Bert Kelly on Import Quotas
  82. Good directions when government backseat driving, like reversing down wrong side of road
  83. Barriers to imports are barriers to exports
  84. Bert Kelly reviews The War Diaries of Weary Dunlop
  85. Bert Kelly reviews We Were There
  86. Tariffs get the fork-tongue treatment
  87. Bert Kelly reduces government to its absurdities
  88. Politician sacrifices his ... honesty
  89. It's all a matter of principle
  90. Bert Kelly Destroys the Infant Industry Argument
  91. Bert Kelly Untangles Tariff Torment
  92. Bert Kelly resorts to prayer
  93. Eccles keeps our nose hard down on the tariff grindstone
  94. "Don't you believe in protecting us against imports from cheap labour countries?"
  95. Even if lucky, we needn't be stupid
  96. Great "freedom of choice" mystery
  97. Small government's growth problem
  98. I like my kind acts to get a mention in the press
  99. A Modest Member rakes the embers
  100. Tariffs Introduced
  101. More About Tariffs
  102. Sacred cow kicker into print
  103. Bert Kelly's 1984 two-article quote-collection on Aboriginal policies
  104. Modest Member must not give up
  105. Traditional Wheat Farming is Our Birthright and Heritage and Must be Protected!
  106. Tariff-cut nonsense lives on
  107. Bert Kelly brilliantly defends "theoretical academics"
  108. The high cost of protection
  109. Generosity creates problems
  110. The Society of Modest Members
  111. John Hyde's illogical, soft, complicated, unfocussed and unsuccessful attempt to communicate why he defends markets
  112. Modesty ablaze
  113. Case for ministers staying home
  114. The unusual self-evident simplicity of the Modest Members Society
  115. Animal lib the new scourge of the bush
  116. The Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Krill
  117. modest members society
  118. Repeal economic laws, force people to buy new cars and enforce tariffs against overseas tennis players
  119. Thoughts on how to kill dinosaurs
  120. Let's try the chill winds
  121. Taking the Right's road
  122. Bert Kelly: "I did not try often or hard enough"
  123. Bert Kelly "lacked ... guts and wisdom"
  124. A look at life without tariffs
  125. The Gospel according to Bert
  126. Tiny note on Bert Kelly's column in The Bulletin in 1985
  127. Why costs can't be guaranteed
  128. Hitting out with a halo
  129. Paying farmers not to grow crops will save on subsidies, revenge tariffs, etc
  130. "The Modest Farmer joins us" | "How The Modest Farmer came to be"
  131. Bert Kelly Destroys the Freeloading Justifies Government Argument
  132. Industrial Relations Club shovellers
  133. From Shann to Stone
  134. Government Intervention
    Government Interference
  135. A sojourn in the real world
  136. The tariff wind swings
  137. Bigger Cake = Bigger Slices
  138. Bert Kelly on the Political Process
  139. A charabanc called protection
  140. Taken for a ride - to nowhere
  141. Down hill, in circles, all the way
  142. Economic facts and figures are statistics who should speak out
  143. Any cons arguing small business bad but big government good?
  144. Relationships with the Liberal Party
  145. Tariffs = High Prices + World War
  146. Bert Kelly's Family History
  147. Bert Kelly's Pre-Parliament Life
  148. What the MP could say to the Bishop
  149. Why Bert Kelly was not even more publicly outspoken
  151. How to stand aside when it's time to be counted
  152. How the Modest Member went back to being a Modest Farmer
  153. My pearls of wisdom were dull beyond belief
  154. Bert Kelly on Political Football
  155. Undigested morsels in Fraser spew
  156. Bert Kelly on LSD
  157. Bert Kelly reflects on the Australian car industry in 1992
  158. Bert Kelly wants reprinted Shann's Economic History of Australia
  159. If tariffs are opposed here then why not there?
  160. The emperor has no textiles, clothing and footwear sense
  161. Ross Gittins Wins Bert Kelly Award
  162. Interesting 1964 Bert Kelly speech: he says he is not a free trader and that he supports protection!
  163. This is the wall the Right built
  164. Tariff Protection in Australia (1970)
  165. Has Santa socked it to car makers?
  166. Is the Budget a cargo cult?
  167. Will we end up subsidising one another?
  168. Keeping the bucket of worms alive
  169. Can we get off the stomach-churning head-spinning tariff merry-go-round?
  170. Do we want our money to fly?
  171. Can a bear be sure of a feed?
  172. How to impress your MP -
    ambush him
  173. The time for being nice to our MPs has gone ...
  174. Don't feel sorry for him -
    hang on to his ear
  175. Trade wars can easily end up on a battlefield
  176. Tariffs Create Unemployment
  177. Bert Kelly recommends Ayn Rand
  178. Bert Kelly on Alf Rattigan's Industry Assistance: The Inside Story
  179. Bert Kelly's Satirical Prophecy: Minister for Meteorology (tick) and High Protectionist Policies to Result in War Yet Again (?)
  180. Bert Kelly in 1972 on Foreign Ownership of Australian Farmland and Warren Truss, Barnaby Joyce and Bill Heffernan in 2012
  181. Bert Kelly baits Welfare State Tiger
  182. Why does Govt wear two faces?
  183. Parliament a place for pragmatists
  184. Of Sugar Wells and Think-Tanks
  185. Bert Kelly: "I must take some of the blame"
  186. Bert Kelly on dumping duties
  187. The Govt's helping hand often hurts
  188. Unbuckling the hobbles on the motor industry
  189. A Modest Farmer looks at the Problems of Structural Change
  190. Government Fails Spectacularly
  191. Know your proper place if you want the quiet life
  192. Bert Kelly on political speech writers
  193. Having your cake and eating it
  194. Perish the thawed!
  195. Hooray for Northern Development!
  196. The silly image of our MPs
  197. Bert Kelly Question Time highlights
  198. Modest Farmer sees his ideas take hold
  199. Should facts stand in the way of a good story?
  200. Fondling one another's glass haloes
  201. What is the sense in making the effort to look after yourself?
  202. Fred's Feeling: Counterpatriotic country contrarian
  203. Handouts for big boys only
  204. Mavis trying to buy a hand loom
  205. Bad news for bearers of bad news
  206. Is it time to get aboard the tariff band-waggon?
  207. Why farmers resent tariff protection for motor makers
  208. A sordid use of scare tactics
  209. Goods vs services
  210. Tariffs are hilariously counterproductive
  211. Bert Kelly on decentralisation
  212. Inflation breeds moral decay
  213. Who envies equality?
  214. Growth – malignant or benign?
  215. Government wiser than Magna Carta
  216. Bert Kelly on looking to politicians for moral leadership
  217. Max Newton: Maverick in Exile
  218. Whitlam & co on the Dismissal
  219. 25% Tariff Cut
  220. Bert Kelly on pensions
  221. Mr Clunies-Ross of the Cocos Islands should rule Australia
  222. They get the wind up when it changes
  223. Why the Big Green Lie survives
  224. Ross McLean in 1982: "Malcolm! Why don't we try good government? It might be popular."
  225. Bert Kelly on the importance of exchange rate movements
  226. Bert Kelly shows how to attack
  227. Bert Kelly vs Bert Kelly vs Bert Kelly
  228. Industrial relations dinosaur, Bruce, chews his cud
  229. Hooray for "firmly entrenched"!
  230. Respect your dinosaurs
  231. What if something is "deeply ingrained" yet harmful?
  232. A case for ministerial inertia
  233. Why politicians don't like the truth
  234. Our great open spaces
  235. Ominous dark clouds are gathering
  236. Better to be popular than right
  237. Crying in the wilderness
  238. Ivory tower needs thumping
  239. Bert Kelly asks, "How can you believe in free enterprise and government intervention at the same time?"
  240. Politicians get undeserved praise, why not undeserved blame too?
  241. Feet in a bucket of champagne
  242. Rural Problems
  243. Health cover needs a $30 excess clause
  244. Unholy state of taxation
  245. Boring economics worth a smile
  246. The Libido for the Miserable
  247. Agricultural Development and Tariffs
  248. Fred's too poor to have principles
  249. Eccles Law of the constant wage share
  250. "He whom the gods would destroy ..."
  251. Tariffs: when to wean infant BHP?
  252. Keep any government as far as possible from farming
  253. The Playford charade is out of date
  254. Bert Kelly: the odd man out who's now in
  255. Dries must resist giving up struggle as going gets tough
  256. How a well meaning Government can be so stupid
  257. The icing on the economic cake
  258. Sir Roderick Carnegie's foreword to Bert Kelly's Economics Made Easy
  259. The Vale of Popularity and the Protection Procession
  260. Politics 101: Pay Lip Service to Capitalism and Shoot the Messenger
  261. Bert Kelly makes politicians eat their own words on tariffs, then says, "We cannot be blamed for treating the statements of our statesmen with cynical contempt"
  262. Bert Kelly on Free Enterprise
  263. Cartoons of protected industry, the welfare teat and the nanny state
  264. Bert Kelly on the theory of constant shares and the Fabian Society
  265. Bert Kelly vs Doug Anthony
  266. You're lucky if you escape being helped by government
  267. Bert Kelly on Small Farmers
  268. Bert Kelly on Apathy
  269. Bert Kelly in 1967 on "problems of government and things like that"
  270. The last "Dave's Diary"
  271. Bert Kelly vs The Australian on tariffs in 1977
  272. Bounties or Tariffs, Someone Pays
  273. Geriatric companies without a minder
  274. A free marketeer wary of free trade
  275. Nixon's puzzling profession of faith
  276. "Ford ... seems to spend more time bending its knees than its back"
  277. Clyde Cameron's weak ways with wise words
  278. Why flaunt what others flout?
  279. Bert Kelly yearns for Tim Flannery's powers of prediction
  280. Looking after yourself is silly
  281. Bert Kelly masterpiece on drought, fire, flood and other natural disaster relief schemes
  282. Government can take credit for our car industry mess
  283. Car makers want the 4wd driven deeper into tariff bog
  284. Why our MP is no longer prone to a good sob story
  285. Auto industry is in a straitjacket
  286. Bert Kelly on market predictions
  287. Why should dryland farmers subsidise irrigation farmers?
  288. How much should government decrease incentive for independence from government?
  289. Clarkson crowned Deputy Government Whip
  290. Bert Kelly to blame for soaring government healthcare costs
  291. 1959 return of Dave's Diary
  292. Bert Kelly in 1966 on developing northern Australia
  293. Successful government intervention can [sic] occur
  294. Vernon Report upholds Clarkson
  295. Quiet Man Makes An Impact
  296. Should it be compulsory to buy footwear and clothing?
  297. To save Australian clothing industry women must all wear same uniform
  298. Don't confuse plucking heart strings with plucking harp strings
  299. Speech only for public
  300. Catchy Tariff Circus Extravaganza
  301. Bert Kelly in 1985 on cars yet again
  302. Hurrah for the Gang of Five
  303. Thoughts on a verse about Balfour
  304. Bert Kelly pep talk to politicians
  305. Government intervention = Agony postponed but death brought nearer
  306. Recipe for disaster: Freeze!
  307. Recipe for government intervention: Gather winners and scatter losers
  308. Recipe for industry destruction: Blanket market signals
  309. Mavis writes!
  310. Bert Kelly's empiricism is not kneejerk reaction kind
  311. The $2,000 song of the shirt worker
  312. Subsiding only small farmers means subsiding the big banks
  313. Difficult to be fast on your feet when you've got your ear to the ground
  314. It would surprise people to see how sensible MPs behave if they think they are not being watched
  315. Bert Kelly on "this land of limitless resources" and "great open spaces"
  316. Growing bananas at the South Pole
  317. Car components tariff protection under fire
  318. Why carry a $300m car subsidy?
  319. Tariff feather beds for the foreign giants
  320. Bert Kelly says end compulsory voting to stop donkey vote
  321. Perhaps being smart and insured isn't all luck
  322. You gets your tariff, you pays a price
  323. More funds to train Olympians?
  324. Fire in their guts and wind in ours
  325. Should free universal healthcare include pets?
  326. Sound advice from a modest farmer
  327. A tottering monument to intervention
  328. Cunning meets wisdom
  329. Competition, Aussie-style: Who's the bigger parasite?
  330. Australians are proud patriotic parasites, says Bert Kelly
  331. Taxpayer-funded sport is cheating
  332. Being loved by all is not always a good thing
  333. Welfare State Destroys Society
  334. 1980 Bert Kelly feather bed series
  335. The White Mice Marketing Board
  336. Government intervention and advice can be harmful, even when right, even for those it tries to help
  337. One small step on the compulsory voting landmine
  338. The free & compulsory education sacred cows have no clothes
  339. Holding a loaded wallet to an economist's head
  340. Political No Man's Land
  341. Only blind greed demands both equality and prosperity
  342. A cow that sucks itself — that's us!
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