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Robert Haupt, “Building rail bridges to a glorious, bankrupt future,”
The Sydney Morning Herald, September 7, 1990, p. 9.

Flared trousers, paisley shirts, platform-soled shoes and the music of the Monkees are well-known devices for summoning up the ghosts of the seventies. But none of them, for me, so completely recreates the spirit of that unfortunate era as the sound of a Federal Labor Minister talking about sewerage.

I wasn’t in the audience when Brian Howe announced this week that 45 per cent of Perth homes are unsewered, but when I read his remarks in the newspaper I fancied I saw a tall man with a commanding mane of silver hair delivering a speech to the faithful in the emphatic, booming whisper that was his trademark:

“My fellow Australians,” I seemed to hear. “For too long, the great questions of national infrastructure have been neglected. In no comparable country are so many houses left unsewered — in Perth, the proportion is 45 per cent. Clearly, this is too important a matter to be left to the States. Under my Government, this problem will be addressed as a matter of urgency by our National Sewerage Program. Here again, as in so many other fields overdue for reform, it’s time.” (Pause for applause.)

It’s odd that we should be so light on for infrastructure that Mr Howe has had to call for “massively” more of it. In the seventies, we had it running out of our ears: pipelines, creches, Albury-Wodongas, TAFEs, film schools, community centres, defence academies, maritime colleges and, yes, sewers.

History shows that we became so well fixed up for infrastructure that the vehicle upon which it was all supposed to hang gave up the ghost. So badly was the chassis bent by overloading that it took 15 years of hammering and cursing in the workshops of Howard & Keating Pty Ltd to get it back even to the far-from-perfect state it’s in today. Meanwhile, bills have been mounting, to the point where Chief Mechanic Keating (pausing from his hammering and cursing to wipe his brow with a piece of cotton waste) considers it a lively and still unsettled question whether we will ever as a nation be able to pay them.

It’s a fatal attraction to a politician, infrastructure. Like his fellow Leftie, the late R. F. X. Connor, Brian Howe seems to be suffering the disease in its “pipes and rails” version, the primary symptom of which is an uncontrollable desire to construct extremely long, horizontal metal projections and send things whizzing along them. (Clinical evidence suggests that these patients suffered toy train deprivation in their childhood.) Malcolm Fraser turned out to have a bad case of “roads and bridges”, another strain of the disease which is the classic outcome of a “no-one to play cars with” upbringing.

When an attack of infrastructure comes over him, a politician will seek to divert our attention before he indulges his urges. Fraser got us to think about the Bicentenary while he played roads and bridges; Howe wants us to concentrate on Federation while he gets on with pipes and rails. Meanwhile, a steady stream of curses emanates from the workshop and ominously louder hammer-blows rain down as the Chief Mechanic works himself into a blazing temper. None of this disturbs the equanimity of Edward Gough Howe.

The deficiency of sewerage in Perth, he blithely asserts, is a fact. Undoubtedly so, though it surely comes accompanied by a question: if Perth’s want of pipes is to be solved, who is to pay the piper? Non-Perthians might wonder why they have a role to play in the matter, as non-Brisbanians might wonder about another of Howe’s facts, the loneliness of the residents of the suburb of Logan City. The finances of Western. Australia may have been seriously damaged by Mr Howe’s Labor Party colleagues in Government there, but, surely, the citizens of Perth are not so reduced in means that building sewers is beyond them? Perhaps Brisbane can organise a bus service for the Logan City folk, or a dance?

“Sydney’s rail network,” Brian complains, “no longer pretends to service large portions of the western suburbs (when did it so pretend?) and Melbourne’s is nowhere to be seen on the south-east peninsula.” Well, the extravagances of Mr Howe’s colleagues in Victoria have ensured that more services than trains will become extinct in that State, but that’s hardly the point. The telling thing is the way the goodness of railways is asserted, with no more argument than this: “For environmental reasons, rail rather than road investments should be part of the program.”

Here we approach the heart of the matter: the other side of his Federation Infrastructure Program, the bit that’s less specific than loos in Perth. Here, on the flip-side of FIP, we encounter our old Fabian friend: the urge to change our behaviour.

“Locational disadvantage,” you see, really refers to our decision to live somewhere other than near where we work. “Low-density residential development,” when you say it plainly, means our backyards. And “factors affecting the appropriateness and affordability of housing for people locating in urban fringe areas” is a code for the wish of planners to tell us where and how to live: that is, near where we work and without our back yards.

We can go on. “Limiting of access to central city areas by private car” would mean Singapore-style road blocks if we could be induced to tolerate them. “Wider and more attractive economic and employment opportunities in cities other than the major capitals” threatens a return to the idea of Monarto and the other Whitlamabads of the seventies.

The “national housing strategy” means jobs for bureaucrats, while “projects which begin to lead Australia in directions appropriate to the future” means our old friend, the Department of Urban and Regional Development. Crikey, at this rate we’ll soon have a job for Tom Uren again.

“We need a change of direction, and we need it now if the future is to take the directions we acknowledge it needs to take,” Mr Howe declared.

“We need a strategic program of public investment directed at breaking through the barriers to change — a program aimed at the centenary of Federation, a program which clearly pursues the Government’s microeconomic, environmental and social justice objectives.” Yep, you guessed it: it’s time.

While we are to have “a clear and bold program of action”, it won’t be like the Whitlam days. Watch the words: we will be “crafting an efficient and effective public sector, free of union featherbedding and wasteful management practices”. It reminds me of the story about Whitlam’s answer when he was asked how he would honour his 1977 pledge to break the link between unemployment and inflation. He is said to have replied: “At once.”

So the party that was unable to do away with tram conductors in Melbourne stands ready to abolish featherbedding; those who brought you Vic Inc will have no truck with wasteful management. As we are asked to let another Government stay playing infrastructure, the question is not Howe. It’s why?

Bonus for Economics.org.au readers:
Neville Kennard, “Traffic Economics,” Economics.org.au, February 6, 2012. There are recommended readings at the end of Nev’s article.