Just imagine for a moment that you are standing on Possession Island in Torres Strait with Captain James Cook on August 22, 1770, while the good captain makes his declaration that the Australian Continent is a territory of the King of England.
He calls you aside and asks you to prepare him a report on what quality of nation Australia should be 250 years hence, as he expects His Majesty to ask him about it when he gets back home.
Let us also assume for the purpose of this exercise that you are a person of extraordinary intellect who has the capacity at that time to perceive what the world will be like in the 21st century.
It will be safe for us to presume that you would not imagine an Australia that would the planning disaster it now is.
Would you have suggested that these unimaginable disasters may eventuate?
• Three out of every four people would live in capital cities located mainly in the southern regions of the continent, and those cities would sprawl out over some of the best farmlands while having totally inadequate roads and railways to serve their rapidly expanding population.
• Rural industries and social infrastructure would be neglected to the extent that people would be unable to find sustainable prosperity in the 95 per cent of the continent that lies largely undeveloped.
• A national rail system would not be built to minimise transport costs, but state railways would be constructed in three separate incompatible gauges.
• It would not be acknowledged that Australia is the driest continent on the planet and no infrastructure would be built to divert surplus fresh water from the tropics to the south and the inland.
• State Governments would be created and they would do their utmost not to co-operate with one another, especially in operating educational systems that penalise families who move interstate.
• There would be scant recognition that Asian nations are our closest neighbours, with vast populations, who need the goods and services we can provide and want to be our strongest allies, but we would keep them at arm’s length because we are too petrified to lose our links with the Queen of England and too frightened to live without the protection of USA.
• Most of our population would live in a state of unfounded panic because a relatively small fraction of the world’s 22 million refugees arrive at our shores and we believe that we will be over-run by them, even though our continent will still be under-populated even if we have 100 million people living here.
• We would not have the courage to adopt our own flag, minus the Union Jack, even though Canada adopted a maple leaf flag with the Queen’s blessing.
I could list more, but it would be too depressing. However, our conversation leads us to the possibility of making some decisions about what we should do about it now and into the future.
Can I suggest a few possibilities?
It is essential that development planning is done nationally. Captain Cook would never have imagined that it would be done by six state governments, that are broke and parochial, with no concern for one another. After all, they had only one Viceroy in India who ran the whole show.
Those inefficient states can be broken up into 50 regional governments that can carry out the policies and projects of a strong national government.
Some of the key issues for planners, who hopefully are visionary, will be to:
• Determine that all long distance freight will be carried by rail, not road. This assumes that we will gradually upgrade our railways and convert all tracks to standard gauge. This will require the re-opening, rebuilding, extending and connecting of many regional railways. It will also enable a new transcontinental railway to be built from the Kimberley to Tennant Creek, Mount Isa and Townsville, thereby creating a spine along which Northern Australia can be developed.
• Foster the growth of regional cities that have the potential to be major centres of freight, value-adding industries, education and health. Cities that come to mind are Bunbury, Geraldton and Broome in Western Australia, Mildura and Shepparton in Victoria, Wagga Wagga, Parkes and Tamworth in New South Wales, plus Toowoomba, Roma, Emerald and Karumba in Queensland. Incentives will be needed to encourage people to leave capital cities to find a better and less costly life in rural cities. Many will be older people willing to invest in those regions and offer experienced partnerships to young entrepreneurs.
• Make Darwin the hub for our expansion into Asia, developing it as an international freight and financial centre based on a Hong Kong model, particularly in relation to joining in the economic growth of the Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia region.
• Establish fast underground railways in capital cities and move suburban population to the centre of them, thereby stopping the hideous urban sprawl.
• Invest in water infrastructure that will drought-proof Australia and open-up the great black soil plains of the north-west to become the food bowl of Australia. Lake Eyre, Lake Torrens and a dozen other inland lakes can be permanently filled with water that can create an inland fishing industry.
The bottom line is that Australia is a long way from being a nation of balanced development. We are over-governed to the extent that all visionary endeavour is blotted out. With the world being in a state of enormous change on a scale unprecedented in history, we will soon have no option but to make reforms that are long overdue.
And millions of Seniors like me can help lead the charge. Sleepy retirement is no longer an option.