Where is Today’s Equivalent of the Snowy Mountain’s Scheme?

ImagePRESIDENT’S COLUMN: I have spent the last eight days as a bit player in the support crew for the Future2 Wheel Classic – a charity cycle ride from Sydney to Melbourne the hard way, via Canberra and the Snowy Mountains, and then through the Victorian towns of Wangaratta, Bendigo and Castlemaine.

At one level you don’t learn a great deal driving a people carrier behind a bunch of cyclists who one moment can be grinding up a mountain at 10 kilometres an hour and ten minutes later hurtling down the other side in a hailstorm at 60kph.

Except that you can also pick up quite a lot. First, as you pass slowly through the empty rolling hectares of the Australian countryside you realize how great is the scope for expansion of the nation’s farm exports. (And these are Australia’s two most populous states).

There are ‘for sale’ boards everywhere, perhaps because the farmers themselves have had enough, or perhaps because they want to get out while the price of crops and cattle are high.

Yet, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), by 2020, more than half the world’s middle class will be in Asia and Asian consumers will account for over 40 per cent of global middle class consumption.

That is a lot of mouths to feed, and if Australia is truly to be part of the Asian Century then we have to give priority to agricultural production, an area that has been neglected by the Gillard Government, probably because there are few votes for the ALP in the bush. To be fair we have not heard much about this from the Coalition either.  The green paper on food production lacks vision, is flawed and has engendered little public interest.

However, this week the Chinese have brought this subject back on the agenda with their interest in acquiring some of Tasmania’s valuable dairy assets: these assets are going begging because apparently Australians do not have the money or interest in investing in them.

Tasmania’s premier, Lara Giddings, has shown good sense in welcoming China’s potential investment which her state badly needs if it is to achieve her aim of doubling dairy production. And China, following domestic milk scandals, and now the world’s biggest food importer, needs long-term security on dairy imports.

Of course any radical increase in food production nationally will require new dams, and here the Greens remain the obstacle, though the latest polls indicate their influence is waning under new leadership.

As the Wheel Classic cyclists passed Australia’s greatest project, the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric scheme, I contemplated that this would never have been built if the Greens had been power brokers in the middle of the 20th Century.

As the largest engineering project undertaken in Australia by any Federal Government, the scheme is “seen by many as a defining point in Australia’s history, and an important symbol of the nation’s identity as an independent, multicultural and resourceful country” [quoted from the Australia.gov.au website].

Its importance may be lost to the present generation – certainly the cyclists did not stop to read the descriptions on the boards by one of the dams we passed – but it is highly significant in that it provides about a tenth of NSW’s electricity and provides much of the water for the fertile Riverina.

Memorably, it took 25 years to build, cost $820 million, was built within budget and on time, and employed more than 100,000 people who came from 30 different countries.

Where is today’s Snowy Mountain scheme?  There is the National Broadband Network, a bold initiative of the present government that will deliver great benefits to Australian society, but is unlikely to come in on budget or on time.

What is missing, as I have suggested before, is a bold engineering project to capture the water from one of the world’s wettest regions –Australia’s North – and to use it for the benefit of agricultural development. Another project would be a high-speed rail link between Newcastle, Sydney, Wollongong and Canberra, using Chinese/German technology.

In each case, Chinese and other international investment, skilled and unskilled immigrant labour, and European and Asian technology could, and should, play a part. Then, by mid-century, we could look to build a major new Eurasian city in Australia’s north.

This is the kind of vision Australia’s political leaders need to show if we are really to form part of the Asian century, rather than the mendacious personal attacks that are the lifeblood of the present parliament.

Colin Chapman is the President of the AIIA NSW.

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