Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Australian arithmetic

During my short trip to Australia in 2006, I was shocked to discover that there were no trains to a couple of NSW towns that I wished to visit (Braidwood and Byron Bay), and I was further surprised to find that the only way of crossing the river at Grafton was by means of the antiquated bridge over which I used to pedal my bicycle when I was a boy.

Since then, I've got into the habit of asking naive questions about Australia's infrastructures. Why do Australians never stop boasting about the fabulous wealth of their land, while still tolerating old-fashioned infrastructures that are often like those of a developing nation? A friend tried to tell me recently that the respective infrastructures of France and Australia cannot be compared because... there are three times as many tax-payers in France as in Australia. This analysis is rubbish, of course. When Australia sells a mountain of precious minerals to foreign purchasers, her potential income from the deal has nothing whatsoever to do with the number of Aussies paying taxes. It's a matter of complex political, economic and business considerations that determine what percentage of such wealth will return to Australian citizens, and how much will be left in the hands of greedy international capitalists. It's childishly naive to imagine that the quality of Australia's roads, bridges and railway lines depends necessarily and exclusively upon the financial resources resulting from income tax paid by Aussie wage-earners. That is not only bad arithmetic; it's bad politics. And you can't run a country on such idiotic principles. If indeed the mountains of minerals that we're peddling to foreign buyers don't enable the citizens of Australia to take advantage of decent infrastructures, then our nation's leaders should halt immediately the sale of these mountains of minerals, while we do some serious thinking about what has gone wrong.

Let me turn my attention to another kind of infrastructure. In my articles entitled Australia's submarines [display] and Nuclear energy [display], I referred to an aspect of Australia's future defense system that has given rise to articles in the local press over the last few days. All these articles repeat the same huge investment figure: some 25 billion dollars for six future submarines. Now, this is typically the kind of situation in which a citizen, instead of believing naively what he hears, has the right and the possibility to do some independent thinking. Let's talk in euros. The unit cost of each of Australia's future submarines amounts to 2.75 billion euros. And what is Australia going to receive for this sum? An old-fashioned vessel that runs on diesel oil. My God, that's a lot of cash for a diesel boat!

By way of comparison, let us look at the production of one of the world's most advanced nations in the field of nuclear-propelled submarines: France. It just so happens that France, like Australia, is currently planning to renew its fleet of six attack submarines. The future model is known as the Barracuda, and it will be constructed in the Cherbourg shipyards in Normandy.

The Barracuda vessels will, of course, be propelled by nuclear energy. So, they will be intrinsically far more sophisticated than Australia's classic vessels. And the Barracuda's unit cost price? One billion euros. In other words, Australia's classic submarine, to be delivered in 2025, will be 2.75 times as expensive as France's avant-garde nuclear vessel, to be delivered eight years earlier, in 2017.

Is there something wrong with my arithmetic? Or is there maybe something wrong with Australia's political thinking about the nation's allegedly high-priced infrastructures?

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