Monday, November 23, 2009

Australian infrastructure enigma

As some of my readers know, I've been puzzled for ages by what I call the Australian infrastructure enigma, which can be summarized by the following question: Why does a nation such as Australia, with a high per capita GNI [gross national income], have such a low-quality infrastructure? Admittedly, it's a fuzzy question. The notion of the quality of a nation's infrastructure is difficult to measure, because there are countless components (urban transport, road and rail links, media, communications, education, public health services, defence, etc), and there's no obvious way of obtaining meaningful statistics enabling us to compare one nation's infrastructure with that of another. So, the overall quality of a nation's infrastructure remains vague in much the same way as its standard of living or its so-called quality of life. But, even though we may not be capable of measuring this concept in a rigorous economic style, we have ample opportunities of evaluating it subjectively. And I think that most compatriots (particularly those who've traveled abroad) would agree that Australia's infrastructure is often somewhat backward. As banal evidence, I continue to cite several concrete cases of poor infrastructure that I've encountered personally:

— Australia's Internet infrastructure is substandard.

— Sydney's transport system of trains and buses is obsolete.

— NSW country train services are unsatisfactory.

— Certain major NSW highways can be deadly.

— Certain bridges (at Grafton, for example) are antiquated.

At the other extremity of the infrastructure scale, I've talked here in my blog about vast subjects such as Australia's submarine system:

Australia's submarines [26 December 2007 display]

Australian arithmetic [2 January 2008 display]

And I've also evoked a taboo subject, nuclear energy:

Nuclear energy [27 December 2007 display]

If I were the president of Australia [5 October 2009 display]

Some time ago, in the context of a naive and now-defunct web forum of so-called Aussie bloggers, I made a tentative attempt to place this subject of our nation's poor-quality infrastructure on the forum's agenda... and I got promptly censored, as if it were too touchy a question to handle publicly. Maybe it is.

I often suspect that the underlying problem is of a profound political nature, based upon the fact that our nation caters primarily for foreign capitalists who wish to amass personal fortunes by investing in Australia's gigantic mineral resources. An observer might ask rhetorically whether the Australian people are truly reaping the benefits of all the precious stuff that these capitalists are ripping out of the guts of our dear wide brown land.

I love a sunburned country
A land of sweeping plains
Of ragged mountain ranges
Of drought and flooding rain
I love her far horizons
I love her jeweled sea
Her beauty and her terror
The wide brown land for me

To put it bluntly: Are companies operating in Australia being taxed heavily enough? That's to say, heavily enough to provide the Australian people with a decent infrastructure. Well, the answer seems to be no. Results of a recent joint study by PricewaterhouseCoopers and the World Bank paint a devastating picture of Australia's business tax system, whose complexity is ranked as 47th in the world. Concerning the total tax paid by Australian businesses, we're in the 127th position in the world, out of 183 nations whose economies were examined. So, to my mind, there's no great secret about why Australia should be rolling in wealth and yet incapable of putting a decent bridge across the Clarence River of my birthplace.

I declared recently, in my article entitled Repetitive Aussie apologies [display], that Australia needs a republican political revolution. This may or may not be true. But meanwhile, before launching a bloody revolution, it might be worthwhile to look into a simple and essential business tax reform.


  1. You got the poem wrong.
    Its "ragged mountain ranges"

  2. Thanks for pointing out my error, which I've just corrected. I've always been fond of what Google refers to as this "iconic patriotic poem about Australia". I think my fondness can be traced back to the fact that we grew up with these lines of verse in our poetic imagination... even though we may have never actually observed visually that we were settled in a "wide brown land". Her choice of the adjective "ragged" to describe mountain ranges is a little unexpected, and I'm probably not the first person who has inadvertently transformed this word into "rugged". I would imagine that a ragged coastline is described as such because, when represented on a map, it looks like a piece of torn rag, rather than a cleanly-sliced or scissor-cut edge. Is this in fact how Dorothea Mackellar saw our mountains? If so, was she referring to their contours when you approach them from the plains, or rather (more likely) to their jagged summits when observed from a distance? My last sentence provides a possible clue as to what may have happened in the poet's mind. Maybe Dorothea amalgamated (like Lewis Carroll) the adjectives "rugged" and "jagged" to obtain "ragged".