Liberal Party

The view from Billinudgel

King of the North

There’s one thing about Tony Abbott’s Liberals: you can always rely on them to provide a healthy dose of nostalgia.

When I joined the Australian back in the early days of 1965, one of the first stories I did was about a committee of Sydney businessmen formed to develop the north. This was before Australia sent troops to the Vietnam war, but even then there was a fear that if we didn’t do something about the largely empty lands above the Tropic of Capricorn, then the Yellow Peril, or perhaps the Red Menace – well anyway, the Asian Hordes, drawn down the map by the inexorable force of gravity, would come and do it for us.

Even then the idea was hardly a new one; it dates back to federation and beyond. Our second prime minister, Alfred Deakin, was what was then called a water dreamer, with visions of turning the rivers inland to irrigate the vast arid spaces, as did the builder of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, William Bradfield.

And the idea refused to die: Bob Menzies presided over the Ord River scheme in the Northern Territory, an initial failure for agriculture (the birds and bugs attracted by the new Lake Argyle ate all the crops) but justified by Billy McMahon as a fine venue for water sports – the world’s most expensive water ski-ing resort.

Gough Whitlam appointed a minister for Northern Development who fortunately did little beyond promising to build dams, few of which were actually constructed. And when Malcolm Fraser lost office in 1983 he had well advanced plans to turn back the northern rivers, a scheme abandoned by Bob Hawke as “Malcolm’s scheme to make water run uphill.” John Howard actually built the Alice Springs to Darwin railway, a white elephant which, as businessman Chris Corrigan pointed out, has yet to deliver a tick’s testicle worth of profit.

And now Tony Abbott is offering to make another assault on the taxpayer’s wallet in the name of this perennial fantasy. It is, he insists, only a discussion paper, but it was enough to make the news and to alert the critics to the prospect of another unthought and uncosted piece of grandiose populism for which there is not the slightest justification in economic, social, or any other rational terms.

Such big projects can produce worthwhile results: Ben Chifley’s Snowy Mountains scheme has paid off on many different levels. But a lot more work went into that than into the Liberals’ latest headline-grabbing thought bubble. Leave it alone, Tony; let’s face it, you’re no Ben Chifley.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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