Monday, September 26, 2011

Australia, agriculture & infrastructure

Later today or tomorrow I will bring up the next post in the Geek travel series. For the moment, a meander.

Over on Managing the Professional Services Firm, Using part time & contract staff effectively returns to one of my traditional themes, ways of improving management. I feel quite strongly on this one, but also have a personal interest because of my earlier decision to focus on contract work as a flexible way  of earning an income while writing. If you like, a bit like the way actors used to work (and still do!) taking temporary jobs to bridge gaps between parts.

This is not all beer and skittles. It's actually remarkably difficult to maintain anything approaching a stable income unless you have a narrowly defined skill set in immediate demand.

I often talk about the way perceptions affect judgement. My focus on thinking about ways of improving selection and management of casual, part time or contract staff reflects this. Now that a majority of the Australian work force is actually in a similar position, I guess that some of my views may have a greater relevance!

While in New Zealand, cousin Richard asked about our grandfather's approach to rural land management and the environment. Richard had a recollection that he was very involved. As it happened, I had written on this on this blog, and was able to provide information.

One of the points I had made was that real change, the drivers if you like, did not come from Government imposed rules but from the desire of individual farmers and graziers to better manage their own land. This remains true today.

From time to time I have mentioned the blog Ochre Archives. This gentle blog by Philip Diprose focuses on the management of his property in the NSW Central West.

As with so many farmers, Philip is an experimenter; I find his stories interesting and indeed relaxing because, regardless of whether or not the things he tries actually works, he is always doing new things. It's a nice release from the turmoil of current events. I also learn a fair bit. From the viewpoint of overseas readers, his material is accessible and interesting.

Changing directions, Neil Whitfield's Niggling example of political short-sightedness: Maldon-Dombarton rail link really struck a chord. To a reader from outside the Illawarra, this might seem obscure. The question in my mind is whether its actually possible for any Australian Government to really run a decent infrastructure program any more. The barriers now are just too great!

This may sound extreme, so let me explain.  

Say you want to build a new piece of public infrastructure. The following forces come into play:

  • Under current thinking, preferred options are those where you can involved the private sector. We call this public-private partnerships. To do this, you must be able to create some form of market return directly linked to the piece of infrastructure. Projects that cannot meet this criterion that may offer returns via externalities are in trouble.
  • All Government involvement has to pass financial tests, cost-benefit analysis and risk analysis. By their nature, these things are biased towards the measurable, against the new.
  • With the changes to the Australian Federal system, neither local or state levels have either the power nor financial resources to mount significant projects on their own. Projects now have to navigate their way through jurisdictional complexities.
  • All projects now have to meet complex environmental requirements that play out across a variety of political domains before they can proceed.
  • Once a project has been approved and begun, then it is subject to sometimes withering public scrutiny.

Australia is pretty good at building things. Our problem is that it's just so hard to actually start!

Do you know, I doubt that the Australian colonies would have built a single railway line if current approaches had been in place!

Maybe I am just jaundiced.


Neil said...

"the Geek travel series"

A happy error, that! ;)

Thanks for the reference.

Jim Belshaw said...

Ooops! I will leave it stand.

Noric Dilanchian said...


I find the bullet pointed argument in this post very useful.

Belatedly, thanks also for these two additional useful posts by you in Personal Reflections in recent months:
- "Threads in Belshaw thought"
- "Australia's economic fragmentation".

For the benefit of others, this is how I summaried the "Threads" post to a colleague who is considering writing a book on change:

1. Australia's foreign policy is out of date
2. the notion of "the Australian economy" is out of date and hence so are treatments for it
3. management suffers from short termism
4. changes in culture are important and could be dealt with better at a policy level



Jim Belshaw said...

Good morning, Noric, and thanks. Glad you liked the threads post in particular.