Wednesday, April 13, 2016

That Australian Life - Development dreams: boom and bust in Australian Agriculture 1

ABC Rural carried a story called
Seven decades of farming: Australian agricultural policy, passion and protest since 1940. The photo from the story shows irrigation on the Ord River Scheme in the 1960s.

The story selects one episode to illustrate a decade. Each has resonance today. As always, the decade device itself is a handy tool, but the periods really overlap.

The Snow Mountains Scheme, the example from the 1940s,  had its genesis in the combination of Post War Reconstruction with the dream of irrigating the inland by diverting the coastal rivers. It  began in 1949, but was not completed until 1974.

The Snowy Scheme remains, I think, Australia's largest engineering project. It is dwarfed by the railway building of the 19th century, but these were multiple projects.The construction of the Great Northern Railway in NSW was an engineering masterpiece of the time because of its scale and engineering difficulty. Construction began in 1857, with the line finally completed in 1888.  However, even though the project employed thousands of labourers, it was still smaller than the Snowy.

I wonder if its possible to still build on the scale of the Snowy? I don't think that we could do it today. The problem is not technical, but financial and political.

I headed this post "Development dreams: boom and bust in Australian agriculture" The various events described in the ABC story form part of the pattern of my own life. They are active in current thinking and debate.

As I write, a Food Futures conference on northern development in Darwin is discussing Northern Development. This discussion links back directly to the Ord Scheme and other dreams of developing Northern Australia. The form of the discussion is always framed by current  political structures and ways of thinking. This report is an example.

In the political and policy arena, there is always a disconnect between current discussion and on-ground realities, a disconnect that can really only be seen in retrospect, with the benefit of time. I think that this disconnect has become greater because of our desire to know what will happen, to achieve defined benefits, to minimise risk, and all within what are, in fact, short term time horizons. Sometimes I think that we worry too much, spend too much time analysing, not enough time doing things and then fixing them up later.

Musing, I should take the ABC story as an entry point and look at some of these issues from a rural and country perspective. For the people who live in Australia's cities, and especially those in secure jobs, the changing pattern of Australian agriculture and indeed of Australian country life is largely irrelevant. For those directly involved, the opposite is true.

I am not promising a structured series, day to day pressures make delivery hard for me, merely a random set of reflections linked to a common theme.    .      .


2 tanners said...


I'm only going on memory but wasn't the Ord River a failure for everyone? A quick websearch only gave me opinion pieces. The Government never recovered its investment, but may not have intended to. However, most of the large scale farmers also went broke. Cotton, I know, had huge insect infestations (that looks like a cotton farmer in your illustration). They stayed a very minor player in a water intensive industry.

Very beautiful from the air, though.

I can't say how much selling off public owned natural monopolies (rail, poles and lines - but not the services which then use them) etc annoys me. Usually as it's just an accounting trick to make a government's budget look better.

My history teacher told us that the Snowy Scheme was justified to provide the ACT (as seat of Government) with uninterrupted power. If the figures on my last ACT electricity bill were correct, not a bit came from the Snowy. Roll on affordable solar panels, I say. Even if we have to buy them from China.

Jim Belshaw said...

Sorry for slowness in responding, 2t. The benefit cost studies on the Ord were pretty right, I thin'. But having the scheme in place, that earlier investment is now a sunk cost, providing a base for new things. And you history teacher was wrong. Power for Canberra was never a real issue!