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Bad ideas as good ideas applied badly

By David Elson - posted Tuesday, 11 October 2011

"Australians are always going on about British whining, but Australians are the biggest whiners. Look at how great the economy is and they are still complaining about this carbon tax" – overhead conversation between two British colleagues, comment followed by general praise for Gillard Government.

Leaving aside the merits of implementing the ALP-Green coalition's Carbon Tax, I feel the above points to an even bigger issue. Why is it that even bad ideas from overseas are commonly touted and accepted by the Australian public (or at least promoted by our media) without question as to the result of this idea in its country of origin? Or if it had been a success, without considering whether this said idea is applicable to Australia given the particular set of conditions present here? The only qualifier on the previous statement is usually the idea has to have been implemented somewhere else; the more "developed" relative to Australia the better.

This is not to say that all of these ideas brought to Australia from abroad are without merit. In fact one of the benefits of Australia's multicultural past and high immigration intakes is its exposure to new cultures and new innovative ways of doing things. Indeed many of the ideas being poorly expounded to the Australian public are actually good ideas in the right context or if implemented appropriately. Such examples abound, and I've listed a few of them below.

  • Carbon "Pricing" (Tax).
  • High Speed Rail.
  • Daylight Savings.
  • Suburban Metro system.

Carbon pricing is a policy that is being heavily marketed both within Australia and internationally, however those that promote it often have no nationwide carbon price (USA) or have a lower price for permits then those proposed for Australia. Australia also faces a number of structural obstacles in meeting emissions reduction targets, which most European nations do not face. For example moving goods across Australia's vast landscape incurs significant (fossil fuelled) transportation costs, and our mining and agricultural sectors are also heavily exposed to risk under a Carbon tax system (not withstanding that the exportation of coal is one of our largest industries!). Additionally many European nations benefit from past government support for nuclear power, the UK for example has up to 20% of their power provided by nuclear alone. An advantage that mineral rich Australia does not share!

Anyone who has ever visited continental Europe, Japan, Taiwan (Republic of China) or the Peoples Republic of China would be familiar with the concept (if not having experienced firsthand!) of high speed rail. It's a fast, convenient and relatively cheap way to travel those long long distances from A to B. So it's a no brainer, right? High speed rail is right for Australia? The initial feasibility study would suggest that some routes (i.e. Sydney-Melbourne) would be viable due to the number of commuters, however there is reasonable doubt suggesting that lines connecting all capital cities would be impractical not just due to the tyranny of distance but due to insufficient traffic and competition with airlines, which over the longer distances would be cheaper and faster.

Daylight savings is another great idea, imminently suitable for the wintery climes from which it originated, and adept at clawing back another 1 or 2 hrs of daylight that are lost to seasonal changes during the year, usually to be experienced in doors either still in the office or inside watching TV. Obviously in more sunny well-lit climes the usefulness of such time altering policies are a little more limited.

Similar to high speed rail (HSR) suburban subway systems are also a very convenient public transportation option, suitable however only for short distances. Currently Australian capital cities meet this short distance public transport need by a variety services usually; trains, trams, ferries and buses. The issue with a subway or metro system within the context of Australia, aside from the expense (and political difficulty) in acquisitioning privately owned land, is that these systems are usually reliant on heavy usage and commuter traffic over short distances in order to break even on running costs. Thus metro systems are frequently used in heavily centralised cities with high population densities and less common (and less feasible) in cities with smaller more sprawling populations.

Other bad ideas (or good ideas applied badly) I've noticed recently:

  • Congestion charges proposed for cities, with enviably low congestion (all things relative).
  • Bill of Rights, as an entitlement rather than as freedom.
  • Desalination plants, in lieu of dams
  • Greater restrictions on immigration, impacting only skilled migrants.

Do you have any examples of a potentially positive idea misapplied?

I think the Australian public in general and the Australian media in particular need to be more cynical when presented with proposals of the "next great thing". We as a people need to cut through the spin and look to the results of any given policy or proposal. We need to be prepared to consider that we as a country are beset by unique conditions and that a superbly excellent policy that might work well, for sake of argument, in Finland may do no good here. Let us look at their results, not just in their own nation, but look to other nations' examples on the same issue. Do they cynically promote an idea but not actually implement it? For example China making solar panels for export to the west whilst reliant on coal-fired electricity. Or do they both promote and believe to the death in the efficacy of policy even as it is dismantling their own country, as in the recent Greece example in relation to their Government unsustainable (and ongoing) spending and public debt problems.

Sometimes there are benefits in not following the flock.

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This article was first published on Menzies House on October 10, 2011.

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About the Author

David Elson is a senior public servant who has long taken an interest in the economic impact of Federal policies particularly those pertaining to environmental or social issues and in the cultures of Australia's Asian neighbours. He lives in Brisbane, Queensland with his Taiwanese wife and is an avid squash player.

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