Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Thirty years too late

The call from the PTUA for a moratorium on new roads is most welcome. The declines in rainfall over southern Australia are, it is clear both from paleoclimate data near Colac and 150 years of instrumental climatic records that show Melbourne’s rainfall declining by thirty-five percent since October 1996. An end to road building would free money for investment in public transport and the development of dedicated rail freight a policy supported even by the ultra-pragmatic Eddington.

The problem is that, although people do not realise it, fifty years of freeway-based transport policies have created a culture certain to perpetuate the same policies again and again. Melbourne’s freeways have nurtured and keep nurturing large numbers of low-density detached housing estates on the fringes of the city. Owing to the low cost of the land (which previously supported extensive farming) these housing estates are very cheap. With the present housing boom, they cost only about a quarter of a house in the inner city and provide several times more space. This space provides for a family in a way unknown in Europe, East Asia, New Zealand or Blue America. Backed up by Australia’s cheap petrol and increasingly cheap cars, this permits not only the establishment of families and consequently fertility rates that are more than twice the EU average, and three times those of Japanese or South Korean cities.

The strongly family-oriented character of new housing estates has a profound effect on their residents’ worldview and way of thinking. Cheapness of family formation leads to support for religions like Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy that regard birth control as a sin and the family as sanctified. Besides valuing the family, they care a great deal about job security, housing and food prices, interest rates and education. (Because they value freedom, outer suburbanites do not believe government regulation should protect jobs). They are generally too poor to be able to afford higher-cost products or “luxury” goods like fashionable music or clothes, besides which their modesty (partly driven by religion) tends to view being fashionable as negative.

Moves to protect the environment (via, say, scarcity pricing of water, restrictions upon land devlopment, higher fuel excise, cutbacks to road spending or investment in public transport), are disliked by outer suburban working families because they inevitably cause higher living costs - making it difficult to support themselves. Governments’ refusal to expand public transport beyond the old inner suburbs and to invest instead in freeways even if they are a failure at dealing with congestion due to road capacity’s high elasticity of demand. With the rise of Pauline Hanson in 1998 and especially Family First’s entry onto the scene in 2004, the major parties have had been unable to reduce Australia’s greenhouse emissions. Family First would easily capture the vital outer suburban family vote if the major parties raised living costs. It is an undisputable fact that the “liberal baby bust” of the fashionable inner-city is shifting the political focus to conservative outer metropolitan areas who reject the typical “academic” viewpoints about the environment, transport, taxation and even the science behind this key issue.

Whilst not all outer-suburban communties are as conservative as, say, Family First or Human Events, the most conservative (usually, outermost) groups most likely have the highest fertility rates, and hence the greatest chance of influencing subsequent generations.

With Melbourne’s water supply drying up so rapidly, the failure to cut back on roads whilst there was still some fertility among more progressive sections of society is undoubtedly a fatal error from which politics now dictates we cannot turn back.

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