Friday, 30 May 2008

What do we as Australians really want?

In the Australian yesterday, there is a wonderfully sensible article about the long-term problems Australia will face if its governments succumb to the pressure of outer-suburban communties to reduce what is already a very low level of fuel excise.

Henry Thornton's is absolutely correct that poor public transport is what makes less cheap petrol such a hot issue for people in the outer suburbs of Australian cities, and that rational economics, even when (as for him) building roads is considered acceptable, would not have petrol so cheap as it is in Australia today because roads, as he sees it, could be better and more effective with less cheap petrol. Populist forces, however, argue for an end to fuel excise and public subsidies to rail and bus services.

Such removal of subsidies would mean no public transport services would exists outside school peaks because a purely free market could never make passenger rail profitable at present levels of road capacity, and with freer housing development the possibility will fall further as more land far from present infrastructure is developed.The problem is that a city with no public transport whatsoever will inevitably create extreme demand for road space that will only grow if supply is increased to deal with congestion. Moreover, there is the problem of huge debts from road maintenance costs, which fall greatly when usage falls.
Australians must ask themselves whether they want a society like 1960s America, where a Commodore or Falcon was a small car ("compact") and mileage averaged around 20 litres per 100 kilometres. I still have vivid recollections of my father's descrption of American cars of the 1960s with their soft suspension and extremely light steering that is perfect for the overtly sensitive and emotional culture of outer-suburban Australia but in terms of design has held up very badly even amongst cars of that era. If we had ecologically fair petrol prices, Australia would undoubtedly be a place much better adapted to an environment that for all its monopoly on major inorganic resources, is uniquely poor in the organic ones that sustain human life.

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